Ms Aizya Naaz Joshi’s life has been an incredible journey filled with obstacles that could devastate the best of us. Her story is more than the empowerment of a long-oppressed community. It is also a story of a person who overcame childhood trauma of rape, ostracisation by the community and being reduced to a stereotype.
Today, Naaz is on cloud nine. Why shouldn’t she be? Earlier this month, India’s first international transgender beauty queen scored a hattrick by winning her third consecutive Miss World Diversity crown in Port Louis, Mauritius, defeating other international contestants.
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In an exclusive conversation with The Better India, Naaz says, “I’m overwhelmed, honoured and absolutely delighted at receiving this award for the third time in a row. Winning this award, I feel like I’ve not only done something for myself but my community as well. This win is dedicated to the transgender community.”
Born in 1984 in Shahdara, East Delhi, in a family of humble means, Naaz knew very early that she was different.
We are not born in our proper bodies, and that isn’t our fault. We are born with a soul and heart of a woman trapped inside a man’s body. Ever since I was a child, I would dress up as a girl. That produced a lot of contradictions in my behaviour. To the world, I was a boy, but I felt like a girl within. During various school functions, I would act like a girl. My parents were taunted. Any parent would not want their kids to go away, but society’s overbearing influence forced their hand, she recalls.
Naaz’s parents sent her to live with her uncle’s family in Mumbai, thinking it to be a safe place. For a while, she admits that the bullying became less. Although her mother had sent money for Naaz’s education and other expenses, Naaz didn’t see a dime. Instead, she was asked to find a job in a Dhaba, and that is how the young Naaz sponsored her school education.
However, at age 11, Naaz was the victim of one of the most heinous crimes that left her traumatised. She was gang-raped by her cousin brother and his friends and had to be hospitalised. When she woke up, her aunt and uncle forbade her to talk about this incident to anyone.
I was a child, too and had no idea of what rape even meant. All I knew was that I was brutally injured. I understood much later what had happened to me. At the hospital, however, I met a transwoman who asked me whether I wanted to come along for begging on the streets. I refused, and told her if she could get me a good job, I would do it, shares Naaz.
Naturally, she didn’t want to work at the Dhaba where her cousin brother and his friends were regulars. Thankfully, the transwoman found her a job at a local dance bar, allowing her to be herself and dress as a woman. In the morning, Naaz would go to school, finish her homework in the afternoon and at night dance at the bar.
Dance bars carry the stereotype that they are essentially brothels. “However, I was living a very happy life there. Working there helped me because now I had a place to stay and had food on the table. I was able to finish my schooling and look for other opportunities,” shares Naaz.
She worked at the dance bar for eight years from 1998 to 2006 until she met her cousin sister, the late supermodel Viveka Babajee who always thought that Naaz could make it as a top model. For Naaz, this was another turning point. At the age of 18, she now had a dear friend and mentor who not only believed in her but also encouraged her to study further.
“Thanks to her encouragement, I got into the National Institute of Fashion Technology-Delhi, and she sponsored my education there for three years,” remembers Naaz.
However, Naaz came up against barriers there too because the ‘third gender’ was yet to receive legal recognition from the Supreme Court of India. The only way she could get admission was if she identified herself as a male. She had no choice but to conform to strict gender roles, but it was a price she was willing to pay to enter the fashion industry.
Sadly, in 2010, Viveka died under tragic circumstances, and Naaz was devastated. But somehow she found the strength to finish her studies while working in fast food outlets in Delhi to fund her last year in college.
Naaz topped her class and went on to work with famous designers like Ritu Kumar and Ritu Beri. But she had to eventually quit her job as she felt that her colleagues did not like taking instructions from a transwoman.
Hunting the classifieds for a job posting, she found the position of a manager at a massage parlour in the Lajpat Nagar area of South Delhi.
Meanwhile, in 2011, she began the process of undergoing gender reassignment surgery for which she had to undergo hormone therapy for two years. The final operation was done in 2013.
In 2014, she met ace photographer Rishi Taneja through a common friend. He was making a documentary about transgender lives and had found his muse in Naaz. Taneja ended up making a biopic on her life and struggles. This project catapulted her to celebrity status.
The biopic garnered a lot of media attention with channels like CNN-IBN doing a 30-minute special on her. The growing media coverage opened avenues into the modelling world, and thus she went onto becoming India’s first transgender model.
Viveka’s dream had come to fruition. Making matters better, on 15 April 2014, the Supreme Court passed its historic NALSA judgment that recognised transgender people as the ‘third gender’. In many ways, the judgement was a vindication.
In 2012, things took a turn for Naaz when the Miss Universe pageant changed the rules to allow transsexuals to participate. She tells TBI that it was this decision which inspired her to try her luck in modelling.
Following her sensational first win at the Miss Diversity pageant where many officials couldn’t discern she was a transwoman, Naaz dedicated her life to serving the transgender community. Working with multiple non-profits and raising funds for children with HIV AIDS, she has also gone into rural India offering knowledge on menstrual hygiene and self-improvement. However, she wants to expand the scope of her social activism.
“I want to use my crown to work with governments, for example, on the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019. The government drafted this bill without even consulting our community. This is not done. I also want to work on pushing for same-sex marriages, and transwoman marriages. If Tamil Nadu has accepted transgender brides, why can’t this practice be applicable all over India? Yes, political parties have given tickets to transgender people during elections, but that’s very different from working for them. One day, I would like to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and address our concerns,” says Naaz.
She also wants to use her platform to end the stigma attached to her identity, particularly changing the way mainstream cinema depicts people from her community.
“Life isn’t easy for us even today, receiving regular taunts from society. Even today, my parents are ashamed when people come and tell them ‘your boy has now become a girl’ and ‘log kya kahenge’ (what will people say)? This stigma isn’t restricted to trans people, but even single women in their mid-30s, those who suffer domestic violence, marital rape, and dowry harassment. We must make common cause with them as well,” she adds.
What advice would Naaz give to parents whose children don’t conform to gender norms?
“If you’re a parent and your child expresses different sexual orientations or doesn’t conform to gender norms, don’t disown them. You must stand with them proudly. If you don’t, the world will find ways to victimise your children. There were a few occasions when I contemplated suicide, but I never had the heart to go for it because life, after all, is a beautiful thing,” she smiles.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)