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Transgender Identities: Powerful And Noble In History, Marginalised In Reality

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By Pallavi Ghosh

I am a Bengali woman; a Hindu; an Indian and the list goes on. So what really is my identity? Knowing the irreducibility of beings, can we then speak of people having one fixed identity?

When we speak of transgender identity in particular, the subject positions are equally fluid and changing. For whether one chooses a masculine or feminine or a combined sexual identity is contextual, and what is most comfortable for the subject in question. Moreover, if we take out some time to reflect these shifting positions from masculinity to femininity and vice versa, it is not restricted to the transgender community only, but gets expressed in subtle ways in the heterosexual lives thought of as natural by many. For example, when we look at a simple enough phenomenon of cooking, how do we determine it as masculine or feminine? We often hear how the world’s leading chefs are men while home-made cooking or cooking for the family is usually, though not always, associated with women. In other words, the simple act of cooking is both feminine as well as masculine; what changes is the context and the subject position.

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Religion is one of the other simple and everyday acts of life and its relation with sexuality is as complex as the relation that exists between the multiple factors that shape identities through which identities are derived. While there is much currency to the thought that anything other than heterosexuality is against the order of nature amongst a set of staunch believers, mythological accounts seem to counter these claims especially through strong transgender characters symbolising power, devotion and bravery.

So how has mythology captured this fluidity of identities with relation to transgender characters? One can recall the tale of Agdistis, said to be born a hermaphrodite or a double-gendered being, was castrated by the Greek god Zeus. The myth goes that the dual character of Agdistis was thought of as threatening by the Greek pantheon; and thus, Cybele, the goddess of nature and fertility was created. Similarly, one can remember tale from our childhood about the warrior Shikandi, who became Bhisma’s foil at Kurukshetra.

There are special rituals amongst the Hindu folk involving the transgenders. For example, Tamil Nadu has a long tradition of their village deity – Aravan or Kootnadavar, which is as special ritual practiced by transgenders in a festival that re-enacts the mythological tale of Aravan. According to the ritual, the first evening of the pilgrimage signifies marriage to Aravan, wherein the god is well-adorned and the devotees are tied thalis by the temple priest. Many of them are dressed like women during this time. The next morning these devotees take to widowhood once the head of their Aravan is cut. They break their bangles, remove their vermillion mark and dress in white.

Even the native American myth about two-spirits, who are people with both masculine and feminine identities are said to have enjoyed equal, if not more privileged status as compared to single-gender identities.

Historical accounts speak of eunuchs in the Mughal court, who were delegated the task of disciplining the harems of the emperors. They were mostly brought from Asia and Africa and were valuable to the emperor for reasons more than being mere managers of their pleasure drives. In fact, they were consulted for political advice and also served as informants to the royalty.

It is indeed curious that even though mythological and historical accounts portray the double-gender or transgender identity as powerful and noble, in reality they are live a life of acute marginalisation. It is only in the 21st century that we hear of the first transgender Principal, Dr. Manabi Bandyopadhyay, in the country. In fact it is only last year that the third gender was included as a category in the electoral rolls just before the iconic 16th Lok Sabha elections. Also, Census data before 2011 did not recognise the existence of the third gender. The recent developments have certainly been encouraging. But the struggle for survival is more than mere recognition and it is here that the provisions fall short. Lack of employment opportunities means that there is concentration of transgender people in the limited work opportunity available to them, i.e. begging and sex work, both of which bespeak the acute vulnerability and marginalisation the community faces as a whole. Equal rights, respect and opportunities seem to be a far-fetched dream still for half a million people who belong to the community.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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