In Depth

The cross-dresser who became a deserter: The story of Shabnam Subhan

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As part two of a series of stories on the plight of the third gender in Kashmir, the tale of Shabnam Subhan is quite telling. As a fresh-faced teenager, when he started dressing like a woman, he became a subject of scorn. Later, a sense of societal abandonment compelled ‘her’ to run away from home. That moment became a turning point in the deserter’s life whose cross-dressing ways had come under sharp scrutiny.

When Shabnam Subhan decided to become a deserter in his teens, he was deplored as a “drag queen on a wild run”.

But hardly anyone cared to know how he was running from the brickbats thrown at him after hitting puberty.

That emotionally turbulent stage revealed him to be a different gender, whose mannerism had become some kind of a spectacle.

At times, the feeling of being different would leave her mind-numb. There was no one around, Subhan says, to share her sorrow—her “burdened heart”—until, one day, she found her tribe, roaming in loose numbers, on the streets of Srinagar.

It was her tribe, she realized, and instantly made up her mind to join them, sooner or later.

Like her, they were extremely fond of dressing in beautiful dresses. But the immediate society, she says, was hostile towards cross-dressers.

Finally, when Subhan couldn’t take the brickbats thrown at her cross-dressing characteristic, she deserted her home, and decided to build a new world, elsewhere, away from taunts and ill-treatment.

FPK Photo/Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

Today, many summers later, all those trysts have long passed as a violent storm in her life. But a trail of mental wreck created by it, she says, is still there — haunting her, even in her sleep.

Away from home, Subhan’s angst of being different had forced her to take refuge in the age-old profession of her tribe—matchmaking—for survival.

In front of a mirror, she would dress herself like a bride, before stepping out in the ‘brazen world’ for work.

ALSO READ: Pictures of abandoned elderly person on footpath raises concerns about need of shelter homes in Kashmir

As such, third genders in Kashmir wear simple Khan dress, a combination of a South Asian kurtapajama, and restrict their use of ornamental dresses for special occasions such as weddings where they perform as singers and dancers.

But Subhan is very particular about her appearance.

“I’m physically a boy but mentally I’m a girl,” Subhan voices the familiar view of her tribe. “I’ve girlish fantasies, and the aspirations of any girl of my age.”

But despite dressing and applying makeup, Subhan’s community, she asserts, strictly adheres to the Islamic belief and views faith as something that they cannot do without.

FPK Photo/Mir Yasir Mukhtar

And therefore, the gender reassignment procedures are almost never considered, since their Islamic faith prohibits it by traditional interpreters of Sharia.

“None of us ever considered sex reassignment, and that is only because it’s prohibited in our culture and our religion, Islam,” Subhan says. “But somehow it always strikes me as brutal and cruel that we are considered as those who cannot have a religion. We’re never welcomed in the mosques, neither at the shrines.”

ALSO READ: From Mohsin to Mohsina: The struggle of a teenage transgender from Kashmir

Third gender community, continues Subhan, are even denied space in graveyards.

They don’t have a separate burial space, she says, to accommodate the 4,000 trans-people across the valley. “Our death remains the least mourned affair,” she rues.

As Subhan tries to make sense of this disparity, she says: “All of us get old and are destined to die one day. Where exactly are we supposed to find a final resting place when they deny us a place after death?”

The recent ratification of Section 377 of the Indian Constitution, an act that criminalized homosexuality, was something that Kashmiri transgenders did not feel needed to be revoked because, as Shabnam says, ‘to choose a male partner is not something that we prefer’.

“Society would not accept us in such a case, and the minimal degree of acceptance we are offered in society nowadays would be withdrawn then,” she makes no bones about the conventional notion.

ALSO READ: The Third Gender: ‘Victims of institutional injustice of the state’

“And who would want to be alienated by their own community? I know that I wouldn’t, especially with how marginalized we people are!”

This sense of marginalization makes most of them believe that they brave a “social apartheid”.

“It’s heartbreaking that we’re being perceived as untouchables, and treated as social outcastes,” Subhan laments. “All we want is respect and fair treatment as human beings.”

FPK Photo/Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

In the backdrop of unaddressed abuse, however, Subhan ponders, “who would you fight, and how many people would you fight? Over time, we’ve just learned to let go, and keep to ourselves as much as possible.”

Since many refuse to be sensitized towards the third gender, it adds yet another problematic layer to a society coping with ongoing and unresolved conflict, heavy militarization, routine state violence and civilian killings.

“I think the will of our Creator is frowning upon the abject state that society has left us in,” Shabnam says. “It is HE who has made us like this. We did not have any hand in it. We did not choose it. I mean, who would choose a life of scorn and abandonment? We do not deserve to be shunned. Instead, we deserve to be accepted just like everyone else.”

The woebegone community members often raises and discusses these matters at Dalgate, Srinagar, at the residence of Mohammad Aslam Babloo, a senior member of an unofficial transgender association.

But Babloo, who’s hosting and serving ‘her’ bias-beaten community, is another story of silver-lining.

 To be continued…


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