Aijaz Bund, Kashmir’s only LGBTQ activist and author of Hijras of Kashmir, the first ethnographic study of its kind, tells Umer Sofi in an interview
KASHMIR LIFE (KL): Being the only transgender activist in the Muslim majority Kashmir, what exactly is your work?
Aijaz Bund (AB): My work on Gender and Sexual minority (LGBTQIA) activist is not only confined to advocacy or activism. I am working for their well-being at the grassroots level as well. Our project is catering to their psycho-social and legal rehabilitation. The main vision of our organisation is to create a gender inclusive society. We ensure there is no discrimination, abuse and violence against anyone on the basis of gender identity or their sexuality.
KL: Do you feel Kashmir society has failed to identify them as part of the society or is it the mistaken religious conservatism that adds to their problems?
AB: Islam is a very gender and sexuality positive religion. Transgender people have always existed in every society, culture, and religion. The nonconformity to the prescribed gender roles (which is societal), excludes them from the mainstream and ‘people’ treat them as inferior.
Allah has created every human being equal; there is no scope of discrimination, harassment, and violence on the grounds of gender in Islam. Human beings irrespective of their gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, and region are entitled to various rights including equal opportunity, life with dignity, freedom of speech and no discrimination or violence in Islam.
The existence of transgender people explicitly mentioned in the Holy Quran. Transgender people are termed Makhannathun (effeminate ones) in Arabic. They are the creation of Allah and have been given various rights in the jurisdiction of Islam. The transphobia or for that matter LGBT phobia is cultural and not religious. Islam categorically supports the existence and rights of those who fit the picture of being neither a woman nor even a man. It maintains the opportunity of equality for men, women, and transgender. This includes the accessibility to various social, economic, and political services. One can be guaranteed that equal rights are served when it comes to Islam. The prophet of Islam also treated transgender with reverence and prohibited their maltreatment. He did not look down upon them.
We need to understand the context in which masculinity and femininity are constructed, the prescribed rigid gender roles, the attributes associated with the gender dichotomies. It is the transgression of these gender roles that people are bifurcated, and the violence and discrimination are legitimized. They are the victims of institutional injustices, and the wrong information about religion is further marginalizing them.
KL: In 2015 winter, a transgender named ‘Mama’ from Dalgate, was refused burial in the local graveyard. There are few more reported incidents wherein people even refused to pray in the Masjid where some transgender had taken part in the cleaning process. Why is this happening?
AB: There are many cases where transgender people are disowned by families and are being barred from offering prayers in the mosques. The dead bodies of transgenders’ are not allowed to be buried in graveyards. There is no scope of discrimination in Islam against gender and sexual minorities; it is all cultural.
We need to understand where they are positioned in the society; they are located at the extreme margin of exclusion having no socio-political space where they can lead a life of a human being with dignity. Their deprivations are grounded in non-recognition as a separate gendered human being beyond the male-female hetero-normative separation. Those who live beyond this continuum are subjected to harassments and abuses.
Transgender community of Kashmir is persistently subjected to various institutional injustices. The cycle of oppression starts from birth and continues till death.
The life of a transgender in Kashmir is full of abuses, humiliations and discriminations. The critical obnoxious societal and religious beliefs act as a barrier in conducting the normal funeral of a transgender person. The dead bodies are refused burial in the graveyards as transgender don’t have the ownership of graveyards, a precarious issue in Kashmir. The mosque being a masculine space is out of their reach, they are yet to claim this space. The social stigma attached to the transgender identity is preventing them from claiming these hetero-normative spaces. They are considered structurally othered and sometimes even blasphemous and impure.
KL: Is the situation of transgender people in Kashmir different from their communities elsewhere?
AB: Transgenders are living a disadvantaged life everywhere. However, the level of their social presence varies. In the rest of India, they are not living an invisible life, they are well organised and their organised communities act as a support system.
In Kashmir, they are not organised and there is no community support system. This adds to their miseries. Transgenders in Kashmir are triply disadvantaged for their gender identity because they’re living in a Muslim state with strong social control, and yes because Kashmir is a conflict zone.
KL: Has the conflict added to their disadvantages?
AB: Conflict is a lived reality of everyone in Kashmir, we can’t ignore it and the worst part of it is that we are not in a position to think beyond it. Conflict overshadows everything, including alternative narratives and social issues. It affects everyone, and vulnerable groups are further marginalized.
Due to persistent strikes, curfews and violence, their livelihood and mental health are affected drastically. They are physically targeted, yet this receives minimal attention. Armed groups engage in policing conservative, heterosexual gender norms, violently targeting this community. They are also vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse by security forces and other informal militias’.
KL: How has the initiative of helping the transgender people in Kashmir affected your personal life?
AB: This initiative is very close to my heart. It has helped me develop a more empathetic attitude towards the marginalized communities. My personal and professional values of acceptance, non-judgmental attitude, inclusion and service have further strengthened.
Talking about gender and sexual minorities in Kashmir is considered a taboo. Society is not familiar about all this, thus having a knee-jerk reaction to it is normal and fair enough. Sometimes it really gets very ugly, people run hate campaigns against us, and there are instances when we receive death threats. When I started this initiative, I was all alone. Now there are many people who support this initiative and are part of this movement.
KL: What has the state government done for Kashmir specific transgender community till date?
AB: Nothing has been done so far by the state for their wellbeing. In 2011, I approached the Social Welfare department and convinced them to formulate an intervention plan. They formulated a good intervention plan, to begin with, but could not implement it, citing the reason that it is a policy decision and requires a nod from the cabinet. I moved from pillar to post to get it implemented but couldn’t do it. So, I approached the State Human Rights Commission in 2013. For four years, nothing absolute was coming out. So, I decided to withdraw the case in 2017 and moved the PIL last year and the case is going on. The previous year, we approached Finance Minister with a proposal for financial allocation for their wellbeing in the state budget. It got accepted and then the government got dissolved. Other than medical care and insurance what is more needed is the reservation in education and jobs, to make educational institutions more LGBT friendly and to sensitize the society.
KL: But you opposed the precondition of State’s transgender relief policy which had asked for a preliminary medical examination of the transgender to avail the BPL benefits?
AB: Social welfare department came with a draft policy with certain loopholes like a medical examination to ascertain the gender identity of the beneficiaries. The policy draft has been highly insensitive while advocating for the establishment of a medical board for the identification of transgender. Issuing the transgender certificate and involving medical as well as a psychiatric team is highly repressive and humiliating. It is like questioning and humiliating a person for his biological construct. The draft in its current form does not uphold the right to self-identify the gender. It rather proposes physical and mental screenings to certify transgender variant and inter-sex people as transgender. All citizens are sovereign persons and it is not the right of any government/state mechanisms to tell them what their gender identity is. It is for them to self-determine (according to NALSA judgement) their gender. Additionally, the recent Supreme Court judgement on the privacy reinforces this autonomy. So, it is not up to any government to propose schemes that violate the right to dignity and life. It is the government’s political obligation to consider the recommendations set forth by the Supreme Court. Any intervention at the cost of dignity is not acceptable at all.
KL: Do you see a future of this community in Kashmir?
AB: Despite all the negativity, I am still hopeful. It is heart-wrenching to see people abandoning their own children just because of their gender identity or sexuality. On November 25, we received a call about an elderly abandoned transgender person lying on the roadside. We rushed to the spot and somehow shifted the person to hospital but even the hospital administration was reluctant to provide necessary medical care. Though that one specific transgender is now rehabilitated, however, there are still many such cases of abandonment, harassment and abuse. The only thing that can help it is changing the societal attitude of people especially in Kashmir. This can be only done by generating awareness about gender issues.