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Fighting against prejudice: A transwoman's struggle to find a respectable job

“I spent my childhood with girls, and I never thought of myself as a boy, I always thought I was a girl,” said Abdul Hakim, aka Gudiya, a weaver from Varanasi. Today she identifies herself as a Kinnar.

‘Kinnar’, like ‘Hijra’, is one of the many colloquial terms used to refer to the third gender — people who do not identify with the gender binaries assigned at birth. It is almost exclusively used by biological males who identify as women or identify as neither men nor women.

“People in my home were the first to start talking this way about me, saying I was this or that,” she explained, “So Gudiya left her house when she was 17 years old to live with her guru, an authority figure whom the Kinnars report to. Kinnars often organise themselves into their own societal structures; gurus, often older Kinnars, help new initiates called chelas (students) navigate society as Kinnars. Gurus and chelas in turn have their own social systems, codes of conduct, rules and even languages.

Despite their respected presence in Hindu mythology and in histories of Hindu and Muslim kingdoms in India, Hijras today are met with societal rejection. One of the few roles assigned to them is dancing at celebrations, like weddings, to bless the event. For many, it becomes the singular source of income. Gurus are responsible for teaching this song-and-dance routine, as well as assigning territories for Hijras to perform. Gudiya, too, used to dance. “Whatever money I earned, it was taken by my guru,” said Gudiya. Hijras’ exploitation at the hands of their gurus has been a common occurrence — from having to give them all their earnings to being pushed into sex work.

Gudiya soon had a revelation: “I realised that I have survived till now because I am healthy and able to dance, but what would I do in the future when I couldn’t dance anymore?” Despite the fact that Hijras existed on the fringe of society, and were only accepted in certain roles – such as dancers, sex workers and beggars – she decided that she would leave her guru’s house and try to stand on her own feet.

It was not easy. “I used to help clean houses and maintain lawns, anything to earn a little bit of money and feed myself,” she relates. And finding acceptance in mainstream society has never been easy, “My Muslim community think of Hijras as untouchables,” she remarks, “They can’t feed us one roti but they can beat the living daylights out of us.”

She knew the cost of presenting herself as a woman, dressing up in salwar-kameez with long hair and touches of make-up. “If I don’t dress in these womanly clothes, then I can get work from them,” she explained bluntly, “But if I continue to dress like this, I won’t get anything.”

Slowly but surely, with strong determination, Gudiya learnt how to weave — her guru had initiated her into the craft. Today, she is a professional weaver. But her identity as a Kinnar often makes it difficult for her to get consistent get work. “If in a week I get Rs 500, for the same work next week, I might get Rs 1000 or could also get nothing,” she said matter-of-factly. It is perhaps this fact that she grew up hiding herself that she is now defiant about changing anything to fit societal norm: “For many days, I tried to hide from my true self. But it became too much,” she said defiantly, and with a hint of disbelief still lingering in her voice, “I never thought that I would be able to present myself in a feminine manner in public.”

But there are problems still. The machine in Gudiya’s workshop hasn’t been working for the last six months and electricity is erratic at best. But people continue to assume the worst of her, “They have a poor perception of me. They worry that if they give me work, I won’t give it back to them,” she revealed, but added, with the frustration evident in her voice, “But this is how I earn my daily living. What I will get out of taking something from someone? It’s just God’s grace that I am able to still put food on the table.”

Gudiya’s responsibilities extend beyond her own self. She has been in a live-in relationship with her partner who identifies as a cisgender male, for the last nine years. Together, they have adopted two daughters, aged 15 and 4.

Her partner, Khurshid Ahmed, spoke about how they’ve been going through a tough time. “There was a lot of disapproval from my family,” he said, “Everybody was against this relationship.” But at the end of the day, “We are part of a family, he left his home for me,” said Gudiya, “When I die, I know he will be there to do my last rites.”

In the historic 2014 judgement, the Supreme Court, recognising the legal validity of the third gender, asked the government to consider treating people identifying as the third gender in line with other minority communities, there was hope that it would result in social and economic upliftment. However, Gudiya has no faith in the government, “I filled the forms that now have a third gender option, but it's all limited to the paperwork. I haven’t been able to get any bank loans to date.”

“I will only count on my own two hands and legs, nothing and nobody else. I will fight against the world to survive,” said Gudiya defiantly, and spoke of her real need and what really lacks, “Money, I can earn. But it is the only thing I earn. I also want respect.”

Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.


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Updated Date: Mar 07, 2019 16:47:53 IST