Abhina Aher: Journey of a Dancing Queen
By Rashmi Singh
“I quite jokingly say that rhythm runs inside me as my mother is a dancer and father a drummer. I used to watch all of her shows. So, dance has been a really important part of my life and will always be”, says Abhina Aher, a transgender and trans-rights activist.
Born in a middle class Maharashtrian family, Abhina, at a very early age of three, lost her father. Defying the stigma, her mother, a strong and a graceful woman, raised her sole child very elegantly.
“While she was at work, I’d pull out her saare and playfully wear it with makeup and jewelry. Embracing that aura, I gazed at my own shadows on the wall and pictured a beautiful woman dancing. That is what I was longing for! But when my mother found out about this craziness, she got really mad. I protested that I wanted to dance! Dance like her. She said- No, Boys do not dance.”
A difficult childhood
Abhina who was an effiminate kid, hated wearing boys’ clothes. Like her girl friends, she wanted to wear frocks. “People used to make fun of me. At school they called names like chhakka.”
“Growing up, I faced a lot of problems. The teachers asked me to use the boys’ washroom. So I used to wait till recess got over and stealthily use it during lectures when nobody could harass me.”
“In India, parents seldom talk about sexuality and sexual behavior. Even girls are not sufficiently made aware about menstrual cycle or body changes. In our patriarchal society women are taught not to have sexual pleasures. When I was in 9th standard, I was nearly raped by a bunch of boys. They tried to rip my clothes, brutally kicked me and also tried to beat me with a metal ruler. But I was too ignorant to understand that it was a sexual harassment. I was totally aghast when my own teacher said that the problem is with you. Because you don’t behave like a boy, they tried to punish you. I was too scared to tell my mother. The entire world tried to tell that I am not a girl. But I knew I was a girl.”
“I would get attracted to boys. There was no body I could talk to. I had no friends, felt lonely, afraid and used to sulk all the time. I tried committing suicide 3 times. But with that 3rd unsuccessful attempt, I knew I wasn’t meant to die. I had some unfinished business and I decided to serve that purpose.”
From Advocacy to Dancing Queens
After school, Abhina studied arts and economics from the R D National College in Mumbai. She graduated college in male clothes.
In 2010, Abhina moved to Delhi and worked with a plethora of organizations. She worked for 8 years at Humsafar Trust and learned counseling, research, advocacy, capacity building. She also worked with bar girls and sex workers. She has been a part of WHO for HIV issues, trans acceptance, gender discrimination, a consultant at John Hopkins University and India HIV Aids alliance, Family Health International (FHI), International Trans Refer Group (IRGT) on HIV, Global Action for Trans Equality (GATE).
“I want to set a solid foundation for progress of transgender people and give back as much as possible.”
After 20 years, today Abhina runs her own organization called Tweet (Transgender Welfare Equity & Empowerment Trust)
8 years ago, she started a dance group called The Dancing Queens which is a tool to advocate gender and sexuality issues like coming out, family support, main streaming, stigma, violence, employment and education.
The group has done about 67 shows across India. “We raise money for pride walks and for HIV positive trans people. 30 % of dancers are HIV+”, she states.
“At times when we performed people threw pebbles at us. So you are always vulnerable. There are some chapters of my life which I never might talk about. These are miserable times when I had to struggle for Rs 100 a day. There are steep challenges in what we do.”
“Lack of awareness is the biggest form of stigma. Which is quite contradictory as our culture goes back several thousand years. We had a dignified position in the society. We were the fortune tellers, dancers, makeup artists. There’s a temple in Mehsana, Gujarat called the Bhaucharaji Mata temple where the priest is also a trans person. Unfortunately today we are only mimicked movies and TV shows.”
From a shy, lonely person to an eloquent speaker addressing a crowds of hundreds, Abhina too has come a long way.
She hums a song… “Ghir ghir aayi badariya kaari…” holding back a premature tear in her eye.
(Rashmi Singh is pursuing creative writing from Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication and aspires to create inspiring stories about people, experiences and relationships. She is also a classical bharatnatyam dancer)