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Interview – Pavel Sagolsem

Pavel Sagolsem, selfdescribed, is a storyteller, vagabond at heart and queer feminist by practice. Pavel is a founding partner of The Chinky Homo Project, and has worked with Centre for Health and Social Justice, Breakthrough India, and Nazariya: QFRG on diverse issues of sexuality, gender and rights. Ze has also spoken on the intersections of ethnicity, race and transgender identity specific to the north-east India Diaspora, in Godrej India Culture Lab 2019 and Transform 2020. Ze was also a member of the Advisory Team to the Delhi Chapter of RISE: India’s First LGBTI Job Fair, Conference & Marketplace in January 2020. Ze was also a Meitei Storyteller at Bookaroo: Festival of Children’s Literature 2013 and Confluence: Festival of Indigenous Storytellers in 2010 and 2011. Prior to this interview Pavel has written on Beauty, Intimacy, Sex and Sexuality for earlier issues of In Plainspeak.  Speaking of zer own femininity, Pavel says, “… now there is a sense of power, a sense of confidence associated with it. It is something that gives me happiness and something which to me is a mark of resilience, struggle, achievements, or in one word, fearlessness.”

Shikha Aleya (SA): Pavel, a warm thank you for this interview. To begin at the beginning, with the theme of this issue of In Plainspeak, please share your understanding of the concept of femininity with our readers.

Pavel Sagolsem (PS): Femininity to me is a mix of interpretations, and often they sound opposite or contrastive to one another. It depends on the perspective through which you are trying to make sense of it. I believe this is where I draw a difference between the way I understand it, vis-a-vis the way it is understood in the popular sense of the word, where it is essentially defined as being soft, nurturing, or what is culturally and traditionally known as ‘the roles of women’. That said, in some ways, femininity to me is also exactly the way it is popularly understood.  And when it comes to that, it is more about the aspirations, or a preferred way of life, or how I want to be, in terms of the gender presentation, gender expression, or the kind of role that interests me. So, if I wanted to play with dolls it also reflected my affinity towards the above mentioned ‘roles of women’ viz., the way women are represented, the gender expressions they are characterised by as per cultural and social norms and beliefs.

At the same time, a very personal interpretation of femininity is to exhibit and perceive “strength” from a certain perspective. I think women are also angry, women also have rage, women also have the capacity to offend. And by this I am not necessarily trying to paint women in a bad light, I’m just trying to say that these capabilities are innate in all of us, as human beings. All of us have the potential to exhibit or possess numbers of possible characteristic traits. Whether you will (or will not) be able to exhibit or possess any characteristic trait, be it being soft or hard/rough etc., doesn’t depend on the anatomy of your body. For that matter, femininity to me also means a certain sense of force, strength, perseverance, because this is what I’ve seen in my mom, in my aunts, in my grandmother, in the stories I’ve heard, and the lived experiences of friends and colleagues, who are assigned female at birth. I feel that there is a certain way in which they deal with struggles in life, which is coming from perseverance, and not just a show of might. That’s how I would draw a difference between masculine and feminine.

When we talk of the nurturing aspect of the masculine, or what we call the ‘masculine’, there is usually an expectation or an instigation to adhere to a certain decorum, or code of conduct, laid down by the person doing the nurturing, and accordingly you get (or will not get) their attention and care. Whereas when it comes to the feminine, I think the care comes from a space where there is more acceptance and understanding of the person as they are. The masculine being nurturing takes on a sort of saviour mode, whereas the feminine mode of nurturing may not take on a saviour mode but rather of becoming a partner in the sadness, in the joy, of the other person. It is not coming from a sense of agreeing or disagreeing with an ideology, and the consequent reward or punishment, but more from a place of compassion and empathy.

SA: Thanks Pavel! Please do tell us a little more about the personal meaning and significance of femininity, as it has manifested and evolved for you over the years?

PS: One thing that I also want the reader to understand is that I am a non-binary person. To me being a non-binary person means that I’m not a person who will make a certain definitive distinction between masculine and feminine, or, that I don’t desire to be particularly masculine or feminine. I like both. I aspire for both. I feel that the world needs both. I would want to be both.

A lot of my sense of gender identity comes from a sense of ‘fear of missing out’ or FOMO! This governs every aspect of my life. For example, I always wanted to be that good student who gets good marks, whom the teacher loves because they are good in studies and because they are also good-natured, but at the same time I would also want to be part of the group in the class who were known for being brats.  That’s my FOMO, I want to be part of everything. I don’t want to miss out on anything. So there is also that sense of curiosity. This also impacts my gender identity. I wanted to be both. But then, the reason I don’t just say, “I’m a non-binary person”, but also a “femme” person is because I know that there has been more affinity towards the feminine, the culturally, socially understood norms of being a woman. Partly it could have been because I was assigned male at birth and hence I was denied access to what is considered as feminine. Precisely because that was something I could never have, my affinity towards the feminine increased. I used to love going out in the playground in the evening, run around, play cricket and football, and all of that.  But during the afternoons, when the sun was way up high, and parents wouldn’t let their children go out, that time of the day when girls would play with dolls, I would also want to be with them. Back in those times my sister and her friends played a game called Ita Laakpi. They would behave like women of different households and enact scenes of family visits or kitty parties, a role-play game imitating adult life in reality or in movies, TV soaps and serials. Most of the time my sister never allowed me to participate. Some days she took pity on me and allowed me to join them. And when she did, she would give me a boy doll or in case of Ita Laakpi, they would always make me play a male role, like a husband, and never let me play a female role. This is how I understood what games I was allowed to play and what I wasn’t. This, I believe, was also because I was an ‘effeminate’ kid and hence there was even more pressure on me to refrain from femininity, in order to make me more masculine, or reform my natural gait.

The whole family would often remark, “Oh he’s going to become a homo”. ‘Homo’ was how transgender people were understood back at home. There is more clarity now, as people know that gay and transgender are different, but at that time, the word gay was not so popular. So ‘homo’ was used synonymously for transgender people as well as homosexual people. The idea of sexuality was not there, or sexual orientation was mostly interpreted from a gendered perspective.  Such as, “He likes a boy, then he must want to be a girl.” I was an effeminate guy and everybody said, “He’s gonna become that homo!” (as in transgender) and everyone was so strict with me. If I went and touched something of (or related to) women they would scold and pull me away. Maybe if it was another boy who was not as effeminate as me, and if he was playing with something which is supposed to be for women, people might laugh and say, “Eh, what is he doing?!” and might take it as a joke, but my doing it was something they’d take very seriously because they were scared that it would influence me to become more feminine. That’s why I used the word ‘femme’, because I know that there has been a stronger sense of identification with women folk, with wanting to be and to look like them. I wanted to do the jobs, play the role, I wanted to know how to cook the way they cook (the typical poise and grace with which they do a certain job assigned to them as their role). At that time there was no washing machine, so people used to wash clothes by hand, and there are some aunts and female cousins who, when they washed clothes or utensils, those clothes and utensils were spick and span. It was amazing and we didn’t know how they did it. Things like this were part of my aspirations as I grew up. But at the same time I also wanted to be ‘masculine’, as in somebody who was not just confined to and familiar with domestic spaces only, but also spent a fair amount of time outside of home, one who goes out of the home and who’s not afraid. I wanted to pick up combat skills, like karate. I didn’t want to be ‘weak’ or just be so-called ‘soft’ but also wanted to be rough and tough.

For me, femininity is also about oppression and about being oppressed. Because I have seen it. I was assigned male at birth, and had access to both worlds. I could go out of my house. When I was a child, boys would be roaming around in the vicinity of their house, while the girls were inside the house playing with dolls. This is how the boys and girls were segregated. If I wanted to go out and roam around with my friends, I could. That meant going around the nooks and corners of the locality, walking into some dense area with lots of trees and climbing them, swimming in the pond, things like that. My parents themselves would often remark, “Why don’t you go out and do these things with your friends rather than sit and play dolls with your sister?” I could. But my sister could not. If she wanted to go and do the role of a boy, she could not. That is something I understood very early on.

That was the fear I had in my mind most of the time, that if I was allowed to be the woman that I want to be, the girl that I wanted to be, and if what they are saying is true that I am predominantly a girl in the body of a boy, I was also afraid that they would not allow me to do a lot many things. So I could be fighting for their approval to play with dolls or put on make-up, but if they allowed me that, they would also become more protective. They would curb certain freedoms of mine. This happened later on in my life. When I first came out to them as a homosexual person, they didn’t think of me as somebody who is ‘weak’ and needing protection because I was still a ‘man’ to them. So they felt they had to allow me to be strong on my own. But the moment I told them I am a gender queer person, and when they saw me in a feminised version of myself, they suddenly became more protective of me. When I put myself out as a feminine person I was already around thirty years old, an adult person who had lived ten years away from home. All this while they were not so concerned about my safety when I was out in the street or simply when I was outside of home and away from their sight. When I started feminising myself publicly, as in wearing make-up or feminine clothes and presenting myself as feminine, suddenly there was a stricter reinforcement of prohibiting me from staying away from home till late in the night and often they would tell me how people will violate me because I am feminine, or a woman, or a femme person. I remember having an argument with them trying to vehemently stand by my feeling that despite the fact that I put myself out as a femme person, things haven’t changed. I am still strong, I can still put up a fight. I tried to tell them I am well aware and have gone through instances where someone was trying to force themself on to me. The point is, people only violate those whom they feel they can. Hence, for me, feminine also means confidence – to indulge in feminising myself as much as I can and know for sure that my femininity doesn’t mean I am weak or I cannot defend myself.

It’s also very interesting Shikha, it used to mean that for something which I desire to be, the only thing I could do was desire it, I couldn’t be it. It was an aspiration. At the same time, a lot of shame and guilt was also associated with it. I’m talking about a time when I was internalising all this shame.  A time when I was not an activist. But now there is a sense of power, a sense of confidence associated with it. It is something that gives me happiness and something which to me is a mark of resilience, struggle, achievements, or in one word, fearlessness.   

SA: What, for you, connects these concepts of being and identity, femininity, queerness and preferred gender pronouns and how do you explain this to those who may or may not understand?

PS:  There was a time when a person would use the word she for me and I was not comfortable, though I may have it as a very essential character trait of mine. There is a word in Manipuri that they would use with regard to me, ‘thekpa’, which refers to an effeminate way of talking or an effeminate way of being, like the sense of the word ‘curvy’, or as they say ‘matakna’ (hip-swaying walk) in Hindi, is used to refer to a feminine gait. I may be feminine, but as a young child I always struggled to prove to the world that I am more than what they made of me. Because I see a lot of different qualities inside of me. In their effort to deem me as necessarily weaker than other boys or men who were not as ‘feminine’, I was trying to prove myself ‘masculine’ in order to prove that I am not lesser, that I also equally feel as strong and powerful inside. So at that time when somebody would refer to me with the pronoun ‘she’, I used to feel, really, rebuked! As if I’m not understood. As if my effort to exhibit my ‘masculine’ self was not understood or acknowledged. I would often feel angry and think to myself, “Hey, I’m not wearing a skirt right now, I’m wearing a pant!” and, “I don’t have my hair long, my hair is short! Then why are you denying me the right to feel strong and powerful as a man when, after all, I am visibly conforming to the norms of masculinity?”

However, there is a person from the locality who used to occasionally use the female pronoun with me and would tease me by comparing me to the actresses Sri Devi and Madhuri. It was different when this person used to do it, I used to blush! I feel that when he used to do it, it was not from a sense of rebuke. I think he could see beyond what others could see and that he just loved me the way that I was. The way that I was being effeminate, he loved it, as compared to the other people around me for whom it was an anomaly. To him, my effeminacy was his muse. He would give me the space for both – he would treat me like a boy occasionally and occasionally as a girl, and he would connect with me on both terms without holding himself back on the basis of whether I was feminine or masculine. As for the rest of the people, like my sister or my mom, they would not share with me their feminine aspects, because of a fear that it would make me a ‘homo’. The men, like my brother or my friends or my uncle, they would not freely interact with me as they did with other so called ‘masculine’ boys such as my male cousins or male friends. They would also hold themselves back. Like how men hold themselves back from their association with women.

As a child, I was quiet, I did not have a mind of my own. I was always trying to prove different things to different people. Eventually when I was an adult, I realised that I had turned out to be sort of a jack of all trades. In the process of being brought up as a boy I learnt to be certain things and I cannot really let go of them. I have to use them to my own advantage – to get what I always wanted. Meanwhile the affinity to express and indulge in femininity never stopped. Eventually, it is on the privilege of being assigned a boy that I paved my way to arrive at a position in my life where I can own up my feminine aspiration and finally come out and embrace and live it, publicly. During this whole process I did not want to choose between ‘he’ or ‘she’. I always wanted both. Then and now, my experience with my pronouns are about the possibilities that can happen in my life. That said, I would prefer that when people refer to me by the male pronoun they are not denying nor shunning the feminine side of me. Or that when somebody refers to me by the female pronoun, they are not taking away certain capabilities, categorised as ‘masculine’, basically that of someone who can fight for themself. For me, pronouns only reflect a matter of possibilities and the various ways in which you can express yourself and be understood by different people.

As such, my understanding was, there are so many different sides to me, how do I say which side is me? I am all of them put together. At the current stage of my life, being an out and proud person, not just in terms of my sexuality but in terms of my gender expression, my preferred pronoun is ze. But I don’t mind he or she. Ze is a pronoun I came across about five or six years ago, and it is a mix of he and she. A lot of non-binary and trans persons prefer the pronouns they and them, to get away from the binary. For me it was not about getting away from the binary, it was about being anyone, whenever I want to. My ideal world would be where I can be whatever I want to be. Whether I want to be one, or the other, or a cross between both, I want to be what I want to be, and that is why I am a gender non-conforming person.

Why does the pronoun matter? Like I said, I felt it was a rebuke when I was putting an effort to express myself in a certain way and people used the alternate pronoun. But maybe it was not a rebuke at all times. It could be me being trapped in my own insecurities and fear of being called out and always in paranoia of it. That said, I can also recall that those people who cared for me, they tried to ignore it. Like my grandmothers. They never brought it up. They never called me homo in their life. I know my feminine nature must create a certain discomfort in them. They must worry about me. But they did not want to bring it up. It must be a struggle for them to accept me without bringing it up! To always keep their discomfort and worry suppressed, and taking a leap of faith, always giving a chance and benefit of doubt that I may be different from everyone around me, that maybe it is just who I am and they don’t have to necessarily change me but rather allow me to just be.  Many times, when somebody brings up the case of my femininity, I know that there is some malicious intent along with it. I know that those people who cared, never brought it up. They just let me be. So then, the others who deliberately bring it up despite seeing the discomfort and shame and guilt it evokes, must be doing so with an intent to deliberately tease me and shame me. Hence people taking digs at me over my femininity used to trigger me then. Simply put, when it comes to the case of preferred pronouns and one’s insistence on it, it is not just a point of who you are inside, it’s also a matter of effort. To be acknowledged and for people to be mindful of ‘What is the effort you are putting in?’ If I am presenting myself as masculine, well you need to acknowledge that in me. Don’t go into determining my gender, or don’t go around trying to fix my gender on the basis of the sex of the body I was born as.

A risk here is the assumption that if a person is dressed in pants they must be identifying as a man; such assumptions could often lead to misgendering. You don’t want to misgender a person. Such an assumption comes from a very traditional understanding of gender norms. So what you can do is – you can ask.

With the above being said, I would also like to point out that words such as trans* or transgender are particularly loaded. It could be offensive to ask, “Are you transgender?” A gender tag such as non-binary is something new, not coated with social stigma yet, and came up at a time when there were already discourses on gender non-conformity. But the word transgender or trans came up when the environment was strictly heteronormative, heterosexist, there was a lot of fear and hatred of gender non-conformity. As such the term has in most of its existence been loaded with shame and hence the word can trigger a sense of being called out. Better is to ask, “What is your preferred pronoun?” Such a style of enquiry also gives us trans* persons a sense of having the agency to determine our gender rather than again being subjected to a presumptuous categorisation of us or to the practice of being stereotyped. Also, instead of asking “Are you gay?” it is better to ask “Are you attracted to men?” or “Do you want to fall in love with a man?” That is a more compassionate way of asking.

These days I say I am a proud homosexual or that I am a proud chinky homo, hence reclaiming words that used to create so much fear and anxiety in me. But it doesn’t mean that I am free of all the fear and anxiety of being shamed and stigmatised because of it in my prior life. I don’t know if it’ll ever completely go away from me. It is etched in my memories and my psyche. And maybe it will never go away as long as trans negativity and homophobia still exist in an overwhelming way in the society and environment I live in. That is why, when you ask, “What is your pronoun?” the word pronoun, is not so loaded. It’s a very safe way to approach the question.

SA: From the perspective of art, custom, rituals and belief systems, all of which reflect aspects at the core of an individual, a community or a society, how do you understand some of the many expressions of femininity, sexuality and rights that you have seen in the socio-cultural environments you have experienced?

PS: I feel femininity is very contextual. If I have to recount my experiences and thoughts from my childhood back in Manipur, amongst the valley-dwelling Meitei people in Imphal, the women were very much domesticated and always expected to remain within the confines of the home. Getting out only when you need to step out of home. You can’t loiter. If you are somebody with a job, then you can work in your office and you come back home. Then again, my mom would speak about women and men in Senapati district, in the outer region of Manipur inhabited by Naga people, which is where my father was posted for most of his life. There, being a woman meant travelling far from home, through the jungle, to the part of the forest where your family engages in jhum cultivation (a form of slash and burn agriculture) as a customary practice. She would also talk about how the roles were not so fixed as compared to the Meitei way of life in the valleys. Women and men in the hills would often do the same work in the field and at home. Men were also seen taking almost equal part in all child-rearing activities, just as much as women also engaged in farming. Hunting, however, was predominantly a man’s job and the head of the locality was always a man.  In the valley also, you will find men and women working together in the field and at home but the role was more segregated – the men will dig the earth (a more physically strenuous activity) and women will sow the seeds. Men step in to child-rearing activities when required, and not as a sense of their primary or essential duty.  It is so gendered. In the hills, men and women do the same things. Women also drink there. Women can loiter. My mom used to talk about how awesome it was to see all this when she went there and saw those women so powerful and also culturally acknowledged with capacities in no way lesser than of men. This is an observation in the way the notion of ‘being women’ or femininity differs as we observe two communities living a few kilometres apart. Imagine how much more diversity and variation might we come across as we compare the regions and cultures across the world.

Or for that matter, talk about the divide between North-eastern women and mainland Indian women. It is often said and believed that North-eastern women are more powerful as in, “they fight back, they are fierce, and they are more fashionable”. ‘Bold’ is the word used most of the time. But that doesn’t mean women are not oppressed back in the Northeast. Women are oppressed in a lot of ways back at home, though there are certain agencies and liberties that they enjoy vis-à-vis femininity here in mainland India in terms of relative mobility in and around the region and the choice of clothes they wear.  Also, the North-eastern women here who may look “bold” and “fearless” to the eye of the mainlander always live under a sense of threat and fear owing to being a foreigner to the culture and people here as compared to a woman who belongs to the city. I saw a post in Instagram stories from a North Indian woman about a lot of men out, drunk, brawling, and this woman was travelling all by herself and she was a little afraid, so she started chanting ram-ram-ram, and all the men said, “humari behen aa rahi hai, behen ko jaane do” (It is our sister, let her pass peacefully). A North-eastern woman doing this may not receive the same treatment.

I spoke with a few peers of mine, who are all these really fantastic women from home, and some of them are still in the country while some have gone out of the country. I enquired from them about their experiences of working and inhabiting the cities in mainland India and whether their experience about being a woman are different from mainland women.  They replied affirming the above. In places where they have worked, there is not just sexism on the basis of being women, but another layer that comes in about being a North-eastern person. So it’s not just about being ‘the opposite gender’, and a subtext of, “I don’t get what you’re trying to say because I’m a man”, but also that, “You’re a North-eastern woman and so I don’t even know the land from where you come!”

During my time at Hyderabad University, it was not just multi-cultural in the Indian context, but in a world context, where I had female friends from Europe, Africa, the Middle-East, America (white, black and latin american), what I observed as something that is similar in all of them, or among the same group belonging to the same region or ethnicity, is perseverance – a certain grace, calmness. At the same time, in terms of capacities/femininity, I feel it’s just so varied. Apart from oppression, where women are considered the lesser gender, in terms of what women can do, I feel that different women that I have met from across the world, including transgender women, I feel, cannot be defined by a few or certain characteristic traits. There are so many expressions, aspirations, desires, qualities, etc. Some women are aggressive, some women are soft; it’s a matter of how they want to be and who they want to be.

SA: Thank you for all that you have shared with us Pavel! A last question, about concepts of safe spaces that are inclusive and sexuality-affirming. What are your top of the mind thoughts on how to create an environment that offers support and safety, and accepts diversity, in a world where we continue to address issues of gender discrimination, sexuality and rights at home, in public spaces, law and policy, and in the virtual world?

PS:  I think sex-negativity has to go away. Not talking about sex and sexuality is why assumptions and myths about gender and sexuality still exist.

I feel that in the existing and in the popular practice and ideas of ways to create safer spaces, for queer people, or for women, it seems the justification behind it is not just about doing away with the limitations on them but also there is an underlying subtext of “how to be an ideal/better queer” or “how to be an ideal/better woman”.  This idealism and the comparative categorisation of, for example, good woman and bad woman, or trying to raise standards of femininity, needs to be done away with.

The same thing also came from my parents around their acceptance of me as a transgender or a feminine person. They would say, “We accept you for who you are,” but there is always a ‘but’, followed by, ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that’ and blah, blah, blah! I don’t want them to tell me what to do or what not to do. Until the moment when I came out to them, I have lived my life mostly trying to be who they want me to be, and I had always been listening to them. The point is I am not going to do things I haven’t done so far; nothing about the core value inside me will change. If they feel I was guided by good morals and that I was capable and sane enough to stay on the right path so far, and they trust me and don’t interfere much, then there is no reason they have to suddenly start interfering.  Also to accept me the way I am, means to stop controlling me and stop their effort to interfere in the process of my self-determination. What they should do, or the first and least thing they could do, is to put that trust in me that I can make decisions on my own and that I know what is best for me. I have a mind that knows myself the best.

When I say accept me as who I am, or when I say I want my home to be a safe space for me to come back as the person that I am, or that I want to make decisions on my own, they often consider it as me suddenly becoming unresponsive to and disrespectful of them. I feel this is a wrong way to look at it. As I see it, to me it is just a fair bargain. Thirty years I’ve lived listening to them, giving them the benefit of doubt, then for the next thirty years they owe me the same benefit of doubt, as I gave to them. They should stop trying to be the saviour. As long as they feel they are my ‘saviour’, it means they still consider that I’m a lesser person to them.

Social acceptance and acknowledgement or creating an inclusive space for an oppressed or marginalised community should not be about instructing or in any way come from an intention to make corrections to their way of life or prescribing for them a way of life. It is about giving them autonomy and to listen to them and let them inform, influence and acquaint those who have kept them at bay and haven’t allowed them to participate or inform and influence public opinions or expert knowledge on an issue. For example, to be straight is not unsafe because of just being straight, anywhere in the world, but is every heterosexual person an ideal heterosexual person? That’s another struggle on a very different level. Creating an inclusive and safer space for everybody is not about creating ideal queer citizens or women or ideal marginalised people. It is not the justification for creating safer space. I always feel there is sub-text like that. In that case, the hierarchy and power positions remain. One as the target audience, and one as the facilitator.

Most of the time I feel it’s about allowing a space where one can speak, but it has to be more than that, it has to be about being part of the decision-making body. The fact is, amongst the marginalised and oppressed populations, the community is usually fractured. The stigma, taboos, discrimination etc., around their sexuality/ gender only allow limited spaces where they can thrive. And because of the limitedness of such spaces and resources that comes our way, we are always left with a predilection to compete amongst each other.

There is still a need to see and assess the diversity among us, who we are and how many of us are there, on the basis of a variety of opinions, skills sets, and also the necessary needs and sanctions that each deserves as an individual citizen as well as a class or group of people. I feel that such an effort hasn’t really been made comprehensively and exhaustively. A lot of things have not been heard, even what women have to say, or what queer people have to say. There are so many things they have to say, and that is the new insight into how we can effectively deal with the struggles and issues we’re facing, as a society, as a population, as a civilisation as a whole. The earlier models of empowerment that are still based on looking at the group they seek to empower as a target, rather than an influential group of people, or a sense of empowering a group of people by further interfering and controlling and influencing their self-determination is an inherently flawed idea of empowerment.  Which is why policies and schemes have not effectively and holistically eradicated the violence and discriminations or uplifted the status and quality of life vis-a-vis the earlier status and conditions of life of the community as a whole.

So you can’t be like – I support my child, my girl, my daughter, to aspire to be whoever they want to be –  but at the same time, you are the same person who is instilling a fear in her by telling her that she is a of lesser gender and render her to a state of constantly looking out for herself and living in fear.  You have to take away this fear from her. Rape and violence are not meted and directed to a particular gender or community because they are inherently prone to being a target of violence. Women are getting raped. People are getting raped. Queer people are being subjected to violence. It is not because they are weak, it is not because they can’t stand up for themselves, the point is, it happens because there is this idea that they can be raped, that there is a possibility of it. There is this notion that women will be raped, if they are outside alone. It is always there in people’s minds. Such a culture exists because there is a belief that this is women’s reality and this belief is strengthened when it is reiterated and not challenged. Men also can be raped. But because it’s not a popular idea that men can be raped, people don’t even think about committing it. I mean, it does happen, in various cases, but it’s not so widespread that there is a public understanding and knowledge about it. So whether it is your son or your daughter, they will learn to be strong through a trial and error process, you fall and you stand up and you do it again to learn how to be strong. You cannot liberate the women and queers from oppression by playing saviour.

It’s not about saving. It’s about listening. To not put people into a box. There are a lot of artists I know who say, “I want to be known as a painter, not as a queer painter.” So a safe space is not to create or solidify those boxes, but to allow a person to be free of assumptions and stereotypes that seek to constrict and control their self-determination. All human babies are vulnerable. But we as a community believe that we ought to set boys free, expose and allow them to explore on their own accord, and in the process learn to be strong and victorious over their own vulnerability. We ought to give girls the same accord and benefit of doubt. Women, femme and those who are so-called feminine have the same capacity and right to become strong on their own and test their own might and capacities against the forces against them and determine what they want or do not want. Keeping them safe will not make them strong or live beyond the structures that makes them vulnerable. They also deserve the chance to challenge these structures, dismantle the limitations that surround them on their own accord and in ways of their own. And empowering them means acknowledging this capacity in them and also acknowledging that maybe this patriarchal society doesn’t know the full potential and might of the other genders.

Empowerment is not about further determining the way of life and philosophy of the marginalised, but about giving up the flawed concept that the marginalised need saviours or people to handhold them. Empowerment is in passing the mic and in realising the fact that the privileged need saving from their constant fear of losing control.

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Reads, writes, does Sudoku, grows plants and walks with dogs as a reasonable option to running with wolves. Is a consultant with TARSHI, focusing on health, disability, gender and rights issues. A post-graduate from XLRI, graduated from Hindu college, Delhi University.

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