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What Does India’s First Trans College Principal Think About LGBT+ Rights? A YKA Exclusive

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By Ankita Mukhopadhyay for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Manabi Bandhopadhyay created history in India by becoming the first transgender principal of a college in West Bengal in 2015. Her list of achievements doesn’t end just here. She is also the first transgender person to receive a PhD, and was an Associate Professor in Bengali at Vivekananda Satobarshiki Mahavidyalaya before becoming the principal. I met Manabi this year at Samanvay, the Indian Languages Festival, where she was on a panel discussion on the topic, “Gender and Sexuality: Images in Transition”. We had a candid discussion where she expressed her views on why she became a professor, how she wanted to be a writer, why she doesn’t like to associate herself with the transgender ‘community’, and more.

While Manabi is not the kind of a person to mince words, and is extremely vocal about her views, what is important to note is that even after the Supreme Court has ruled to protect the rights of trans people, millions of them across the country continue to face social stigma and are isolated from the rest of the population. Section 377 still doesn’t talk about the rights of trans people and is continually responsible for taking away their rights. Manabi believes that she has not struggled as many other trans people, but her views are probably in isolation. Below is the interview I conducted with her, as it is, translated to English from the Bengali:

Ankita Mukhopadhyay (AM): You are the first transgender person in India to have been awarded a PhD degree. Post that, you have broken many barriers, be it being a single parent, or becoming the first transgender principal of Krishnanagar Women’s College. Along the way did you face any kind of discrimination? How hard was the road ahead for you?

Image source: Amit Pant/ILF Samanvay 2015
Image source: Amit Pant/ILF Samanvay 2015

Manabi Bandhopadhyay (MB): As there is a saying, once you reach the top of the Himalayas, the fact that you have reached your goal takes so much supremacy, that you stop thinking about the obstacles that you encountered in the path. Now that I am here, I feel as if everything happened easily, and nothing seems to be difficult in the future. I believe my struggles have been the same as many others, I do not like glorifying myself, neither do I believe that I am the only person with problems in the world. I do recognise my achievement, yes, but I also believe that achieving success through immense struggle has a different ananda (excitement) to it all together (smiles).

AM: Did you feel that your struggles were more as compared to your colleagues?

MB: This comparison can be endless. How much every person is in distress or is struggling is difficult for just one individual to fathom. As I said, I don’t like to view myself in a glorified light. There are many people with more dukkho (sadness) in their life, as compared to me. Many people don’t have two legs or hands. There are bigger struggles in life, I don’t believe mine is the only one. Life is much bigger, and simpler.

AM: What motivated you to become an educator? Is there someone who inspired you to enter the profession?

MB: I never wanted to become an educator. In fact, when I became a teacher, I realised I shouldn’t be one. Daily teaching was just moonlighting for me, more of a ‘chalta hai‘ attitude. I wanted to remain in the creative world, I wanted to write. But I come from a very middle-class family, where not earning wasn’t an option for me. Life in the creative field is hard, there is very little money I could have earned by becoming a writer. Gradually, I think my ability to be creative sort of disappeared in this quagmire of work and earning money.

AM: Do you still write?

MB: Yes, I still do. But I am not just a writer. I also sing, dance, I am also an artist, I was also an actor. I was into many things, but somehow my job takes up most of my time now. If you aren’t from a strong financial background, it is difficult to follow your passion. That’s what happened with me, at least.

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Ankita from Youth Ki Awaaz with Manabi Bandhopadhyay

AM: You were a lecturer in Bengali before you became the Principal of Krishnanagar Women’s College. Did you also impart lessons in gender and sexuality in the classroom?

MB: Firstly, my PhD thesis itself was on the third gender in Bengali literature and society. So yes, I do engage in these questions often in the classroom and outside. The syllabus doesn’t restrict anyone. If you take a look at any literary work, it always has an element of gender to it. Be it Ramayana, which was Sita’s anguish, or the Mahabharata, which was Draupadi’s cry. Gender and the cry of a woman is always a linked aspect of literature.

AM: Do you think it’s difficult for members of the transgender community to get a job or reach the position you have reached?

MB: No, not at all. The West Bengal government provides equal opportunities to transgenders. But the problem is that the moment they ‘come out’, they immediately join a community. If they want to ‘come out’ and achieve something on their own, there isn’t any problem or barrier! In my time, there were more problems, but now I don’t see any. Family acceptance isn’t a factor in their development. Not at all. Yes, families are upset when one comes out as transgender, they are hurt initially. Family members always think that, “Oh, he/she is transgender, means they are a ‘hijra’. They will misbehave, they will be a nuisance, give abuses”. If the person decides to not take this route and comes out in a dignified manner with the characteristics of the gender they choose, it will help break stereotypes. I don’t see how families can have a problem with that.

I know many transgenders who are receiving an education in Kolkata, in fact, I personally know two people who have changed their sex and are now studying in college. What we need to understand is that when one sets out to do something, they can’t really be an example from the beginning itself. You set an example eventually. Now people look at me and take me as an example, but that’s not because of an ‘andolan‘, it’s because of the work I did in my life. The Himalayas didn’t rise up to set an ‘example’, they rose up because of tectonic plate movements.

AM: So you don’t believe in associating yourself with the ‘transgender’ community?

MB: By community, what I actually mean is “group”. “I am part of this group, that group”, is something I don’t believe in. That way, even women can one day get up and say, I belong to one particular group, all women belong to that particular group. But we can’t club all women under such a heading, can we? I don’t like being stuck in such a vortex. This type of bonding binds you in a community, from which it is difficult to get out of. For example, a napit (barber’s) son doesn’t have to be a barber. If he becomes a Professor of Economics, he anyways gets out of the community.

This does not mean in any way that I am against the LGBT movement. My name does get dragged many times into the movement, even though I am directly not a part of it, and I am not against that. It’s only because of these kinds of andolans that we have awareness about the rights of the LGBT community. But on a personal level, my own struggles took up all my time, I could never sit and think about joining a ‘group’ to voice my opinion. I never had time to do any ‘shauk‘ ki mazdoori (to follow my passion).

L to R Manabi Bandhopadhyay, J Devika and Sohini Ghosh at ILF Samanvay 2015
Manabi Bandhopadhyay, J Devika and Shohini Ghosh at ILF Samanvay, 2015

AM: Since you don’t identify yourself as within the transgender ‘community’, can it be said that you identify yourself as a woman?

MB: I am a woman. This whole debate about cleansing or purging a person from their ‘intersex’ or ‘transgender’ identity is baseless. In my mind, I think of myself as a woman, no one can ever ‘purge’ that from me. We have many double standards in our society. Once, a transgender friend of mine commented on a girl on her dressing sense. I told her, when you can do ‘anal sex’, then what is wrong with her wearing a short dress? I know my language will make people flinch. But what I wish to convey is that if we can talk about a penis on a transgender’s body, we should also not be ashamed by the term, ‘vagina’.

AM: What are your thoughts on the new policy unveiled by the Government of Kerala where they have enforced constitutional rights for transgenders? Do you think this model should be applied to all Indian states?

MB: Why just Kerala, even West Bengal has policies for transgenders. In fact, there is a Transgender development board there for welfare, something which even the Kerala government doesn’t have. We now have id’s for Transgenders – all these systems have come into place after the Trinamool Congress came into power. For a large part of my success, I am thankful to Mamata Banerjee. She is the one who has created opportunities for me. I got justice under her government, a lot of my benefits were stopped before she came to power. She made sure I got them back.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.”

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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.

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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
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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