I am tough, I am ambitious, and I know what I want. If that makes me a bitch, that's okay.
This Madonna quote was Zainab Patel's decided response to the question of breaking through the glass ceiling. Her raw strength and determination to never be portrayed as the victim were self-evident throughout our conversation. This does not mean her story is devoid of moments of loss or weakness. In fact, accepting herself and being accepted for who she was took time.
The struggle was at its peak in her early teens. Born as a boy, she felt stifled in the hyper-masculine environment of her all boy's school- St. Paul's High school. To "cure" her, her parents sent her to a boarding school - Don Bosco Lonavla, which only succeeded in pushing her to the brink. Attempting to overdose on antidepressants at 15 might seem like a rare tragic story, but it is often the defining reality for many in the LGBTQ community. The turning point in her life, as Zainab recalled, was when she had an epiphany lying on the hospital bed recovering and immersed in self-harming thoughts.
This isn't my life. This isn't what it is supposed to be like.
And that is when she decided to stop the narrative of being a victim. Since then, Zainab has only managed to rise. Facing monumental struggles like estrangement from her biological family and physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, she found solace and protection in a community of transgender people. Her mind was set on studying and being successful. She wanted to climb the corporate ladder, not only because she is transgender, but because she is a professional with the required skillset.
Although Zainab has always exceeded the expectations placed on her, she was evidently disappointed. The glass ceiling she had broken was one she had to create herself. Nobody imagined a transgender person would work at the United Nations as a Policy Analyst - Human Rights, but she did. Nobody thought a transgender person could head a department at a company like KPMG, but she did. And she recognizes it's a lonely road. Her competition? Herself.
I have to keep getting better or fade into oblivion.
As a person from the marginalized communities responsible for laying down the path of inclusivity at a corporate behemoth, Zainab is exceptionally aware of the burden and the opportunity her position affords. As the Director of Inclusion and Diversity at KPMG, she is uniquely placed to influence thought processes and make sure people from the LGBTQ community are given equal opportunity to prove themselves. But this comes at the cost of being under constant scrutiny. Her every action is carefully observed not only for success but for faults. This is the price she must pay for trying to build equitable systems.
For Zainab, her determination to be a consummate professional also comes with the cognizance of her privileges: she is a skilled communicator, has a good source of income, and leads a comfortable lifestyle. She recognizes that her privilege allows her to be a homebody during the pandemic, turn on the air conditioner, play with her dog, and get food delivered whenever she wants. At the same time, thousands of transgender people live without housing security, no access to education, and no employment opportunities. Although the storm is the same, the boats differ. Zainab has, in several interviews, called the Transgender Bill of 2019 a "transphobic" and "disabling" piece of legislation. According to her, it has completely overturned the 2014 NALSA judgment and allowed for the complete invasion of the mental and physical privacy of a transgender person. The apparent protector of the community's interests - the government has proved time and time again, through discriminatory laws, that they do not consider the community to be worthy citizens. Zainab directly implicated the government in causing grievous harm, through this bill, to individuals who identify themselves as a different gender than they were assigned at birth.
She believes the onus to uplift now has to be placed on our elected representatives because the people at the grassroots have done enough. She questions their lack of intent in protecting a community that has been a part of India since its inception.
It took India 70 years of its independence to recognize this community. However, they are the ones who have always been on the fringes of development.
Zainab has made her way in a strikingly unfair world, and she has made it through with her head held high. Ever since she understood the concept of identity, she knew she wanted to be a woman. That's what she wanted, and that's what she got. And for her, the thirty years of experiences which have involved abuse, destitution, and mistreatment, even if she got to be a woman just for 30 minutes, all of it has been worth it. She is a woman who has realized her vision. She is hard working just like her mother and is equal to her two sisters. Zainab has finally succeeded in being a woman, which for her, means to be someone who drives change and is not only witness to it.