Living Smile Vidya is a well-known theatre activist who has applied for asylum in Switzerland after facing threats for her views on caste and Brahminism.

Youre educated safe in India Swiss officials reject Chennai trans womans asylum Living Smile Vidya
news Trans rights Monday, August 06, 2018 - 19:29

Living Smile Vidya, a theatre activist from Chennai is a well-known name. The 36-year-old is an award-winning actor, author, a trans rights and anti-caste activist. But none of her achievements were enough to earn her the life of dignity she deserved in her home country.

When she started receiving threats every time she spoke against caste and Brahminism and almost died in an accident which she has come to believe was a planned attempt on her life, she decided it was time to act. So, on April 25 this year, Living Smile Vidya sought asylum in Switzerland.

However, her plea was rejected on July 23, and for reasons rooted in an unreal, romanticized view of the East, with little understanding of how caste and gender privilege work here.

In a Facebook live, Smiley, as she prefers to be known, explained, “They said that India is a very safe country for transgenders. We have a 4000-year-old hijra culture; and hijras are respected here. So, it’s like a lala land for transgenders.”

“And they said, I’m educated,” Smiley pauses, and smiles sarcastically, “I speak English. So, I wouldn’t have a problem finding a job here. They said I’ve already gone to America and London… and the third reason is that I wrote an autobiography which was also made into a film. So, I’m famous, I’m like a celebrity, I am celebrated in India and by the Tamil Nadu government. So, I don’t deserve an asylum. That’s what they said.”


It’s time I need your support

Posted by Living Smile Vidya on Saturday, August 4, 2018

Speaking to TNM, Smiley says that their reasons are far away from the reality of India, and she has already appealed in a court against the State Secretariat for Migration’s (SEM) decision.

Why Smiley applied for asylum

“I have always been outspoken about issues of caste and trans rights,” Smiley says. “I’ve been in the public eye for a long time, whether it’s because of my play ‘Color of Trans’, or protests like ‘begging for dignity’ and ‘dancing for dignity’… I’ve made fun of cow worship and anti-beef stance in my work. Perhaps that caught the attention of some people who started giving me threats.”

She alleges that she began receiving the threats around 2014-15. “I would post about something on Facebook, take an anti-caste stance for example, and I would get these calls, sometimes up to four a day. They would threaten me to back off, call me bad names in Tamil. One person said something like I would die in this state, and I wouldn’t even know why,” Smiley narrates.

While she initially took these threats lightly, things changed when she had an accident in September 2015. “I was on my scooter, coming back from my friend’s house. The next thing I remember is my friend telling me I had been in an accident, and they found me bloodied and injured on the road. I don’t remember much of it and I was in shock for two days after that,” Smiley says.

Initially, Smiley did not speak publicly about the accident. But when she posted about it on Facebook in October 2015, and immediately got a threat call, it led her to believe that this accident was perhaps a planned attempt on her life. “I started noticing that it was only when I posted something on social media or made a public statement that the calls would come. It was as though someone was watching me,” she says.

“I don’t feel safe in India anymore,” Smiley states. “But I am not ready to die here like this.”

‘My qualifications can’t guarantee a job in India’

Speaking about SEM’s justification for denying her asylum, Smiley questions, “What is there to romanticize about hijra culture? Is there dignity in begging? In which other country is it so commonplace for trans persons to beg on the streets to eke out a living?”

And though she holds a postgraduate degree from Tanjavur Tamil University and her autobiography I Am Vidya: A Transgender’s Journey was translated into seven languages and made into an award-winning film, Nanu Avanalla Avalu, none of this guarantees her a job. “In India, if you’re a Dalit and trans, none of this matters,” she says bitterly.

What bothers her further, is that the Swiss authorities do not seem to believe that there is a threat to her life. “I never thought that this day would come, so I did not gather proof. I wasn’t planning on becoming an asylum-seeker, so I did not record calls and all,” Smiley says. “However, I am collating my Facebook posts and articles documenting my work and protests to submit as proof. I have also got letters from some Indian organisations to explain to the Swiss about what it means to be a Dalit trans woman in India.”

‘I deserve a safe life’

Smiley has been in Switzerland for over five months now. She had come there to work in a play called F_femininity, and her next set of shows are in October.

Currently in Lucerne, Smiley says that she fears for her life and does not want to return to India. “We will go to the European court if our plea for asylum is rejected. Because I believe I have all the grounds to seek asylum and to not grant it to me, would be a human rights violation.”

What about her fight against caste and trans issues then? “As a person, it is my nature to fight if I see something wrong happening. And that will not change. India may not love me, but I love my country. And I intend to continue speaking for the issues that matter to me and my community, wherever I am,” Smiley maintains.

“But I deserve to live a safe, dignified life. If I’m dead, sure, there may be people who will say ‘Justice for Smiley’. But it wouldn’t matter to me then because I’d be dead. I do not want to be a martyr, I want to live and speak for what’s right,” she adds.