In a ramshackle chawl in Gali No. 1 of Kamathipura in Mumbai, eight hijras live under the protection of their guru Zeenath Pasha. Disowned by their biological families and banished from their homes, these non-blood relatives are their new family and the space their new home where they can freely express their identity.
Zeenath, born Mehraj, had run away from Hyderabad 25 years ago after her family disowned her for being a transgender person. For days, she had sat under the tree outside the brothel, and cried till her guru, Sushila Ma, found her and took her under her wing. When Sushila Ma died, the members of the brothel broke their bangles over the dead body as per custom and unanimously chose Zeenath as their guru. Sushila Ma, who had two adopted sons, left them part of her property but bequeathed control of the brothel to Zeenath, making her the Maalak.
It is this alternative familial structure that the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2019 that the Lok Sabha passed on August 5, 2019, categorically fails to recognise. Instead, it advocates rehabilitation centres for those disowned by their family, says Abhina Aher, a transgender rights activist based in Delhi. “A family is not only blood relations,” says Aher.
As per the 2011 census, there are over 480,000 transgender people in India. In April 2014, the apex court had, in response to a petition filed by the National Legal Services Authority, or NALSA, recognised the “third gender”, paving the way for reforms aimed at ending discrimination against the community and recognising their rights. The NALSA judgment was followed by the Transgender Rights Bill, 2014, introduced by private member Tiruchi Siva, and passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2015.
The community had opposed the bill and demanded that they be consulted in the process of legislative action. “We have our own culture. Our trans forefathers and foremothers formed it; we respect these and don’t want to erase our history,” says Grace Banu, a transgender rights activist and director and founder of Trans Rights Now Collective. She marked the day as ‘Gender Justice Murder Day’. There was no nuanced debate in Parliament the day it was passed. When the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, was introduced in Parliament on July 19, 2019, it was unclear on a transgender person’s right to self-identify. While the previous bill said a transgender person “shall have a right to self-perceived gender identity”, it mandated a two-step process for legal gender recognition by requiring a trans person to apply for a “transgender certificate” which would require surgery and documentation by a medical authority confirming it. As per the bill, the district magistrate was given the power to judge the “correctness” of the application.
The community leaders, says Aher, sought several changes in the bill, including self-identification saying having screening committees to make recommendations to the district magistrate for issuing certification as the “third gender” went against the NALSA judgment. While this recommendation was accepted, the 2019 bill still required transgender persons to go through a district magistrate and district screening committee to get certified as a trans person and required surgery for a revised gender certificate. There is no provision for appeal or review in case a person is opposed to the decision of the district magistrate.
The other crucial demand was for “protecting the Hijra culture”. The 2014 bill had criminalised begging, a part of the trans culture in South Asia and also a means of survival for the majority of transgender people. The community wanted their traditional source of income–Basti Badhai–to be protected under the law. While the word begging, which the community said was targeted towards hijra culture, has been removed from the current bill, it still does not recognise support systems of non-blood relatives as families, says Aher. Under ‘Right of residence’, the bill states that “every transgender person shall have a right to reside and be included in his household. If the immediate family is unable to care for the transgender
person, the person may be placed in a rehabilitation centre, on the orders of a competent court”.
“Children are not being allowed self-declaration on their transgender status,” says Aher. “If their parents disown them, they will be sent to the shelter homes. But there is no provision on how these shelter homes will look at transgender children who do not fit the gender binary.”
The hijras are systematically organised as hierarchical communities within themselves. Aher, for instance, belongs to the Mumbai gharana. For disputes, they rely on their leaders for resolution. In turn, a chela is supposed to look after the guru. This is how social security works within these layered and complex structures that are also an alternative to the biological family they have left either on their own or because of violence. In the discipleship lineage system, a hijra guru adopts a person and then they become part of the kinship network while hijra gharanas become apprenticeship systems. The ‘gharana’ system is an institutionalised lifestyle, which defies the heteronormative idea of a family. While many in the community have called for an end to this culture, Aher says it is a place that makes you feel safe and confident in your expression of identity and that is very important for the mental well-being of any person. Considering the instances of violence against the transgender community and the stigma, these gharanas offer a safe space. It is therefore the banal definition of ‘family’ that they feel threatens their culture which is why they want the government to include chosen family within the ambit of ‘family’.
“Our structures are a support system for us. Young kids who have run away from home because their families are unable to reconcile with their identity are in need of counselling and some love,” says Aher. “Gender affirmation is important and counselling in our system is about transitioning to a hijra person, which is missing in a formal system. Hijra culture plays an important role. Self-worth is very crucial. If a child runs away from home, where does he go? We take them. I am not saying our structures are immune to the vices of exploitation but they are there in the absence of a family.”
Social attitudes too are changing. When Aher first left home and found her guru, she says she was the only son of her mother and would need to look after her. For years, she shuffled between her two mothers-the biological
one and her guru. “Back then, it was quite a revolutionary thing to do, but lines are being blurred more than ever now and families have become more accepting. Our hijra culture has evolved,” she says.
For a year, Aher ran a shelter home from her house for young people who identified themselves as transgenders. They had run away from home after being disowned or harassed for who they were. It was the guru-chela system in the community structure that proved to be a safety net, which Aher says the government needs to acknowledge. That’s how she found the strength to be herself.
Another area of concern the community has regarding the bill is the lack of any mention of ‘reservation’ for transgenders. “There is no specific mention about how the government will ensure employment, education and skill-building of the transgender community,” says Aher. “Last time, they didn’t consider the Parliamentary Standing Committee recommendations or take into account the community’s viewpoints. We are opposed to the new bill as it doesn’t change anything in our day to day life,” says Banu. “My demand is for separate reservation for the transgender people. I have been fighting for it for more than 10 years. The other thing is with regard to sexual assault. This bill doesn’t give clear guidelines.” It doesn’t, for instance, talk of gender-neutral laws and harsh punishment for murder, hate crime, rape and discrimination / abuse towards the transgender community, according to community members like Rudrani Chettri, a model and an actor, who founded the first transgender modelling agency in the country. “Legal protection in case of rape hasn’t been addressed properly,” Chettri says.