Inequality exists everywhere, not more so, than right here in Calcutta. There’s rich and poor, there’s the educated and the not, there’s man and woman. In every walk of life, for every step I take outside of my front door, I am confronted by a different reality where everyone certainly is not born equal.
But we all have somewhere to go, people who can help us, rights which would stand up in court, I was told the other day. If you are a man and you’re being denied a place in a hospital you can complain. If you are a woman and you are being denied a driving licence, you can complain. If you are of a third gender and you have been raped, you cannot complain. Who will you complain to?
As I travel in my comfortable air-conditioned vehicle, towards the many malls the city has, I notice the huge amount of people who are not actually travelling anywhere, yet are still on the road. I notice men selling peanuts, blinds for car windows, random red blankets and chewing tobacco. I see women begging, old and hunch-backed, leaning on a stick. I see women begging with a baby precariously balanced on their hips and I see a third kind…clapping, demanding, tapping on my window. I ignore them all but the third kind are the most persistent; calling out to me, cajoling and then insulting in the same breath; “Pretty Didi, go on, surely you can spare some change.” And then, “tight-arse stuck-up bitch!”
I’m intrigued by this, slightly amused so I look back but she has moved on to another car. This time the window is wound down and a hand holds out a ten-rupee note. I wonder why. I’ve heard stories told of the third gender, or ‘hijra’, as they are popularly known here. They can bless your new-born, your home and your business. Spurn them, however and they will curse you. And as everyone knows, around here, you do not want a hijra’s curse upon you. Stories are handed down through myth and superstition and capitalized fully by some of the ‘hijra community’. What else can they do? Getting a job when you’re seen as ‘different’ is not easy anywhere, especially when you dropped out of school because of abusive peers and teachers with little sympathy.
I compare the hijra’s situation to the standing of the transgender community in the UK. Over there, equality is the buzzword. I suppose everything else has been taken care of, such as food, health and education. Every child, no matter what their preference of clothing will be given an education and parents will be prosecuted if found guilty of abuse. The United Kingdom is such a small place, almost totally homogenized from coast to coast, like a bottle of delicious multi-flavoured milk; everyone seems to know their rights and know what is and isn’t acceptable. Every child has a right to a loving home and a good education. It is not acceptable to mistreat anyone…ANYONE! There may be pockets of the country where people are still discriminated against, for almost anything especially the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation, but by and large, it’s a safe place to grow up.
Here, on the other hand, I learn from Ranjita, who runs a Community Based Organisation (CBO) called, Gokhale Road Bandhan, that not all children in West Bengal share the same rights as in other parts of the world. Her organisation is primarily working with HIV intervention amongst the people of the community. They are THE go-to organisation for the MTH community (Men who have sex with men, Transgenders and Hijras), I learn. However they do a vast amount of work just sensitising the population who are not so aware of the possibility of all grey tones in our lives. Ranjita also runs the network, Association of Transgender/Hijra in Bengal(ATHB), which is the first registered network in the country to focus exclusively with the issues of the transgender and hijra community. Currently there are twelve CBOs who are the partners and associates of ATHB and located at various districts of West Bengal.
Ranjita, a transgender herself, lives with her partner and works, literally 24/7 for the cause. The other day she received a call from a distraught teenager who was having his hair forcibly cut off because his father wanted him to be more masculine. Late at night, the child was screaming down the phone as Ranjita could only listen helplessly, but for some, that is all that is needed. She tells me, as she serves me fresh lemonade and a bowl of spicy pasta, that the transgender community is not so badly off in the metropolises. Exposure is high and life is relatively simple, though hard. However, jobs and health treatment are harder to come by; one must be manly if you are male and one must be a woman if one is feminine. There can be no blurring of the lines. She wants the MTH community to be visible, accepted and given the same rights as everyone else.
Recently the Supreme Court of India ruled that the third gender be legally recognised. It has directed the government to provide equal opportunities to the socially and economically deprived transgender population, including that of health care. Getting a driving license, however is much more of a challenge, according to Ranjita. She does not want to be issued a licence saying she is male, because, in her mind, she is not, so she sits at home with a shiny new car unable to legally drive it. Bigger issues include adoption, getting a loan, separate washroom facilities and hospital wards…where do you go if you’re not actually acknowledged for who you are? The paper work Ranjita, is told, has not quite caught up with the law and society as a whole, which leaves the transgender community in a bit of a quandary.
Meanwhile, out in the villages of West Bengal, things are worse; a fourteen year-old boy is sexually abused and tortured for being effeminate. Children as young as eight or nine, are being castrated by ‘quacks’, unqualified surgeons, so they might be initiated into the ‘hijra community’for pursuing the ‘hijra profession’, whether or not they actually choose it. Castration is not something all transgenders seek, yet are sometimes forced into it at an early age because in many cases they have been trafficked by gangsand forced into the sex trade.
Ranjita also mentions that even today, after the Supreme Court Order giving recognition to the third gender, there is not much of scope for those in the transgender community of finding a job in the mainstream workplace, so in order to ensure survival they are forced to get into the sex industry. She also adds that most of the community based projects are intervention based and primarily aimed at, and used as a tool to, fight contamination of HIV/AIDS etc. But there is also a need to have projects, which are income generating from where the people belonging to the third gender can earn some money.
The problem lies in the lack of exposure and education, I think. It’s also a lack of empathy and the ability to see people for who they really are, rather what their genitalia says they are. However the world is getting smaller. Every day one is learning something new. I know a few people who will read this and will still be scratching their heads…surely you’re either a man or a woman, everything else is just a choice.
You do not get to choose who you fall in love with, you do not get to choose who you are. We’re all born with a certain longing to belong…that is the only thing that makes me the same as you. It is about time people saw people as people. I’m sick of labels…I’m sick of the world dishing out more to the people who have had it easy their whole lives and taking away, from the people who have everything to lose, on a daily basis. I think poverty is also to blame. People can’t fill their bellies here, let alone care about the Supreme Court’s ruling on a bunch of ‘messed up lady boys’. I’m not sure what the solution is, except education. Throw away the superstition. Throw away the stigma. Start giving people the tools to compete with the rest of the world, because when I look around this vast country and overcrowded city, I see a world as was, 200 years ago.
Success and progress is not measured by how tall your buildings are, it’s measured by whether EVERYONE can say they are healthy and happy and free to be who they want to be.