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`We are no aliens'

With will and some support, hijras can escape the stereotypical roles they are trapped in. Sabeena Francis has set a fine example

"HAVE YOU ever seen a hijra working in an office?" asks Sabeena Francis. "How many people are willing to give us a chance?" If the stereotype of a hijra — gaunt male features, coquettish feminine gestures, dancing, begging, or engaged in prostitution for a living — is stuck in your mind, Sabeena will force you to rethink. A particularly articulate activist of the hijra community, her mission is to help the hijras get out of the traditional roles they are trapped in, even while persuading society to look at them as "normal humans with normal aspirations". "We are women trapped in men's bodies, not aliens," she says.

It was in the course of a personal battle for acceptance and a life of dignity that Sabeena felt the need for a more focused and broad-based approach. That was how she and some like-minded friends formed South India Aravani Rights and Rehabilitation Centre (SIARRC) — an initiative financially and technically supported by the NGO, New Entity for Social Action (NESA). The charitable trust, formed early this year in Trichi, helps aravanis (as hijras are called in Tamil Nadu, since they believe they are "wives" of the deity Aravana) through workshops, awareness camps, income-generation programmes, and so on.

But it was much earlier — after she passed her 12th in Bombay — that Sabeena woke up to the fact that she was "different", and joined the hijra community. She is cryptic about what drove her decision: "A hijra is confused in her growing up years. Nobody understands her. People only believe what they see and not how anyone feels inside. And when you meet someone else like your own self, you say with relief, `They are my people!'. And they, in turn, tell you, `We were like you once upon a time.'"

But what was it that prevented Sabeena from taking to the traditional hijra roles? It was probably her own family and educational background, the fact that her decision to join the community did not prompt her family to ostracise her. "You are our child however you are. You have to stay with us," said her father S. Francis (who, incidentally, hails from Kolar Gold Fields) and mother Rani Francis. So, she stayed within the secure and "legitimate" confines of the family even after she became a hijra. What made her resolve to take the untrodden path even stronger was her association with G.R. Khairnar. As part of a rehabilitation programme launched by the firebrand Maharashtra bureaucrat, she began working as a "rescue officer" — someone who comes to the aid of young girls trapped in brothels, conducts HIV and AIDS awareness workshops, and so on.

One can see that this association has given Sabeena an analytical and activist edge, besides fuelling an academic curiosity about things around her. It was, in fact, an urge to know more about the cult worship of Aravana among hijras in Tamil Nadu that first brought her from Bombay to Tamil Nadu, from where she now works. She feels that hijras are far worse off in south India than they are in the north. "Hijras occupied important positions in pre-British times. It was during the British era that the position of hijras deteriorated in society and it got no better after Independence," she says. "Nobody even knows for sure how many hijras are there in our country, since they are simply categorised as `female' in the census." Though they are estimated to number over one crore, there are no official figures available.

Sabeena feels that it is time the government woke up to the needs of this much-maligned minority group, by providing reservation in education and employment and by amending laws on marriage, adoption, and property ownership to give them legitimate space in society.

In the meantime, Sabeena achieved a personal coup of sorts when she managed to get a passport under the `female' category. "All my documents slotted me as `male'. But the officials granted me a passport as `female' because I filed an affidavit saying I had joined the hijra community." Sabeena says that this achievement could set an example for the rest of the community.

But she abhors slotting of any kind. She doesn't even want the tag of a hijra activist for a lifetime. She is doing a certification course in communication and fund-raising from Bangalore, even as she is doing her masters in sociology from Annamalai University. She looks forward to being a fund-raiser for NESA itself.

Another of her dreams is to work in a newspaper office. "It must be exciting, meeting so many new people everyday!" she says, full of energy and enthusiasm.


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