Saturday, August 22, 2015

On wings of desire!

Insight, Happenings, Aug '15
Pawan Dhall, Kaustav Manna and Drake Fort take a look at some out-of-the-box initiatives to promote greater understanding of transgender identities and rights

An artist from Amitie' Trust interacts with children during the
art workshop in Peyarabagan. Photo credit: CWF
Kolkata / New Delhi, April-June 2015: Childhood is supposed to be full of happy, carefree moments. But most children in the Peyarabagan slums of northern Kolkata learn to deal with the harsh realities of earning their daily bread early on in life. The morning of April 25, 2015 though might have been pleasantly different for them, when NGOs Civilian Welfare Foundation (CWF) and Child Relief and You (CRY) joined hands with transgender members of Amitie’ Trust to organize an event called ‘Ichchedana – Wings of Desire’ in Peyarabagan. About 150 children participated in the event, many of them school drop-outs; also involved were 20 school teachers with whom CWF aimed to link up the drop-outs.

Peyarabagan is said to be among the largest slums in Asia, and according to Suchandra Ganguly, Co-founder, CWF, it has one of the highest rates of child labour in Kolkata. The child labourers here have extensive working hours and are exposed to several environmental hazards. There is little time for studies or rest and recreation, and this is true of not just older children but even those no older than 10-12 years. Thus one of the objectives of ‘Ichchedana’ was to encourage the children to dream again and to awaken in them a desire to pursue something that would help them find a way out of exploitation.

An art workshop was organized in which the children were asked what their dreams were. Instead of verbalizing their dreams, they were asked to paint them! This not only brought out colourful visualizations, it also allowed the children to reflect on their inner creativity and revealed considerable skills among the children. What made the workshop even more innovative was the subtle focus on gender diversity sensitization. All the artists who conducted the workshop were transgender.

It's back to school for Aparna Banerjee of
Amitie' Trust and Avik Ghosh of CWF!
Photo credit: CWF
During the workshop, the children sometimes addressed the artists as 'sir', at other times as 'ma’am', and yet other times as just 'eije' (a gender neutral term in Bengali). One of the students giggled a lot looking at one of the transgender artists. When asked why, the reply was that the artist looked funny. The artist responded in a light vein that the student’s drawing looked funny too. This helped create an air of playfulness, which was used to dispel negative connotations around the notion of being ‘different’.

Aparna Banerjee, Managing Trustee, Amitie’ Trust felt that children were the ones who were most open to learning. Thus what better age to inculcate values of tolerance and acceptance than the formative years? She added: “There comes an age when we learn to differentiate between genders and our inclusiveness is lost. If everyone would have been as inclusive and accepting as such children, wouldn’t society be much more tolerant, compassionate and beautiful?” In fact, for the majority of the children in the event it seemed to make no difference if their teachers were men, women or transgender, their intelligence, street smartness and maturity belying their years.

'Ichchedana' organizers and volunteers
Photo credit: CWF
The art workshop was accompanied with a variety of other activities like magic shows, ventriloquism, and dance performances by a professional troupe as well as the children from Peyarabagan. In one of the events, a boy was dressed up as a girl for a dance performance. Other than a few taunts, there was major applause and cheer from the audience. Even the parents were quite comfortable with seeing their children having fun with the transgender artists. The organizers were even forced to extend the event on popular demand.

In Suchandra Ganguly’s words, “The event was a success as could be seen in the children’s smiles at the end of the day. It was amazing to see the inclusiveness and acceptance in the children despite the harsh and poor conditions they grew up in.”

Around 350 people participated in the '3rd National Hijra
Habba Event' in Delhi. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall 
Cut from the humble environs of Peyarabagan to the swank banquets of Hotel Eros in New Delhi – for the ‘3rd National Hijra Habba Event’ on June 30, 2015. Around 350 people from across India, a majority of them Hijras and other trans women associated with community-based organizations, were gathered for an annual networking and advocacy event that had its origins in the very first Hijra habba (festival) organized in Bangalore in 2002.

Organized by India HIV/AIDS Alliance and its partners as part of Pehchan programme, a Global Fund supported HIV programme that strengthens MSM, transgender and Hijra community systems, the New Delhi event would have been another mundane and expensive ‘consultation’ but for some powerful speeches and testimonies by trans activists, the presence of key political leaders and film artists, and enjoyable performances by the Dancing Queens group from Mumbai.

From left to right: MP J. D. Salem, politician Swami Agnivesh, MP Tiruchi
Siva, transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, advocate Tripti Tandon
and actor Monica Dogra at the Hijra Habba. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Among the most popular speakers at the event was Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Member of Parliament (MP) Tiruchi Siva, the architect of the much celebrated private member’s bill on transgender rights that was passed in the Rajya Sabha on April 24, 2015. This was the first time in more than 40 years that a private member’s bill was passed by the Upper House of the Parliament. More importantly, The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill 2014 sought to translate into action the Supreme Court of India judgment of April 2014 on transgender identities and rights, and prompted the Government of India to declare that it would soon table a fresh, improved bill along similar lines for discussion in the Parliament.

Transgender activist Abhina Aher with her
mother Mangla Aher. "We were estranged
for a long time. Then my mother said, I held
your hand when you were born, I'm not letting
it go now!" says Abhina Aher. They went on
to form and perform together for the Dancing
Queens troupe. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
Tiruchi Siva explained in detail the background to the bill he drafted, and received a standing ovation when he called upon the other speakers and the audience to together build pressure on the government through the MPs and media in their cities and districts – to ensure that the government kept its word on enacting a legislation on transgender identities and rights. Minister for Social Justice & Empowerment Thaawar Chand Gehlot, who was present for a short while, assured the participants: “Our sanskriti and Constitution both speak of human equality and the government too is committed to upholding transgender rights.”

Politicians of many hues present at the event all made similar remarks. But, given the current political standoff and logjam in the Parliament, their statements have begun to sound like platitudes. This even as confusion around how the Supreme Court judgment should be interpreted and implemented continues to fester. Advocate Tripti Tandon pointed out one of the paradoxes in the judgment, which upheld the right to gender self-determination but then also mentioned the need for ‘certification’ of a person’s gender by a government authority. She argued that this was a conflict of ideas and a certification or screening by a government authority made sense only if it was to determine a transgender person’s neediness for socio-economic support. Other activists also argued that, as seen in Tamil Nadu, a certification authority couldn’t be relied upon to arrive at unbiased decisions on gender determination.

Yet, away from the podium speeches, it turned out that gender screening committees seemed to be already in place in states like Bihar. On the other hand, trans women leaders from Odisha informed that the state government had recently clubbed together transgender persons, people with disabilities and the aged under a single welfare department. There were concerns that such an approach would be detrimental to each of the social groups concerned, and create confusion in ground-level implementation of programmes.

Akkai Padmashali (second from left) with her colleagues at
the Hijra Habba. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall 
While Bollywood choreographer Sandip Soparrkar sounded upbeat about involving transgender persons in his dance ventures, filmmaker Onir spoke how it was still a challenge to distribute films on queer inclusive issues in India. He said even big international distribution companies in the country betrayed hypocrisy when they said that they didn’t what to focus on ‘sexuality and violence’! Thanking NGOs like Humsafar Trust, India HIV/AIDS Alliance and Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India (SAATHII) for support in financing and screening his films, Onir said strategies were needed to see how queer inclusive films could reach wider audiences.

The most hard-hitting comment came from well-known queer activist Akkai Padmashali from Karnataka: “I’m happy to see that the Hijra habba has reached Delhi, the capital of India, from Bangalore where it was first organized in 2002. But all is not good. In spite of the Supreme Court judgment on transgender rights, there’s no political will to implement the judgment. Recently 47 Hijras were harassed by the police in Karnataka, and in this state no trans-friendly policies have been implemented so far. To make matters worse, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is still in place. I don’t find this acceptable at all. As a woman born without a vagina and uterus, my challenge against patriarchy has to continue!” Spoken like someone who has clearly taken off on a sturdy pair of wings of desire.

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

Kaustav Manna, a graduate in psychology, is a photography enthusiast and freelance writer.

Drake Fort is an engineering student trying to pack in Pokemon training, gadgets, activism, love for nature, parkour and more in 24 hours!

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