Queers in Kashmir say without internet, they are completely isolated

Photo: Sonzal welfare Trust/Facebook

Aijaaz Ahmed Bund is a queer activist based in Srinagar. “As Kashmiris, clampdowns are nothing new for us, we’re used to it, we’ve seen it throughout our lives,” says Aijaaz.

“But as part of the LGBTQ+ community, we are already marginalised, so this lockdown is one more layer of that oppression. It is just pushing our community to the wall.”

The 30-year-old assistant professor started Sonzel (Kashmiri for rainbow) when he saw first-hand the discrimination against the trans community in the valley. A trans person, working as meanzimyoar (matchmaker) came to his home for the festivities at his eldest sister’s wedding. She was initially not allowed to enter, and then treated with disdain by the family. What started as an advocacy movement in 2011, slowly turned into the Sonzel Welfare Trust by 2017, providing a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community in Kashmir, where members can air their grievances, avail of psychotherapy, and even access legal support if required.

A lot of people would reach out to Sonzel via phone, or on their Facebook page, which has over 4,000 followers. But after August 5th, 2019, this access ceased entirely. “Those from the community who were suicidal, dealing with trauma or just needed a space to speak had been cut off from the only support system they knew. There were so many people who had not even heard their partner’s voices until the landlines were restored. They didn’t know if they were alive or dead,” says Aijaaz. “And all that when you don’t have a platform where you can vent out your feelings, and you have to live locked down with your abuser–mostly it is members of the family.”

Very little has been written about the valley’s queer people, and gender-and sexuality-based violence remains under-researched, journalist Haris Zargar pointed out in the New Frame. “In a traditional conservative society such as Kashmir,” he writes, sex and sexuality are considered taboo or deeply private, and “This way, the Kashmiri society mostly denies the existence of the LGBTQIA+ community.” The trans community is the most visible—in some contexts they are the only people with a recognizable public presence—but they too have been relegated to the margins. They are discriminated against from their early years, often forced to drop out of educational institutions, and shamed more generally.

As Aijaaz reminds us, “In Kashmir, we have our own share of homophobia. Because of this the community doesn’t really have any open physical spaces where they can feel safe. On the internet, we are connected to others from the community. Without it, we are completely isolated.”

The shutdown of August 5th, as well as the Covid-19 lockdown that followed, led to the heightened stigmatisation and economic devastation of the trans community. Without work or income, many are faced with the threat of eviction. This, Aijaaz says, has been severely detrimental to the mental health of members of the community.

There was also a shutdown of their limited media of expression. “Here a lot of young members from the trans community would use TikTok as a medium of expression–they would put up videos, cross-dress. It’s all gone,” Aijaaz says.

“There are also apps like Grindr, which are the only options for our community here in Kashmir. We don’t have parties etc, so that is one medium through which people could meet and date. All that stopped as well.”

“The internet is something the whole world needs, but I can’t express to you how much we need it here as a community–when it is lost, the sense of belonging breaks completely. You feel alienated, socially isolated,” says Aijaaz.

He concludes mournfully, “Your support system within the community, even with the global movement is completely disrupted. You are alone.”

The above report is an excerpt from Kashmir’s Internet Siege, a comprehensive report documenting the vastness of internet blackout in Kashmir published by Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.