After having worked for the United Nations for little more than a decade, I realized that the International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrated annually on March 8, was started in the early 1900s by labour rights activists who spoke on how social categories such as race, gender, class, and nationality impact each other.
With this basic premise in mind, I had often wondered how a transgender woman like me could find space in celebrating IWD. Over many deliberations with friends and colleagues, I’ve decided that for me, IWD is more about intersectionality — the way in which different forms of oppression coincide and collide. This year, I want to highlight the plight of an often-forgotten group of women, who are most times invisible and silenced, due to the social stigma and daily discrimination they face: lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) women.
Photo: UNDP India
Understanding this opens International Women’s Day up to be a time not only for “women’s empowerment” but for reflection on how to better protect queer, trans and non-binary people and understand how intersectionality works in their lives. This day for me is both a day of protest and celebration. It’s a time to reflect on feminist achievements over the years as well as a time to take action to end the violence and discrimination that women, transgender, and non-binary people continue to experience because of who they are and who people think they should be.
We know inclusion matters, yet all too often trans persons and non-binary persons are excluded from the conversation. This affects everything from the development of tools that we use to live full and enriched lives, to the construction of laws, policies, and institutions that define our capacity to enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms. Lesbian, trans, and queer women face loads of stigma and discrimination. They’re seen as “bad women” or “not woman enough.” These are not harmless labels — these labels mean that the harms they face go unrecognized. That their voices aren’t heard. That their lives and realities are discounted, including the violence that they face.
Photo: UNDP India
Despite the women’s rights movement and the trans movement having won recognition for some key concerns, they are still far from having full access to their rights. Patriarchy is the root cause for both misogyny and transphobia: gender differences are used to back a system of male supremacy with women, trans, and gender non-conforming people in inferior positions. The trans community and the women’s rights movements are fighting the violent consequences of disobeying gender norms and questioning predetermined gender roles.
Like most transgender persons across India and the world, I have dealt with stigma, harassment, violence and sexual assault. The hijra community still faces considerable stigma based on over a century of being characterized as mentally ill, socially deviant and sexually predatory. While these flawed views have faded in recent years for hijras and transgender persons are still often met with ridicule from a society that does not understand us. This stigma plays out in a variety of context – leaving us vulnerable to lawmakers who attempt to leverage anti-transgender stigma to score political points; to family, friends or coworkers who reject transgender people upon learning about our transgender identities; and to people who harass, bully and commit serious violence against transgender people.
Photo: UNDP India
Last year the Government of India passed the Protection of Transgender Persons Act, which received presidential ascent in December 2019. The Act, meant to protect the trans community, stands on the very foundation that evokes the idea of discrimination. The Transgender Rights Act treats gender in a fixed binary, which goes against the basic principle trans rights activists have been fighting. The Act has flouted the directions of the honourable Supreme Court, and the guidelines set by international bodies like World Medical Association, and World Professional Association for Transgender Health. It violates the fundamental rights of transgenders. The trans community is largely of the opinion that the Act makes a mockery of their personhood, community, rights and only adds to everyday humiliation and violation. I absolutely concur. In its current state, the Act will lead to promoting transphobia.
Sometimes in social and academic circles, we often have to reiterate that Trans equality is not a threat to women’s rights. Accepting and supporting human rights for trans people does not eradicate the specific existence or experience of women and their struggle for equality. On the contrary, greater gender diversity benefits all by allowing everyone to explore and define their gendered identity more individually. It is likewise important that the trans rights movement supports full equality for all women.
Zainab Patel, is a transgender woman, currently Director-Inclusion and Diversity at a multinational management consulting firm and ex UN staffer