by Asam Ahmad
Panmai is a theatre troupe in Tamil Nadu, India, founded and led by trans activists Living Smile Vidya, Angel Glady and Gee Imaan Semmalar. They recently toured the United States with their play Colour of Trans 2.0, marking the first visit of its kind. Caste is a hierarchical form of social stratification that is similar to race in many ways (but also distinct in others). Caste discrimination is still endemic throughout South Asia (and its diaspora). Being transgender within a society stratified through caste also leads to various exclusions inside and outside the caste hierarchy itself.
The idea of forming a cultural group for trans and caste-oppressed people was first floated by Living Smile Vidya, who saw similar platforms in London during her 6 months training for theatre. When she came back to India, she got her friend, roommate and fellow theatre artist Angel Glady to join her. For the third member she approached her brother Gee Imaan Semmalar and he, of course was thrilled and honoured to join them in this endeavor. Together they founded Panmai in 2014. They hope to expand this platform in future to invite other trans and non trans resistance fighters to creatively express their experiences and visions for social change.
Colour of Trans 2.0 is an evocative performance that traces the experiences of the actors themselves through seven episodes. The performances mixes the forms of cabaret, monologues, clown theatre, commedia del arte, pathos, realism, film and theatre of the absurd. Colour of Trans 2.0 is for anyone interested in questions of self representation, trans activism, caste and new interventions in theatre.
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I spoke with Gee Imaan Semmalar, Living Smile Vidya and Angel Glady via email to learn more about their work and their experiences traveling in the US.
1. What do you want readers to know about being trans & dalit?
Angel: “Panmai (in Tamil ) means diversity. We are a mixed caste trans group with Dalit, Bahujan and upper caste backgrounds. In our play, we address our specific caste locations and how it has affected our journey as trans people.”
Smiley: “For instance, there is an episode in the play in which we become the members of our family and talk about their perspective, how they reacted to our gender assertions and how their reactions in turn, affected us. Our journeys meant that our families had to also transition with us. Our gender identity is linked to caste in such a way that it is impossible to separate the two at all. We talk about the difference in our caste and class backgrounds in that episode. We also critique Brahminism and vegetarianism which is linked similarly in inseparable ways in India, in other parts of the play.”
Smiley: “Caste is a graded system of inequality. Of course, if you are Dalit (“Untouchable”), you are more disadvantaged no matter what your gender is, than an upper caste person. If you are a Dalit trans person, then you are completely pushed to the margins both within your community and by caste Hindu society. Notions of caste honour and shame result in even upper caste trans people, especially trans women being disowned by their families when they are very young. We feel we need to expose caste from all sides, from all positions.”
2. How is caste different from race?
Gee: “Though there are racialised/racist stereotypes about lower caste communities in mainstream media and consciousness, caste has nothing to do with skin colour or biology. Caste hierarchies are maintained through property relations, caste networks, perpetuation of Hinduism, political power and access to resources. When you are disowned when you are young, even if you are upper caste, you lose a considerable amount of caste privileges that you would have otherwise accessed. This may be the reason why we have observed a lot of upper caste trans people wait for many years before they transition or assert their gender identities for fear of losing their caste privileges. So, caste has a role to play within trans communities but I don’t think it operates in the same way in trans communities as it does in non trans communities.”
Angel: “Unfortunately, NGOs in India hire people based on English speaking skills and this is usually the upper caste trans people.”
Smiley: “For example, I am the first trans woman to write my autobiography in India and I have not got any job offers from NGOs or mainstream spaces. I have a Masters degree in Linguistics too. I see my unemployment as a combination of gender and caste discrimination.”
Gee: “So the caste system acts very strongly here also because upper caste trans people are employed in higher positions, go for international conferences, are given better salaries in NGOs. Facing multiple oppressions of caste, class and gender obviously results in greater vulnerability and a disproportionately large number of Dalit trans people drop out of school.”
Gee: “In fact, there is a lot of similarity between how caste atrocities against Dalit women and crimes against trans women across caste are committed. Stripping, parading naked, shaving of heads, sexual abuse with complete impunity, no method to seek legal redress. And so we feel that only if we destroy caste can there be any semblance of gender justice or social democracy for trans people. I would say that trans people, especially trans women across caste when disowned by their families are sexually abused with impunity, face homelessness, police violence and are socially and politically dispossessed.”
Smiley: “Yes, one major fear of mine when I transitioned was that I knew there were only two options of begging and sex work available to trans women in India. As someone who had struggled all my life to be educated, coming from a dalit background, I felt this was again like a caste occupation where hijras become a caste with only these two options available to us.”
3. You state that “We found that the oppressive caste system is as virulent in the diaspora as in the subcontinent.” Can you specify in what ways you experienced this virulent system while travelling here and how it operates amongst the diaspora from your vantage point?
Gee: Every upper caste Indian who goes abroad immediately becomes just a person of color in progressive circles, even though they practice caste and benefit from caste apartheid. We found that there is segregation in terms of social circles, political organising, marriages etc. between upper castes and Dalits in the diaspora in the same way that it exists here. In fact, maybe because upper caste Indians feel uprooted or face cultural racism in white supremacist countries like North America, they identify with their roots more – their roots originating in caste Hindu power [which they don’t always recognize or acknowledge]. A lot of the funding for right wing groups also come from these particular communities in the diaspora.
Smiley: As a mixed caste trans group, we faced some of these prejudices from upper caste Indian audiences in some places on our tour. For example, in Boston, after the performance, during the question and answer round, a cisgender man introduced himself as a Brahmin and said that we don’t have as much insight about trans issues as him. One of our co actors had to call him out for patronising us and then he changed his track and claimed there is no practice of caste in the diaspora, which again a few anti caste organisers called him out on.
Glady: After the New York performance, one upper caste girl said, “You are representing my country India and you haven’t mentioned Rituparno Ghosh as a trans person in media.” We responded with the fact that we are not nationalist or representing any country but only our specific experiences as trans people from a certain context. To name every trans person who has achieved something in the subcontinent would indeed be a long list.
Gee: This nationalist sentiment itself is a brahmanical one because the idea of India as a single nation is a Hindu caste supremacist idea. India is actually just a collection of disparate states with different languages and cultures forcefully made into a nation due to colonialism and Indian upper caste nationalism.
4. What can readers in North America do to support you, and how can we decolonize our understandings of this issue in a North American context?
Gee: Readers in North America should be more critical of the South Asian diaspora and try to understand caste oppression because we [South Asians] cannot talk about gender without addressing caste or race. We appeal to our readers who see themselves as allies to support the more marginalised among trans people their local contexts – two spirit communities, black and Latino trans communities etc.
Angel: Trans men, unlike in the western context, are only recently organising themselves into a collective for political purposes here. In fact, last year was the first ever South Asian meeting of trans masculine, intersex and inter gender people to be conducted in India and there were 52 men from varied caste backgrounds at the meetup. It was also completely organised and led by trans men. We need to support these nascent movements more. Very few trans women in India also are sensitive to and accepting of trans men. We are working on changing this.
Smiley: On this trip, we were asked by a lot of North American people across race about hijras. Hijra is just a local term that refers to trans women here. Because of the western gaze of white filmmakers people have a superficial understanding of our issues. Hijras are seen as exotic beings who are neither man nor women and steeped in Hindu rituals. So, there are trans women/hijras who play this role of being exotic and linked to Hindu rituals. But you would find that a majority of them are upper caste trans women who tend to identify themselves with characters in Hindu mythology. We would like you to understand that hijras come from an Islamic culture historically in this subcontinent. We are people who face issues with finding houses on rent, employment issues, access to health care, finding respectful partners etc. Our lives are not exotic. Our lives are difficult and exhausting.
5. You note that you were surprised at upper-caste trans people leading workshops without being accountable to their caste privilege. From your perspective, why do you think it is so much easier to talk about all the other isms in North America and not acknowledge caste even within South asian diaspora itself? How can we make caste hierarchies more visible within a diaspora context?
Gee: I think it’s easier for upper caste trans people in the diaspora to talk about western capitalism, transphobia, racism etc and somehow place themselves outside of their own caste privilege because caste is not a visible difference. Unless you are aware of the caste system and how to place people’s surnames or how to discern their regional language dialects or religious practices, or just call out the constructed castelessness of their gender narratives, it is not something that a person who is not from a South Asian history will really catch on to.So it becomes easy for upper caste, university educated, privileged trans people from South Asia to take over spaces and posture simply as “people of colour” and talk about black trans people, race oppression etc. This is political dishonesty to say the least and must be challenged. The other thing is that now some people have begun to acknowledge their caste privilege by just naming themselves as upper caste but a deeper analysis of that position is absent.
Smiley: The other side is that, it is maybe because Dalits have escaped to places outside South Asia to overcome caste oppression and do not want to claim an identity steeped in humiliation that conversations around caste in the diaspora are lacking. Recently, we see that young Dalits in the diaspora are also coming out to assert their resistance against caste. I see such efforts like the Dalit history month as assertions in that direction.
Gee: One way to be aware of the hierarchy is to read anti caste literature and to question speakers from South Asia in the diaspora about where they are located in the caste system and how their vision for gender justice accounts for the annihilation of caste as well. Because there can be no gender Revolution of any sort in this subcontinent without overthrowing the caste system completely.
6. Any last comments?
Glady: Next time we come to North America, please don’t ask us about how Caitlyn Jenner affects trans people in India. We didn’t even know who she was. :p
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