Meet Sabi Giri , a trans woman who challenged the Indian Navy
Why she won’t back down from her fight for inclusivity
When Sabi Giri joined the Indian Navy in 2010, at the age of 18, she had achieved a childhood dream. “I had always been attracted to the white uniform and the idea of serving my country,” she says. Once she completed her training, she was posted on the INS Ganga in Mumbai, which is when things began to shift, and crystallise, in her personal life. Giri, assigned male at birth and named Manish, had always had the nagging feeling of being a misfit, of being incomplete. “Till I came to Mumbai [from Chhapra, Bihar], I didn’t even know that I was transgender,” she says. “I just knew that sometimes I would wonder what it would feel like to have breasts, to have a vagina.”
Over the course of time in Mumbai, she made friends with many from the city’s trans community, whom she had met on Facebook. Engaging with them helped her validate and voice what she was feeling all along: that she was in the wrong body. It was liberating for Giri. But now her identity and career aspirations were at odds.
The role of women in the Indian Armed Forces has for long been restricted to certain areas like medicine, engineering, administration and education. In June 2017, the Ministry of Defence asked all branches to consider expanding women’s roles to include combat as well. And while the Air Force inducted its first batch of women fighter pilots in 2016, followed by the Army’s decision to consider opening up combat positions for women last year, the Navy has been slower to change. As of now, a sailor’s position is not open to women, because it is believed that life at sea is unsuitable for them. So, for Giri, once she had come to grips with her true identity, life on the INS Ganga quickly became hard. She suffered a crippling bout of depression, and in 2013, unable to endure the stress, she ran away and became AWOL (absent without leave) for 23 days.
“I was just so distraught,” she says. During this time, she stayed with her trans friends, who were bar dancers. “They really provided the kind of support I needed. They made me realise that I was not alone, and brought me back from the verge of suicide.” Eventually, after panicked calls from the Navy to her family in Bihar — and her mother’s tearful pleas—she returned to base and confessed to the doctor that she felt trapped as a man, and that she needed treatment and surgery.
Sabi Giri with friend
At the same time that Giri was coming to terms with her new reality, the country too was raging over the issue of transgender rights. In February 2014, the Supreme Court would pass the landmark NALSA judgement, formally creating the status of the ‘third gender’, which made it mandatory to give equal rights—and advocated for job reservations — for the community of 4.8 million. But just like the Parliament’s contentious attempts to devise a law that would be respectful, fair and forward-looking (the final draft Bill suggested, for instance, that to be recognised as transgender, an individual would have to submit to an extensive medical evaluation, as opposed to self-identifying their sex) — the Navy allegedly subjected Giri to many indignities too, as it grappled with her admission.
In March 2014, she was posted to Visakhapatnam on the INS Eksila. Giri came clean to her Commanding Officer (CO) right away about her intention to have the gender reassignment surgery. “The CO suggested I go to the psychiatric ward. And I stayed there for the next month and a half, while being treated for depression. The doctors said they understood, but the service rules didn’t allow them to treat the gender reassignment,” she says.
Giri was left with no choice. She went to a civil hospital in Vizag, where post a psychiatric assessment, they initiated her Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) process. When her body began to change, and she began developing breasts and presenting as female, she received mostly perplexed reactions at work. “Why is this happening?” her officers asked her. “Why do you exhibit feminine activity as a soldier?” But Giri was too happy to care. “I loved nail polish and fixing my eyebrows.”
In October 2016, Giri took 22 days off from work to complete her SRS in Delhi, and officially became a woman. When she returned to base, she says she was detained in the psych ward, for six months this time, her every move monitored, as they tried to figure what to do with the sailor they had hired, who was now a woman.
When Giri came back from the ward, she was given administrative work for a few months to keep her away from the rest of the troops. Then, she was served a show cause notice. Her crime? As per her dismissal letter, she had “violated service rules by joining the force as a man and then becoming a woman.”
In October 2017, Giri was sacked. The public statement by the Indian Navy read, “The existing service rules and regulations do not permit the sailor’s continued employment owing to his altered gender status, medical condition and resultant employability restrictions.” But she wasn’t about to go down without a fight. Within one month, with the help of prominent gay and HIV-rights lawyer Anand Grover and his NGO, Lawyers Collective, she moved the Delhi High Court to challenge Section 9 of the Navy Act, 1957, which states that only male candidates can be admitted to her role as a sailor — a provision that is now unconstitutional. At 25, Giri had made history as the first transgender person to challenge the Indian Armed Forces’ service rules.
Today, Giri is navigating the everyday reality of life as a trans woman. Asserting her identity while also taking into consideration the difficulties it precipitates for her parents in conservative Bihar, has been one of the hardest things she says. Right after this interview, she was set to chop off her stylish bob for a more masculine haircut that she knew she’d hate, just to go visit her parents. The neighbours have been plying them with all sorts of questions since the Navy announced her dismissal last year. “What can I do?” she says. “My parents begged me to just come once as I used to be, just to satisfy everyone in the area, so that they would stop harassing them.” Small-town India may not be most understanding of a transitioning family, but Giri’s mother has slowly come to accept that the young son she sent off to the Navy in 2010, was a soldier indeed, but just not a male one. Now it remains for the Indian Armed Forces to come around too.
During the initial hearings, the court suggested the Navy find an alternative job for Giri, instead of firing her, given the nature of her case. In December, the Navy, having decided against restoring her services as a sailor, offered her a job as a data entry operator in a private firm that works for the government. According to Giri, it would be an 11-month contract and the pay, far less. So, she turned it down. “Why should I take that? I want to serve my country, and I will fight for it,” says Giri, who will settle for nothing less than reinstatement, even if that means changing the Navy’s rules to get to it. For now, a long wait for the verdict lies ahead. It sounds like a mission impossible, but that’s what a soldier is trained for.