By Maria Thomas
2018 was a big year for gender rights in India.
From landmark supreme court judgments to the #MeToo movement, the country took several steps to push back against age-old social taboos that have marginalised women and members of the LGBTQ community. And though rape, sexual assault, and other such crimes remained a problem, changes in the law and more widespread conversations on gender rights began making a difference, even if only slowly, this year.
But things have not gone as well for India’s transgender community, which took to the streets this week to protest against the government’s decision to pass the Transgender Persons bill in the lower house of parliament. Activists say the government has ignored their recommendations and that the bill is actually discriminatory.
These recent developments make for a bitter end to a year that was otherwise marked by several successes in India.
In September, India joined the small list of countries that have done away with a relic of their colonial past: the law against homosexuality. In a landmark judgment, India’s supreme court struck down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised “unnatural offences” or intercourse “against the order of nature.”
Coming after decades of activism, the move was a huge victory for India’s LGBTQ community, which had battled harassment and the risk of fines and even imprisonment as a result of the regressive law introduced by the British in 1861.
“India’s supreme court ruling on section 377 decriminalising consensual same-sex relationships has righted a historical wrong imposed from colonial times,” Meenakshi Ganguly, south Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told Quartz. “It will have (a) huge impact for the human rights movement not just in India, but in other parts of the world where similar laws are in place.”
Similar movements are gaining momentum in Sri Lanka and Kenya, too, all inspired by India’s giant leap forward.
This is already evident in Singapore, where activists began pushing for a change soon after the verdict in India was announced. A report from the New York Times said that similar movements are gaining momentum in Sri Lanka and Kenya, too, all inspired by India’s giant leap forward.
But for LGBTQ activists in India, scrapping section 377 was only the beginning. Now comes the hard work of ensuring dignity for members of the community in various spheres of life, and encouraging organisations to adopt LGBTQ-friendly policies, besides promoting the rights of smaller groups struggling within the larger community.
“What is happening is after decriminalisation we have started working on de-stigmatisation, and harmonising the whole movement when it comes to even subalterns within subalterns,” said Harish Iyer, an LGBTQ-rights activist. “People have begun focusing on issues within issues now. Previously we weren’t able to do that because we focused on the larger issues.”
Another landmark supreme court ruling came just a few days after section 377 was scrapped: the decision to finally allow women of menstruating age into a revered temple in southern India.
The Sabarimala verdict
For decades, Kerala’s Sabarimala temple has prohibited girls and women aged between 10 and 50 from entering its premises. The ban on women of reproductive age there was based on the belief that the reigning deity, Hindu god Ayyappa, was a celibate. Twelve years after a public interest litigation was first filed against the practice, India’s supreme court decreed in September that keeping women out violated their constitutional right to religion.
The ruling was quickly politicised in Kerala, sparking violent protests and clashes between opposing sides in the following months. Given this fraught atmosphere, no woman of the banned age group has managed to enter the temple yet, though a group of transgender women did.
Nevertheless, lawyers say the ruling itself is a key step forward.
“The entry into any temple, whether it’s on caste or gender, is a problem that has plagued Hinduism for hundreds and hundreds of years, so finally we cannot expect things to change in two months,” said supreme court advocate Menaka Guruswamy. “But the fact is that the law on it has changed. That is a very big first step.”
For Guruswamy, the Sabarimala verdict, along with the scrapping of section 377, show that 2018 has been a great year in terms of the supreme court. ”I think really the court is saying, in terms of gender and in terms of sexuality, and also minorities, you’ll have the full protection of constitutional rights,” she said.
Amidst this row, Indian women sparked yet another key movement for gender rights, exposing the shocking abuses by men in power.
Over a year after #MeToo exploded in the West, it finally began taking down powerful men in India, beginning with the media and entertainment industry. From an iconic comedy group and well-known Bollywood actors and directors to editors at top media companies and even a minister in the Narendra Modi government, a wave of accounts from women revealed astonishing instances of abuse of power, harassment, and assault across industries.
“The most shocking discovery around the MeToo movement is that men not only assumed they can get away with their abuses, but so many did not even consider their behaviour wrong,” HRW’s Ganguly said. “It has exposed the need not just to enforce laws against workplace harassment but also to work towards a comprehensive shift in attitude.”
Powered by journalists on social media, India’s #MeToo movement prodded companies to finally start taking sexual harassment, and the law’s provisions to prevent it, more seriously.
But for all these positive moves in 2018, the situation did not improve for India’s marginalised transgender community.
In 2014, India’s supreme court made the significant decision to recognise transgender people as a third gender, emphasising that individuals have the right to choose their own gender. A year later, the Modi government drafted the Transgender Persons Bill, 2015, detailing the way forward for transgender rights. However, it drew criticism from the transgender community itself for its inaccurate definition of transgender people and its notable lack of several progressive recommendations that would have reduced discrimination.
On Dec. 17, 2018, after adding 27 amendments, the government passed a revised version of the bill in the Lok Sabha. But transgender activists say the legislation is a disaster for the community.
Among other worrying features, it requires transgender people to be certified by a district screening committee and lacks adequate protections against violence. It also criminalises begging by transgender people, which activists have labelled a big blow, considering the pervasive lack of equal employment opportunities for the transgender community.
“The stigma discrimination towards the trans-community has not reduced,” Abheena Aher, associate director of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance said before the bill was passed. “The employment opportunities for them have not opened up, (and) the violence, specifically gender-based, is mounting.”
Things are slowly starting to improve in the corporate sector, though. Last week, the conglomerate Godrej and the India Cultural Lab published a manifesto for transgender inclusion (pdf) in the workplace and Aher says there is increasing engagement within the sector.
“Within the last two years there have been 200 people that have been employed in the corporate sector, which is not a great number but it’s a start,” Aher said.