Srinagar, Kashmir administered by India – For Sweety, 36, being a transgender woman “is a curse.”
Hailing from a remote village in the Budgam district of Kashmir, administered by India, Sweety was about twenty years old when she realized she was transgender.
At the time, defending the life of a transgender was not an easy decision in a conservative place. But, being the youngest child of his parents and “the most beloved”, his gender did not invite problems initially.
However, his fate did not last long. In 2016, Sweety lost her parents within four months.
With the coronavirus pandemic forcing people inside, social gatherings in the LGBTQ community have also come to a halt. But the home is not a safe place for the marginalized community.
‘He was asked to leave home’
In a desperate offer on a March day this year, Sweety ventured to meet her friend in the neighborhood.
“When I got home after the meeting, my brother slapped me. I drowned, I felt out of breath. He tied my legs and then started hitting me in the feet with a stick, ”he said.
“Even the children in the house started crying. It stopped only when my sister-in-law intervened. My belongings were evicted and I was asked to leave the house. “
Abandoned by her older brother, “presumably to maintain her social status,” she said, Sweety has been living independently and managing odds, facing all opponents.
“For my family, my existence is a curse. They want me dead as soon as possible, as they consider me a social responsibility, ”he told Al Jazeera as he prepared food in a dimly lit room.
Sweety said she was hit so severely that she could not walk properly for weeks.
With movement restrictions and social gatherings, LGBTQ residents in the region have been forced to live with hostile family members who often subject them to all forms of abuse.
The abuses worsened during the series of blockades
The problem has been exacerbated by a long period of blockades in Kashmir, which began in August 2019, when the Indian government rejected the special status of the region.
The six-month security shutdown was quickly followed by the COVID-19 pandemic that erupted in March last year. This year, a second bloody wave of the virus saw another long blockade in the quiet region.
According to the 2011 census, there are more than 4,000 LGBTQ members in the region, although the number could be higher, as many are believed to be reluctant to express their sexual orientation.
Community members say the closures experienced an increase in violence and persecution against them, with many stories of domestic abuse emerging from the region.
A protracted conflict over Indian rule has also overshadowed their situation, many of them abandoned by their families and subjected to physical, verbal and sexual violence.
They say they often receive pornographic videos, unsolicited photos of sexual organs, text messages from strangers demanding sex, and obscure phone calls. They are also threatened with making their identities and photographs public on social media.
“My family tried to burn me”
Hibba, 28, from the main city of Srinagar, identifies as a butcher lesbian. He said he was “subjected to the worst form of mental and physical torture” by his family, which “increased variety during closure.”
He said he was ruthlessly beaten and often locked in a room without food.
“My family tried to burn me. They put hot spoons on my body, ”he said.
“Sometimes I want to end my life, I want to bury my existence. Perhaps the wounds would heal, but the blows to the soul and mind will never heal. I already have three dead parts and I would like this torture to put an end to my suffering for good. “
Hibba said he tried to commit suicide several times, but that he would “miraculously survive.”
Hibba said the situation was made worse by the impossibility of meeting his partner during the closures. “If I could know her, I wouldn’t have faced all the abuse,” she said.
Aijaz Bund, the first and perhaps the only LGBTQ activist in Kashmir, said there has been an exponential increase in violence perpetrated against the community since the first closure in 2019.
“LGBTQ + people in Kashmir have always faced violence, but in normal times they have at least had a temporary flight of families. They used to go out to work, and so on. “, he said.
“But over the last two years, they have been forced to live with abuse almost 24 × 7.”
The Bund’s non-profit organization, Sonzal Welfare Trust, is dedicated to the welfare of the LGBTQ community in the Muslim-majority region. He says the number of distress calls increased since the blockades.
“We would normally receive two or three distress calls a month, but currently the number of calls exceeds 200,” he said.
Last year, the region’s administration announced a pension plan under which every transgender person was entitled to 1,000 rupees ($ 14) each month.
But the policy has yet to be implemented on the ground, and many also question whether the amount is enough to survive for a month.
NGOs working for the community are scarce, while Kashmiri activists, who fear a social backlash, do not speak for their rights.
In this situation, there are LGBTQ people who have gained the acceptance of their families. Muskaan is one of them.
For the 26-year-old transgender, things changed when apple crops, her family’s main source of income, were destroyed for three consecutive years by plagues and hail storms.
“Now everyone respects her”
As the family took away the hardship and debt, Muskaan in 2017 decided to take control of the situation.
“When we were almost out of food, I went into the pairing. I would also sing and dance at weddings for money, ”he said.
“When I came home with money in my hand, the violence perpetrated by my family stopped completely. I soon started making all the family decisions. ”
From his obligation to leave school after facing bullying and abuse by other students, Muskaan had come a long way. He began traveling extensively throughout the region to look for possible boyfriends for families looking for a party.
“For parents, all children are equal and we love them equally. Initially, I was afraid of the reaction of neighbors and relatives and I took her to the healers, ”Hajira, Muskaan’s mother, told Al Jazeera.
“But the way Muskaan has taken on the role of breadwinner for the family, now everyone respects her. Her gender was God’s will and I can’t reject being a mother. “
But Muskaan again faced a crisis in April this year, when the region underwent a new closure and marriages stopped. He did not lose his job while all his savings were consumed.
“We were on the brink of starvation. The weddings were postponed and I had to look for another source of livelihood, ”he told Al Jazeera.
She now works as a miner who manually extracts sand, stones and other minerals from the bed of the Veshow River next to her village Yaroo in Kulgam, about 80 km (50 miles) from Srinagar.
“It simply came to our notice then. My body is not made for that. I have to work 10 hours a day under the scorching heat to make about 1,400 rupees [$19]”She said, adding that work was the only way to make sure her family didn’t abuse her.
New Delhi-based sociologist Adfar Shah told Al Jazeera that being an LGBTQ person in Kashmir “is hell.”
“We are blindly discriminating against these people and labeling them as sexual diversions, evil and unwanted entities,” he said.
Islamic scholar Maulana Bilal Ahmad Qasmi told Al Jazeera that Islam does not discriminate on the grounds of gender.
“In Islam, trans people have the same rights as other genders, but it is unfortunate that these people have to deal with abuse of all kinds at the hands of the family and society at large,” he said.