“I don’t feel safe dressing up the way I want. I would want to dress up as a woman, but the city doesn’t make me feel safe. People might harass me for how I look.” That’s the first thing Sohel told me when I went down to talk to her about my first blog. (Yes “HER”, because Sohel is a gender non-conforming person who prefers the pronouns she, her and they).
Imagine how that would feel. Like the world decides your daily life, it tells you how to breathe, it tells you how to walk, how to speak, how to dress up, how to live. How would you feel? My friend Sohel has been feeling all of these things all her life. Imagine how suffocating that is? I can’t. Can you?
"You can't shame me anymore"- Sohel at a photoshoot by Arka Patra
Sohel says that from the time she remembers she has been bullied by people around her for her choices in life. In school, where a child builds their first fond memories, first friends, first opinions, all Sohel found there was bullying for more than ten years. Her college life was no better, with conservative teachers she found no space to breathe. Her peer group was a bit better since school; they could at least accept the fact that she was queer.
Dressing up the way she wants. Photo by Sambit
Life took a big turn from here when Sohel joined Jadavpur University in 2013, as a Film Studies student. Initially, it was a culture shock for a “practising Muslim” like her to see women smoking. But it moved her, empowered her in the coming days when she understood that no gender was below another. This is where she finally came across feminist literature through her friends. This helped her break away from all her stereotypes, gave her a voice, with which she could finally say out loud that she was queer. She became an atheist, learnt leftist politics, understood feminism and found answers to her lifelong questions. The questions that bothered her, “If there is any god?”, “If religion is important?”, “The concept of sin.”
At the Pride Walk in Kolkata (2015) with her friends
University gave her much more than atheism. For the first time in her life, it gave her a community she could identify with. A group with whom she could walk at the Pride March. She felt like she belonged somewhere for the first time and be in her skin around her people. For the first time, she found people who were proud to be queer and ready to walk about openly with that identity. These moments empowered her for a lifetime.
Sohel with her dear ones, the friends who stood by her through thick and thin
Life hasn’t been this easy-going all through University. She had a major meltdown in 2013, where she lashed out at friends and lost their relation forever. It was hard losing the same friends who made her feel comfortable about her identity, about accepting who she was. She did not notice immediately, but she had started to show symptoms of mental health issues.
Expression- photo by Kaushik Gupta
Throughout this journey, Sohel’s family has not been very supportive of her gender identity. For about seven years she has had violent fights with them about who she was. They feel that she should keep her gender identity to herself and not be open about it in this big judgemental world.
Things took a sour turn from here when she was detected with schizophrenia about two and a half years back. Sohel started hallucinating things, she started seeing, feeling things that didn’t exist in the real world. She started talking about things that had no connections to reality. Around this time she identified her symptoms and went for counselling sessions and was detected with clinical schizophrenia. Life has been hard after that.
But the only good part of her being diagnosed with schizophrenia was that her family became more accepting and tolerant towards her as a person for the past one year. The doctors made them understand how their behaviour influences her mental health, and how they can be more receptive towards her. They started understanding her behavioural issues and that they were symptoms of her condition. But as Sohel points out, “They have tried to be supportive, but they don’t know how to. They sometimes do or say things that end up worsening my condition.”
The colours that she bears in her life - At a photoshoot for Sanjukta
The world is so unkind and cruel to some people that they are forced to bottle up to survive and forget who they actually are. Sohel points out, “Throughout my life, I have been shamed and bullied for pursuing art, gardening, and cooking. In my adult years, while I was in college, I found photography. It was my go-to thing just the way art was in the past. But like the rest of them, this side of me also got repressed. Now I feel like haven’t clicked a decent photo in a long time. I have forgotten how to look at the world. I don’t find frames anymore; I don’t find inspiration.”
Sohel has stopped most of the things that brought her joy. She has stopped wearing turbans, she has stopped keeping a beard, she has stopped dressing up as a woman. All of that makes her look like an outsider on the roads. With those things on, she is immediately identified as a non-Hindu, non-male human and grabs unnecessary attention towards her.
With the turban and beard that she loved so dearly - Photo by Anu Karippal
But my friend here is a true fighter, a believer beyond disputes and disorders. With all her problems still very much there in her life, she has found out a job she loves. She now works at an art gallery in Kolkata but even that is not permanent as there is no respite from her illness, which is forcing her to discontinue. She is currently looking for greener pastures, something that will not make her illness a liability.
Sohel at her workspace a few days back