Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – For Sweety, 36, it is “a curse” to be a transgender woman.
From a remote village in the Indian-administered Budgam District of Kashmir, Sweety was in her early twenties when she realized she was transgender.
Back then, choosing to live as a trans woman in a conservative place was not an easy one. But as the youngest child of her parents and “the most beloved”, her gender didn’t cause much trouble at first.
However, their luck did not last long. In 2016, Sweety lost both of her parents within four months.
As the coronavirus pandemic is forcing people indoors, the social gatherings of the LGBTQ community have also been suspended. But home is not a safe place for the marginalized community.
“Asked to leave the house”
In a desperate attempt, one day in March of that year, Sweety took the risk of meeting her friend in the neighborhood.
“When I got home after the meeting, my brother hit me. He was choking me, I was breathless. He tied my legs and then hit my feet with a stick, “she said.
“Even the kids in the house started crying. It didn’t stop until my sister-in-law intervened. My things were thrown away and I was asked to leave the house. “
Abandoned by her older sibling, “probably to maintain her social status”, as she put it, Sweety now lives independently and masters the chances of facing all opponents.
“My existence is a curse to my family. They want me to die as soon as possible because they consider me a social burden, ”she told Al Jazeera as she prepared her meal in a dimly lit room.
Sweety said she was beaten so badly that she couldn’t walk properly for weeks.
Due to restricted mobility and social gatherings, the area’s LGBTQ residents have been forced to live with hostile family members who often subject them to all kinds of abuse.
Abuse worsened during a series of lockdowns
The problem was exacerbated by a long lockdown in Kashmir that began in August 2019 when the region’s special status was lifted by the Indian government.
The six-month safety shutdown was quickly followed by the COVID-19 pandemic that broke out in March last year. That year, a malicious second wave of the virus resulted in another long lockdown in the troubled region.
There are more than 4,000 LGBTQ members in the region, according to the 2011 census, although the number could be higher as many assume they are not expressing their sexual orientation.
Parishioners say the lockdowns have increased violence and persecution against them, with many stories of domestic violence surfacing from the area.
A prolonged conflict against Indian rule has also overshadowed their plight, with many of them abandoned by their families and exposed to physical, verbal and sexual violence.
They say they frequently receive pornographic videos, unsolicited photos of sexual organs, text messages from strangers with requests for sex, and suggestive phone calls. They are also threatened to post their identities and photos on social media.
“My family tried to burn me”
Hibba, 28, from the capital Srinagar, identifies as a butch lesbian. He said he was subjected to “the worst form of mental and physical torture” by his family, which “increased many times during the lockdown.”
He said he was ruthlessly beaten and often locked in a room without food.
“My family tried to burn me. They put hot spoons over my body, ”he said.
“Sometimes I want to end my life, I want to bury my existence. Maybe the wounds would heal, but the bruises in my soul and mind will never heal. I am already three parts dead and I wish that this torture will put an end to my suffering. “
Hibba said he made several suicide attempts but “miraculously survived”.
Hibba said the situation was made worse by the inability to meet his partner during the lockdown. “If I could meet her, I wouldn’t have seen all the abuse,” he said.
Aijaz Bund, the first and perhaps only LGBTQ activist in Kashmir, said violence against the community has increased exponentially since the first lockdown in 2019.
“LGBTQ + people in Kashmir have always faced violence, but in normal times they have at least had a temporary escape from their families. They went to work etc, ”he said.
“But for the past two years they have had to live with the abuse almost around the clock.”
Federal non-profit organization Sonzal Welfare Trust is dedicated to the well-being of the LGBTQ community in the predominantly Muslim region. He says the number of emergency calls has increased since the lockdowns.
“We usually get two to three emergency calls a month, but currently the number of calls is over 200,” he said.
Last year, the region’s administration announced a pension system that would allow every transgender person to receive 1,000 rupees ($ 14) a month.
But the policy still needs to be implemented locally, and many also wonder if the amount is enough to survive a month.
NGOs working for the community are rare, while activists in Kashmir do not speak for their rights for fear of social backlash.
In such a situation, there are some LGTBQ people who have managed to earn their families’ acceptance. Muskaan is one of them.
The situation changed for the 26-year-old transgender woman when the apple harvest, her family’s main source of income, was destroyed by pests and hailstorms for three years in a row.
“Everyone respects her now”
When the family fell into poverty and debt, Muskaan decided in 2017 to take control of the situation.
“When we had almost nothing to eat, I rushed into the dating agency. I would also sing and dance at weddings for money, ”she said.
“When I returned home with cash in hand, my family’s violence stopped altogether. Soon I started making all the decisions in the family. “
Muskaan had come a long way after being forced to leave school after being bullied and abused by other students. She began touring the area extensively looking for potential brides and grooms for the families looking for a mate.
“Every child is the same for parents and we love them equally. Initially, I was concerned about the reaction of neighbors and relatives and took them to faith healers, ”Muskaan’s mother Hajira told Al Jazeera.
“But just as Muskaan took on the role of breadwinner for the family, everyone now respects them. Her gender was God’s will and as a mother I cannot refuse her. “
But Muskaan faced another crisis in April this year when the region was once again under lockdown and weddings ceased. She was left without a job while all of her savings were used up.
“We were on the verge of starvation. Weddings were postponed and I had to look for another livelihood, ”she told Al Jazeera.
She now works as a miner who manually extracts sand, boulders and other minerals from the bed of the Veshow River next to her Yaroo village in Kulgam, about 80 km (50 miles) from Srinagar.
“It’s very hard work. That’s not what my body is made for. I have to work 10 hours a day in scorching heat to earn around 1,400 rupees [$19]“She said, adding that the job is the only way to ensure that her family does not abuse her.
New Delhi-based sociologist Adfar Shah told Al Jazeera that being an LGBTQ person in Kashmir is “hell”.
“We blindly discriminate against these people, calling them sexual deviants, evil and undesirable beings,” he said.
Islam scholar Maulana Bilal Ahmad Qasmi told Al Jazeera that Islam does not discriminate based on gender.
“In Islam, trans people have the same rights as other genders, but it is unfortunate that these people of all kinds are abused by families and society in general,” he said.