Ragni & Anmol
I laugh when I dance
Anmol took up her position on the floor and fixed her shimmering, yellow dress. Then the young woman turned her glance to the audience, smiling with her noticeably red lips. The hair clip with pearls let just one strand of hair fall over her face. As the flutes of the Bollywood song „O Re Piya“ starts, Anmol begins a smooth, cascading movement. From the finger tips to the toes she makes wavy movements. Anmol’s entire body is moving. Crouching again, she circles around herself, and finally makes a big circle across the floor of the hall. The technique is hidden by her long dress, the almost 50 people cheer fascinated.
Friday afternoon in a one room apartment in north-west Munich. The washed out curtain is closed, the windows behind are pasted up. Only a little afternoon sun falls in the room. Ragni puts her black hair in a pony tail. She kneels on the carpet in the middle of cosmetic brushes, tubes of face cream, filed down kajal pencils and powder boxes. „First comes the foundation, that is important,“ the 28 year old explains as she applies two different concealers to her soft features. Little scars, rings under the eyes and beard stubble disappears more with each layer. The door of the tiny bathroom opens, Anmol hurries out in a ribbed undershirt and a loose fitting camouflage coloured trousers to the kitchen counter to make tea. A towel turban is wrapped around her wet hair. Here in Anmol’s tiny apartment two girlfriends often come to style themselves before parties. Today is a special celebration: they will perform in front of the public. Show their passion. Dancing.
Ragni and Anmol are transgender. They fled together from Pakistan, to find a place where they could be themselves. Anmol doesn’t know yet if she is allowed to stay, she is waiting for the answer from the Office for Migration and Refugees. Ragni is accepted, but she isn’t relieved because her partner Faisal has been refused for the third time. They share a little room in a Refugee home in Traunreut and think about how to continue. One thing is sure: they cannot go back.
In her „past life“ as Ragni calls it, she was called Asim and grew up as the second son in a middle-class family in Gujrat, near Islamabad in Pakistan. Ragni takes the kajal pencil and draws a thin arch over the hidden eyebrows. She starts the line high so that it stops shortly before the temples. In spite of the thick layer of make-up, her deep worry lines are easy to see between the brows. Instead of playing in the street after school, Ragni locked herself in her room and hung sheets on the windows to put on make-up and dance in secret. „ When I heard my father or my brothers outside I had to wash everything off my face. But often they knew it and then they were angry.“ She put down the kajal. Ragni must concentrate to find the German words for her experiences in her childhood. She speaks timidly, softly and the sadness is clear in her eyes.
Because of her sexual identity she was insulted, beaten and shut out by her family. Only her mother stood beside her. „That is just a child,“ she said. When Ragni thinks about it today she gets goose-bumps. She looks for a package tape. She sticks this on her cheek, so that she doesn’t make a mistake when doing the eyes. „ It is a completely different life. I have forgotten a lot.“ Ragni brushes off the memories, but the hairs on her arm are still standing, as she applies a black line with the liquid eye-liner under her lid.
The tea is finished, black with milk and a lot of sugar. Anmol puts a cup on the bedside table next to Ragni and pushes a full ash tray away to the side. Her bent right under arm becomes apparent. She had also suffered violence in Pakistan. „That was my eldest brother,“ said the 24 year old and stuck out her arm to show the extent of the breakage. When she was a teenager, she took care not only of the house-work but also of her younger brother. She always wore a head-scarf - „like a mother,“ said Anmol. She speaks a bit worse German than Ragni and looks often at her older girlfriend to see whether the words she has chosen are correct. In spite of being a great help she was rejected by her older brothers and sisters and her father and punished for being different. „They wanted me to be Ali. They said they would kill me.“
Unlike Ragni, Anmol had a posed smile on her lips when she says her male name, Ali. As if she could thus achieve distance. At 17, Anmol ran away from home and has never seen her family since.
Pagnol calls Anmol to check the eye-line. „ Does it look good?,“ she asks in Urdu - „Good yes,“ is the answer. For the small corrections Anmol gives her two cotton pads from a heavy glass cupboard. The commode seems to hold Anmol’s entire belongings: men’s deodorant, a straightening iron, school things, hair-pieces. Besides there are many photos that show her together with girlfriends, styled and in colourful outfits. „Here I am,“ says Anmol with some pride pointing to the portrait of a young woman in a bright dress. On some photos the trans-women have made special poses like on a film poster of a Bollywood film. In Pakistan Ragni and Anmol grew up with Bollywood. The films are often about struggles in love or the family. This is accompanied by many dance scenes, like in a musical. Bollywood actors are celebrated idols in entertainment. One of them is Madhuri Dixit. Just now Ragni tries to give her face feminine contours with the contouring powder - at the mention of Madhuri she glows like in a fairytale. „ Madhuri is a dream woman!“ she says entranced and looks for her favourite video on the cell phone. „Dola Re Dola“ from one of Maduri’s films. Earlier she had looked at these often alone and tried to copy the choreography of the dance step by step. As the song begins, her hands move through the air and she make a seductive look. During her school days she took extra lessons in Classic dance for two hours almost daily from a transexual girlfriend. To the music Anmol dares to make movements which one would not expect from her shy body language. „Dancing is good. When I dance I laugh,“ she says with a shy smile.
With dancing they were both able to earn a little money when they left their family home. The threats had become too realistic. For example, Anmol knew that she must go when her dance teacher was beaten by a homophobic mob.
In spite of the general discrimination of transsexual people in Pakistan, they are often booked for weddings or birthday celebrations. The money that is thrown at the dancers during the performance, may be collected after. „They say it brings luck when a trans dances at your party,“ explains Anmol, while she gets glittering brooches, bracelets and long earrings with plastic diamonds out of the commode and lays them out on the sheet. She sold all her real good jewellery back then. As transgender it is almost impossible to find work in the Islamic Republic, and they are not even allowed to carry a personal identity card. The ruling a few years ago that a neutral sex may be made in the official passport, is ignored by the officials. This forces over 500,000 people who have decided for the transgender life to the fringe of society. Humiliation and maltreatment is not punished, instead it is tolerated by vigilantism. The difficult situation forces Transgender people into begging or prostitution. When money was short, Ragni and Anmol, not yet 17, also had to sell themselves. „I only did that sometimes,“ Anmol added hurriedly, a foot band with bells that she held in her hand fell to the floor. Ragni was also nervous and suggests talking about this at another time.
Like many young, stranded transsexuals at the time, Ragni put herself in the care of a so-called Guru. They were mostly older Trans-women who led Transgendergroups. In many cases they were the ones who forced their girls, in return for protection and lodging, into sex-work. But Ragni defends her Guru: „Zaim was a good teacher. She always knew what I wanted or didn’t want.“ Now she started with the eye shadow. Covered in a gold shimmer from one of the many palettes the brush gives her eyes a luminous touch. Above she puts a reddish tone which intensifies the crease in the eye. She blends the colours.
Actually it was she who spoke first to Zaim. „Zaim danced very, very well. I saw her at a party and asked if she would like to be my Guru,’’ Ragni explained. In the meantime she could live at Zaim’s very near to Islamabad. At the time, at early twenty she found a source of inspiration and someone who she felt accepted her. The support was not free: it cost Ragni 50 rupees to be accepted into Zaim’s group.
Ragni must now choose her outfit for this evening. For this she sits beside Anmol on the bed. She tries on different rings and bracelets. The trust between the two is clear: they do not pull away from contact to the arm or shoulder, sharing the jewellery and dresses. „Ragni is my sister. We are girlfriends and family,“ Anmol points to herself and Ragni.
They met in Athens. In 2008 Ragni left Pakistan, Anmol four years later. Like many other Pakistani she also went to nearby Greece in order to live a free life in Europe and to find work. Ragni found a job quickly in a restaurant. At a party she met her present friend Faisal. Anmol and Ragni also saw each other at a big event - Anmol was noticeable right away for her dancing. Through friends she found out Ragni’s number and called her. „I told her: I am also a Trans from Pakistan.“
Ragni now slipped into the tight, orange blouse and made sure that the glittering stones on her chest did not get caught in her hair. She also put on a shirt with a golden border. Anmol assisted her to close the clothes. Finally, also an opulent jacket in magenta with glittering stones. The outfit was rounded off with a long yellow scarf with gold hem. Ragni checked in the mirror and turned around. „Very beautiful“, said Anmol appreciatively. And suddenly she struts through the room. Ragni bends one arm at the side, the other follows the feminine swinging hip movements. The otherwise serious face is now relaxed: at last she is in her element.
Anmol has to hurry now. In her flattened, black hair there is a clip with little pearls which hang playfully into her forehead. For her eyes she has chosen the Smokey Eye palette, this style she can do especially well. Quickly and expertly she circles her eyes with black powder. She would love to have grey contact lenses but she cannot afford this. Most of her monthly financial assistance must be invested in the rent and the hormone treatment. After she and Ragni left Greece in 2015 it was very chaotic for a while. For over three months they were on the way by train, bus or on foot. When they reached Bavaria, the three of them were in the refugee camp at Kiefergarten and in Fürstenfeldbruck. One year later Anmol is allowed to stay in Munich to attend school. Ragni and Faisal had to move to Traunreut. Ragni suffers a lot form the seclusion and the situation. She takes a daily German course and will soon start looking for a job but not knowing how it will continue with the repeated refusal of Faisal’s refugee request, his increasing desperation and the long process, burdens her a lot. „I am very sad about how it is at the moment. My body is breaking down.“ Ragni holds her stomach, touches the glittering ornaments. In the eleven square metres room in Traunreut she misses calm and space for intimacy. „ I just want a normal life with Faisal. A little apartment in Munich. Maybe to go on holiday sometime.“ They have been together for seven years, they want to marry, but without a birth certificate this is not possible.
As they enter the big hall it becomes a bit quiet. The guests turn to them as they take off their jackets and the colourful outfits are displayed. They are just in time for their performance. Anmol begins.
In a passionate final pose she gets her applause. Breathing fast and delighted she moves to the background and gives the stage to Ragni. Her hips almost explode to the fast drum beats of „Bole Chudiyan“, a duet from the popular Bollywood film. Her movements are sure, fast and strong. The dancer throws her head back, her long hair emphasising her exuberance. Her arms shoot up in the air, stretched out above her, she turns freely to the music. The spectators have been filming with their cell phones. The song crescendos to its finale as does Ragni. The long scarf makes circles behind her, the turns are faster without her slipping once. The orange coloured skirt takes in the whole room, the colours glow. When one takes a quick glance at Ragni’s face, one sees that it is shining.
Text: Lilian Faye Landesvatter
Photos: Gina Bolle