Fight for equality

Meet Dr Manabi Bandopadhyay, India’s first transgender college principal

The West Bengal resident has faced prejudice and discrimination at every hurdle of her life.

Most often, if educational institutions in West Bengal's Nadia district find mention in the newspapers, it's because they have experienced violence during student elections. But for the few days. Krishnagar Women’s College has been thronged by the media for quite a different reason: its new principal, Manabi Bandopadhyay, who started work on June 9, is India’s first transgender college principal.

It hasn't been an easy journey. Born as Somnath Banerjee, Manabi Bandopadhyay told The Guardian about the taunts she received from her conservative father and widespread ridicule from others around her. “I was a woman at home but once out on the streets I had to wear trousers and shirts and behave like a man," she said. "It was tragic and humiliating, but I had no option.”

Believing that her only path to respect lay in academics, Bandopadhyay focused single-mindedly on education. A sex change operation in 2003 finally allowed her to embrace her femininity. She took a new name, Manabi, which means "beautiful woman" in Bengali.

Bandopadhyay completed her MA in Bengali and then became the first transgendered person from West Bengal to complete a PhD. In another first, she became West Bengal’s first transgendered professor, when she joined Vivekananda Centenary College in Jhargram as a lecturer in the late 1990s. But she was threatened by student union leaders. They were not willing to accept her as a woman and asked her to register as a male lecturer.

However, she says that she never faced any bigotry from her students. “Perhaps, too, the kohl looked better on me,” she said.

Sub-human treatment 

In 1995, she achieved another first of sorts – she published India’s first transgender magazine, title Ob-Manab (Sub-human). She explained the rationale behind the name, in a piece published in Ananda Bazar Patrika.
“If I had named the magazine Maha-Manab (Great humans), would there have been any change in the way the transgender community was treated? I named the magazine in tune with how society treats transgendered people – sub-humanly. If they were not treated like sub-humans, would I have been required to publish a magazine for them?”

In recent interviews, Bandopadhyay has discussed Caitylyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, the American Olympic gold medal-winning athlete who appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair’s July 2015 edition after having feminisation surgery.

“For Jenner, this might be just an experiment – for her, it might be a way to spend the rest of her life now," Bandopadhyay has said. "But for me, it is different. I was born a transgender and I have had to prove that fact my entire life.”

And what about the general perception on the street that transgendered people are "loud" and "obscene"? Bandopadhyay had a ready reply. “Well, ‘loudness’ is a relative term," she said. "An atheist might look at a group of religious people and wonder why they are chanting. Because society has tortured them so long, their freedom seems ‘loud’ now…”

When Manabi Bandopadhyay started work the Krishnagar Women’s College on Tuesday, teachers and students lined up to welcome her with sweets and gifts.  It was quite a contrast to the hostility that had greeted her in her first job.

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