Trigger warnings: Rape, Military occupation, Transphobia
Even with Kashmir valley grappling with the fatal second wave of COVID, tourists poured into the region—sauntering through tulip gardens and honeymooning in Gulmarg’s snowy meadows. Meanwhile, the impact of surging tourists, state-imposed military lockdowns and the pandemic crippled the Kashmiri LGBTQ+ community in ways more than one—to which, the State and media paid little attention.
Dr. Aijaz Ahmad Bund, academician and founder of Sonzal Welfare Trust, a non-profit organization working towards the welfare of people belonging to minoritized genders and sexualities in Kashmir, notes that most trans people who were primarily employed as matchmakers, performers and entertainers in weddings have been rendered unemployed in the wake of the pandemic. “This is the third consecutive lockdown after the abrogation of 370,” Bund explains. “In a place like Kashmir, we are already marginalised. The pandemic has added another layer to our disenfranchisement.”
From Offline to Online
Sonzal, meaning rainbow in Koshur, is a non-governmental organisation that started as an individual initiative in 2011 with the aim of empowering the trans* community, and was formally registered as an non-governmental organisation only in 2017. “When we went to the police to file an FIR because a transgender person had been raped, the police refused to accept our complaint. That is when we realised we need to be officially registered to have credibility,” Bund says with an air of seriousness. Throughout its lifetime, Sonzal has worked towards creating safe spaces for the queer and trans* community in Kashmir. However, by virtue of being physical spaces, their services became largely unreachable over the course of multiple lockdowns in the past couple of years. “We had to move all our interventions from offline to online,” Bund continues.
Since Sonzal has shifted its operations to digital spaces, accessibility has become a roadblock in accessing their interventions. However, Bund confirms that Sonzal has been undertaking efforts to distribute ration and basic needs to the community through collaborations and sponsorships.
Describing the practice of safe spaces in Kashmir, Bund explains, “Safe space is an idea, not a random meeting. It has a therapeutic impact. We, at Sonzal, use various group work techniques because we believe that the journey to collective healing passes through collective grief. We share our stories, listen with empathy without being judgmental. We meet at public places, at our office and sometimes, we rent small spaces. However, we are asked to maintain a very low-profile. Our safe spaces are underground.”
On being asked how the community is navigating this sudden transition from offline to online, Bund says, “There has been a tremendous increase in cases of domestic violence. Lots of trans* persons have been forced into sex [work] without which they would have been pushed to starve. We receive calls for help everyday.”
Mental Health in Pandemic Times
Bund reports that the community’s mental well-being has taken a nosedive during the pandemic. “There has been an increase in the reports of depression and suicidal ideation.” Sonzal’s interventions: counselling, therapy, and building safe spaces have suffered significantly during the lockdowns. “We have not been able to conduct one-on-one sessions. People have not been able to connect with the larger community to instill a sense of belonging, which has been taking a toll on their mental health.”
Bund confides that LGBTQ+ persons from remote corners of Kashmir like Bandipora (≈65 kilometers from Srinagar) and border areas have been approaching Sonzal for help. “Yehi jo bhi hai, yehi sab kuch hai (whatever this is, this is all),” claims Bund. “This is what keeps us going.”
‘Aash: a ray of hope’ is Sonzal’s set of mental health interventions. It includes counselling, queer-affirmative therapy and group therapy services. “In my experience,” Bund says, “mental health remains an unattended issue. That is why, Sonzal’s goal was to prioritise mental health and make it accessible. We integrate our mental health interventions with our rehabilitation programs to encourage holistic psycho-social development.”
Queerness and Kashmiri Women
Despite overwhelming numbers of queer men and trans* folks working with Sonzal, Bund says that queer women hesitate to approach them for help. “Women are allowed limited mobility and agency. In a place like Kashmir, it is very difficult for queer women to navigate these socio-political barriers.”
Welfare and Documentation
Besides mental health interventions and socio-economic empowerment, Sonzal’s advocacy vertical has gained a lot of attention in Kashmir, with Bund raising multiple Public Interest Litigations (PILs) himself. Speaking of their recent PIL, they say, “We are pushing for relief and rehabilitation for the trans* community in Kashmir.”
When asked about the local government’s responsiveness in uplifting queer and trans* communities, Bund explains that the government has different priorities. “We have been demanding for the socio-political and economic empowerment of transgender persons in Kashmir since 2011 but our concerns have been systematically and institutionally sidelined. We have taken our demands to the State Civil Rights Commission, and then the High Court but nothing substantial has come out of it.”
In 2020, Administrative Council (AC) of Kashmir declared that transgender persons will be able to benefit from Integrated Social Security Scheme (ISSS). News reports indicate that it is a social security scheme, under which monthly financial assistance of Rs.1000 is provided to destitute, old people, widows, divorcees, orphans and orthopedically-challenged persons who either have a meagre income or no source of livelihood. However, Kashmir Despatch reported on July 10, 2021 that only 14 trans* persons had registered in the scheme until then and 1 and a half years later, none of them has received the pension they are entitled to.
“This pension scheme is the result of our prolonged fight in court. However, the benefits are yet to flow. Only this month, some have received their pension. But the question is: how many of them will? The process is so complex and cumbersome. Trans* persons have been asked to submit their legal documents which is impossible, since they have to go back home to do so. They have been disowned by their families. They have severed all ties. How will they avail benefits?”
“For the government, we do not exist. We are invisible. But our achievement is that people at least talk about our concerns now,” Bund concludes.
Negotiating the Indian State, Religion, Kashmiriyat and Queerness
On July 23, 2021, the Sonzal Instagram page posted the following quote:
“There is no queer liberation until all existing structures of oppression are dismantled. No one is free until all of us are free.”
Queer realities are complex and unique in themselves. What is, perhaps, normal for queer and trans* folks in parts of India that are not conflict zones are alien to the LGBTQ+ community in Kashmir. Be it using dating apps or finding spaces to be themselves on the internet—Kashmiri trans* and queer folks experience oppression in multiple layers: at the hand of the State, the majority, the cis-het and finally, patriarchy.
Bund says that by virtue of living in a conflict zone, one does not necessarily become immune to witnessing and experiencing violence. “These experiences do not discriminate between a heterosexual person and a queer person. One can be incarcerated anytime.”
The abrogation of 370 was lauded by the mainstream, specifically right-leaning media, for bringing azaadi to the queer community in Kashmir. Bund laughs: “A biased narrative has been fed to people saying that abrogation of 370 has liberated the queer community but it is not true at all. It has further marginalised us. Our identity as Kashmiris is jeopardised. Therefore, other identities that are associated with us are also in danger.”
According to Bund, Kashmir is a homosocial society. “It is acceptable to place your hand on your friend’s thigh or to walk down the street holding each other’s hands. Our culture has a history of men dressing as women to perform. However, just like the rest of South Asia, gender roles are rigid and if transgressed, leads to violence.”
Elaborating on Aash, Bund notes, “We meet a lot of people who are not able to reconcile between sexuality and religion. We counsel such people, and also their families—so they can cope with the queerness of their children, siblings and family members.” They say that Muslim festivals like Eid are celebrated with family and when one is not accepted by their family and made to choose between their identity and faith, festivals can become a lonely, guilty and isolated time. “Faith is personal,” Bund confesses, “I don’t know how people negotiate faith and identity in their personal lives but some do find a way to co-exist somewhere between the two. Moreover, new research and novel interpretations of the Holy Qur’an claim that Islam does not actually proscribe queerness. But as a Muslim queer person, I can confirm that it affects every aspect of your life. Islam is a way of life. ”
COVID and Vaccine Hesitancy
Dr Aqsa Shaikh, India’s first and only trans woman serving as a nodal officer at a vaccination centre believes that vaccine hesitancy is the first and the tallest hurdle between an Indian trans person and their two doses. According to reports, only 11.45% of the total transgender population has been vaccinated and these low numbers can be attributed primarily to the community’s traumatic interactions with insensitive healthcare professionals.
Bund’s comments echo similar concerns. They say, “Going to the vaccination centre is a matter of privilege.” Compounded by misinformation and fear of abuse, Sonzal had filed for an exclusive vaccination drive for trans* persons in Kashmir. However, the turnout was dismal. “There have been various incentives for communities whose livelihoods have been disrupted but no targeted efforts have been taken for the transgender community.”
Sitting at the precarious nexus of religious and sexual marginalisation compounded by decades of political instability and conflict, Kashmiri LGBTQ+ community experiences trauma like no other. Even though Dr. Aijaz Ahmad Bund’s Sonzal Welfare Trust is committed to bringing a new wave in the region, bringing change is a formidable task without State support. Until then, click here to support Sonzal.
Commenting on Pride, Bund says: “Pride is an essential part of anyone who identifies as queer. Pride means visibility. Pride means existence. But Kashmir is not in the position to celebrate Pride openly. Maybe we will take ten more years but Pride is very close to our hearts.”