My struggle for Gender Equality: Rukshana Kapali

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My name is Rukshana Kapali. I am a transgender woman.

When I was born everyone was happy to have a ‘boy’ child. Our society is very patriarchal. I was the first child of my parents’ and also the first grandchild. As far as I can remember, I was always told by others that I was ‘feminine’. But I didn’t know what ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ was as a child.

I am not studying now.  Two years ago, I went to Tribhuvan University affiliated college to get admission in a Bachelor’s program. Tribhuvan University didn’t admit me because they didn’t recognize my gender identity. My school certificates have me listed as ‘Male’ and address me with my deadname. My citizenship addressed me by the name I want, but lists me as ‘Others’. With lack of any proper legislation, I have nothing I can do.  I quit and did nothing for two years after that. Now, I am active in Queer Youth Group where we work on queer people & human rights issues.  We do three major works: legal advocacy, awareness campaigns & resource generation. We advocate for making sure our voices are represented in our policies. We also do awareness programs about queer issues in schools. We include it in our broader curriculum of comprehensive sexuality education. In this, we give knowledge about sexuality beyond ‘opposite attracts’ and teach them that gender is not ‘two rigid boxes’. Many organizations and government offices also invite us to give workshops and raise awareness on the topic.

Sometimes it feels like you have moved on but then you are forced to go back.

When I was a kid, I didn’t know what gender was. I think no one knew what gender was. It was just like society says, one wears a skirt and one wears pants. I remember coming back from school and acting like my teacher, Ms. Lalita. I can’t remember her face anymore but back then I would wear a skirt and try to act like her. I used to wear my aunt’s high heels. There were a lot of different things which people took as me being ‘girly’. My hair was also long. In our tradition, we don’t cut hair for many years. My mother braided my hair to go to school. A lot of people would ask my mother, ‘is this your daughter?’ I remember being happy when people said that. But my mother always explained to them that I was her son; which I didn’t really like.3_middle_inserts

I would wear my grannie’s sari whenever I came back from school. At home I loved dressing as a girl, which people found very offensive. I remember one day, in second grade, one of my relatives slapped me very badly for dressing the way I liked.

My school didn’t allow us to have long hair so I had to eventually cut it and that made me very unhappy. To sum this concisely, the way I saw myself was not the way society saw me. I couldn’t figure out what was happening with me because I was too young then. I think when I was in fifth grade when my friends started to say, “You walk in a feminine way”. I asked them what a feminine way meant and they said that I moved my hips like a woman.

When I reached sixth grade maybe due to our socialization everything started to be separate.  Girls used to hangout in one place and boys would hangout somewhere else. Girls had different conversations and boys had different conversations. So I never knew which group to go and hangout with. But mainly, I was comfortable with girls.  The girls would tell me to go hangout with the boys but when I did I felt like I didn’t belong there. That was when they started calling me feminine.  They would tell me that ‘I looked like a C-word’. And all other kinds of derogatory comments started after that.

When I stepped out to go to school from my home, on the way there would be other students walking behind me. They would comment on the way I walked. I felt like people were constantly looking at me and commenting on all that I did. So I lived in constant fear. Due to that fear I tried to not stand out as much as possible. In my classroom, I stopped being expressive. I stopped talking to people and started saying that I preferred to be alone. I was always alone.

When we hit puberty and feel all these bodily changes, our emotions also changes. But in our society no one talks about these changes.

When I saw hair growing on my body, my skin became rough, I felt it should not be like this maybe it should be softer. You know girls were having different kinds of changes. I would prefer to have these changes rather than the changes I was going through.

In the tenth grade, there were not too many students in my classroom.  I think for straight people it’s easy. Not easy, but there are many things in the world that you can relate with but I was not exposed to that part of the world. I remember this one time, hearing on the news that Santosh Pant’s daughter had a MTF sex-change surgery. It was the first time that I heard the word transgender.

As I had no access to a computer or the internet at home, I would go to a cyber café in the neighborhood. That’s where I could read and learn about the gender spectrum and what that meant. I was so nervous, excited, scared; everything at once. I read all the articles which was related with sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics. I educated myself and immersed into the topic.

During adolescence I got a sense of being attracted to someone which was such a different feeling that I didn’t understand. I had a crush on a guy. I felt attracted to him and was completely confused. When I confessed to my friends, they expressed disgust. I can still feel their sense of disgust “How can you be attracted to a guy?”

I changed my name on Facebook to Rukshana Kapali when I was studying in Grade 9. It was such a drama to choose that name. I went through the Himalayan Time’s TGIF and searched for a name for myself.  Right around then, there was an essay competition in my school. I chose “Gender Equality”. I wrote an essay that included different gender identities, non-binary, transgender and gave a speech in front of everyone. That was how I came out in school, particularly to the school staffs.

The only place where we see trans & gender non confirming people in Bollywood movies is where they beg for money, sexually harass someone, clap hands. Those were the only images that we as a society would see.  My friends would ask me, ‘Will you go beg on a train?’

My principal and vice-principal was very abusive. I remember many instances of physical violence in school. One time my principal came into the examination hall and dragged me by my hair. He took me the corridor and threatened me. It was very scary and I was frozen at that moment.  The Vice-principal was also very aggressive. She would slap me often and say things like ‘I know a doctor in Bangalore who will cure you.’ I don’t want to re-call all those abuses they committed on me as a teenage child. It always re-traumatizes me to remember these experiences. I told them about me because I thought they’d help me out of the bullying I am facing but they just ended up contributing on my wounds. I still get panic attacks and nightmares with whatever memories I collected in that school for many years.

At home, I came out during my grandfather’s birthday one year. I didn’t say a word to anyone. I had bought a yellow t-shirt, loose trousers, shawl and some makeup by stealing 15,000 rupees a year ago. I wore it and walked out of the door. Everyone was shocked at first. Then, I started wearing dresses every day. The initial days were heavy. It is tough recalling these emotional moments.  I don’t want to elaborate more on that trauma.

It was difficult trying to convince my parents. I used to cry every day. My dad didn’t even look at my face for many months. Nowadays, he says, ‘If I knew then what I know now I would have never behaved that way.’

When I joined high school (it was +2 then), I went in wearing a wig. I told the principal that I am a trans person and I faced a lot of mishaps at school and I have no courage to face the same here. It is AIMS Academy in Lagankhel. The principal told me, “You are my student, your work is to study. You will never feel discrimination here. If anyone says or does something bad to you then we will take action against it”. My mom always praises the principal of AIMS Academy and how the first talk with him made us feel that I am safe in the premises of the high school. However, I ended up never revealing my identity to anyone in my high school.

Then, I started getting more involved in activism and started to write a blog.

At a certain point I got curious about my language and started studying Nepal bhasa. My parents didn’t wanted to speak our language to me, because they thought speaking our native language to children will make them less competent. However, I claimed this language for myself.  I found a book that I learnt about my language and the written form of my language. I found out about Ranjana Lipi, Prachalit Lipi, Bhujimo lipi. I was very excited to learn about this for the first time in my life. I grew up in a Newa family, and never had I ever been exposed to the richness of my own language. I had always been told that teaching children our own language will make them ‘backwards’. Fortunately I found a place where I could learn how to write in Ranjana lipi. They just didn’t teach me about language. They also taught me about grammar, history, the politics of language, indigenous culture and my roots. This was so fascinating to me. That was how I began immersing myself to my native language.

2_middle_insertsI started getting more and more active in my Newa community and together with a group of like-minded people started ‘Save Nepa Valley’. I left the group due to my personal circumstances in 2019 April.

I do my short comedy videos called Ruku Yu Vines. It isn’t just claiming a space in the field that usually portrays trans people as ‘humorous’ and ‘a matter of joke’ but also re-claiming a space for Newa contextual content.

After my Grade 10, I acquired my citizenship. It wasn’t a big deal for me. However, I didn’t like the fact I was compelled to list myself as “Others”. Not only did I find that derogatory, but also something that did not address me correctly. The only thing I could do was put the name I wanted to be addressed as. Some people also have this misconception that transgender people are ‘third genders’. No we are not. Transmen identify as men, Transwomen identify as women. Some people do identify out of this binary: ‘non-binary’. Third gender is more traditional concept. Some people do identify with this, while particularly in the younger generation, people don’t use this term anymore. Who is first and who is second? I don’t want me being labeled with derogatory terms, and be recognized as “Female”, not “Others”.

However, Nepal has no proper legislation for trans people. It depends on the authority who is responsible. I got my citizenship with my chosen name, but I am not able to change my past documents to the identity I want. I don’t want to be labeled as “Others” just because I am a trans person. I am fighting with the government to be enlisted as “Female”.

I am a lot more confident now and I can defend myself. But I was frustrated because of the educational system in Nepal which doesn’t allow me to change my name and so colleges and universities won’t admit me. They don’t give me anything written either so I can’t challenge them in the court of law. I am trying to get into law college somehow. Last year, I got selected for a 6 months fellowship in UK. There I did a session in law and realized that there are no transgender lawyers. If I have the skills then I can file and fight cases for trans people. I have yet to be admitted in a university yet. But I know that I can and I will. I want to do this not just for me but for everyone else who face barriers as a transgender person.

I am definitely in an emotional turmoil.  All the legal provisions in Nepal have definite barriers for me, be it education, health, employment, or even international travelling. While it is a struggle to bring changes that matter, I have so less time to focus on myself.

However, I try to calm myself, I have waited for these many years, it is just few more.

All photos from Rukshana's Facebook
All photos from Rukshana’s Facebook

Being called disabled is no longer an issue for me: Saraswati Maharjan

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I was born in a low income family. My mother and father were both farmers. We barely made enough to eat through farming so any extra money was out of the question. I come from Thecho, Lalitpur and I still live there with my small family. My parents could barely afford basic needs for us so my upbringing was very frugal.

IMG_4265When I was 4 years old, I got measles and then my left leg was infected by the polio virus. I could not walk anymore. I needed someone to carry me. My mother worked very hard for me. She used to carry me to the hospital for my treatment.  Due to polio, I could not go to school. I joined school, when I was 9 years old. My friends used to carry me from my house to school.

My School was far and it was very difficult for my friends to carry me. So, after a while my father got me admitted to a school close by. In this new school, there was a teacher who luckily helped me get crutches. Before that I would barely leave the house since I had to be carried everywhere. I got the crutches when I was thirteen years old. In the beginning I was terrified of walking with the crutches. Somehow, it was a reminder of my disability and I didn’t want to show it to anyone. But soon I started to go school with the help of crutches.

Unfortunately, a year later, I had to leave school permanently because my parents were too poor to pay for my education.

My neighbors didn’t treat me well. They would often tell me that I am a burden on my family. Often I shared my thoughts, desires and dreams for my future but they would only make fun of me.

My father opened a small shop in our village. I started to work in the shop. One day, a lady came to the shop and she asked if I would be interested in getting trained as a tailor. I always liked to sew so; I don’t want to miss this opportunity. I told my mother about the training and she allowed me to go there. I left my home and went to stay at Khagendra Nawa Jeevan Kendra in Jorpati for a year of tailor training. When I was in Khagendra Nawajeevan Kenra I saw many girls who were disabled and use crutches. After that I was never ashamed to use my crutches.

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I came back to my home after my training but I didn’t work as a tailor for some years. I worked in our shop for 6 years. Eventually we had to leave the shop because the shop front was about to get reconstructed. After that I started to search for a job elsewhere and luckily, I got a job after some time.

IMG_4262While I was home in between jobs my friends would come to my house and give me their clothes to mend. Slowly they started asking me to sew clothes for them. In the beginning, I refused them several times. But they wouldn’t take no for an answer and eventually I ended up sewing clothes for them. They were very impressed by my work and this really inspired me. So I started sewing clothes for whoever asked from my house. I used to own a gold earring that my mother had given me when I was a child. I sold those gold earrings for 9000 rupees (90 $) and bought myself a sewing machine with that money. Actually I bought two second hand machines and then started working as a seamstress from my own house. My entire community supported me and I was able to contribute financially at home. This made me feel very proud of myself.  Everything people said until then about how I would be a burden to my family was turning out to be wrong.

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People who were mean to me, or sometimes would tease me about my physical condition slowly appreciated my work and became my customers. After a few years I opened my own shop. I now have a tailoring shop and I have hired two employees.

So, I am not just financially self-sufficient, I provide work to others.

This has made me very confident of myself. I have become stronger and can deal with anything that comes up now. I even travel to places that I would not think about before. Last year I went to Sikkim. I don’t feel embarrassed to use my crutches. I take public transportation and go wherever I feel like. Being called disabled is no longer an issue for me. I work hard and support my entire family now.

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Here I am, “breaking” all kinds of stereotypes: Muna Ghimire Shrestha

She is the Story

I want to be known as Nepal’s first female heavy equipment operator rather than my name. I was raised in a lower middle class family with two little sisters in Aabukhaireni, Tanahun. My father and mother were farmers. My parent’s farm was the only source of income in our family. I was a good and hardworking student. As my father and mother were getting old, they couldn’t work in the farm anymore. Due to this, we faced a lot of financial problem and I was forced to leave my studies. The circumstances were such that I had to start looking for a job.

It is evident that our society values a son more than a daughter. Because my parents had no sons, our neighbors loved to highlight the difference between sons and daughters. Too many gossipy mouths were always telling my parents that their daughters were useless because we wouldn’t take care of them in their old age and we would not be able to perform the death rituals. All of these apparently was a son’s responsibility and not a daughter’s. I didn’t like when people spoke like this.

Is there any difference in the birth pain a mother goes through regardless of the gender of the child? No.

These gossipy neighbors would also often say that a girl child is not capable to generate an income for her family and be responsible of her family members. I had a burning desire to shut all of their mouths and show them that a daughter can also earn and be financially responsible of her family. After I left school, I went to Nepalgunj for a job. I got a job as an office helper in a construction company (Lama Swadesh Nirman Company).  I never imagined being a heavy equipment operator. While working there, I started to have an interest and curiosity in all the equipment rather than my work. One day the director asked me why I always looked at the equipment. I was 16 then. He told me if I wanted to learn how it works, I could come in morning and evening without hampering my office work. I began to invest my mornings and evenings to learn about the equipment’s parts and how it operates. Looking back, I wonder how I was so courageous.

After six months of my employment, someone who had worked as a heavy equipment operator left that company. Our director came to me and said, “I am losing a lot of business because there is no one who can take responsibility as an operator. Will you take that responsibility?”

I told him I would give it a try. I was nervous and scared at first but gradually I became more confident. This is how I began my journey as a heavy equipment operator.

It all feels so surreal.

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The same gossipy neighbors would tell my parents that I had eloped with a man. Every week I had to wait for Saturday to call my parents because it was cheaper than other days. While talking to them, my parents would cry and ask me to return back. I always refused them because I had to earn money and take responsibility of my family.

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While working in Kohalpur one time, a journalist wrote an article about me in the daily newspaper, Gorkhapatra in 1999. My father’s friend who usually spoke badly about me had read that article.  He then went to my father and told him what a great daughter he had. When I heard this, I felt like my struggle had been worth it. I had won the battle. I never looked back in my life then-after.

 

After a certain period, my company suffered a huge loss and all of a sudden, I was unemployed. I knew of a manager at Kalika Construction Company. I called him and went to work there in Narayanghat. I didn’t have a license but they hired me as an equipment operator because they didn’t have another choice. In Nepal there is a provision that in order to get a license for heavy vehicles, one must have a license for four wheel vehicles. I didn’t have a license so they hired a female assistant for me. Basanti Gurung, probably the second female heavy equipment operator in Nepal.  I trained her to operate heavy equipment within six months. After that, I left that company because I wanted to work in Kathmandu.

In Kathmandu, I struggled a lot. I went to different companies to get a job but people usually stared at me. Many said, “Men think thousand times before working as a heavy equipment operator, how do you think you can work as an operator?”

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I worked at multiple hydro-power sites. However, I still did not have a license.

Two years after getting my four wheel license, I finally got my heavy equipment license on 2005.  It took me six years to get this license.

One fine day while working on a site, I met Suresh Shrestha. He was the manager of another company. He used to borrow equipment’s from our company. We fell in love and got married. Suresh didn’t know how to operate heavy equipment and initially he was not even interested to learn. But eventually he lost his job and that’s when I trained him to operate these heavy machines as well and we started working together.

At one point of my life, I decided that I needed to work for the government instead of private companies. I applied but learnt that I needed to have finished high school to work in a public company so I re-joined school. I would go to school early in the morning and went to my job by 10AM. After work, I would often go for extra classes to help me. Finally in 2012, I got my high school diploma. Three years later there was a vacancy in the heavy equipment division of the government. I applied and succeeded. 10 months later I was promoted to a senior level position.

 

IMG_4398Growing up, my mother had to walk long distances to fetch drinking water while my neighbors had access to tap water. I used to feel really bad about it. After working, with my first pay I installed a tap at my house. One time, my father was really sick and the doctors in our town had given up hope. But I worked hard, saved my money and brought him to a hospital in Kathmandu where the treatment was better and he survived. In doing that, I shut the mouth of my neighbors who would say that only a son takes care of their parents in the old age.

People have all kinds of stereotypes about women and about people who work on construction sites. They think women are weak and cannot handle machines. They also think people who work on construction sites are illiterate, and uncivilized. But ever since I was a child I liked to break boundaries. And today here I am, breaking all kinds of stereotypes.

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Everything happened for a reason: Laxmi Tamang

She is the Story

When I was small my father left us. I don’t know where he went. My family members spoke about it in our native Tamang language but since I didn’t know how to speak it, I couldn’t understand where he had gone. So, my mother was both my father and mother. When I was still very young, we left our village and migrated to Kathmandu.

In Kathmandu my mother opened a bhatti. She worked very hard and did very well in her job. When we came home from school, she always fed us delicious snacks. My mother was doing so well, that people would borrow money from her. She helped many from our village who would ask her for some loans. Most of these loans have never been paid back to her.

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I still remember that day, when I came back from school and she wasn’t there to serve us any snacks. Me and my little sister looked all over the shop but we couldn’t find her. My aunt came to the shop and took us with her. No-one told me where my mother had gone but I listened to my family members speaking and found out that she had been arrested and taken into jail.

Since my family members only speak our native language, it was very difficult for them to look for my mother. They speak no Nepali and so navigating themselves in Nepal’s bureaucratic system is almost impossible. After few months, the police sent us a message saying that we could meet my mother. She was beaten very badly so she was sick at that time. We took some fruits for my mother. When she saw me and my sister, she hugged us and cried a lot. She shared all the sufferings of jail with my aunt. Since then we started visiting my mother every Saturday.

My aunt took care of us when my mother was in imprisoned. But she had a lot of mouths to feed so it was very difficult for her. She was also taking care of some of my cousins. We were often hungry and would do things for money like going to the construction site and collecting nails. We would then sell the nails and buy dalmot for lunch. During our lunch at school, we would eat the packet of dalmot very slowly since we had no other food. We would also go to forest nearby to collect plastic wrappers and make daalo, which we would sell.

One day, we got word that our mother wanted us to come and stay with her in jail. Perhaps because my aunt was having a hard time taking responsibility for us, they decided we should join our mother. I spent some good time in there with my mother and saw the wounds on her body from when they beat her. She was still in pain from the beatings. I then found out that my mother was in prison for smuggling drugs and that her friend and partner had actually turned her in. I also found out that a few months later her partner was also arrested but she committed suicide in prison.

After a month of being in jail, the jailIMG_4325er told us that we should go stay outside of jail so we could study and have a sort of a normal life.We then met Pushpa mamu who took us and we stayed in a hostel not far away. We would come every weekend to visit our mother. I felt really good whenever I would spend time with my mother. She would cook for us and we would sleep together.  I loved the way she cooked food and played with my hair. My mother would also sew clothes, knit sweaters inside jail and earn money that way. She also made new clothes for us during the festivals.

Every time I was sad to leave my mother after the weekends were over she would make me feel better by telling me that the jail is her school and in the same way that I had to stay outside and go to school, she had to stay in jail and finish her school. She said she was getting her education in jail but I would be getting my education in school. She was also very protective of us when we spent time with her in jail because there were many women who were mentally not stable. They would often get violent, cause fights and create problems. I would get very scared in prison when the aunties would fight with each other and the police would come and punish them for fighting. The ones who fought would get tied to a big iron wheel with heavy chains.

Mother thought she would get free after 4 years but it turned out she was imprisoned for 10 years. During those 10 years she was often beaten very badly. She needed an operation for her uterus once and one of her eye went blind as well. She would save the rice, lentils and grains she got as her ration in prison and instead of eating it she would sell it to the other inmates. She would then send us the money. Because of this, she is now very weak and often sick.

After all these years of separation, now it’s difficult for me to readjust to being with my mother. We have a distance between us because of the 10 year separation. I don’t live with her now even though she is out of prison. I still stay at the Butterfly Home at ECDC because I feel like this is now my home. In the art that I do, I try to show the emotional distance between me and my mother. I feel blessed to have a home like the Butterfly Home and to be able to continue my studies and do what I want in my life.

I do however understand that people will do what they can to feel their children. It’s poverty that made my mother desperate and I know she tried very hard to be a good mother and take care of us to the best of her ability.

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Fine arts has always been something that I have been interested in. Initially I thought I wanted to study math and be a banker so I would be able to make lots of money for my family, but when I consulted Pushpa mamu at ECDC she reminded me that money is not everything. To be able to do what you love in life is more precious than anything else. So, after finishing high school, I asked her to enroll me in the Fine Arts Program at Kathmandu University where I am studying now.Here, I can share my ideas and things that stress me with my mentor and friends. We often talk about emotions, and how out expression relieves our stress so I think this has been the best decision in my life. Studying art has taught me a lot about myself.

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Various family members would often try to put pressure on me by telling me that everyone else my age was earning money and supporting their families but my mother has continually supported me. She says to me, if they are earning money then you are earning knowledge. So don’t listen to them and focus on your studies.

I want to study art therapy in the future. Although I love to paint and make my own work I don’t see the value of staying alone and painting my whole life. I want my skills to help other people, just like my mother and all the other aunties in jail who had immense stress, mental instability and various illnesses. I want to spend my life as an art therapist in prison and I know that Pushpa mamu and ECDC will make this possible for me.

IMG-df8a3170253594d78dc45070bd43a47c-VMy mother reminds me that everything happens for a reason. Even when bad things happen, there is something good that comes out of it. I feel very fortunate to be a part of the family that I now call my own. If I hadn’t gotten a chance to stay here, who knows, maybe I would be one of the thousands of young girls working in the Gulf. When we go back to my village, people are proud of me and appreciate that I am so focused on my studies. Even though my mother suffered a lot, she ended up creating a life for us that is a very good life.

I am very thankful that I didn’t spend my childhood wasting my time but actually learnt how to struggle since very early on. My struggle is my strength now. I know that I am making my own way and that everything will be good.

My name is Laxmi Tamang. I live at the Butterfly Home which is run by Early Childhood Development Center. I am currently an arts student at Kathmandu University’s Fine Arts Program. I am an aspiring artist. And this is my story.

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