From the shadows

Print edition : February 29, 2008

At home in Chennai, transgenders relaxing at a game of squares.-

Transgender persons are finally getting their due with the Tamil Nadu government announcing a welfare board for them.

At home in

The slim and dusky figure is clad in a rainbow georgette sari, and the gold nose-ring and the hair tied in a bun at the nape of the neck have the unmistakable stamp of femininity, as does the name, Noori. But Noori was born Noor Mohammad. It was sometime during his teens that he realised his mind and body were at odds. He felt like a woman and drew inappropriate male attention in his neighbourhood and earned for himself pet names like Fathima.

His parents were worried for their young son. Noori recalls how the 13-year-old Noors maternal uncle stripped him and tied him to a tree, and poured jaggery syrup all over him and let ants feast on him. That was meant as a measure to discipline the deviant boy. An attempt by the family to force him into marriage was the last straw for Noor, then 18. He ran away from home in Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu. His last stop was Mumbai, where he joined a eunuch clan, and his transformation from Noor to Noori was complete.

The personal struggles of those like Noori are acquiring a political dimension today as the transgender community has become more vocal in demanding its rights. Noori, 58, who set up the South India Positive Network for the HIV-infected in Chennai in 2001 and runs it, flashed a smile as she arrived at the office of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women (SCW) on January 28 along with other members of the group. They had come for a function to record their thanks to the Tamil Nadu government for announcing that it would set up a welfare board for the transgender community. This is an important victory for people like us who are fighting an everyday battle to secure our rights, said Noori.

The transgender community in India, represented largely by hijras and kothis, has long borne the brunt of male chauvinistic social prejudices and draconian laws that criminalised alternative sexuality. This is despite the fact that India has a 4,000-year history of third gender and eunuch culture. While a hijra is a biological male taking on the gender role of a female, a kothi is a feminine homosexual. A hijra typically undergoes castration and dresses in womens clothes to assert the feminine gender identity.

Since gender change is not recognised legally in India, a transgender person does not enjoy the natural privileges of his/her acquired gender. Such people are denied civil and political rights and cannot do things others do, such as find mainstream jobs, vote, marry, inherit property or adopt a child. Pushed to the periphery as social outcasts, they have to beg, dance or do sex work for survival.

There has been no enumeration of the transgender population in India and this has left a huge gap in data on its socio-economic status. In 1994, transgender persons got the voting right but the task of issuing them voter identity cards got caught up in the male or female question. Several of them were denied cards with the sexual category of their choice.

Priya Babu, a transgender activist and writer based in Chennai, said that despite a Madras High Court ruling in 2004 several aravanis (as hijras are called in Tamil Nadu) were denied voter identity cards that recognised them as female. The court had ruled that the transgender person could register as either male or female based on his or her statement.

There have been odd instances of transgender persons occupying positions of political power Shabnam Mausi became Member of Parliament from Sohagpur in Madhya Pradesh in 2000 and Kamla Jaan was elected Mayor of Katni in Madhya Pradesh in 2000 but these have not significantly empowered the larger community.

In fact, in the case of Kamla Jaan, in August 2002 the Madhya Pradesh High Court invalidated her election on the grounds that a eunuch is essentially male and therefore cannot contest from a seat reserved for women. The court, in effect, did not recognise a persons right to choose his or her gender identity.

In 2005, the Central government introduced a category E in passport application forms where E stands for eunuch. But transgender people are not satisfied with this. They are sensitive to the stigma that words such as eunuch bear and do not want to be addressed thus.

Asha Bharati, president of the Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Association, felt it was ridiculous that they were addressed with this archaic term. We are no longer the castrated men who guarded royal harems of Arab kings, she quipped.

In the past 10 years concern about the transgender community became widespread owing to the fear of the spread of HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Since the hijra/kothi community has been found to engage in sex work, numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have mapped them as vulnerable population for HIV/AIDS intervention projects.

A consequence of this has been the mobilisation of the community to demand their rights. Indeed, the Tamil Nadu governments decision to set up a welfare board for them was the result of such NGO mobilisation of transgender persons in the State. On December 17, 2007, the Tamil Nadu AIDS Solidarity Action (TASA), which is a network of 18 NGOs, and the State Commission for Women (SCW) organised a public hearing where members of the transgender community spoke of human rights violations and other atrocities they faced.

Listening to them was a six-member jury K.M. Ramathal, chairperson of the SCW; K. Sampath Kumaran, retired Punjab High Court Judge; K.M. Marimuthu, former ViceChancellor of Bharathiyar University; Ossie Fernandez, director of Human Rights Research and Advocacy Foundation; P. Kalimuthu, former Tamil Nadu Director General of Police; and Qudsia Gandhi, member of the SCW whose recommendations formed a key input for the State governments decision.

Moving testimonies

Pramila (name changed), an aravani sex worker from north Chennai, recounted how as a teenager she was belted by her father for cross-dressing. Had he empathised with me instead of accusing me, I would never have ended up in the sex trade, she said. She added that she did sexual favours for the police free of cost just to keep them at bay.

At the public hearing in Chennai on December 17, transgender persons in a section of the audience. The report of the jury at the hearing formed an important input in the Tamil Nadu government's decision to set up a welfare board for transgender persons.-

At the public

Asha Bharati told Frontline that when changes in gender expression of a child became obvious and that happened usually with the onset of puberty parents resorted to policing the childs sexuality and adopted cruel measures to ensure gender conformity. She recalled the case of a young boy whose parents administered electric shock to his genitals in an attempt to fix his fondness for girls clothes. They hoped it would rouse the man in him, she said. Even honour killings of transgender persons were not uncommon, she said and added that such stories never reach the outside world.

Gender discrimination against the community takes other forms as well. At the hearing, Devi (name changed) spoke of discrimination against aravanis in hospitals, in the form of sexually coloured remarks during medical examination. She said in government hospitals doctors would ask them to show their genitals to medical students, as if they were some museum display. Another complaint was that aravani women were denied admission in female wards of hospitals.

Marginal existence

The media, too, was blamed for seeking to portray transgender persons in poor light. Priya Babu waved a news clipping from a Tamil daily and pointed to the photo of a half-naked aravani who had been arrested. She asked, Why should an aravani be humiliated like this? Would the newspapers have done this to a woman?

Transgender persons also complained about facing ridicule and insult in public places. Derogatory remarks, alluding to their sexual orientation, were directed at them, they said. Over the years, transgender persons have, as a community, developed their own parallel society with its unique language and tradition. They live in isolated communes called jamaat, which follow a matriarchal family system. It comprises a nayak, who as the chief of the clan appoints a guru usually an elderly hijra to initiate the chela (follower) into the group.

Asha Bharati said that members of a commune shared intimate female bonding and often addressed one another as mother or sister. That way we also do not miss our homes, she said.

Transgender persons have negotiated their space in society by appropriating religious and cultural beliefs. For instance, the Siva-Sakthi cult in north India gives legitimacy to the sexual middle ground occupied by hijras through the ardhanaarishvara symbol which portrays Siva in the half-male, half-female form.

Then there is the legend of the Bahuchara Matha, who was once a princess who castrated her husband because he preferred going to the forest and behaving like a woman instead of consummating their marriage. Another story goes that a man who attempted to molest Bahuchara Matha was cursed with impotence. The goddess forgave him only after he shed his masculinity, dressed as a woman and worshipped the goddess. In Gujarat there is a temple dedicated to this goddess.

Till date hijras undergo castration with the ritual belief that they are sacrificing their maleness to get the blessings of the goddess. At the hearing many of them said they no longer wanted to undergo crude castration but wanted facilities in government hospitals for the surgery.

Branded by law

Turned away from homes at a young age, several of them lack education and employment and lead insecure lives. Some of them told Frontline that the police routinely arrested them on the charge of soliciting clients. At the public hearing, they said the police often demanded sexual favours from them or else threatened to arrest them.

Banu from Pulianthope in north Chennai narrated a 2006 incident in which she and her aravani friends were suspected of involvement in a murder case. She alleged that the police had no convincing evidence of their involvement in the crime, yet they were beaten up and defamatory reports about them appeared in the local press. The police target us for any crime that happens in our area, she said. After the incident Banu was forced to vacate her house though she was found innocent.

Branding the transgender person a criminal has a history to it. Under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, eunuchs were considered criminal by birth and could be arrested on mere suspicion. Though the Act stands repealed now, the community continues to bear the stigma attached to it.

Another piece of legislation that goes against the interest of the transgender community is Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalises unnatural sex. This colonial legislation is seen as an outdated law that infringes on the right of adults to engage in consensual sex, heterosexual or otherwise. The Act criminalises sodomy and, therefore, makes hijra and kothi persons vulnerable.

In its 172nd report, the Law Commission, chaired by retired Justice Jeevan Reddy, recommended that Section 377 of the IPC be repealed. The recommendation, however, was made in the context of a redefined law on sexual assault to replace the old law on rape.

Kokila, 59, a transgender, performs puja at a shop in Chennai. Besides doing such work, she begs for a living and wants the government to grant her pension.-

Kokila, 59, a

The report of a study of kothi and hijra sex workers in Bangalore, conducted by the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Karnataka in 2003, notes that the recommendation to scrap Section 377 was made without any reference to the discrimination transgender persons faced because of it. The report observes, To be a homosexual or a hijra is to draw the presumption that the person is engaging in carnal intercourse against the order of nature (as stated in the law).

Such an interpretation makes the transgender community vulnerable to harassment. A progressive revision of laws is an important step to eradicate the social prejudices against transgender persons. The International Bill of Gender Rights adopted by the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy in Texas, United States, in 1995 provides an ideal course to follow while considering legal reforms.

It lays down that all human beings have the right to define their own gender identity; express their gender identity; secure and retain employment and receive just compensation; control and change ones own body; enjoy competent medical and professional care; sexual expression; form committed, loving relationships and enter into marital contracts; and conceive, bear and adopt children and exercise parental capacity.

The Yogyakarta Principles a set of international legal principles on the application of international law to human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity also bring greater clarity and coherence to the human rights obligations of states. The principles were drafted by a distinguished group of international human rights experts at a meeting held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, from November 6 to 9, 2006.

These principles recognise that sexual orientation and gender identity are integral to every persons dignity and humanity and must not be the basis for discrimination or abuse. It also views critically the policing of sexuality, which remains a potent force behind continuing gender-based violence and gender inequality.

The welfare board that the Tamil Nadu government has announced could well be the first step towards reversing the discrimination suffered by the transgender community. Transgender persons can secure their entitlements such as social security and citizenship rights through the board. They can seek support to alter the manner in which they are perceived in society. Ramathal said the board would ensure a life of dignity for transgender persons. She also urged other States to follow the example set by Tamil Nadu.

The Department of Social Welfare in Tamil Nadu passed a government order (G.O.) in December 2006 with recommendations to improve the living conditions of aravanis. The G.O. strongly favours counselling as a means to deter families from disowning a transgender child. It also recommends counselling for children with behaviour changes in schools, for which teachers need to be specially trained. The G.O. is clear that there is no ban in admitting transgender persons in schools and colleges and that no discrimination should be shown against such persons on account of their sexual identity. The G.O., however, is yet to be implemented and the welfare board presents an opportunity to put these steps into practice.

An important recommendation made by the jury following the December 17 public hearing was that cases against transgender women must be handled by women police alone to avoid sexual harassment in police custody. The jury also recommended that transgender women be protected under the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Eve-Teasing Act, 1998. Ramathal also suggested that the Board of Film Certification should curb derogatory portrayal of the transgender community in movies and television serials.

These are the minimum first steps that have to be taken in the process of eventually integrating the transgender community into the mainstream.

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