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Old saris find new transgender and gender non-conforming identities through the ‘Mummy ki sari’ initiative

  • Recently started by Vikramaditya Sahai on social media, the project passes on old, pre-used saris from mothers to transgender and GNC folks
  • The initiative strives to bring a sense of maternal love and acknowledgement to transgender and GNC folks

GNC and transgender people celebrating the reading down of the Indian Penal Code’s Section 377 on 6 September 2018, in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.getty images
GNC and transgender people celebrating the reading down of the Indian Penal Code’s Section 377 on 6 September 2018, in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.getty images

Earlier this year, independent political researcher and queer activist Vikramaditya Sahai—who prefers going by the pronoun they—started the initiative Mummy Ki Sari. Following an announcement made via Instagram, Sahai started crowd-sourcing used saris from mothers across the country to pass them on to transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) people.

The idea is two-fold: to provide a sense of maternal acceptance to the GNC and transgender community and give mothers the opportunity to extend their kinship to the community.

I was first introduced to 31-year-old Sahai, who identifies as GNC, through their Instagram handle @vqueer, which publishes bold and artistic imagery to discuss aspects of queer ideologies and identity politics. In 2017, Sahai dropped off their PhD track in political science from Delhi University.

Growing up in a government housing society in Delhi, with a typically middle-class upbringing, Sahai always admired saris but never thought they would get to wear one. For Sahai, the garment is a reminder of their growing-up years with a single mother and grandmother, both of whom wore their saris like “armour".

Sahai began wearing the sari in 2013, and after being stopped by security at college entrances and airports, became more sensitive to the sociological issues sari-wearing GNC and transpeople face as they aren’t considered “female". This spurred Sahai to wear it more often to transgress societal norms of gender binaries. The garment is also a testament to the hardships of their mother and grandmother; the sari binds their stories together.

Sahai, who has so far distributed 40-60 saris, was inspired by an incident in 2013, when they bonded over saris with a flatmate’s mother. Sahai told her that they had fancied a yellow and black taant sari of their own mother’s. When questioned about her opinion on Sahai’s gender and sexuality, their housemate’s mother said, “He’s a sweet boy, but I can’t support that." A few months later, though, Sahai received a sari similar to the one they had described to her. Sahai believes that in cases of gender and sexuality, there’s usually either clear homophobia or acceptance but they also say, “While she didn’t accept my gender and sexuality, she wasn’t a homophobe either."

That became a pivotal moment, especially since Sahai shares a complicated relationship with their own mother. “Our mothers were never given the chance of kinship outside their family, but when this mother finds the chance to reach out to a child that’s not hers, she does." They have since received many such saris from other women.

Sahai manages the project, delivering the saris by hand or paying to have them sent via courier. The contributors aren’t necessarily mothers, they could even be grandmothers or mother figures. Sahai says, “The most marginalized don’t have access to Instagram but I have given saris to those I know and those who have reached out to me via social media." The exchange may also involve sharing the stories of the contributors on Instagram and those of the GNC and transpeople, wherever possible—always with their consent.

Such exchanges can change a person’s perspective on parenthood, as well as relationships with family. The contributors’children—who might have access to Instagram and tell their mothers about the project—are surprised by their enthusiasm. Sahai remembers a contributor who sent them saris despite her husband being dismissive of the project. “One can imagine the complicated household in which this mother has led her life and her own desires and aspirations which have no register to speak through," says Sahai.

“The joy is indescribable" when they receive a sari, says Sahai, and it makes every sari meaningful. As GNC and transgender people are often abandoned by their biological families, these contributions provide a kind of validation. “Women get such saris in their wedding trousseaus or as gifts for graduating from college, which GNC people have no access to. There’s the recognition of different forms of personhood, the joy of a newfound kinship, and there’s the joy of wearing saris, which is half disappearing from our world," says Sahai.

For Sahai, this kind of exchange is not a grand gesture but a soft, simple, understated kind of acceptance. The stories that Sahai passes on are not simple conversation-starters about sexuality, gender, acceptance and tolerance but complicated narratives even if, as Sahai says, they come in the form of “a one-line text with a heart at the end".

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