Earlier this month, I spoke at University College London about Mona Ahmed, a trans woman, who lives in a graveyard in the heart of Delhi, a city where I have lived for most of my life. The story addressed issues of identity, citizenship, feminism, marginality and more.
As I spoke, I wondered: how did I, a card-carrying Indian feminist, come to be talking about a trans woman in today’s Delhi? And who were these people who had come to listen?
In the early 1970s, when I cut my political teeth in the feminist movement in India, we spent much of our time out on the streets, protesting, shouting slogans.We used to get together, decide on a protest, spend an afternoon making posters and off we’d go . When I look back now, I wonder how we communicated and gathered crowds. Telephones – the old heavy black instruments – were hard to come by, sometimes you had to wait five years (and pay a bribe) for a connection. And yet we mobilised, often on a national scale.
Trans men and women were very far from the movement. Our battles focused on sexual violence, dowry, marriage laws, sexual harassment at the workplace, equal wages for equal work and health. Sexuality and sexual identities? We stayed away from them.
That is, until queer women (we did not use the term then, though) brought the politics of queerness to the attention of the so-called mainstream movement. They attacked activists for being blind to issues of sexual identity, for practicing a sort of untouchability.
But trans identities were still difficult to deal with. I remember the first time the issue came up in a big way was at a women’s conference in Kolkata. We were there in our thousands. We had rented a stadium, and everyone was to sleep on the floor, wake up, clean and swab, cook breakfast, and then go into the sessions. Trans women had joined us for the first time in the mid-1990s as we felt their struggles aligned with ours. But while we were prepared to discuss their issues, we hadn’t dealt with another crucial issue: where were they to sleep? Which toilets would they use? “How can they sleep in the same space?”, many women asked, “this is our space, a space for women, and these are just men, even if they’re in women’s bodies.”At the time, we didn’t talk about what today is a central part of our discussions about sexual identity: where, after all, does gender lie? Is it in the blood? On the body? In the mind? Nor did we talk about feminism – or more precisely, about who is or can be a feminist. We kind of took it as read: we would know a feminist when we saw one, and that was enough.
Last week, as I spoke, I thought we’ve come a long way since then. The entire spectrum of queer identities is now very much part of the women’s movement in India, with feminists being engaged equally in ‘their’ battle for rights and citizenship.
In the aftermath of the brutal rape of a medical student in Delhi in December 2016, the Indian government set up a committee to help draft new laws on sexual violence. Feminists demanded the committee give them a hearing, and 27 groups from across the country spent two days in Delhi making presentations to the committee. I think, inevitably, it was my feminism, and the respect that teaches for those on the margins, that drew me to Mona, my transgender friend. Working with her for over 20 years taught me about poverty, marginalisation, human relations, friendship and class – issues that lie at the heart of feminism.