An enthusiastic youth, a keen student, an upcoming model and a person with great ambitions, Sandra Nandeibam from Manipur is no different from any other 21-year-old.
Yet, one thing that makes a difference is that she is fighting for acceptance of her individuality from the society because she belongs to a third gender and stereotypical people make life difficult for her.
The signs came early that Sandra was different from the others. Biologically born a boy with the name Nandeibam Sandeep Singh, Sandra grew up in Imphal West along with her two brothers and did her schooling from Maria Montessari School. Her father was once a mayor and is now actively involved in politics.
"I was very much attached with girls, especially my sisters since a very young age. I played Barbie dolls with them. I never identified myself as a boy and considered myself as a girl. I would love to wear sarees and Phanek (wrap around). When I was in 1st standard my family, and neighbours never stopped me from behaving like a girl. Instead they dressed me up in full female clothings and click photos and also made me participate in dance competitions, fancy dress and fashion shows and I always ended up bagging prizes. They hoped that my behaviour would change with time but that was not what happened", sighs Sandra.
However, Sandra has undertaken a long and arduous journey, rejecting her biological sex and opting to become what she wishes to be, known in general terms as a member of a transgender community.
Speaking to Shweta Raj Kanwar from TNT-The Northeast Today, Sandra looks back at how she battled all odds to become the individual that she is now.
"Boys bullied me and teased me, calling names such as 'homo' which is a derogatory term for transgenders. Sometimes I tried to behave like a boy to seek respite from all the mockery but I couldn't behave like one. Even my parents started threatening me for using nail polish, kajal and other feminine stuff. My father locked my Barbie dolls and other feminine playthings. All this and more ruined my morale", she said.
However, since they say that every cloud has a silver lining, Sandra did not fail to seek inspiration from positive people. "When I was in 10th grade I heard about Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head by Taliban as she stood up against the ban on women's education. She inspired me a lot and gave me courage to fight for my own fundamental rights. And she also empowered me to face the orthodox society. Everyone questioned as to how can a man become a woman", she said, " society was against me . They thought they could change my behaviour by giving me harsh punishment".
She was kept outside on cold and wintry nights and was also physically beaten but she remained firm and stood her ground.
She adds," Not only me but each and every member of our community face lots of difficulties due to our sexual orientation and gender identity. It's really hard to survive in a prejudice bound society. We have been spending our life with tears and misery.There is always humiliation from the people for being a transgender. We were set apart from the mainstream society and treated as if we suffered from some mental illness. Our lives go on with fear, shame, humiliation, sexual abuse, mental harassment due to which we often suffer from suicidal tendencies".
There was discrimination everywhere, starting from home right up to public places. "I still remember when I was in 9th and 10th grade, I did not want to attend my classes as I was badly treated by some boys, It's not only the pain I suffered in school, even the police who are supposed to guard us have mocked us, sexually abused us and even forcefully raped us. There is always a dilemma about which toilet to use in public places".
However, despite these odds and hurdles, Sandra wishes to turn out into a full fledged woman one day with proper scientific procedures and adds' "I have been consulting doctors from Mumbai and will soon undergo Hormone Replacement Therapy. However for the sex reassignment surgery, "I would really love to do it but for now I don't have enough money as I'm still a student," she says.
Sandra aspires to be a well established model one day. However, the industry is not all-accepting about her individuality as well, she says,"It would be really challenging for a gender non conforming model like me to thrust up in a profession like modelling where even other aspiring male and female models cannot successfully fulfill their dreams. I can't say we are accepted in this industry. There is a lot of social prejudice. I can't say I am accepted by just walking the ramp for few designers. The fashion industry still needs to embrace the third gender. I have a dream where India's biggest fashion event like Lakme Fashion Week will embrace trans models without prejudice. I won't give up. I am modelling with a cause and I'll keep doing it with confidence and dedication.
Confidence, poise, determination and dedication are virtues that Sandra adores and lives by. " As a model we should be capable to stomp the runway confidently. Likewise being a trans model I must be able to walk with pride and self respect", she says with confidence.
Sandra is not only fighting for herself, but is standing up for the cause and empowerment of the entire LGBTQ community as she adds,"80% of the community are not aware of their basic rights as most of them dropped out their education at early age due to social stigma, ostracism, discrimination, etc. As a result we became underprivileged and marginalized. Therefore I have taken the initiative with an aim to promote our rights and to make all trans people aware of their rights. Its also giving a platform to us to share our views. I mostly want to uproot transphobia in the country".
She also plans to organize a Miss Manipur Transgender contest to boost the morale of the third gender. On this, she says,"It will be organized with the support of Sana Ebemma in Imphal West, a Manipur based organization which is a registered society which previously focused on various issues relating to children. It is tough to mobilize people and there is also financial hardship as there are no funds for the event. We would however still be organizing the event through donations from people."
On being asked about her future plans, Sandra confesses, " I just want to become a single mother, I would like to adopt a child but I don't want to marry. I want to dedicate my whole life to this cause and people who are ostracized and excluded by the society. Later I would like to set up a home for victims of social exclusion and ostracism."
It may be noted that transgenders have occupied an important place in the history of India, occupying important positions amidst kings and queens. While ancient India could embrace them with open arms, why is it that despite so much technological advancement, we are unable to open our hearts and most importantly our minds?
"We are not an omen. We are the same as you are. We are all human beings. We are all equal. The only difference lies in the way how we express our sexual orientations and gender identity. Each one of us has an inherent right to live with dignity, equality, and liberty. We are all mortal beings," Sandra adds."One day we will all die and during this short period of life, why should we hate and mock others? Love brings peace and virtue. Let's stop trans phobia."
Two years have passed since the Supreme Court recognized transgender persons as a third gender. However, we still live under the fearful act of Indian Penal Code section 377. Make love legal. Delete section 377. Make the recognition of transgenders as a third gender more meaningful", she ends.
By Shweta Raj Kanwar
Picture courtesy: Siddharth Haobijam