The region of Punjab is known for its warriors, army and, Punjabi songs which are explicit in the perpetuation of sexism. In short, the region has a long standing history rooted in explicit display of masculinity. This has created a culture of toxic masculinity which is reiterated and rewarded by patriarchy. In such a culture of toxic masculinity deviating from the norm of heteronormativity is usually met by violence from families and society at large.
Mx Dhananjay Chauhan, trans-woman and first Transgender student of Punjab University has not only challenged the norms of gender in a hyper-masculine setup. They have also reshaped the education system in the region of Punjab by opening doors of Punjab University for Transgender people. They have many firsts to their name and a tireless body of work that they have done for the Transgender community in Punjab. SheThePeople caught up with Mx Dhananjay Chauhan on a telephonic conversation. We trace her journey of fighting for acceptance and ultimately the redemptive power of education.
Childhood and Early Life
Being a non-binary Trans person in a gendered world can be a disconcerting experience as a child. On her experience of navigating her identity as a child and early years is, “I realised this between the ages of 3-5, the realisation is not absolute, the more you grow older you start to realise your identity. Since childhood, first I was ignored, and then they even tried to “correct” me. At the age of 6 I was admitted in school and I used to feel confused about the washrooms because our home had just one washroom. I did not know which one to use”.
She further alludes to the continuous harassment she faced from her family, “I was subjected to bullying and harassment. I was even subjected to correction therapy, I was taken to quacks, local doctors, ojha who did jhaad-phook . They burnt my skin and beat me because everyone thought there is a ghost or spirit inside of me. These incidents kept happening and I realised that this torture would continue by family so I decided to pretend I am a man by being overtly masculine. I tried wearing pant, shirt, kept a beard and moustache. I had to “be” a man, play the role of a man. But the voice that always came from within was that of a woman”.
Navigating Transgender Person Identity within the Punjabi Culture
As a trans-woman who has been married and has a heteronomative family with wife and children, she continues to live with her family. I asked her that within the hyper-masculine Punjabi culture and continuing to stay with family, how does she navigate her way through the institution of family?
Her response to this questions was, “It is true that till the time you are living with your family, there is a lot of pressure. Family members do not want their kids to be become trans or transition. Nobody wants it, everyone in family wants their children to be cisgender. Absolute acceptance for your gender identity from family and society at large is rare. Even if society accepts it nobody would want a transgender child to be born in their house. The pressure in the Punjabi society men with moustaches, Punjabi songs encouraging masculinity, in this culture women are granted second place and Transgender person are granted the third place. It is quite clear that men are always first and Transgender people may or may not be a third or fourth, sometimes even we do not know that”.
Upon the pressure of living with family she says, “So pressure has always been there. Acceptance sometimes occurs as a last measure because there is no other option for the family. We also become stubborn that we will stay with our family come what may, not abandon our family, where will we go? Majority leaves their homes, so there is a still a lot of pressure. So you have the fight to survive it’s the only way to continuing living with family. Living with family is also not easy. My daughters cannot be married off because nobody is ready to marry them. Kids of Transgender people do not find acceptance either.”
The Decade Long Struggle for Education
Mx Dhananjay Chauhan made history when she acquired admission in Punjab University and became the first Transgender person to get admission in a university. It was a decade long struggle they had to endure before they could be welcomed by the educational institutions. Shedding light upon her decade long struggle she says, “In 1988-89 when I took admission in college for graduation it was very difficult for me but I kept my identity hidden and kept identifying as a man. I topped BA honours in 1993 and then took admission in History department. I was ragged and I was subjected to an attempt to rape. That’s when I dropped out of the history department. In the year 1994 I tried taking admission in law even during that time I was ragged by the students, misbehaved with me, then I left studies”.
However, her struggle fie education continued and this time by forming an organization that promotes Transgender rights. “The fight re-started again after 2002.Once you have gone through rape, gang, bullying and harassment of all forms, you want to fight and this fight to get admission has been going on for the last ten years. Then I started Saksham Trust and started working for the rights of Transgender people in the region of Punjab”.
It was through this organisation and her work with the transgender community she also contributed to the landmark NALSA judgement. “In 2012 when the preparation for NALSA was going on, I had represented Punjab and Chandigarh. When on 15th April 2014 the NALSA judgement was delivered we were given the identity as third gender. Then the roads were clear and I could come out with my identity and could remove the male gender from my identity. In 2015 I changed by all my documents”.
Post NALSA judgement the path to educational institutions were finally open. “I was already in my 40s by then but Transgender people denied to study because they were alright with the traditional profession of begging, badhai and sex work. It is easy money even though it deprives you of self-respect. If this is what I wanted to do I could have done this in the 90s when I recognised myself I could have run away and lived with the hijras and made a living begging, dancing and selling sex work. I never chose that path. Since no one from the TG community was coming forward to take admission despite provisions for third gender I decided to take admission. That’s when the problems started. I already knew how the university functioned because I had been fighting for a long time by then. I also knew that if you want to change the system you have to be a part of the system. Without being in the system you cannot be the change”.
Gaining Admission and the Path Forward
The battle may have been won when she took admission in the university but the war of survival was yet to be waged. While gaining admission maybe have been an integral stepping stone she still had to attend classes, be with people who may not be accepting of her identity as a trans-woman so how did she navigate that? While the path may not have been easy she says the administration backed her, “My first fight in the university was for separate washrooms. I never understood which toilet to use between male and female. I wrote a letter to the Vice Chancellor who responded in 10-15 days that 23 lacs budget has been passed for 4 toilets to be installed in PU. This happened in 2016. Then the next issue was for fees. How can we pay fees? I again wrote to the Vice Chancellor and now Transgenders don’t have to pay fees to study. I got an anti-discrimination cell made within the university”.
The responsiveness of the State is equally crucial in ensuring the welfare of Transgender people. For this reason every State is supposed to have a Transgender Board. ” I was also crucial in initiating a Transgender welfare board so that people from all departments can sit together in one table and frame policies for Transgender. It has members from the Police and Social welfare department. Transgender people are also a part of this board. So awareness is spreading slowly.
On her closing notes she sounded hopeful when she said, “Govt authorities slowly started to accept us, students started to accept us. First they used to ignore me and bully me but because I kept going back to classes and upon the creation of the anti-discrimination cell if someone resorts to ragging then they will be rusticated. So measures like these slowly started change the university space”.
Why It Matters?
Mx Dhananjay Chauhan by being the first university student inspired the Transgender community to take charge of their lives and seek redemption and acceptance through education. A film, ‘Admitted’ has also been made documenting her journey of gaining admission in Punjab University and her struggles to get there. They continue to stay with their family and work tirelessly for the transgender community in the Punjab region. An example like this sets a crucial precedent of what the future of Transgender rights looks like and if this success story is any indication then, the road ahead does not look bleak or hopeless.
Priyanka Chakrabarty is an intern for SheThePeople.TV