“Gender Bender” this Women’s Day

This Women’s Day the internet was bursting with mushy panegyrics about the delicate beauty and self  sacrificing nature of women in general, mothers in particular. Almost all the respectable apparel brands had a sale planned for the day. Male colleagues everywhere were trying to be politically correct by smattering the word “empowered” “independent” “modern” before the word “woman”.

Suddenly the world was convincing women how special they are supposed to feel. It made them believe that they should treat themselves to spas, dimly lit with aroma candles just so that the glass ceiling above could continue to remain invisible. But what about those who aren’t privileged enough to worry about the glass ceiling as they have to deal with iron walls?

I understand why many women were feeling bitter, not better, about being a woman on Women’s Day. Women’s Day now is another corporate circus driven by market. The idea is to partake in the mere skin deep celebration of “emancipation”. No doubt, many of us end up cynical after consuming the gooey narratives about goodness of our gender flooding the world that day.

But then, I came across something remarkable: the amazing Gauri Wagenaar had invited me to attend a talk by a transgender named Shilpa Maasi on the ideas of womanhood, at Project Cafe in Ahmedabad.

Shilpa Maasi was a delight to the eyes: raw mango colour sari, gilded finery, fiery red lipstick, straight black hair and glossy pvc handback. Every time she raised her hands, her bangles twanged against each other making music. She sat with grace and was open to discussions.

Why did she join the Hijra community, asked someone. Ah, her characteristics were like women, she wanted to be amongst them. Men found her company, (sic) “allergic”, while women were more tolerating and understanding, however, she didn’t feel she belonged to her family and society. She joined the community on her own. This is how it mostly happens, she says. Many a times, parents leave their sons who are “different” at their house and these kids are gradually trained by senior hijras. They are taught to dress up like women, are taught to dance, to sing, to bless the new born and the new weds. In short, they are taught to perform their identity, their transgender being. Perhaps that explains the exaggerated feminine gestures.

Most of the women in the cafe were sans ‘singaar’, when asked if she would like to dress up like an ordinary woman, she replied that people like to see well dressed, fashionable hijaras. Then she narrated a tale about why Indian women are made to wear so many ornaments. Long ago, when God made the world, women were far better than men. Women had a strong sense of smell, they could sniff fragrances from miles away. They had such speed in their feet that they could run for miles tirelessly; they could create miracles with their hands. Obviously, the men were worried, how do they stop the women from outsmarting them? So they invented nose pins, anklets, bangles, rings – all these ornaments, not to beautify their body, but to bough them down, to bind them and restrict their capacities.

Why then was she and her chela so adorned?

We all follow scripts, adhere to certain codes of society, of culture. I perform my womanhood, my prescribed gender. Whereas, a transgender dwells in the  interstices, in here, in there and nowhere.  But what does Shilpa perform? Why does she have to cling on to these codes? Can’t she create new ones, or do away with codes altogether? But alas, her community is very structured, very regulated. With a Guru to instruct and a chela to follow, hijras have quite a patrilineal tradition and no amount of powder is gonna conceal that.
Several times, she professed her gratefulness to the Supreme court for introducing the transgender category in government forms. Why is it so important to her, to them? Acceptance, she said. She beamed at the thought that her existence, their existence, is now sanctioned by the ‘sarkar’, although her community was around since the time Raja Rama. Then she explained, Lord Rama asked all the men and the women of his kingdom to return to Ayodhya, when he was on his way to vanvasa, but he missed addressing the transgenders. These people waited for fourteen long years in the forest. However, I believe, they still are waiting for their deliverance. Will government recognition make their living conditions any better? What about jobs for the community? What about education? Financial security? Well, this is the first step, she says; society will now respect us, gradually induct us, give us jobs, even. The unmistakable ring of hope made me feel that some of us despair and get angry just because we can afford to. I pray that her hope, like the raw mango of her sari, blossoms into the ripe alphonso golden future.

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