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Interrogating aravani activism in Tamil Nadu

Does the struggle for civil rights and mainstreaming of a community such as the transgender community of Tamil Nadu sound the death knell for the rituals and traditions that hold the community together and give it a sense of coherence and narrative power, asks Padma Govindan

As a result of political action demanding the recognition of their individual civil identities and ongoing engagement with issues of economic justice, Tamilian transgender women (known as aravanis) have become the most public of sexual minorities in the state of Tamil Nadu and in the queer movement as a whole. A group of aravani activists have forged a social movement in this decade that has successfully procured certain civil rights such as the possession of ration cards, voters’ identity cards, passports, and the constitution of a special welfare board with the specific task of addressing their community’s social exclusion at the state and local level.

What have been the roadblocks in the way of social transformation? After all, transgender identities mark the boundaries of normative definitions of gender and sex, and also expose the power structures that are served by keeping these boundaries intact. Does the process of integration and mainstreaming of Tamilian aravanis and their transformation to legitimate subjects of the State necessarily point to a thorough engagement with the ‘accepted’ definitions of gender? 

Any analysis of a political, rights-based movement demands a close examination of the techniques of visibility, inter-community tensions, and the nature of that movement’s engagement with processes of government. The aravani community in Tamil Nadu is marked by a multiplicity of voices, identities, and values that are frequently stifled when the real social stigma and violence they face is defanged and brought in line with the State project of ‘rehabilitation’. The aravaniactivist effort must contend with the silencing of disruptive voices and the potential erasure of radical subjectivities through a civil rights discourse if the movement is to coalesce into a larger public dialogue. How does any movement contend with the question of placing cultural practices in the context of political action?

A history of actions 

The history of transgender involvement in the Indian queer visibility movement dates to the mid-1990s with international aid agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS identifying their communities as being at risk for HIV infection, and the subsequent flood of international grant and donor money into the Indian non-profit sector for anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking activist movements in India. However, a community-based initiative to address issues of rights and identity did not truly coalesce—at least in Tamil Nadu—until 2003. In 2003, a group of aravani women who had worked in the HIV sector decided to work with an NGO in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu called Arogya Agam, setting up self-help microfinance groups and small businesses for transgender women. When attempting to register the organisation, they were informed that without a bank account, ration card, or electricity bill to confirm their identities, they would not be able to register Arogya Agam. As transgender women, they would be unable to procure official forms of identity—because they present themselves as women but are forced to call themselves men for the sake of legal identification, their documents have no legitimacy.

In response, this foundational group of activists decided to petition the Chennai High Court for the right to choose their gender identity in official documents. On March 6, 2004, a writ petition was filed in the Chennai High Court asking for ration cards for transgenders. Simultaneously, this foundational group of 15 aravanis was involved in other ongoing initiatives to create visibility and a support network for transgender women in Tamil Nadu. They registered the Sudar Foundation for transgender advocacy and economic empowerment, and also formed a theatre troupe, Kanadi Kalai Kuzhu. CK Gariyali of the State Women’s Commission compiled a report on the status of transgender-specific rights in other countries, which the group presented at court.

Finally in July 2004, the High Court of Tamil Nadu announced that transgender individuals could choose either ‘male’ or ‘female’ as their gender when applying for official identity documents. In their petition the group had asked for a third gender to be added to official documents, and so they were not entirely satisfied with the judgment. However, lacking both the funds and the wherewithal for another protracted legal battle, they decided to accept the announcement for the time being. Also, district collectors in Kanchipuram and Vellore began offering free and subsidised housing to aravanis under government schemes such as the Indira Awaas Yojana. 

In December 2006, the state subcommittee on transgender welfare (formed in 2003), re-convened to issue a second government order with recommendations to the state government in order to “improve the living conditions of the aravanis (sic)”, which the state agreed to instate. The recommendations of the subcommittee included large-scale counseling and sensitisation programmes, particularly for children with “behaviour changes” in schools and their parents, as well as counseling for MSMs (men who have sex with men, but are not gay-identified) against pursuing sex-reconstruction surgery. In addition, the government order issued a raft of guidelines for disciplinary actions against schools and colleges who refused to admit aravanis, small loans and training programmes for aravani self-help groups, and information for medical institutions should they receive patients who wish to undergo SRS after counseling, and quarterly ‘grievance day’ meetings with collectors to address the distribution of ration and identity cards. The list of recommendations also suggested conducting a large-scale, comprehensive study of the “behaviour and lifestyle” of aravanis in Tamil Nadu with the aim of “giving full rehabilitation for their improvement and upliftment of life”.

The cumulative effect of activist efforts from the transgender community and government sanction resulted in the constitution of the Aravani Welfare Board in May 2008, established specifically to address the issues of the aravanis in Tamil Nadu. The board includes ten official members who vote on and pass policy decisions, and ten unofficial aravani representatives who act in an advisory capacity. In the same month, in response to long-standing demands from the community and after intervention from the newly-formed Aravani Welfare Board, a third government order was issued, guaranteeing reserved seats to transgendered individuals in Tamil Nadu colleges and universities. In August 2008, in response to growing dissatisfaction with the welfare board’s silence on key issues of violence and stigma and also the increasingly infrequent meetings, a few aravani organisations came together under the banner of the Federation of Indian Transgenders (FIT) to constitute a body to ensure the proper functioning of the Aravani Welfare Board as well as the execution of the several policy-level changes made by the state government.

Contradictions in cultural identities and political action 

Male-to-female transgender people of India have traditionally organised themselves in communes, usually called jamaats. A unit of this matriarchal structure features an older hijra or aravani as a ‘guru’ (or mother-figure with several chelas (younger, newly initiated hijras/aravanis) as her acolytes. There are elaborate rituals that mark one’s entry into a jamaat and acceptance as a chela. These rituals, with their mytho-religious underpinnings, bind them to a structure of kinship in which relationships, roles and duties are both implicitly suggested and explicitly performed. Among these duties include the tribute of money by chelas to gurus from begging, sex work, or other forms of employment, obedience to community norms with regards to behaviour and dress, and affectionate devotion. Gurus are expected to provide guidance, emotional support for the young chelas, and advice about undergoing castration. This community structure, while looser and less binding in south India than in northern regions of the country, nevertheless provides one of the few real-world (and admittedly rigidly hierarchical and problematic) models for aravanis in how to organise as a family and community after establishing a public transgender identity. 

It should be noted at this juncture that the jamaat system frequently fosters violent and coercive behaviour between gurus and chelas, in no small part due to the pressures to earn money and support community members in the context of a larger social stigma. For example, in July 2008, Devayani, a young transgender woman living in Chennai, committed self-immolation allegedly in response to harassment from her guru, Jaya. Latha, a friend who tried to save her from the flames, survived while Devayani suffered third-degree burns and died at the hospital a few days after the incident. Jaya was charged for extortion and abetment of suicide. The incident accentuated the existing tensions within the guru-chela system and emphasised its profoundly hierarchical and potentially repressive possibilities, while also highlighting the inability or unwillingness of the newly-constituted Aravani Welfare Board to publicly address issues of violence against and within the community. There was little intervention from the Aravani Welfare Board during or after the Latha-Devayani episode.

At the same time, there is a valid argument from both older and younger members of the aravani community that the effort to ‘rehabilitate’ transgender women by the Tamil state and aravani activists can lead to an erasure of all that is oppositional, subversive, and empowering about the re-authoring of heterosexist Indian traditions by the aravani jamaat religious practices. For example, in her book Aravanigal Samugya Varaiviyal, Priya Babu refers to a popular aravani religious event, the Koovagam Festival, which takes place annually at the Koothandavar temple in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu. “Even the name ‘aravani,’ though of recent usage,” she writes, “bears permanent reference to the story of Aravan in the Mahabharatha. Aravanis see themselves as that transgendered aspect that Krishna assumed for a night to marry Aravan, to fulfill his wish for conjugal union before his sacrifice to the gods the next morning…Even today, at Koothandavar Temple in Villupuram district, aravanis congregate every year to commemorate this narrative. Ecstatic celebrations of their marriage to Aravan are followed overnight by their sorrow of mourning for their dead husband.” This festival, in addition to being a common gathering point for aravanis in south India, also serves as an empowering space in which to publicly worship and rewrite the framing of religious texts from a genderqueer perspective and as a subaltern re-reading of an episode from the Mahabharatha. However, the reformist tendencies of the state processes are revealed in the following observation made in The Hindu in a news item on the aravanis’response to the constitution of the Aravani Welfare Board: “KM Ramathal, of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women, said the transgenders had rights to celebrate, but by taking part in certain rituals like tying the ‘thaali and removing them’ in Koovagam, the transgenders were only lowering themselves” (May 6, 2008).

In acknowledging the historical context of the jamaat system, many aravani activists point to its storied past as an instance of the respect transgendered women received in the medieval Moghul courts, as well as to the mention of transgender women in ancient south and north Indian texts such as Silappadikaram and the Mahabharata, as a legitimising example of the aravani place in the Indian tradition, and as a way of drawing a sharp distinction between the de-stigmatised identity of aravanis in the past and their marginalised identities in the present. Simultaneously, many aravani activists decry the violence, rigidity, and acceptance of heterosexual feminine norms within the jamaat system as primitive and incompatible with the modern identity as citizen. Several younger aravanis have publicly expressed discontent with the traditional structures and find them restrictive and undermining in their pursuit of civil rights. In Revathi’s book Unarvum Uruvavum (a transgender activist with Sangama in Bangalore), she includes this commentary on generational and cultural differences within the aravani community: “In today’s context, when we go to work fighting for rights, and when they say, ‘I am your naani, I am your guru. You should obey me. Sit down. Do this, do that, massage my feet,’ it is an impediment in our rights-based work in the world. We accept their opinions. Elders (in the community) must also listen to us.”

Conclusion 

The use of a strategic essentialism, to borrow Gayatri Spivak’s term, certainly has its political uses by presenting the aravani identity as homogeneous across the population, part of a supposedly blameless and glorious Indian past, and thus deserving of civil rights and social acceptance. However, this technique of visibility has the effect of denaturing all that is subversive, sexual, and liberatory about the traditional jamaat practice—preventing an honest community appraisal of what is both an oppositional and oppressive alternative social system, while giving it the sheen of non-threatening tradition. Ultimately, without a space in which to openly assess the internal struggles of the community and acknowledge the sheer multiplicity of voices and values within the aravani population—a space that the Aravani Welfare Board does not appear to provide--the uses of strategic essentialism effectively erase the shifting strategies that give aravani identities and desires the strength of opposition and draw the larger identification of the community under the purview of State-defined identities in the name of attaining provisional rights and privileges. 

It is tempting to argue that the sense of individuation that is inherent in the demand for and bestowing of civil rights is in some senses antithetical to community structures that are strictly vertical and hierarchical. Another troubling binary in which this debate is framed is that of communing and mainstreaming, with the latter (problematic) concept dreaded – many times understandably – as a process that tolls the death knell for rituals and traditions that hold the community together and give it a sense of coherence and narrative power. The issues and arguments here need to be teased out without falling into the traps of some simplistic binary framework of tradition versus modernity where the individuation emphasised by the discourse of civil rights is somehow perceived as detrimental to traditional collective arrangements.

It is in this context that activities like the ethnographic work undertaken by people like Priya Babu documenting aravani cultural practices and arts, theatre work by groups like the Kannadi Kalai Kuzhu, and the compilation of aravani self-narratives by Revathi figure as some of the diverse efforts that have contributed to the cumulative strength of the movement. I further suggest a deeper commitment to both self-reflexive practices of assessment from within the community as well as building alliances—both strategic and personal--with other political movements.

Any empancipatory movement demands an ongoing engagement with both, the powers of the State, the desire for legitimation, and a critical stance towards the choices made in the attempt to achieve a space for oppositional desire and identity. This level of engagement with larger issues of heteropatriarchy and sexism within the community, as well as a critical approach to the pragmatics, risks, and limits of engaging with the State, can help sustain a movement beyond the specific pursuit of legal rights and also create a more equitable and accepting space both within and outside the community itself. 

(Padma Govindan is the founder and co-director of the Shakti Centre, a sexuality advocacy and research non-profit organisation in Chennai. She is also a sex advice columnist for Marie Claire India)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009