Interview: Akkai Padmashali

Akkai Padmashali: Beyond victimhood, reclaiming dignity

Print edition : September 24, 2021

Akkai Padmashali, transgender rights activist. Photo: MURALI KUMAR K

Interview with Akkai Padmashali, transgender activist.

Akkai Padmashali, 36, is a transgender activist based in Bengaluru. Recently she published her autobiography titled ‘Akkai’ in Kannada (published by Bahuroopi and narrated by Dr Dominic D.). An English version of the autobiography (this remains untitled as of now, but the unpublished manuscript was provided to Frontline) is slated to be published by Zubaan Publishers early next year. In her memoir, Akkai discusses the trials she had to face because of her transgender identity. Akkai does not hold back on her early life as a sex worker and beggar. She also writes in vivid detail about life in the hijra community, her sex reassignment surgery and her violent marriage.

Akkai does not see herself as a victim of her circumstances, and her life story is a testament to her courage and the journey to reclaim her dignity. A transgender activist for almost 20 years, Akkai has worked consistently to improve the lives of her peers. Conceptually, she locates her activism at the intercession of her struggle as part of the working class and her opposition to patriarchy. She played an important role in the legal battle to repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (on same-sex relations), which the Supreme Court struck down in 2018.

She is the youngest recipient of the Rajyotsava Award, the second highest civilian honour of the Karnataka government. She has also travelled extensively in recent years, representing Indian sexual minorities in international conferences. Realising the need for a prominent political voice from within the community, she forayed into politics and joined the Congress party last year.

In the afterword of her memoir (the English version), Akkai explains her credo in a pithy statement: “My existence itself is resistance—against those who commit violence; those who are sexist, anti-feminist, pro-capitalist, fundamentalist; and those who want the nation to become right wing.” In an interview with Frontline, Akkai spoke about a wide range of issues stemming from her life and work. Excerpts:

You state that you do not seek sympathy from the readers of your autobiography but want to claim your “human rights and want to “speak with dignity” when you tell your story. How did you overcome the sense of victimhood considering that you have faced severe adversity for most of your life because of your transgender identity?

Transgenders face tremendous discrimination at every level in society; from families, siblings, schoolmates, neighbours, relatives, and so on. When I—who was born a male—behaved like a girl, my family was not able to accept my condition. They were good people, but they could not deal with what was happening to me because of pressure from neighbours and relatives. There was discrimination, violence and harassment from my parents, and this came from the power hierarchy implicit in the institution of the family. I was beaten and had hot water poured on me. I was taken to psychiatrists and to traditional temple healers and even given shock treatment. I tried to listen to my parents and attempted to behave like a boy, but how many days could I do this? It was so difficult and my dream was to be a girl.

Only in the past few years have teachers begun to discuss issues of gender and sexuality in schools. When I was in school, I was made to sit separately: boys and girls would be seated on their benches and I would be seated separately all on my own. How could they do that? The situation was very difficult and there was no support from anyone.

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After all these responses from my family, neighbours, schoolmates, teachers and friends, I attempted to kill myself—not once but twice. After the second attempt at suicide when I was 13, I decided that I would no longer be the victim. “I am fine. What have I done wrong? I’m not troubling anyone,” I told myself.

In the biographies of transgender persons that I’ve read so far there is a sense of victimhood, and I didn’t want to tell the story of my life in that manner. What I want to say through my story is that the reader should not see me as a victim. I was into sex work and begging, and there was a lot of violence and social stigma involved in all of this. There was no social acceptance or social dignity in my life. Transgenders weren’t allowed inside a bank 15-20 years ago or to open a bank account, but we [the sexual minorities movement] fought for these rights and brought about a change in society. This change happens when someone has the determination to fight all sorts of atrocities. I had faith in myself because of which I would fight discrimination at every point. That attitude has now become a part of me and has made me determined.

Transgender activism

How did you find the strength to carry on from those teenage days and become the person that we see today?

There is unimaginable violence in sex work. False cases were foisted on us. The police would not produce us in court but keep us in the police station for a few days and force us to wash bathrooms, polish the inspector’s shoes and do all kinds of work. Why are people torturing us and discriminating against us? That question would constantly make me think. At that time, I used to have lots of discussions with fellow hijras, and through those discussions I realised that I should be respected because I am a human being. With this simple concept, different ideas came into my head.

After experiencing all this violence, why do I say that my story should be seen as ‘beyond victimhood’? I say it because I am fine as a human being and I have my dignity. This understanding came from my experience on the streets. I am not a PhD holder but a tenth class student who failed in mathematics. But I have learned from my experiences and I am determined to change my situation.

Every sector has violated our rights and exploited us and harassed us. Sitting here in front of you has been a long journey. I want to fight the idea that I am the victim. I have experienced torture, sexual violence and assault, but I can’t sit in a corner and mope, can I? So many women get raped, especially those from vulnerable backgrounds. Why is this happening? It is because we are perceived to have no support and are voiceless, but who is going to speak for the victim until she speaks about the issue?

Also read: Transgender Persons Bill: Identity crisis

Transgender activism took off in Bengaluru because of the work of a few people. Today, we can stand and speak about our rights. I don’t know whether strength as used by you is the right word. I just stand and do my work with courage. If I make a mistake, I correct it. I don’t do anything wrong intentionally. When I am convinced about something, I speak and take a stand on the issue. What I don’t know, I try and learn.

The Hijra tradition

You found a sense of identity and community with the group of hijras you met when you were still in your teens and became a sex worker. It was a revelation to read about the systematic and ritualised working of these groups and the hierarchy that prevails therein. Could you speak about it?

The hijra culture is very strong and has a structure and system. Its origins can be traced to ancient times and we were there throughout Indian history, including the Mughal period. The king would leave the hijras to safeguard the queen and, in the process, we would become de facto rulers of the kingdom. My knowledge is based on hearsay, but the role of hijras was so positive then. When it was so in that era, why is it not like that now? Why does society disrespect us now?

Broadly, the hijra tradition is rooted in Islamic culture, and our congregation is called a jamaat and each of us belongs to a gharana. According to the strictures of our culture, we are not supposed to wear any make-up or go to the beauty parlour and have to cover our head. We have to pierce our noses and ears and have to beg and involve ourselves in sex work. In my guru’s presence, I have to sit on the floor and I can’t stretch my legs. You can’t call yourself a woman but have to be identified as a hijra or transgender.

If you question the jamaat’s authority, you can be excommunicated, and this happens by burning your forehead with a coin and garlanding you with chappals. Hijras are not allowed to even cut their hair. When I cut my hair, they imposed a fine of Rs.11,000 on me. If you talk too much, there is a fine. These rules remain in force even now. I was part of this tradition for around 17 years.

Also read: ‘Hijra has become a political identity’

We face discrimination as a community, but there is also so much internal discrimination and violence. I should question that as well, right? There is a man-power within the hijra culture. By that I mean the structure of patriarchy that is practised. Things are still like that. As an activist, I want to bring change within my community; while some things remain the same, there has been a huge transformation from the time I joined to the present. There are positives in the hijra culture as well: they are very accepting people and don’t discriminate on the basis of caste, class or religion.

Working class movement

You write that the “working class movement has played a vital role in bringing about a significant change in the politics of sexuality and gender”. Could you explain this?

In the country’s movement of sexual minorities, even the terminology used, i.e., LGBTIQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer] is so distracting for us as it is only used by the elite. These people know English and use computers and phones to find partners and have sex in the privacy of their rooms, but working class people of our community who are on the streets don’t even have houses. We have to beg at traffic junctions and sleep outside, whatever the weather conditions. I still don’t have access to a computer and a lot of us don’t even know how to operate smartphones. That’s how backward we are.

We also want to use the phrase ‘sexual minorities’ so that we can have access to social, economic and political justice. The terminology of minorities has its own significance in the movement, and the struggles of the working class movement do not come up for discussion at the higher levels. The working class means non-English speaking, the poorest of the poor, the Dalits, the untouchables…, all these are part of our community, and if we hadn’t sacrificed our lives, those judgments from the Supreme Court [striking down Section 377 of the IPC] would not have been possible.

Also read: Transcending barriers

People like Ashok Row Kavi want to take over the movement with a few gays and lesbians, but the issue of sexuality and gender mainly affects the working class. We are the ones who have experienced police violence and imprisonment. We were the ones whose heads were shaved and who were forced to conform to male identities. The struggle was ours, but you [meaning the elite gays and lesbians]—because you spoke English—would go to an international conference and share all this. How is this possible? We took a clear stand. Even today under the politics of sexual minorities, the working class has been completely ignored.

There are sections within the hijra community such as the Kinnar Akhada which have come out in support of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and are finding legitimacy for the ideology of Hindutva among the transgender community. What is your stand on the issue?

I strongly oppose the stand of the Kinnar Akhada and its founder Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. I organised a session of south Indian transgender persons against the Kinnar Akhada’s move supporting the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. For me, as I have written in my book, “the entire hijra system and culture opposes the building of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. I want nothing to do with it. How many people were killed in the name of that Ram temple? How many people were killed in the Gujarat riots in 2002?”

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