It’s hard to style hair, pluck brows and do makeovers when armed troops are on the streets suppressing months of deadly clashes.

Harder still if you’re a transgender 30-something running a professional salon in socially conservative India.

But Bobbii Laishram is not ready to quit her job yet.

“I set up Bobbii Hair Art Studio in September of 2012,” Laishram told Openly in a phone interview.

“I like styling, so after passing out of school, I took a beautician and hair course,” said Laishram, winner of the 2010 trans beauty pageant, Indian Super Queen.

The 35-year-old’s salon sits in Imphal, the capital of India’s troubled far eastern state of Manipur.

Her salon is chic, with bright lights, tasteful decor, giant mirrors and all the kit needed for a thriving beauty business.

Customers come for makeovers, threading, waxing, haircuts, blowdrying and facials, with treatments costing anything from 50 rupees (60 cents) to 1500 ($18).

She normally treats five to 10 clients a day, but since early summer, the studio has stayed mostly shuttered due to a wave of violent ethnic strife that has erupted statewide.

At least 180 people have been killed and more than 50,000 have fled their homes in Manipur – which borders Myanmar – since clashes erupted on May 3.

The violence began when the Kuki tribal group clashed with a non-tribal group, the ethnic majority Meitei, in a fight over state economic benefits, such as work and education quotas.

The trouble was initially quelled after New Delhi rushed thousands of paramilitary and army troops to the state of 3.2 million people in May, but normal life has yet to fully resume.

Sporadic violence and killings mean the state has remained tense ever since, disrupting business and everyday life.

About half of the dozens of beauty salons that operate in Manipur are owned and run by trans women, who are known in the state as “Nupi Manbi” or “looks like a girl” in the local language Meiteilon.

Work options are limited for trans women, and the salons had promised solid earnings and a safe haven from discrimination.

Bereft of clients due to the violence, many salon owners had to shut up shop and rely on savings to survive. Some did home visits to make a little extra, but many more – especially the employees of salon owners – ran into deep economic trouble.

Salon society

Salons are highly popular in India, whose streets are crammed with high-end, mid-level and budget options offering everyday treatments as well as spa luxuries, make-up packages for big celebrations and flamboyant nail art.

They are frequented by women, and increasingly men too, with the number of unisex salons rising.

Estimates suggest that as of 2020, there were more than 6 million salons in the country. The industry is worth an estimated 200 billion rupees, or approximately $2 billion.

Given that trans women are big players in the beauty industry, the shutting of the salons has hit the community especially hard, said Santa Khurai, a trans activist.

“Trans women in Manipur are stereotyped with entertainment, which is why we can be found in the beauty industry,” said Khurai, who was one of the first trans women to open a salon in the state in the late 1990s.

Beauty Laishram – no relative of Bobbii – opened her salon 15 years ago in Imphal’s Khurai Lamlong bazaar.

Her business was hit hard by the summer of troubles, with the salon frequently forced to remain closed due to clashes and curfews, and virtually no customers on the streets.

While her salon has now reopened, the outlook is unclear and money remains tight, said Laishram.

Khurai said Laishram was struggling to afford basics such as food, clothing and rent.

“Her landlord has agreed to take only half the rent for as long as the conflict continues,” Khurai explained.

Double whammy

Shutting up shop amid the violence was not an easy decision for salon owners, especially after the coronavirus pandemic had already closed their doors for many months in 2020 and 2021.

There were no earnings to be had during that time as no home calls were allowed, so women such as Beauty had to survive on savings for months on end.

Others have faced even worse hardships.

One trans female beautician, who asked not to be named due to concerns over her safety, is currently in a resettlement camp in Akampat, in east Manipur, after her house was burned down during the violent clashes.

“I used to run a beauty parlour from my home,” the 22-year-old said, speaking in Meiteilon over the phone as Khurai interpreted.

“(Now) all of it is gone. Almost everyone from my village has run.”

Limited career options

According to the All Manipur Nupi Manbi Association, a non-profit organisation for trans people, there are about 4,000 transgender people in Manipur – a state with a population of 3.2 million.

In 2014, the Supreme Court recognised a person’s right to self-identify as transgender, granting legal status to trans people as citizens of India and ending centuries of persecution.

Five years later, a new trans act guaranteed protection from discrimination in housing, employment and education.

Yet employment opportunities remain limited so many trans women opt to work in salons, where they feel safe and can learn from other trans women.

Trans women also act roles in an ancient form of courtyard theatre known as Shumang Leela, an outdoor ritual where the roles – male and female – are routinely played by men.

An alternate career is often fashion or beauty – doing stage makeup, working as models, fitters and tailors, or running beauty parlours.

“The first parlours with trans women opened in the late 1990s or early 2000s,” said 34-year old community leader Bonita Pebam, who works at a transgender health centre in Imphal.

Trans salon owners interviewed by Thomson Reuters Foundation said they encountered little resistance or prejudice and customers – overwhelmingly female – were happy to be treated by trans women.

Loitongbam Sweety Devi is a regular at Bobbii’s salon.

The salon owner took personal charge of her elaborate bridal makeup in 2018 and then shaved her infant daughter’s hair, part of a religious ritual after many Hindu births.

“I really value her advice and expertise,” said the 34-year-old school principal of her favourite beautician. “The fact that she’s a trans woman has never been a factor for me.”

Reporting by Rush Mukherjee.

GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQIA+ news to a global audience.