SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir ― “Spend the night with me,” “Your body must be soft,” “I like your butt, and “Your lips are sexy,” were just some of the lewd and harassing messages that Iqbal Hussain, a trans person in Kashmir, received on WhatsApp after completing a singing performance at a wedding in Srinagar on 29 June.
This was Hussain’s first performance at a wedding after losing the position of a contractual attendant at a government hospital in April because of cutbacks amid the coronavirus pandemic, they said.
The day after the wedding, Hussain received a Whatsapp message with a video of the performance in which the 23-year-old is seen wearing a blue T-shirt, a black cardigan and red lipstick. The sender, a neighbour in Hussain’s native village in Budgam, asked for sex in exchange for deleting the video, Hussain told HuffPost India.
After reading the message, Hussain switched off the phone and cried. What followed was a second barrage of crude messages on Whatsapp.
One read, “Today everything came into light. You turned out to be secretive. When are you coming to my home for the night?” A second one read, “Looking beautiful. I love your singing. Can we have a sex chat?”
“This was the peak of harassment. I felt like hiding my identity,” said Hussain.
When the video of the marriage performance went viral in their village in Budgam, Hussain recalled being dragged out of the house by their father and maternal uncle, and beaten with sticks and iron rods.
“I was chained and locked in my room like a prisoner as if I had committed a sin,” said Hussain. “My worst fear was getting killed or left to die from hunger.”
HuffPost India met Hussain in a room rented by another Kashmiri trans person on 4 July, two days after they had managed to flee Budgam.
Hussain said, “My family and relatives see me as a sinner and devil who needs to be killed.”
“I was chained and locked in my room like a prisoner as if I had committed a sin.”
Trans persons in Kashmir
Trans persons in Kashmir are called “lance” in Kashmiri – one who lures both men and women for sex.
The transgender community like rest of India is a persecuted one in Kashmir, home to eight million people, where Muslims are in majority. The decades long LGBTQ movement in the country has led to the reversal of an archaic law criminalising homosexuality, alongside pockets of change in attitudes and awareness, but any change in the quality of the lives of trans persons has been painstakingly slow.
In November 2019, Parliament, which is dominated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government, passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019 despite objections over clauses like a District Magistrate issuing a certificate of identity, and in the case of a minor, making it incumbent on the parents to get one, a clause that completely ignores the hostility they face in their own families.
In a mostly conservative and religious Kashmir, not only are trans persons banished from society, and subjected to all kinds of abuse — verbal, physical, psychological and sexual — their suffering is rarely spoken of.
The abuse and violence they face at home follows them to the workplace, making it difficult for them to hold down a job. They live in derelict conditions. Some beg for a living. The only support they find is from others in their community.
Trans persons in Kashmir are seen as people living in violation of the rules laid down by Islam and society, said Sheikh Shoib, a prominent psychiatrist in Srinagar, and that is why their families and people feel they can subject them to some of the worst forms of cruelty.
The word “lance,” Shoib said, has a profoundly negative effect on the transgender community in Kashmir.
“We cannot deny the fact that trans persons are abused and harassed on a daily basis. They are booed on roads. They are the most vulnerable people in our society,” he said.
Successive governments in Jammu and Kashmir have done little to address the pitiful condition of transgender community in the erstwhile state, now a Union Territory. On 28 May, 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir government announced a monthly pension of Rs 1,000 for trans persons, widely regarded as a pittance.
Aijaz Bund, a defender of LGBTQ rights in J&K, and founder of Sonzal Welfare Trust that works for the well being of gender and sexual minorities in J&K, said this amount would not even cover the daily needs of one person.
“The government is least bothered about trans persons because this community is not represented by anyone due to social and religious reasons,” he said.
“They are the most vulnerable people in our society.”
Shoib, the psychiatrist in Srinagar, said he has transgender patients who from a very young age were sexually abused over and over again by family members and relatives and were suffering “severe depression” and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“The harassment they face every day makes it very difficult for them to break the cycle of depression, and, in some cases, substance abuse,” said Shoib. “They need family support. This is hard to come at the time when they are disowned and abused.”
Hussain too has a history of depression, but never sought help out of fear of being further abused and harassed.
“I don’t know how to tell a doctor about my symptoms. I’m fearful he might do something to me. There are sexual predators everywhere,” they said.
“The harassment they face every day makes it very difficult for them to break the cycle of depression...”
Hussain comes from an impoverished family in Budgam district and is the youngest of three children. Hussain’s father is a farmer and runs a tractor in the paddy fields for living.
“My father has always taunted me over my looks, but my mother has always been loving and caring,” they said. “My two sisters found my behaviour odd and girlish. They never treated me as a sibling but just as someone living with them.”
Contending with cruel and crude remarks has become second nature for Hussain, but there is some childhood abuse they can neither forgive nor forget.
When tilling the field together, Hussain’s father tried selling a young Hussain to other agricultural workers, they said.
“Just because of my girlish appearance,” they said. “From that day, I understood my worth in my family. They wanted to get rid of me. They thought there was a defect and fault in my body.”
“From that day, I understood my worth in my family. They wanted to get rid of me.”
There was no respite from the abuse at school. Hussain was harassed by teachers and students for “looking like a girl,” and eventually left school in Budgam at the age of 13 and went to work in the fields.
Hussain’s father didn’t care because “he felt he was wasting money on me,” they said.
“I was not sure about my identity when I was a child. I came to own my identity when I was over 18. But I continued hiding it because I know transgenders have no respect in our society and it was a taboo,” said Hussain.
Hussain said that life on most days feels like hell.
“Since my childhood, I have borne the brunt of being considered odd. I would always think of running away from home and going abroad to the US or Europe where I could get respect and honour,” Hussain said. “Other days, I would think about killing myself.”
Hussain said they have never thought of gender reassignment surgery.
Aijaz, a defender of LGBTQ rights in Kashmir, said that no one in the transgender community in Kashmir has undergone gender reassignment surgery due to lack of awareness and fear of religious persecution.
“They never treated me as a sibling but just as someone living with them.”
Escaping the house
When Hussain was imprisoned at home in Budgam on 30 June, they called their elder sister to help retrieve the motorcycle keys in the next room.
Her reaction stunned Hussain.
“She not only refused but also called parents who beat me up again,” they said.
After many failed attempts to escape from the house, Hussain called up a friend, a 35-year-old trans person living in Srinagar, and begged to be rescued.
With the help of Hussain’s mother, this friend, who traveled from Srinagar to Budgam, pulled Hussain out from a window on the night of 2 July.
“My mother helped me to escape, while my father and some of my relatives were hell-bent on killing me. They had told me to stop singing or they will kill me,” they said.
Hussain now wants to rent a room in Srinagar with a friend, another trans person who has left home, and has no plans of returning to Budgam.
“My mother helped me to escape, while my father and some of my relatives were hell-bent on killing me.”
Hussain said that members of the transgender community had tried working in other professions like teaching music in schools, acting in local films, and even government jobs like engineers and lab technicians, but they cannot withstand the abuse and harassment from their colleagues. Most of them, Hussain said, turn to singing, dancing at weddings and match-making to earn a living.
Hussain learnt about singing at marriage parties for a living from another trans person working at the government hospital from where he was fired in April.
Hussain was paid Rs 6,000 per month for looking after patients. One singing performance at a wedding is worth Rs 12,000. Hussain loves singing, but not performing at weddings for a living. Since that first performance in June, Hussain has booked nine more weddings.
“When I sing with other transgender friends at weddings, I feel safe and secure,” they said. “There is no better option for me than this.”