The government thinks there are only males and females in Kashmir, Shabnam Subhan, a transgender Kashmiri, told a gathering of academics, journalists and civil society figures in Srinagar. “No one cares about us, as if we don’t exist,” he said.

Transgender Kashmiris speaking publicly about the discrimination they face is rare in the Valley. But on November 30, a group of them addressed a gathering at a book launch organised by the Kashmir Women’s Collective. Hijras of Kashmir A Marginalized Form of Personhood has been touted as the first ethnographic study of the transgender community in the Valley, based on interviews by Kashmir University scholar Aijaz Ahmad Bund.

Bund is an uncommon Kashmiri who describes himself as an LGBTQ rights activist. He spoke to about the difficulty getting his book published, the Valley’s taboos about sexuality and the struggles transgender people face in the predominantly Muslim society. Excerpts from the interview:

Has there ever been a study of the transgender community in Kashmir before
Even in history there is no mention of their existence. This is the first study of its kind, and I had previously done a small empirical study for a journal. These are the only two. Academia has completely ignored this community.

At the book launch, you mentioned that the publisher was apprehensive about “unwanted content”. What content was that?
The publisher is very apprehensive about reactions to some things in the book, such as hijra sexuality and sex work. They wanted me to compromise on these, which I refused. I said if the book is to be published, it will be as it is. Eventually, the publishers consulted someone and agreed.

Why would they think talking about sexuality was problematic?
Because they think it is attacking the larger discourse of Islam. The problem is the society pretends transgender people are invisible, therefore it denies their existence. But they have a well-established sexuality and ways of expressing it.

They have relationships that are not only physical but sexual. They claim it is spiritual because it’s not just about sex but emotions as well. But the society is not ready to accept their sexuality.

Why is the society not ready to accept their way of life?
Ours is an inclusive movement. We are talking about only not transgender people but also lesbians, gays and bisexuals. But when we talk about LGBTs, religion comes in. And with religion, you know that killing or going to any extent is easy because you can rationalise it.

When it comes to sexuality, most people have a knee-jerk reaction. Are we in a position to talk about sex openly? Do we talk about it at home? No. Because we consider sex a taboo. When it comes to homosexuality, “tauba, tauba” is the response. It doesn’t exist.

What is Islam’s position on transgender people?
Islam is accepting of the gender and it talks about the rights of the transgender people. They are mentioned in the Quran in Surah Al Shura verse 49-50. They have their rights. The problem is people are using distorted information as a tool to oppress these people in the name of Islam. Transgenders have property rights.

According to the Islamic law, a sister’s share in the property is less than her brother’s. What is the share fixed for a transgender person?
It depends on the jurist. If the transgender person is more feminine, she would be entitled to a female’s equivalent of the share and a male’s equivalent if he is more masculine.

Is the situation of transgender people in Kashmir different from their communities elsewhere?
They have greater social acceptability in Jammu although they are ostracised there as well. There, because of their connection to Hindu mythology, they are called to confer blessings, which gives them social acceptability. Hijra gharanas outside the Valley are organised. The guru-disciple system exists here as well but it is not as organised.

Do you see common patterns in the lives of Kashmiri transgender people?
Most transgenders migrate from rural areas to the city. The spaces where they can actually vent their feelings are not available in villages, which are more conservative. In the city, they can at least be associated with each other and no one will know.

At home, they are accused of bringing disgrace to their families. In some instances, they are allowed to stay at home but with conditions. Most of them say they wanted to cross-dress but the society wouldn’t allow it. Abuse often starts at home.

When does the abuse begin?
At the age of five or six (when the transgender identity becomes apparent). Initially, family members dismiss it as childish silliness, but when the child reaches prepubescent age, they are told to behave like a boy or a girl. Then it starts. Verbal first, then physical. In the meantime, there is often sexual abuse as well.

If you ask someone how they perceive transgender people, you will hear they are aggressive and ill-mannered. That’s the general societal attitude.

Do they have access to public healthcare?
They don’t. They don’t have the resources for private consultations, and government hospitals are overcrowded. They fear they would be harassed in hospital waiting lounges; they would have to bear people laughing at them or spanking them. Many doctors have a transphobic attitude. They don’t even touch them, making them feel dirty, othered. Health professionals believe a transgender must have HIV or a venereal disease.

What about access to public spaces and facilities?
They are often not allowed to pray in mosques. Generally, mosques are a male space. When anyone tries to lay claim to that space, social restrictions follow. But you will see them at shrines because shrines also accept women.

You won’t find them in exclusively male spaces. They are trying to get that space but unfortunately, because of societal attitudes, nothing is happening.

In schools, they have no acceptance. They report physical, verbal and sexual abuse from peers but also from staff, teaching and non-teaching. Schools have no transgender welfare policy. Teachers and administrators aren’t sensitive either.

We had a case of rape of a transgender child in a government school washroom some years ago. The child reported it to the administration, only to be told he was “behaving this way and inviting this kind of treatment from others”. He stopped going to school from the next day. It also happens that children report (abuse) at home and the families say there is no need to go to school. They drop out or are removed from school early on, leaving them without a chance to get white collar jobs.

Why has the transgender community in Kashmir been ignored to this extent?
The conflict has overshadowed all social issues. Besides, people hardly talk about these things in conservative societies. If you do, people say there are more pressing issues and this is not a problem.

Aijaz Ahmad Bund. Photo credit: Aijaz Bund

Why did you choose to work with transgender people?
I found people talking about the rights of women and others but no one was talking about transgenders. They are human beings with worth and dignity, and they are suffering. In the larger human rights paradigm, if you are talking about the rights of people and a gender-inclusive society, it won’t be possible if you are segregating people.

My aim is to work for a gender-inclusive, sexual minority-inclusive society. Human rights are for everyone. This book is part of a movement that was started in 2011 and which is still going on.

What were the difficulties you faced while doing this study?
Working with them is very challenging because the first question you get is, “Why?”. Not from members of the transgender community, but from other people. They accuse us of having an agenda – Western agenda, Zionist agenda, etc.

While I was writing this book, I was also studying for my PhD and had limited resources. They are also a busy people; they must struggle through the day so they can eat in the evening.

When the book was finally written, there was no money to hire an editor. So, the book isn’t edited. There will be typos and repetitions but that is alright because I just wanted to tell their stories even if in broken English.

How has working with transgender people affected you personally?
Initially, I was scared that people might think I was a transgender. That hardly matters now. Associating with transgender people made me more comfortable with myself. I started recognising my feminine side, which every man has, and also started taming it. It was important as it made me human. Thinking about gender beyond the heteronormative discourse of masculine and feminine was a new thing for me.

How did you become an LGBTQ activist in Kashmir?
Every society, no matter how conservative, has [sexual minorities]. I won’t say they don’t exist for me because they don’t fit in with my faith. Our endeavours are beyond the scope of religion or social constructs. We respect societal values but we also know when a person comes to us, we don’t see them as gay, lesbian or transgender but as a person with a problem.

We don’t propagate or promote it but we support it. If there are people who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual or whatever else, they are people first. It is about their right to live. If we help them accept themselves, what is wrong with that?

There is an Islamist section of the society which deems even government employees in Kashmir non-Muslim.
That is absolutely correct.

Is this conservatism worrying for the future of the transgender community?
Leave aside the community, it is difficult even for people like us who are trying to give voice to a voiceless community. We too want political freedom, but not the Islamist kind. In the end, everything is politicised. Islam is too. Everyone is using it for their own benefit.