Meet Dr Aqsa Shaikh, the first transgender to head a Covid centre in India

18-Shaikh Mission mode: Shaikh at the Covid-19 vaccination centre she heads | Sanjay Ahlawat

You are living a lie when you perform roles based on your assigned sex at birth rather than your own perceived gender identity, says Dr Aqsa Shaikh. She chose to embrace the truth at the age of 20. The first transgender person to become the nodal officer of a Covid vaccination centre in India, Shaikh, 38, is now a happy woman.

Her journey into womanhood, however, has not been easy. As a child, she preferred playing with girls. Later on, her parents put her in a boys' school. “I felt completely disconnected from my classmates,” she recalls. “Being a woman trapped in a man’s body is very suffocating. You end up hating your body.” Eventually, it can lead to self-harm and suicidal thoughts. “Once I realised that I had gender incongruence and that there is a solution possible, I had this intense urge to shed my old skin and build a new one,” she says. “Living in a man’s body was a punishment.”

She did not venture into self-harm. “However, it was extremely difficult and psychologically traumatising, especially when it is forced upon you by your family—people you consider your caregivers or protectors. You always feel no one understands what makes you happy. It is an extremely frustrating and anxiety-inducing situation.”

At 20, she saw a counsellor and opened up to her. Later, she shared her feelings with friends, colleagues and family. Her parents and brother had a hard time coping with it. “It was devastating for them to know that I was planning to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and to change my name and gender legally,” she says. “Acceptance is a long process. I am still working on it.”

Gender transitioning to affirm as a woman is a lengthy process. It involves surgical procedures (breast/genital surgeries), hormone treatment and laser therapy, and social and legal transition. In addition, people also undergo facial feminisation surgeries.

Despite all the challenges she faced, being a woman has been a liberating experience. “It is a euphoric feeling to be living as a woman, socially and biologically,” she says. “Men have limited choices when it comes to how they can dress and what colours they can choose. Women can wear whatever colour they want or whatever accessories they want. Women have a lot of courage to face situations not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. That feeling of strength is intensely satisfying.”

Asked whether who has it easier—men or women—she says, as someone who always identified as a woman, she cannot speak for men. That said, she quickly adds as an afterthought that in a patriarchal society, where the rights of women are not fully given to them, men have it better.

Shaikh brims with energy as she speaks about how she got inspired by transgender screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal. She happened to watch a programme on her on TV. Says Shaikh: “She was very happy after she underwent the surgery, and her journey was quite motivating.”

Shaikh is currently an associate professor of community medicine at Hamdard Institute of Medical Sciences and Research (HIMSR), New Delhi. She is also one of the co-investigators in clinical trials on the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine. The nodal officer of a vaccination centre at HIMSR, she is immensely proud of her work and is on a mission to bring positive changes to society. “It has been an enriching and humbling experience,” she says. “The vaccine is the only hope the entire world has to fight Covid-19. It is great to be able to provide hope to thousands of people…. That is something surreal.”

Her days are packed. Music and reading help her de-stress and unwind. She loves listening to ghazals. A social activist, she is into blogging and writing. Human Solidarity Foundation, an NGO that she founded, provided relief to thousands during the lockdown.

She lives with her mother, who has been accepting of her even post-transition. She has also created a close circle of friends. “I am extremely blessed to have them in my life. Otherwise, I am a single woman,” she smiles.

“The transgender community in India still faces the problem of othering, she says. “We face challenges of non-acceptance and demonisation. All we want is to be considered human beings. We want our rights to be secured. We want ethical treatment. It is sad to see that the trans community is stigmatised and discriminated against so much so that sometimes they are denied access to basic services like food and health. Getting into a school or to get a job without being discriminated against or even using a washroom without feeling unsafe. All these are daily challenges. We also have challenges of marriage, adoption and surrogacy.”

It is a never-ending battle. Shaikh still has the hope that tomorrow is going to be better than today, and that keeps her going.