It is no hidden fact that a population existing in a region ridden with political conflict is at an increased susceptibility when it comes to mental health issues, in addition to the economic strife and socio-cultural struggles. A population which is already pushed to the margins however, too has the marginalised within the margins, who suffer doubly. This is not an exaggeration when one is made to think about the LGBTQ community in Kashmir.
The COVID-19 Scare And The LGBTQ In Kashmir
A set of variables conflate together to place the LGBTQ community in Kashmir in a very tight spot. However, in times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the difficulties seem to only increase. Lately there have been a set of people and activists coming together to work for the cause of the LGBTQ people and it is in this backdrop that a non-profit organisation called Sonzal Welfare Trust becomes highly relevant. It is important to talk about that organisation, not only because of the relief work it has been doing on the field but also because of the field that it covers.
The founder of the trust is someone who recently published a book on the transgenders in Kashmir, and the work is deemed to be the first of its kind due to the ethnographic research it presents. A crucial point that the book manages to highlight is how so far, not just the civil society but also the more invested academia has conveniently overlooked and played silent when it come to the sufferings and experiences of the LGBTQ community in Kashmir.
Sonzal Welfare Trust was set up in 2017. It aims to build a supportive institutional framework, incorporating SHGs for the transgender community. Tapping upon the opportunity of hearing from the founder himself, Dr Aijaz Ahmad, who is an LGBTQ+ activist, purports Sonzal Welfare Trust as “a non-profit, apolitical grassroots organization working for the well-being of gender and sexual minorities (LGBTQIA+) in Kashmir. We also work with male victims/survivors of CSA. We provide a wide range of services including psycho-social care, legal assistance, advocacy, court actions, awareness and sensitization, capacity building and creating community safe space.”
In addition to that, the organisation has been striving to influence policies to promote government-sponsored transposing of transgender along with skilling the community for self-sustenance and financial independence.
While the founder of the organisation, Aijaz Bund, who published his ethnographic work, ‘Hijras of Kashmir – A Marginalized Form of Personhood‘, happens to be the first activist working for the cause of the LGBTQ in Kashmir, the difficulties and challenges faced by the organisation in their work is but a reflection of the nascent stage in which the movement for the rights of transgender people still is in, and the miles to be covered in future, the journey seems to be an arduously long one.
Dr Aijaz says, “Sonzal has been at forefront from the inception of COVID-19 pandemic and has been addressing the unique challenges of our community. Soon after the outbreak of the pandemic we initiated telephonic counselling services and mobilized all our community resource support to address the issues like scarcity of food and medicines and domestic violence. So far we have been able to cater the ration needs of 120 families and the process is still going on. We have also been able to revive our safe community spaces to cater the psycho-social needs.” Currently the organisation is waging a legal battle and has filed a PIL in the court, petitioning that the state implements the NALSA verdict and form a transgender policy.
The Struggles Of The LGBTQ In Kashmir
At the same time, if one is to go by the general understanding, the lived experiences as well as what the research and existing studies tell us, the acceptance for the transgender community is relatively better than that for the LGB. One of the reasons for the same is the visibility factor; it is because of the visibility, that the transgender community has been able to claim some space in a heteronormative framework of existence.
However, having said that, it is the same factor which also makes them susceptible to greater discrimination, abuse and exploitation. The transgender community in Kashmir has been traditionally working in the business of matchmaking and performing at the wedding celebrations. However, these are just few in numbers and this pocket is not without stigma attached to it. On the other hand, the LGB stays invisible and imagining a pride movement or march remains a remote possibility, given the threat to their very existence which continues to remain real, emanating from the societal dynamics fixed within homophobia.
The social media handles of Sonzal Welfare however, lately has been providing outlets for the LGBTQ community to voice their experiences, if asked for, anonymously. Apart from its work on the grassroots level, in providing assistance, be it economic, emotional, mental or legal, this kind of work on social media becomes crucial for various reasons. The chief reason being that this provides an entry point into initiating dialogue within the society on the existence and experiences of the community. This becomes pivotal for generating empathy in the society at large and to tackle homophobia through such activities. As the first LGBTQ activist, Aijaz Bund says, it is not the LGBTQ community that is the problem, it is the homophobia in which the society is interspersed which is the actual problem.
In Kashmir, the intersectionality of conflict and identity at the margins of the margins only adds to exacerbate the suffering of the LGBTQ community. According to Mr Aijaz,
“We can’t deny the fact that LGBTQIA community of Kashmir is facing multiple layers of oppression. Our lived experiences cut across various intersections and socio-political barriers. In such scenario LGBTQ people are disproportionately vulnerable. They are often side-lined by societal and cultural stigma, which is often codified in hostile legal regimes. They are frequently discriminated against and denied access to services related to housing, education, employment and healthcare. Despite being disproportionately affected by health concerns like mental health challenges, violence, and illnesses like HIV, they have low rates of access to health services, often due to fear and stigma. Many of the vulnerabilities experienced by gender and sexual minority groups are exacerbated during conflicts, exposing them to violence.”
A Life Of Dignity: Resist To Exist
Many people identifying themselves with the LGBTQ community have been seeking help from Sonzal Welfare Trust, given the challenges they face in the process of coming out to their loved ones or other people has been additionally taxing for their mental health as well involves their safety and security concerns.
In this regard, Dr Aijaz says, “Closet is not a place worth living, it suffocates. Coming out is a process and it may involve extreme emotional labour. I suggest young people to make sure to come out only when you really want to. Take control of the situation and remember that it may be more of a process than an event. We have been continuously engaging with the families of LGBTQIA people.”
The struggle to bring the issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ in Kashmir has not been easy due to the already stated reasons. In addition to that, the community has been targeted intermittently online with trolls and hate messages. However, that has not stopped them from fighting for their right to exist and lead a life of dignity. With added difficulties due to additional variables at play in Kashmir, the struggle is exceptionally placed in comparison to the rest of the country.
Timely steps in this direction, no matter how small, therefore should be accorded a welcome any day.
Featured Image Source: The Print