Life

Trans people in Kashmir have long gained acceptance as matchmakers. Now their jobs are in danger.

Shabnum Subhan at her residence in downtown Srinagar.
Shabnum Subhan at her residence in downtown Srinagar.Photo: Kamran Yousuf

Shabnum Subhan’s house is tucked in the bylanes of Srinagar’s downtown, the most densely populated area of Kashmir’s capital city. In the three-story house, 44-year-old Subhan, who is transgender, is getting ready to visit the house of a prospective groom. While applying kohl in her eyes, she relays how she has been struggling to find work in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. 

Most transgender people like Subhan rely on matchmaking and performing at weddings to earn a living. They are popularly known as menzimyeors (a Kashmiri word for matchmakers). The role of transgender people as matchmakers has ancient roots in the region and likely formed from the absence of other steady jobs. 

But Subhan tells LGBTQ Nation that the growing popularity of online dating and the mushrooming of local bands has made it difficult for them to earn their living. Now, the trans community in Kashmir is simultaneously fighting a rise in anti-trans discrimination while also dealing with the fact that their income sources are drying up.

Kashmir is a conservative society, but transgender people have gained social acceptance as matchmakers for decades. They are treated with great respect at the weddings they help arrange. From the time when the marriage is fixed to the end of all the ceremonies, the matchmaker plays a pivotal role. 

“We are a part of Kashmiri culture but people are now giving preference to modernity over traditions. I don’t even know where to begin with my problems,” exclaims Subhan.

Unlike in Kashmir, transgender people in Delhi and other parts of India go in toli-badhai (groups) and ask for money and food. It is a custom in which the community members pay visits to homes on occasions of childbirth and weddings and ask for money in return. In the absence of such traditions in Kashmir, the trans community must cling to whatever resources they are now left with. Kashmir finds itself quite frequently in the headlines, but barely ever for the deteriorating conditions of this minority community. 

There is no recent data on the number of transgender people in Kashmir, but the 2011 census found there were more than 4,000 trans people there.

Kashmir is a conflict-ridden region. It has been at the center of tensions between India and Pakistan since both states came into existence in 1947. In August 2019, the Muslim-majority region was broken up into two federal territories as the Indian government revoked the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over this scenic region since their independence from British rule in 1947. 

Amidst the turmoil, the invisibilization of trans people has inflicted great suffering on the community. 

The last threads of hope

Mehak Mir at her residence in Habba Kadal, Srinagar
Trans activist and former wedding singer Mehak Mir at her residence in Habba Kadal, Srinagar. Kamran Yousuf

Subhan stacks a neat notebook in her sling bag, which contains information about prospective brides’ and grooms’ families, occupations, societal status and educational backgrounds. In a nearby area, she visits the house of a family who is in search of a bride for their son. Subhan greets the mother as she leads her into a carpeted living room. She talks about a few girls that, in her opinion, would be well-suited for the family.

“This is how it has always been,” Subhan explains, “but now people want to rely on dating sites and find their match online. Technology cannot replace the alacrity with which we help people find their matches. However, it seems that at this pace, we will be left with no jobs.” 

In 2013, the government set up a committee to address issues faced by the transgender community. The committee stated that the trans community faced issues such as societal discrimination, which then affected their access to education, healthcare, employment and government documents.

Although in 2014 the Supreme Court of India – under the National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India (NALSA) judgment – recognized transgender people as the ‘third gender’, very little has changed on the ground. With no other employment opportunities and the hassles in their traditional occupation, the trans community is holding on to the last threads of hope.

“We have been asking the government for help for a long time,” Subhan says, “but every time they ask us to submit documents. Most of the people in our community have fled their homes to escape retribution. Where will we get the documents from? Will a piece of paper make them believe that we are surviving in dire conditions? We are asking for basic human rights.”

A culture shift leaves trans people behind

Dr. Ajaz Ahmad Bund, founder of the Sonzal Welfare Trust of Kashmir.
Dr. Ajaz Ahmad Bund, founder of the Sonzal Welfare Trust of Kashmir. Kamran Yousuf

Dr. Ajaz Ahmad Bund is a gender rights activist and the founder of the Sonzal Welfare Trust, a not-for-profit organization working for the LGBTQ+ community of Kashmir. He identifies as queer and has always wanted to speak for the rights of marginalized communities. He started advocating for the rights of the transgender community because, as he told LGBTQ Nation, trans people were the most vulnerable to discrimination, violence and abuse. 

“I started with the trans community and eventually this movement became more inclusive and now I am advocating for everyone who comes under the ambit of this whole spectrum,” he said.  

Two decades ago, Bund’s family was looking for a suitable match for their daughter. At the time, a trans woman who was working as a matchmaker visited Bund’s house. During the meeting, Bund’s mother served her tea, and shockingly, when the trans woman left the house, she got up to wash the same cup thrice. The whole scene disgusted Bund. He was shocked to see how people perceived this community. He then set out on a mission to fight for their rights. 

Bund believes that the livelihood of this community is shrinking due to a change in the institution of marriage, as people are now preferring choice marriages, whether offline or online. 

“It is not completely their field now. People are finding spouses online, there are even marriage bureaus available now. The overall change in the social structure has definitely impacted those people whose livelihood depends on it,” explains Bund. 

He adds that the Kashmir conflict had a devastating impact on the community because it has led to even more marginalization. The recurrent security lockdowns in Kashmir and the recent coronavirus lockdown prevented many trans people from getting work and took a toll on other aspects of life as well. Subhan relays how a friend of hers fell gravely ill during the pandemic and the lack of documents made it difficult for them to seek proper treatment.

“The unfriendly government policies towards the transgender community in Kashmir have resulted in many individuals lacking proper identity papers,” she says.

In 2017, Bund’s NGO filed a comprehensive PIL (Public Interest Litigation) in the High Court, covering various aspects of social and civil rights, such as health insurance, education, and reservation. During the lockdown, the trans community was included in the Integrated Social Security Scheme (ISSS) through the same PIL. This made them eligible for a monthly pension of 1000 rupees, but many beneficiaries have been unable to take advantage of the scheme due to a lack of mandatory documents, as they have been disowned by their families.

“It is a tiresome process,” 51-year-old Babloo, a close friend of Subhan, tells LGBTQ Nation. “For a mere 1000 rupees we have to submit endless documents. It is unfair.”

Shattered careers & the fight to survive

Babloo at her residence in Srinagar city.
Babloo at her residence in Srinagar. Kamran Yousuf

While facing wrath from their families as well as broader society, the younger generation of trans people have taken matters into their own hands. Mehak Mir, president of the Transgender Union of Kashmir, resides in the old city of Srinagar with twelve trans people. She lives with the people who have had to leave their homes with nowhere else to go. She said that several not-for-profit organizations have arisen that are earning money in the name of transgender people. She has been beating around the bush to register her own NGO.

Mir used to earn her living by singing at weddings. She recalls her last gig in October 2022. In that year, she barely managed to find ten gigs. She tells LGBTQ Nation that the number of gigs has decreased and at this rate, she is fearful of how the trans community will survive.

“People are now booking bands and female singers to sing in weddings. Earlier, ceremonies would be considered incomplete without us, but now the trend is changing.”

She holds weekly meetings with other members of the community to discuss the steps to be taken that would help them sustain and find a better position in society. They have also been fighting to be part of a government initiative that allots a portion of education and government positions to marginalized groups.

‘Til death

Mohammad Amin, Shabnum’s guru, has been in the business of matchmaking and singing at weddings for 35 years.
Mohammad Amin, Shabnum’s guru, has been in the business of matchmaking and singing at weddings for 35 years. Kamran Yousuf

After toiling for the whole day, Subhan purchases some groceries from a nearby market. She’s aware of all the gazes on her, but now, nothing bothers her as she boldly walks the lanes of Srinagar. As she cooks dinner for herself, Mohammad Amin knocks on her door.

Amin lives in another locality of Srinagar. Like most trans people, she stays with her family under some conditions – she is not to wear feminine clothes in public. Amin has been in the business of matchmaking and singing at weddings for 35 years. She is Shabnum’s guru – a leader of transgender groups who provides shelter to abandoned children. Over the years, Amin has witnessed a gradual decline in trans people landing gigs.

“Everybody has gotten into this business now. So many music bands have been formed and they have strangled our livelihood,” Amin tells LGBTQ Nation.

A new generation of trans people has started looking for alternative career options. Many work as makeup artists or have started their own beauty salons. But Amin does not want to do any of that.

“I started my career as a matchmaker,” she says, “and I would want to die doing the same thing.”

Kamran Yousuf is a multimedia journalist who has been covering Kashmir and India for the last eight years. His work has appeared in several notable national and international news outlets. He tweets at @kamranyousuf_

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