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This Indian fashion designer is using transgender models to fight discrimination

The rights of transgender men and women is a hotly debated topic in the West, and while Caitlyn Jenner may have thrust the issue into the mainstream, India has a rich cultural and religious history of its own transgender community – the hijras.

The state of Kerala unveiled its new transgender policy – the first of its kind – late last year in an effort to end the social and economic stigmatisation of transgender people in India.

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The policy covers equal access to services, economic opportunities and right to equal treatment under law.

Sharmila Nair, a 24-year-old fashion designer, decided to ask transgender women to model her clothes.

Sharmila Nair
Sharmila Nair

Can you explain your campaign and why you’re doing it?

About a year ago I promoted Red Lotus, an online platform for sarees, with the focus on natural cottons and silks… I started off by visiting communities of specialist weavers in South India and procuring my requirements directly from them [and] my client base grew wider, I used professional models to showcase the collections.

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And then it suddenly struck me after seeing a government policy passed by the Kerala [government] for transgenders… Transgenders are women too. They too wear sarees. Why not use a couple of transgenders to model for Red Lotus? That way, I could bring out their issues into focus as well, just as I had done with the weavers earlier.

How did you come to know the models?

It was after almost a month of searching and researching that I came across Maya, aged 29 and Gowri, 29.

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They were shy. They bore scars of humiliation and psychological torture. When they opened out their experiences, my heart cried not only for them, but for the entire community. I felt the whole exercise should not be restricted to a mere photo-op but should extend beyond… Into an initiative that would bring the issues of a marginalised gender into social focus.

What was the reaction when you decided to use the two models?original-12586-1463139984-3

When I initially set out to feature the two transgender models, I was expecting some resistance or even adverse reaction from the society as a whole.

But my fears were misplaced… our society is far more enlightened and the response has been overwhelming.

It was their plight in contemporary society as the ‘in-between people’, a third sex that is looked down upon with contempt, that prompted me to feature them as my models.

I want to to show to the world that they too are beautiful; and to impress upon themselves that they too had wings to fly.

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