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When Sanskrit Grammar Uses More Than 2 Genders, Why Can’t Indian Society Accept Trans People?

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The most prized possession of a human being is their identity. Their selfhood. Where they come from and where they are going. Though it might seem like a given in the 21st century, this basic need of being identified in a community one wants to be ascribed to is not privy to everyone. One of those groups is the LGBTQ community.

June is International Pride Month and I can’t help but wonder whether or not something has changed for the LGBTQ community through the years. I mean yes, several changes have happened.

It was only last year that the World Health Organisation declassified being trans as a mental illness. Gender incongruence was previously regarded as a psychological disorder. Internationally, the classification has been used to refute the identities and health needs of persons who belong to a different gender than the one they have been ascribed by the society or at birth.

It was also last year that India decriminalized homosexuality, as under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, an important step towards recognizing this long-fighting community’s inalienable rights.

During the 7th edition of Hijra Habba, a gathering of queer community and its supporters, at Select Citywalk, on September 11, 2018 in New Delhi, India. Hijra Habba is an annual gathering of the LGBTQI+ community and supporters with an aim to celebrate the being as well as talk about issues that plague them. Photo by Sarang Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

However, I must say that these steps—as progressive as they are—have come quite late. It was high time that a person’s right to self-identification, when it comes to their gender, started being taken seriously. The government and society may think that these steps help the LGBTQ community a lot, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The bigger problem that lies ahead is the prejudice faced by the LGBTQ community and the taboo that the topic of gender incongruence has become in society.

After declassifying gender incongruence, the WHO issued a statement saying that keeping it in the mental health chapter was causing stigma and confusion throughout the globe. The definition has changed, but the years of stigma remain,

Where did this stigma come from? Has it existed since the beginning of time? I personally think that one of the most significant factors of transphobia is how our society and its inhabitants are forgetting our roots. The gender incongruence and stigma against transgender people is quite common in the 21st century. But, if we take a look at the history of the Indian subcontinent, there is little evidence of violence or malice towards queerness, especially compared to the present scenario.

Kinnar or Hijra people, whom the government now refers to as “the third gender”, have historically been regarded as close to the gods in Indian mythology (I am deliberately not using the world Hindu Mythology because these rituals and names existed even before the word Hindu was coined).

In India, there has been a long-standing tradition of Kinnars coming to weddings or a child’s birth to offer blessings. In fact, they are given hefty amounts of money and a lot of ceremonial gifts because their stature is considered similar to God itself, and hence, their blessings are believed to be quite pure and effective. It is forbidden in the Hindu religion to abuse a Kinnar, let alone hurt them physically, for fear of incurring the wrath of the only one that matters to every Indian: God.

If we go further back and look at our epics, like “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata”, we come across numerous instances of “the third gender” holding a significant part of the story. It proves how they have not only been considered a normal part of ancient and medieval society but have also held an essential place in the epics, which are considered to be holy by a large portion of the Indian population.

A popular title from author, historian, and LGBTQ community member Devdutt Pattanaik which tells the story of Shikhandi in detail.

For instance, Shikhandi, a transgender person who was a woman reborn as a man, was considered the key to defeating the Kaurava army in “Mahabharata”, and held a special place in Krishna’s eyes.

Another example comes from the language of the gods itself. Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world, was used to write all major Hindu epics. Its grammar uses three genders: masculine, feminine, and gender-neutral. Trans-ness was clearly recognized in India’s past.

Lord Shiva manifests himself in a form called Ardhnarishivara—half man and half woman—which is worshipped all around India. Ardhnarishvara, as a figure, proves that fluid genders and sexualities have been an integral part of our culture.

Additionally, several minor tales of the LGBTQ community are prevalent as religious beliefs and urban legends alike. The story of Ila, a king cursed by Shiva and Parvati, to be gender fluid and alternate between being a man, and then a woman, each month, appears in several historic texts. Bahuchara Mata is the patron goddess of the Hijra community.

Having read many literary epics and different mythologies, I can go as far as to say that the extent to which the third gender has been represented in Indian mythology and the religious stories (an essential part of Indian culture) is unparalleled.

Though we can’t say with surety that this is an acclamation of the third gender by the Ancient Indian civilisation, it certainly means that there long has been recognition of gender(s) other than male and female in India.

Moral of the Story? We just need to return to our roots. Those who think that gender fluidity is against our culture and is a new fad, kindly pick up our epics and read them carefully. Otherwise, stop claiming that you’re working to preserve our culture, because it is your vague sense of our all-permeating and accepting culture which you are ultimately undermining here. Until you know all the facts, please reserve your judgement.

Let me be honest. I have no idea how a transgender person feels every day because I’m not one. But what I am is a writer, and I consider it my duty to not only write about issues important to society but research about them, in depth. In that respect I continuously try to understand why issues such as these take birth instead of diving face first into thinking how to eradicate the seeming problem.

I am not saying that’s what you should do, nor am I blaming anyone. However, perhaps we need to share some blame in sweeping yet another issue under the carpet instead of facing it in the eyes.

There’s an old saying that goes like this: The devil works by separating you from your loved ones and then taking you over to the darkness. Perhaps this rift between trans and cis people is nothing but a work of darkness trying to divide the community and spread chaos. Look carefully around you. Maybe the darkness is engulfing some of your friends. Try to be the light of their life. One moment of understanding from you can prove to be someone’s motivation to live.

Featured Image source: Getty Images. For representation only.
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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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