India-controlled Kashmir Srinagar – For 36-year-old Sweety, being a transgender woman is “a curse”.
Sweety comes from a remote village in the Indian-controlled Kashmir region. She was only in her early 20s when she realized she was transgender.
At the time, supporting transgender lives in a conservative place was not an easy decision. But as the youngest child and “favorite person” of her parents, her gender did not cause much trouble at first.
However, her good fortune did not last long. In 2016, Sweety lost both parents in four months.
As the coronavirus pandemic forced people to stay indoors, social gatherings in the LGBTQ community stopped. But for marginalized communities, home is not a safe place.
‘Being asked to leave home’
One day in March of this year, in a desperate bidding, Sweety took the risk and met her friend nearby.
“I came home after the meeting and my brother slapped me. He choked me and I felt out of breath. He tied my legs and then started hitting my feet with a stick,” she said.
“Even the kids at home started crying. He didn’t stop until my sister-in-law stepped in. My things were thrown away and I was asked to leave the house.”
Abandoned by her brother, “probably to maintain their social status”, as she said, Sweety now lives independently and manages the odds, facing all opponents.
“For my family, my existence is a curse. They want me to die as soon as possible because they consider me a social responsibility,” she told Al Jazeera while preparing meals in a dimly lit room.
Sweetie said that she was beaten so badly that she could not walk normally for several weeks.
Due to restrictions on movement and social gatherings, LGBTQ residents in the area are forced to live with hostile family members who often subject them to various forms of abuse.
Abuse worsened during a series of lockdowns
Since the Indian government cancelled the special status of the region in August 2019, the long-term blockade of Kashmir has further complicated the problem.
The COVID-19 pandemic that broke out in March last year was followed by a six-month security shutdown. This year, the second wave of vicious waves of the virus has once again seen a long-term blockade in turbulent areas.
According to the 2011 census, there were more than 4,000 LGBTQ members in the area, but this number may be higher because it is believed that many people are unwilling to express their sexual orientation.
Community members said that violence and persecution against them surged during the lockdown, and there were many stories of domestic abuse in the area.
The prolonged conflict with Indian rule also concealed their plight. Many of them were abandoned by their families and suffered physical, verbal, and sexual violence.
They said they often receive pornographic videos, unsolicited photos of sexual organs, text messages from strangers requesting sex, and obscene phone calls. They are also threatened by publicizing their identities and photos on social media.
“My family tried to burn me to death”
Hibba, 28, is from the main city of Srinagar and claims to be a lesbian. He said that his family “suffered the most severe mental and physical torture” and that “the torture became more severe during the blockade.”
He said he was beaten mercilessly and was often locked in a room without food.
“My family tried to burn me to death. They put a hot spoon on me,” he said.
“Sometimes I want to end my life, I want to bury my existence. Maybe the wound will heal, but the scars in my soul and mind will never heal. I have died in three parts, and I hope this torture can last End my pain.”
Shiba said that he had attempted suicide many times, but “survived miraculously.”
Shiba said the situation got worse due to the inability to see his partner during the lockdown. “If I could meet her, I would not face all the abuse,” he said.
Aijaz Bund, the first and possibly only LGBTQ activist in Kashmir, said that since the first lockdown in 2019, violence against the community has increased exponentially.
“LGBTQ+ people in Kashmir have been facing violence, but under normal circumstances, at least they temporarily escaped from their families. They used to go out to work and so on,” he said.
“But in the past two years, they have been forced to endure almost 24/7 abuse.”
The Sonzal Welfare Trust, a non-profit organization on the Bund, is dedicated to providing welfare to LGBTQ communities in Muslim-majority areas. He said that since the blockade, the number of calls for help has increased.
He said: “We usually receive two or three calls for help every month, but the current number of calls has exceeded 200.”
Last year, the regional government announced a pension plan under which every transgender person is entitled to 1,000 rupees (14 U.S. dollars) per month.
However, the policy has not been implemented locally, and many people still question whether this amount is sufficient for one month.
There are few NGOs working for the community, and Kashmiri activists worry about social backlash and do not speak up for their rights.
In this case, some LGTBQ people managed to win the acceptance of their families. Muscan is one of them.
For the 26-year-old transgender person, the situation changed when the apple crop, her main source of income, was destroyed by pests and hail for three consecutive years.
“Everyone respects her now”
As the family fell into poverty and debt, Muscan decided to control the situation in 2017.
“When we have almost no food to eat, I devote myself to matchmaking. For money, I also sing and dance at the wedding,” she said.
“When I went home with cash in my hand, my family’s violence completely stopped. Soon, I started to make all the decisions for my family.”
After being forced to drop out of school after facing bullying and abuse by other students, Muskaan has come a long way. She began to travel extensively in the area, looking for potential brides and grooms for matching families.
“For parents, every child is the same and we love them the same. Initially, I was worried about the reactions of neighbors and relatives, and I took her to see a faith healer,” Muskaan’s mother Hajira told Al Jazeera.
“But Muskan plays the role of supporting the family, and now everyone respects her. Her gender is God’s will, and as a mother, I can’t refuse her.”
But in April of this year, Muscan faced a crisis again, when the area was blocked again and the wedding stopped. She didn’t have a job, and all her savings were spent.
“We are on the verge of hunger. The wedding was postponed and I had to find another source of livelihood,” she told Al Jazeera.
She is now a miner, and she manually extracts sand, boulders and other minerals on the Veshow river bed next to the Yaroo village in Kulgam, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Srinagar.
“This is a very difficult job. My body is not made for this. I have to work 10 hours a day in the heat to earn around 1,400 rupees. [$19],” she said, adding that this job was the only way to ensure that her family would not abuse her.
Adfar Shah, a sociologist in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that being LGBTQ in Kashmir “is hell.”
“We blindly discriminate against these people and label them as sexually perverted, evil and unwelcome entities,” he said.
Islamic scholar Maulana Bilal Ahmad Qasmi told Al Jazeera that Islam does not discriminate against sex.
“In Islam, transgender people have the same rights as other genders, but unfortunately, these people have to face various abuses by their families and society as a whole,” he said.