It started when Zubairiya realized just how pretty her mother and sister were. She remembers it clearly, though she was just three years old.
I saw my sisters getting ready, dressing and putting their makeup on. I saw my mother doing this. They looked so beautiful.
She wanted to try it out – at least once. Once soon became twice.
I started to feel like a lady. Gradually, it became a habit. I became a better woman than most women. Family members began to tease me, saying I looked like a Hijra. They told me to take off those clothes. But I felt better in those clothes. I try to wear them everyday.
That was when she started secretly dressing as a woman. In her large, extended Muslim family, she managed to find something she could call her own – her changing identity.
Zubairiya is the 16th son in her household. She has 15 brothers, 17 sisters, three mothers and one father – who is 95. When she was just one in 36, could she have felt the need to be different?
Deciphering transgender identity
Gender dysphoria is the distress one feels when the gender you’re assigned or born with isn’t the one you identify as. Also known as gender identity disorder (GID) it’s labelled as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For a while now, trans activists have opposed its inclusion as such, arguing that it further stigmatizes the transgender condition by applying a label to them – mentally disordered. Psychologists argue that it needs to stay – the key being the word dysphoria, the distress that comes with feeling different.
In India, there’s often little cognition of alternative gender options. You’re either male, female or Hijra – and the last one comes with connotations, but one that transwomen like Zubairiya seem to self-apply.
Hijras stay together, have their own hierarchy and ways of doing things – and an aura of fear surrounds their activities. Zubairiya feared nothing. When she first met her ‘guru’, she was taken under the fold of the area’s Havelli – an ancient building where a community of Muslim Hijras resides. It’s where Zubairiya lives the other part of her double life.
By day, she works in a shoe shop nearby, bringing some income back to her family. When she gets breaks, for namaaz or lunch, she heads for the Havelli – where she is employed as a cook. She can change her clothes, and adopt the mannerisms that make her a transwoman. Within its walls, she can sing, dance, dress up and be in the company of her peers. But before it gets too late, she has to return home – and become a boy again.
Sex and the cityZubairiya started having unprotected sex when she was 12. She saw Farhan while she was begging in the local train. He was 19.
The first time, it was painful… I liked a boy – and I wanted him. Why do boys go after girls? For sex. The same thing, I wanted, but with a boy.
He glanced at her and gave her the ‘hishara’ – a sign of romantic interest.
He asked for my address. I gave it to him. Later, he came home. The first time, we just spoke. The second time, we started getting physical. He told me he loved me. Then we had sex, and he left… In our love, I used to call him Monty.
Zubairiya is 18 now, and her parents want her to get married – to a girl. She’s already made her plan – make an excuse to visit Dubai once the wedding bells start to ring – and delay, delay, delay.
Farhan was not the only love interest. Zubairiya had other boyfriends – One in Kuwait, one in London.
Money has become tight at the Havelli. Hijras usually earn their living through dance performances at weddings and festivals. Zubairiya says the best dancers can earn up to Rs. 40,000 (£500) a show.
When these events don’t make ends meet, the Hijras solicit their sexual services. Apparently, there are lots of takers. Zubairiya says whatever money she’s made; she’s given half to her Guru. But that nobody ever pushes her to pay.
We do prostitution, but secretly … Some people are Behurupiya – fake hijras – who beg for money in trains, and they lift their sarees and flash people. We don’t do this. We do prostitution secretly, and we take permission from our Guru.
There’s an underlying risk here – HIV has a high chance of being transmitted through unprotected anal sex. Between a quarter to a half of Hijras in India have the HIV virus, according to a United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) report. But Zubairiya shakes her head in denial; nobody in her Havelli has AIDS, she says. “We take aloe vera as a form of protection, and a doctor checks us regularly”, she says.
The road to NirvanaThe highlight of any new recruit to the Havelli is their Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS). Getting one raises your position in the hierarchy of Hijras. The operation alone costs 1.5 lakhs (£1500) – but Zubairiya is confident of getting it. The Havelli splits half the cost with her, and she has to pay it back to the Havelli over a period of time by offering her services – begging and prostitution. Though the operation is part of Zubairiya’s ascension to womanhood (known as ‘Nirvan’ to the community) it isn’t always performed in sterile hospital rooms.
Once Zubairiya takes the leap, she’ll have to tell her family. So far, besides her brother, nobody knows about her double life.
I will tell my parents that I don’t want to stay with them anymore. That I’ll go stay with the Hijras. If they accept who I am, then I’ll stay. If not, they’ll kill me. Now, they don’t know. They are not the cruel type to kill me. I hope as much. I hope they won’t kill me. If the situation still escalates – I’ll run away.
Zubairiya has experienced what it’s like to be part of India’s third gender – the humiliation, public shaming and sense of isolation. But all she wants is to be accepted for who she is. She has her doubts about the future – every day – but her primary worry is how her parents will react.
She didn’t want her face to be shown for the interview for the sake of her anonymity. But she showed us what she looks like in a sari, worn after years of practice. She shouldn’t have to hide anymore.
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