No Middle Ground

Compartmentalization of genders gets extremely stringent in a society like Pakistan that is increasingly laden with erroneous and narrow interpretations of religious and moral codes. Gender politics, like all the other control apparatuses of society, is becoming increasingly hermetic and overwhelming. Discourse, dissent and deviation meets with strong opposition, more often than not verging onto violent and zealous responses. Society may be failing on many accounts but the conventional shared culture and prevalent societal structure is still held dearer than life. We are at this moment miles away from public homosexual marriages or widely accessible medical procedures for sex-transformation – in fact, it would take an overhaul of society to achieve these things. Right now, we still work hard to ensure that our boys are robust and bullish and our girls submissive and meek.

An unconventional phenomenon like a cross-dressing anchor hosting a talk show gets confused reactions. I was recently talking to Ali Saleem a.k.a. Begum Nawazish Ali, who happens to be a friend from childhood, about the kind of reactions that he gets when meeting people in his everyday life. Ali is in his late twenties, usually sports a two-day- old stubble and a wardrobe of very conventional male clothes. He has a second avatar, though: hosting this popular show at a local TV channel [this show no longer airs – eds.] as Begum Nawazish Ali clad in a glittering, revealing sari  is an enormous departure from his off-screen personality. “I travel a lot,” he says, “and mostly meet people at airports or when I am checking into a hotel. While I have noticed that society is generally accepting of me due to my star status, they get very uncomfortable if their young son or daughter requests for a photograph with me or shows too much interest into what I do. This reaction is not only because of the presumed sexual-preference that an act such as cross-dressing suggests but also because what I symbolize is a challenge to the accepted gender behaviour.”

Similarly for girls, a departure from the recognized stereotype of a full-time homemaker into a career-pursuing individual is in itself challenging; anything beyond that such as a conscience decision to stay single at a marriageable age is incomprehensible for society. Society polices and enforces “normal.” Any alternative trend, bet it something as simple as a colour choice or something as crucial as a career path, is curbed with full vigour.

Parental instruction, peer pressure, taught syllabus – everything encourages such stereotyping. All social and economic structures reinforce such ideals and thus reject divergence and diversity. This results in greater intolerance to dissimilarity as well as confusion and despair among the already ostracized sexual minorities.


Innocence is such a fragile thing, such a vulnerable one. Innocence can be taken in so many ways, so many subtly evil ways that are not even noticed.

I was thinking about innocence today. How silently it leaves. How faintly it slips away, leaving nothing that reminds you of it but a scar. And I am reminded of the time that I, in one of the most brutal ways possible, lost some of my innocence.


I am 12 years old again and I am innocent. As I walk down the narrow market alley with my sister, Mariam, we laugh over a joke.

As I shift the bag of groceries from one hand to another, a large man came up in front of us. Barely paying attention to him, I continue to talk to my sister, and we laugh again. In the narrow alley, my sister squeezes ahead of me and past the man. I follow her; barely aware of what was going to happen.

As I brush past him, I feel a large, thick hand land on the back of my thigh and move up.

Up and around.

I feel so violated.

The next minute he is past me and I am past him. He turns around, and the very look in his eyes, the triumphant look that says, “I have felt you up and you can do nothing”, freezes me. I am beyond shocked. I am teetering on the edge of a precipice, I am on the most delicate of balances. One wrong move, one wrong word, and I think my bones will shatter. Shatter into a million pieces, and finish it all.

“Hurry up, Dad just called on my mobile.” My sister’s eyes look into mine and the warmth in them fights back the cold in me. “Hey, are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Just spaced out.”

Why do I sound so normal? Why isn’t there a difference in me? Why don’t I protest? Why don’t I scream for justice? Why don’t I scream for God to descend from the heavens and deliver justice?

Because I, too, have seamlessly, soundlessly, become just another body, just another piece of alluring flesh, just another girl to be felt up, to be touched and to be handled at will.

No, I am not Marina Ahmad any longer. No, I am not her. I am not even a person. I do not know what I am.

At night, I lock myself into the bathroom and take a long bath. And wash and wash and wash. Scrub myself over and over and over again. Trying to get rid of that feeling of filthiness, that feeling of repulsiveness that emanates from me. Trying to make sure it does not become a part of me.

And as I wash, I cry. I cry for myself and my lost innocence. I cry for the fact that those who conform suffer, and those who do not conform also suffer. I cry because against this, there is no saviour. I cry for all those females out there who have been abused like me, and worse than me. And I cry, for all that I have lost, and for all that those other women have lost.

I cry.

And I Thought You Would Ask Me to Leave

We would have never expected this but it is true. Men learn from us.

So I bear the brunt of the things that I have said, because you like me want to feign bitter indifference. It’s a very masculine thing. I learnt it from a very bitter woman.

And my confidence is all mine. You didn’t push me out of the door or trample all over me.

My self is intact because you didn’t, thank God you didn’t demolish me with the power of your tongue. You just refused to talk to me.

We still encircle each other.

And the Flame Shines Bright: Sudar Foundation & the Rights of Aravanis

Ennai naanaga vazha vidu – Let me live as myself”
– The last line of the play Uraiyada Ninaivugal performed by members of Kannadi Kalai Kuzhu, the cultural troupe of Sudar Foundation.

“Sudar”, which literally means flame, is a registered trust for more than two years now but has been doing work around the rights of transgender people for more than five years. It is a group of fifteen transgender people (known as hijras in Hindi and aravanis is Tamil) who have come together to form this organisation. This group live as a family and work with each other. Many things make Sudar Foundation different from most other organisations of and/or working on rights of transgender people in India. One such aspect is that as an organisation they did not begin their work with that on HIV/AIDS. While work related to the infection is very important, as Priya Babu, the treasurer of Sudar Foundation says, “All groups of transgender people that are involved in work around social change within the community, almost always work on issues of HIV/AIDS. This puts forward the false image that this is the only issue of the community and contributes to the myth that this community is more susceptible to or spread the infection more than others”.

She says, “There are other issues that are equally important if not more, to the community”. The price they often pay for this political stand is the lack of funding as the most common funding for organisations in the aravani community is for work around HIV/AIDS. In spite of these hindrances, Sudar Foundation takes up a series of issues of concern to the community and expresses themselves in various forms.

One such expression is their cultural group, which has now produced two plays. Kannadi Kalai Kuzhu, which means mirror cultural troupe is the only all aravani theatre group in the nation. Both their plays manasin azhaippu (the call of the heart) and uraiyada ninaivugal (frozen memories) portray various aspects of the lives ofaravanis. They have been produced with support from Voicing Silence, a project of M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation. The first play portrays various kinds of rights violations of the community and expresses dissent against the same. The second play is one that looks inwards. They interrogate the notion of family while talking about their experiences with their natal families as well as their adopted family of aravanis. They conclude that a family can be of different kinds and it is a space of acceptance, warmth, care and mutual support. These plays are in Tamil and the troupe has travelled around Tamilnadu. They have received support from various progressive groups in the state including those that work on issues of caste and class.

Mangai, a feminist theatre director based in Chennai who has directed both the plays with Kannadi Kalai Kuzhu says, “Members of the group have opened up to themselves and with each other through the process of theatre.” She also states, “Working with Kannadi Kalai Kuzhu challenges notions of genders on stage and creates a new idiom”. Members of the group such as Malathi said, “Theatre has helped in significantly increasing the confidence levels. It makes us much more comfortable with our own bodies.”

Members of Sudar Foundation now run a self-help group, which has received acclaim from the state government. They have used the revolving fund available to the self-help groups to build homes. They have built fifteen homes, solving one of the most significant problems of the aravani community – accommodation. They built the houses on land granted to the group by the Tamilnadu government. This grant did not come easy. Members of Sudar Foundation struggled for five years to get the land. Nestled in a tiny village beyond chengalpattu town, these fifteen small homes have given the freedom and peace of mind that comes with owning a house to anyone. Especially in this community, it is almost impossible for them to own houses and rents shoot up the minute the owners know they are aravanis, if they allow them to rent the house at all in the first place

About future work of the self-help group Priyadarshini, the secretary of Sudar Foundation says, “We will invest the money in small businesses and hope to make a minimal profit which we can then use to take care of our personal expenses as well as those of the Foundation”. She says, “This experience will teach us to handle money as well as to invest in a way that is lucrative.”

Yet another significant victory for members of this group and the aravani community as a whole is the case that they filed and won in the Trichy high court, Tamilnadu asking for aravanis to get voters identity cards. The loophole however lay in the fact that the judge ruled that they could receive their card in any gender they wish- male, female or transgender. Thus in implementation the officials in many cases harassed them and insisted on giving them cards as male and not as anything else. The victory however remains significant however symbolic it may be.

The some members of the Foundation also took a three month course on beauty care and massage therapy. Those members are now qualified beauticians and are awaiting some economic support to start their own beauty parlour. Not all the members have received even basic school education. They often leave school around puberty when changes begin to occur in their bodies and the harassment in school becomes unbearable. Others are from poor families who could not afford to send their child to school. The few who are educated, some who have masters’ degrees have not been able to get a job or have lost their jobs because they are aravanis.

Thus, the issues of the community in terms of ensuring basic standards of living are immense. Sudar Foundation however does not stop there and go beyond to a politics that is complex and nuanced. Selvam who is a female to male transgender individual is part of the group. This is uncommon and often disallowed among traditional aravani jamaats or communities. Members of Sudar Foundation however have fought this tradition and supported Selvam. Selvam is growing up to be a hard working young man and contributes immensely to all the work of Sudar Foundation. Selvam says, “They are my family. I cannot imagine living anywhere else with anyone else.

It is thus apparent that Sudar Foundation has a long way to go in terms of their work. Their battles continue from daily sustenance of both individuals and the organisation, to political expression and legal struggles. The heartening aspect however is the group is not only hard working, they are willing to constantly question themselves as much as the outside world. They work with a politics of ensuring basic rights, which they believe is possible only through collective work and critical thinking. They untiringly inch towards creating a world where they all can live with dignity and respect. They are a critique of normative civil, political and social structures and a heartening lesson to all those interested in processes of social change.

Watch Where You Point That Thing


Her body presents itself, the product of her life. A life which happens to involve a body, but does not require the obsessive presentation of body; body concentrated so heavily in the top layer that it slithers off in dark moments alone. She is anchored to her chair, planted on the grass in front of the fake backdrop.

Her body presents itself, product of a life; but she does not look as though she inhabits anything from the neck down. The body sits there, imponderable. What is it to her?

The answer is in the gun. Her body is in the gun, resting on her knees. She is playing a trick on us. She is pretending that she isn’t there, that she’s no threat; but that body is powerful. It can point to other bodies and hurt them. She doesn’t even need to grip the gun very tightly. It can dangle down, slightly, romantically, barely restrained from slipping down, a sly, slick message. Look at her innocent face.

This is called women’s ventriloquism of power.

God help me if I were ever loved for sending my body elsewhere, into other objects; into cooking, or a perfectly clean house, a top layer of muscle, accomplishments, or pages of text. God help me if someone ever loved me for polishing my body down into a layer of its meaning.

Love me for my gun, my cooking pot, my words and my insight, all shot, cooked, written and penetrated into my particular set of gut and muscle.

Give me a body that can stay planted and receive.


The above photograph, which is the inspiration for this poem, is borrowed from the series ‘Woman as Photography Model: Qajar Period”