Representation matters. It means having role models, people we can relate to and emulate. People who signify all we can become. Representation gives us hope, aspirations, and a better understanding of ourselves. It also gives others a better understanding of who we are. Representation creates awareness, cultural shifts, and policy changes. I cannot overstate the role representation plays in our individual and collective psyches. So, I’ll say it again, representation matters. For marginalized groups, representation means everything. Unfortunately for the Hijra community, positive representation on a significant scale is almost non-existent.
The Hijra community is an ancient one that has been apart of South Asia’s culture for thousands of years. The term Hijra itself is used to describe cross dressers, eunuchs, intersex people and transgender women. Though hijra can encompass all of the above identities, nonprofits and activists within the community use (“TG”) women or third gender as the preferred nomenclature for the latter. Hijras occupy an interesting space in Indian society. Once revered, and still religiously significant, today they are one of the most marginalized groups in India. This isn’t surprising to anyone who has spent any significant time in the country. The most immediate and prevalent images of Hijras are ones of begging, street harassment, and sex work.
To promote Trans-Women leadership, and TG women in a positive light, Shenomics wanted to highlight two community leaders and their stories.
Akkai Padmashali is a transgender woman and activist in Bangalore. Born male, she grew up in a middle class family. She knew from an early age that she was meant to be female, but her family was unaccepting. At one point her father poured hot water on her legs as punishment for her feminine behavior. By the age of 12, suppressed, ostracized, and hopeless, Akkai attempted suicide. Twice. She survived both attempts.
This hopelessness is a universal experience for TG youth.
Priya Babu is another transgender woman and activist. She also exhibited feminine behavior from a young age. Initially, her family did not mind, but that changed once her behavior continued past the age of 14. “I was taken for psychiatric treatment to a hospital in Trichy. I went through what all the young TGs go through. There was a lot of scolding and hitting at home. Apart from that, there was a lot of sexual abuse at school. This happens with every young TG. The teenage years are a period when young men normally have sexual curiosity and urges. For them, using non-conforming children is the easiest way to satisfy such curiosity. Although I was interested in boys, I was scared. I didn’t know if what was happening was right or wrong.” Priya was eventually driven from her childhood home, and took refuge with her sister in Malaysia. There she was exposed to a lot of the transgender world. After two years, she returned to India. “Not being able to change and not being able to continue on as a male, I attempted suicide. Twice. I was seventeen then.”
Two women, four suicide attempts, all before the age of 18.
Difficulties and Community
Both Akkai and Priya sought out others within the TG community. Both were given bleak outlooks.
Priya began visiting a lot of transgender homes. “They told me that if I feminized I would have to do sex work to survive. When I was young, transgenders begging was not a thing. It came much later.”
Akkai was told similarly. “Don’t become like us. If you become like us, there are only two options for you – begging or sex work.”
Despite the almost certain hardship in the path ahead, the need to be a woman was undeniable. Both women feminized. The feminization process means different things for different people, and is a personal choice.
Priya’s feminization hopes were based in Mumbai. “They told me that if I go to Mumbai, I can feminize. So, I moved. Transgenders mainly did sex work in Mumbai at the time, and the area I went to was a sex-work prevalent area. Because I grew up in a very traditional home, it was very hard for me to live this way. So, I moved to another area and took up the only other option I had – begging.”
Akkai had tried to go to school and work, both those environments were filled with sexual harassment and assault. In light of this treatment, she left both and took up sex work. She was a sex worker for four years, from the age of 16. The profession is one especially subject to abuse, vulnerable to Gundas and even the police. Akkai recounts, “I was taken to Cubbon park police station. I was raped. I was forced to wash toilets. I was forced to polish inspectors’ shoes. Forced to clean the entire station premises. Where do I go? Where do I seek justice?” Despite her suffering, in those four years, Akkai was no longer alone. She had a community.
Through the feminization process, both women were able to finally accept themselves as they are. It gave them freedom and oppression, happiness and hardships.
A Different Path
In accepting their true gender identity, most hijra women accept that their life will be one of sex work or begging. But trading one oppression for a lesser suffering is hardly the freedom they envision for themselves.
“I was always interested in literature. And I would buy books and read from the money I made with begging.” Priya explains. “I would read a lot of magazines and novels. I read a book called Vaada malli by S.Samuthiram, which was the first novel about transgenders in Tamil…Because I did not want to beg, I had taken up dancing at a bar. But I wasn’t interested in that either. Coming from a household of chartered accountants, this life was very hard for me to acclimate to. So I always felt like I was meant for more.” Priya began searching for other opportunities and met a journalist who offered her a job writing for a magazine. While writing she met the additional commissioner and became involved with social work. Her first project rescued around 50 women from the red-light area. And, thus, began her social work within the TG community.
Among her many contributions to the TG community, Priya Babu began working with rights based issues. “It was around the time elections were coming around, and we decided to file a writ for getting the transgender community voting IDs. It was the first writ for transgender voting cards in India. It grabbed a lot of the media’s attention…After the writ there was a lot of talk about the transgender community. We decided that along with the writ, we will also have to create awareness among people about our community.”
Four years of seeing the struggles TG sex workers faced prompted Akkai to join Sangama, a Bangalore based NGO that works with sexual minorities. “Why should I die? Let me fight for my community members. I have a huge responsibility on my shoulders.” Akkai has continued her activist work by founding the Human Rights Organization, Ondede. “We, the feminists, have come together and formed this group ‘Ondede’, it is a Kannada word for Convergence.” Onedede focuses on the rights of children, women, and sexual minorities, emphasizing the Dignity-Voice-Sexuality of these three constituencies.”
Both women left behind stigmas and built successful careers involving activism. Below are short listed accomplishments and resources to learn more about these women.
- Founder of Ondede
- First TG recipient of Rajyotsava award, the second highest civilian honor given by the state government of Karnataka
- Akkai is the first TG person in India to get a driver’s license stating her gender as female
- Has spoken to multiple national and local level councils and associations for spreading awareness and seeking justice and equality.
- A moving piece on Akkai and her work
- Hear Akkai speak here.
- Helped to start the Dai Welfare Society in Mumbai in 1999. This was the first transgender organization in North India.
- Received Transgender Folklore Fellowship from the National Folklore Support Centre in Chennai. Through the fellowship she made a documentary about folk life of Transgenders in Tamil Nadu. Their lives before and after the operation, All the ceremonies and festivals followed by the community.
- Published several books, ‘Aravanigal Samuha Varaiviyal’ in 2007 and ‘Face of third gender in 2009. Face of Third Gender is award winning and included in the curriculum of several universities. Priyababu has many other smaller publications, but the other to note is the 2015 publication of Vetri Padigal. A collection of stories of 30 transgenders from different walks of life.
- Member of the TG Welfare Board.
On Our Shared Humanity
If you leave learning any one thing, Priyababu hopes it will be this, “We consider ourselves to be women, but more than that, it’s important to treat us as human beings. Nowadays, we all have pets at home, say a dog. If we have a dog and he’s hurt, we take care of the dog; we give him medications. We love the dog. As a society we are willing to do that, but then chase our child out of the house because he had an operation and changed his gender. That doesn’t make any sense. There is no humanity in that. More than anything else, rather than concentrating on transgender or trans women, concentrate on our humanity first. Things will be much better.”
Akkai and Priya were able to overcome tremendous obstacles and become successful productive members of society and advocates for their community. This kind of representation matters, because it shapes so much of how we understand and interact with the world. It gives hope to those in similar situations and creates empathy within others. Let us highlight leaders like Priya and Akkai, and let us focus on our shared humanity.
This article was originally written for and published on Shenomics.com.
About the Author
Misha Rahman recently uprooted her life in Boston to move to Bangalore, India and work with Shenomics. She is completing a professional certification in social enterprise through IDEX Accelerator’s Global Fellowship Program. She spends her days on facebook, twitter, and linkedin- also known as marketing and strategy. In addition to empowering women she is interested in conflict resolution and human rights work. Misha enjoys traveling, reading, and binge watching Netflix.