Although the Pride Month had ended a month back, but the struggles imbued within Pride remain. In this context, we have had the chance to engage in a conversation with Dr Aijaz Bund.
It will not be wrong to call him as the first LGBTQ+ activist in Kashmir. He is the author of an ethnographic work titled, ‘Hijras of Kashmir – A Marginalized Form of Personhood‘. This book is has been reckoned as the first ethnographic study of the transgender community in the valley. He is the founder of the Sonzal Welfare Trust which works for the welfare of the LGBTQ+ community of Kashmir.
Without any further ado, it will be best to hear from the person himself, to know more about his journey, the conditions in which the LGBTQ+ live in the valley, the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ in Kashmir in general, and during the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, the related issues and the nature of work done by his organization.
Q. We have been reading about how you were driven to working for the cause of the LGBTQ in Kashmir, an effort that resulted into a book and also establishing a welfare trust for the same cause. However, for our readers, could you please recount your journey and what motivated you to take up this cause?
Aijaz Bund: Being a student of social work, the issues and vulnerabilities of gender and sexual minorities were not at all unfamiliar to me. I had read about them in books, heard about them, seen them but never talked to them or never visited them. Some eight or nine years down the line, a Hijra meanzimyoar [matchmaker] visited our home to fix the marriage of my elder sister. The attitude of my family was very terrible. They were reluctant to receive the guest. With the demeanor of my family members, I got an idea how people view them and where they are positioned in the society.
That was the turning point in my life when I pledged to be the voice of this community. I initiated a conversation with the guest and got to know about the problems of this community. When I started visiting them and befriending them, I was moved by their plight. They were living a subhuman life full of abuse, discrimination, violence and harassment. I began with sensitizing my family, my friends and the people around me and eventually started working at grassroots level and advocating for their rights at institutional level.
Q. Let’s focus a bit on Sonzal Welfare Trust – what is it about and what is the range of work and area that it tries to cover?
Aijaz Bund: Sonzal welfare Trust is 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.
Q. What challenges do you see for the LGBTQ, given the pandemic situation? In what ways has Sonzal Welfare Trust been able to work on that front?
Aijaz Bund: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, new challenges arise each day for people across the world. Some of these challenges particularly affect the LGBTQ+ community. Unrelated to COVID-19, this community faces minority stress based on anti-LGBTQ+ stigma that is harmful for their health and well-being. In Kashmir we have a diverse community and the impact varies considerably; people with disabilities, HIV and people with low income may experience compounded minority stress at the intersections of these identities. The overall impact has been in terms of loss of livelihood and income, inaccessible safe spaces, closure of educational institutions, reduced access to care and social security, increased domestic violence, worries about seeking care for COVID-19 symptoms, nonavailability of hormone therapy, reduced access to legal protections etc.
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 to 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 their psycho-social needs.
Q. Your book ‘Hijras of Kashmir – A Marginalized Form of Personhood’ has been considered as the first ethnographic study of the transgender community in the valley. It brings to light, in quantifiable terms, some facets of suffering of the transgender people in Kashmir, if I am not wrong. What is the major inference from the work, your book, that you would want to bring to the attention of a wider audience here?
Aijaz Bund: The unique lifestyle and mannerism of the Hijras, which is not fitting in the prescribed and perceived gender norms becomes the source of discrimination, harassment and violence. Hence, they are socially ostracized and become the ‘other’. Transgender community in Kashmir is physically, verbally, and sexually abused. Extreme social segregation tells upon their self-worth and sense of social responsibility. Accessibility to various social, cultural, educational and legal services is extremely classified for anyone with this identity in Kashmir. They are considered ‘abnormal’ and eventually become ‘outsiders’ in the mainstream. Deprivations, alienation and hostilities encountered by transgender of Kashmir, since early childhood is so intense and extreme that at some point, finding no other social space, they exclude themselves.
Unlike rest of India where Hijras have a bit of social acceptance, in Kashmir they are a stigmatised, socially marginalised and economically impoverished people. Hijras of Kashmir define themselves as people who are neither male nor female but an idiosyncratic third gender. However, they align themselves with the conventional feminine characteristics. Hijra subculture is diverse and has different rituals, customs and traditions. Their traditional occupation revolves around maenzimyaras (match making) and natchun ‘te’gaewun (singing and dancing in marriages). Most of them are seen doing jobs which do not fetch much for livelihood or sustenance.
Remarkably, unlike many other socially disadvantaged groups, Hijras are not found to have expanded their livelihood securing approaches or strategies. Lack of support from family and bullying in school has minimized the chances of receiving the formal education. They are living a dual life, hence the identity crisis becomes inevitable. The mental health issues include depression, anxiety, stress, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, somatisation, PTSD, suicidal ideation, OCD etc.
Q. Could you count some concrete results that your efforts and your organization’s efforts have yielded for this cause?
Aijaz Bund: We have filed a PIL in High court for implementation of NALSA Judgement, so far many interim judgements have been issued in this regard and also implemented by the concerned authorities. Transgender was recently identified as an idiosyncratic third gender beyond the heteronormative dichotomy of male and female. Further Transgender option was introduced in application forms in educational institutions. We have also initiated a mental health program ‘AASH’ for LGBTQIA community.
First clandestine LGBT retreat was also conducted. We have conducted many LGBT sensitization programs with school and college students.
Q. When the threat for the LGBTQ in Kashmir is so real, as is in so many places, and the platform to voice their concerns are so limited here, what are the other ways you can think of to help the LGBTQ come out to their families, considering the tremendous social pressure? Are more people, wanting to come out, reaching out to you for help in any way?
Aijaz Bund: Closet is not a place worth living, it suffocates. Coming out is a process and it may involve extreme emotional labor. 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. Yes, there are many people who want to come out of the closet and reach out to us for support
Q. Times are changing and yet it will be no exaggeration to say that here in Kashmir, for the LGBTQ things are doubly difficult because of a set of other variables: Political Conflict, Politics around Conflict taking the driving seat; a conservative society in some sense, a somewhat quasi closed culture, if not fully closed; a deepening economic crisis, given the uncertain future condition, be it political or social or educational. In this kind of backdrop, how do you place the struggle and experiences of the LGBTQ in Kashmir?
Aijaz Bund: Yes 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 sidelined 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. The set of the vulnerabilities experienced by gender and sexual minority groups are exacerbated during conflicts, exposing them to violence. Despite many socio-cultural frailties LGBT community of Kashmir will continue to claim exist and resist.
We record our gratitude to Dr Aijaz for engaging with us despite being busy on the field with COVID-19 relief work.
Featured Image Source: Free Press Kashmir