The Hijras of Ancient to Modern India
The uniqueness of Hijras lies not only in their existence beyond social structure but also in Indian society’s historical acceptance of that position.
By Sibsankar Mal / 03.29.2018
PhD Candidate in Population Studies
Sukumar Sengupta Mahavidyalaya (Keshpur) College
A hijra named Geetu, dancing at a hair shaving ceremony in Delhi / Photo by Whitney Lauren, Wikimedia Commons
Indian Hijra or a transgender person, which is known as the Third Gender globally, is considered physically and psychologically ambivalent and because of ambivalence people consider them freaks (hiding their sexual identity). They are physically, verbally, and sexually abused. Hijras have been stigmatized and marginalized to a large extent. Thus, from the ancient India to the present day, Indian society made a distinction between Hijra and predefined gender category. The term Hijra encompasses a wide range of identities, appearances, and behaviors that blur and cross the biological gender lines in India.
Hijras are physiological males who have a feminine gender identity, adopt feminine gender role, and wear women’s clothing. They do not conform to conventional notions of male or female gender but combine or move between the two. Their vulnerabilities, frustrations, and insecurities have been historically overlooked by mainstream society. Therefore, they are a marginalized and stigmatized community. On the other hand, marginalized masculinity is explained with specific reference to the configuration of practice generated in a particular situation in a changing structure of relationships. The Hijra claim that mainstream society does not understand their culture, gender, mentality, and sexuality. Dimensions of their social deprivation and harassments to them have never received attention in the development society. There are many myths, legends, rituals, religious roles, and themes in Hinduism which entertain the notion of “sexually ambiguous or dual gender manifestations.”
More recently, Hijra is recognized as “transgender” which is an inclusive, umbrella term used to describe the diversity of gender identity and expression for all people who do not conform to common ideas of gender roles. This includes transsexual, transvestite, intersex, and bigendered. Although the community appears a homogenous monolith to outsiders, Indian Hijras include a wide variety of medical, psychological, and endocrine conditions and variants. The vast variety of terms used to translate the Hindi word “Hijra” makes things confusing for the outsider. Eunuchs, transvestites, homosexuals, bisexuals, hermaphrodites, androgynes, transsexuals, and gynemimetics are some of the words used to describe the community. They are also called intersexed, emasculated, impotent, transgendered castrated, effeminate, or sexually anomalous or dysfunctional.
An estimated 5–6 million eunuchs live in India. In modern India, Hijras often live a ghetto-like existence, in their own communities which is called “Gharana.” They make a living by dancing and celebrating in births and marriages ceremonies but often has to resort to other means to make both ends meet. Yet, the community is beginning to make a mark in the national mainstream as well. In the 2011 census, the Indian State identified Hijras’ gender as “other,” which only met the approval of some Hijras. A 2014 Supreme Court verdict ruled that Hijras should be recognized under a separate “third gender” category.
The Hijra community in India has existed with a recorded history of more than 4000 years. Hijras have a long recorded history in the Indian subcontinent, from ancient times, as suggested by the Kama Sutra period onward. This history attributes a number of well-known roles for Hijras within the subcontinental cultures. They consist of hermaphrodites and women generally unable to lead usual life, unable for marriage, and producing children. Most of them are close to men, but they prefer to be recognized as female then masculine due to their inclination to lead a life of women.
Adjustment of Hijra in Indian Society
Hijra during the Chhath puja ceremony (festival dedicated to the Sun god) at the bank of river Hooghly, Kolkata / Photo Biswarup Ganguly, Wikimedia Commons
Most Hijras live at the margins of society with very low status; the very word “Hijra” is sometimes used in a derogatory manner. Few employment opportunities are available to Hijras. Many get their income from performing at ceremonies (toli), begging (dheengna), or sex work (“raarha”) – an occupation of eunuchs also recorded in premodern times. Violence against Hijras, especially Hijra sex workers, is often brutal and occurs in public spaces, police stations, prisons, and their homes. As with transgender people in most of the world as well as in India, they face extreme discrimination in health, housing, education, employment, immigration, law, and any bureaucracy that is unable to place them into male or female gender categories.
A number of terms across the culturally and linguistically diverse Indian subcontinent represent similar sex or gender categories. While these are rough synonyms, they may be better understood as separate identities due to regional cultural differences. In Telugu, a Hijra is referred to as “napunsakudu,” “kojja,” or “maada.” In Tamil Nadu, the equivalent term is “Thiru nangai” (mister woman), “Ali,” “aravanni,” “aravani,” or “aruvani.” They are also termed as “durani” in Kolkata and “menaka” in Cochin. In Punjabi, both in Pakistan and India, the term “khusra” is used. Other terms include “jankha.” In Gujarati, they are called “pavaiyaa.” In Urdu, another common term is “khwaja sira.” In Bengali, hijra is called “hijra,” “hijre,” “hijla,” “hizre,” or “hizra.”,, During the era of the British Raj, authorities attempted to eradicate Hijras, whom they saw as “a breach of public decency”. In India, Hijras now have the option to identify as a eunuch (“E”) on passports and on certain government documents. However, they are not fully accommodated; for example, citizens must identify as either male or female to vote. There is also further discrimination from the government. In the 2009 general election, India’s Election Committee denied three Hijras candidature unless they identified themselves as either male or female. Nowadays, the practice of Hijra culture is a better source of income. Thus, many men who are physically fit join into the Hijra community and became a Hijra in front of the mainstream society for income purpose. Those Hijras are fake Hijra.
The Hijra Culture and Religious Perspective
A hijra funeral / Wikimedia Commons
The Hijra community due to its peculiar place in subcontinental society which entailed marginalization yet royal privileges developed a secret language known as “Hijra Farsi,” The language has a sentence structure loosely based on Urdu and a unique vocabulary of at least thousand words. Beyond the Urdu-Hindi speaking areas of subcontinent, the vocabulary is still used by the Hijra community within their own native languages. Although many Hijras identify as Muslim, many practice a form of syncretism that draws on multiple religions; seeing themselves to be neither men nor women, Hijras practice rituals for both men and women. Hijras belong to a special caste. They are usually devotees of the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata, Lord Shiva, or both. Many Hindu legends show that Hijras in India had a sanctioned role in Hindu society, especially through the practice of “badhai.” The “badhai” culture is more characteristic of North India; Hijras in South India are involved in ritual roles as jogappas, jogammas, Shivshakthis, and so on. They take part in Karaga processions and various jatras along with men who cross-dress as women for this occasion. Nevertheless, this ritual role is marginal to the life of Hijras in South India. In their conversation with us, the Hijras expressed their perception that Hijras in South India did not have the cultural role (except in Hyderabad) that they do in North India, and mainly take up sex work as the way to earn a living, either by soliciting customers on the streets or by joining hamams. It is a dangerous profession, as they are often subjected to contemptuous and violent treatment by customers and the police.
They inhabit spaces openly, often drawing attention to them with loud speech and hand gestures, including their unique hand clap, Hijras also adopt male patterns of speech. Replica smile on their face, adorn themselves with kajal, makeup, lipstick, dressed in multicolored saris, in a horrible parody of women in a unique style, they roam the busy market places in groups for their income.
Gender Identity Conflict
Mendhi tattoos made from henna are a traditionally female ornamentation in India. This hijra community organizer and educator had appropriated the culture-specific symbol of gender. / Photo by Whitney Lauren, Wikimedia Commons
Most people experience their gender identity as correlating to, or in line with, their physical sex. For a transsexual person, however, there is a conflict between one’s physical sex and one’s gender identity as a man or a woman. Female-to-male transsexual people are born with female bodies but have a predominantly male gender identity. Male-to-female transsexual people are born with male bodies but have a female gender identity. Many, but not all, transsexual people undergo medical treatment to change their physical sex through hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgeries. At least one in every 2000 children is born with a sexual anatomy that mixes male and female characteristics in ways that make it difficult, even for an expert, to label them male or female. Although no one is ever born with two full sets of genitals, male and female, some intersexed infants may have ambiguous genitalia, such as a penis that is judged “too small” or a clitoris that is judged “too large.” The “unusual” growth of a feminine boy or masculine girl is not tolerated in schools, family, and society where the informants often encountered a hostile environment for incompatible sex-gender roles and attitudes. They often experienced loneliness and abusive treatment. Unable to adapt within hostile civic environments, most became reluctant to continue schooling. Deprived from family, school environment, and neighbors the informants reported that, as Hijra, they were often told that their attitudes, body gestures, and behaviors were unlike other boys or girls. The informants became confused about their sex-gender alignment. Many Hijra claimed to have a soul of a female trapped in a male body. One Hijra described with metaphor, which means the Hijra have penis like men and breasts like women to indicate that they are neither males nor females but a mix of both.
Influenced by predominant norms and values of society and societal “decorum,” their human dignity and self-esteem were diminished. They feel themselves worthless and unfit to society searching a place where they live peacefully. Therefore they want to leave their family. This decision of leaving home was finalized when they became closely associated with feminine male friends where they were fit psychologically, sexually, and socially. When a Hijra met a Hijra guru and became a Chela of that guru, he found a place to live. At the time of their dubious feeling, they cannot accept their gender differentiation properly. Due to mental stress, some of them attempted suicide where others get mental satisfaction.
Family and Social Life
Photo by Whitney Lauren, Wikimedia Commons
Like human beings everywhere, Hijras are both shaped by their culture and the role they play in society but are also individuals who vary in their emotions, behavior, and outlook on life. Some Hijras were outgoing, flirtatious. and jolly and loved to dress up, perform, and have their photos taken. They met the difficulties of their lives with a good sense of humor, which they often turned on themselves. The term Hijra is an umbrella term which includes various forms of gender deviances. They include true hermaphrodites, transgender/cross-dressers, homosexuals, bisexuals, and fake Hijras. In the studied area as well as in India the Hijras are mainly classified into five gender categories. These are:
- Khusra: A genuine Hijra with sexual deformity (hermaphrodite or intersexed)
- Aqua: A cross-dresser or transvestites and transsexual
- Zananay: An impotent male, homosexuals, or bisexuals
- Khoja/Chhinni: A castrated Hijra through the removal of penis, testicles, and scrotum
- Chhibri: A biological fit female with fake Hijra identity.
Many Hijras play a double-life in this dichotomous gendered society to avoid stigma and discriminations. They wear female clothes and adopt feminine names while visiting general society. However, they wear male clothes and adopt male gestures while living with or visiting relatives. Their feminine role is denied. They cannot avoid the dilemma of their identity crisis. The informants reported that maintaining two different lifestyles in and outside the home created an identity crisis. It is difficult for them to cross the boundary of male-female dichotomous gender norms and to find a healthy, safe, and peaceful space in this heteronormative society. The informants reported that feminine emotions trapped inside a masculine body were ignored and denied. Hijra sexuality and sexual behaviors conflict with her biological sex, and her biological sex mismatches with her preferred feminine gender roles. Thus, the informants reported that conflicts relating to self-identity had diminished their human dignity and self-reliance.
Hijras who earned a living performing at marriages and childbirth were the elite of their community. Although they also worked very hard, they were better rewarded financially and gained status within the Hijra community for earning a living in this traditional manner, rather than by practicing prostitution or eking out a living begging for alms. Feminine attitudes quite often become the source of physical and psychological trauma. The Hijra informants reported leading double-lives as young feminine males at home pretending to be masculine versus complete feminine with mental relief when with peers. As Hijra, they were often excluded from family events, weddings, and funerals. Most landlords did not rent rooms to Hijra. House owners only provided them rooms, if they behaved properly. Many Hijra lived at slums with a history of eviction. Some reported staying in parks or stations. Most Hijra reported as homeless and hopeless situation. Most were initially living with their families, but after encountering various adversities, they had to leave home. They had to change living arrangements for an unending search for a suitable place where they could live safely with dignity.
Social Organization and Kinship
Figure 1: Social Hierarchy of Hijra Gharana
The social life of Hijra is totally different from general human society. Their culture, rule and regulations, behavior, religious practices are much different and unique. They lived together in a household which is called according to their culture “Gharanas” led by “Nayaks” (topmost leaders) and “Gurus” (next level leaders). Several “Chelas” (disciples) live under one “Guru” [Figure 1]. Hence, the social status of Hijras in their community as a member of the household is unequal.
Figure 2: Hijra Kinship
In the studied area the societal picture is little different. Hijras live in small groups, and in each of these groups, there is a kinship hierarchy. Each group consists of a guru and her disciples (Hijras always refer to themselves as females); these gurus in turn answer to other gurus and ultimately, all Hijras come under the auspices of a handful of “top” leaders (gurus). The leader of the Gharana (Mahalla) is called “Guru-Ma” which is also termed as “Ma,” “Malik,” “Murubbi,” “Malkin,” and “Mukh-hijre.” She is the guardian of all Hijras and the owner of all properties of the Gharana. Guru-ma is a senior Hijra by age and also intelligent and talented. She acts as household head. All Hijras are obedient to her. Under the advocacy of “Guru-Ma,” other hijras lived as “Chelas” (Disciples) with an interesting kinship among themselves. The Chelas under one Guru refer to one another as “Gurubhai” or “Gurubon.” For a Chela under a particular Guru, the “Gurubhai” of the Guru becomes the “Kala Guru” (Aunt) and the “Guru-Ma” of “Guru-Ma” becomes the “Nani-/Nana-Guru” or “Dada-Guru” [Figure 2]. Their society is strictly hierarchical and a eunuch’s life is governed by regulations laid down by immediate superiors.
Daily Spatial Mobility and Migration
Hijra is an important segment of social structure in Indian society, especially in urban centers. Hijra lives mostly in the slum areas near bus terminals and railways junctions. The same area is mostly preferred although for different reasons of convenience by Hijras who are economic migrants. The life and activities including earning practices of Hijras are associated with spatial mobility which is either daily or periodic in nature. Maximum Hijras are engaged in daily spatial mobility. The nature and characteristics of spatial mobility of Hijras are depends on the socioeconomic conditions and their culture which vary from place to place and time to time. The activities of spatial mobility also affect their life styles as well as social, economical, and cultural matters. Therefore, the locations of their residence, health conditions, occupation and earning, public deals, migration attitude, etc., all are significantly depending on their spatial mobility practices. Their spatial mobility is due to mainly of their contravening occupational tradition such as money collection from markets and roads, money collection through journey in buses and trains, money collection from the informal custom of child dancing with newly born baby, etc. Thus, we can noticed that Hijras are often encountered on streets, trains, and other public places demanding money from people. If refused, the Hijra may attempt to embarrass the man into giving money, using obscene gestures, profane language, and even sexual advances. In India, for example, threatening to open their private parts in front of the man if he does not donate something. Hijras can also come as an invitee to one’s home, and their wages can be very high for the services they perform. Supposedly, they can give insight into the future events as well bestow blessings for health. Hijras that perform these services can make a very good living if they work for the upper classes. Sometimes the practices of spatial mobility are associated due to prostitution. Due to commercial sex working the prevalence of AIDS and STD is increased recently among the Hijras.
Paradox Sexual Life
YouTube screen capture
Some Hijra considered love relations with their male sexual partners. In many cases, attractions continue as that man also treats and compares “her” with a woman. Most often men pretend to be in love-affair with the Hijra and continue to have sex. In Indian society, male-female sexual and marital relationship is obligatory because of compulsory fatherhood. But a family life with a Hijra perceived unable to procreate is prohibited under sociocultural, religious and political rules, and customs. At some point, such love relationships became disappear. Society does not permit any transgressive relationship beyond heteronormativity and ethics.
Maximum Hijras are engaged in a relation of Sodomy and Oral sex (Mouth-genital contact) with intra-community members. For younger, it is often and mutual. Often they got mental satisfaction rather than physical by their sexual practices. They also watch sexual and romantic movies and enjoy the gender feelings. Most Hijra described their first sexual intercourse experiences at the age of 10–14 years. The first sexual relationship in most cases was developed with male relatives or neighbors. Most of these unwilling intercourses occurred by force and were unprotected, in some cases; they were offered tangible benefits for making “it” secret. After the first incident of such abusive sex, they felt ashamed and were frightened due to fear of disclosure in the family. Sometimes with such repeated incidents, as reported, a boy generally became concerned about his feminine psyche. Later on, due to feminine behaviors, they reported encountering serial harassments, beginning at home, extending, and unfolding to all spheres of life.
Hijra during the Chhath puja ceremony (festival dedicated to the Sun god) at the bank of river Hooghly, Kolkata / Photo by Biswarup Ganguly, Wikimedia Commons
The findings signify that most deprivations in the lives of Hijra are grounded in nonrecognition of a Hijra identity as a separate gendered human being beyond the societal male-female dichotomy. Hijras do not disclose their gender identity. Their identity is shrouded in myths and false portrayal. This has prevented them from positioning themselves in the greater society with human potential and gender dignity. The findings revealed no safe sociopolitical space where a Hijra can lead a life of a human being with satisfactory manner. Some Hijra reported suicidal attempts in a situation described as nowhere to go. Because of constrained participation in family, social, and public spheres and because of their extremely limited access to information, economic, and health-care services, they delay seeking care for their health.
Most of them reported that due to lack of adequate education and employment opportunities, they are forced into sex work and begging. While some Hijra manages to sustain their job in spite of social obstructions in the workplace, most of them resign their jobs without tolerating stigma and discrimination. A variety of multiple-level factors such as lack of gender recognization, lack of social justice, lack of social well-being, and lack of familial support put them introvert community. Similarly, sexual and mental health needs are often not adequately addressed. In particular, most Hijra does not get adequate state’s support for sex transition surgeries such as hormone administration, emasculation, and breast augmentation surgery.
The transgender expressions of sexuality or gender identity are still now hidden or stigmatize by the wider society. Resisting this stigma has been part of the long struggle for survival of the transgender community to live alongside the society at large. Yet, they remain a neglected part of our population. Although they have obvious endocrine dysfunction, no systematic attempt has been made to evaluate, assess, and improve their endocrine health. In this regards, a concerted effort is needed by endocrinologists, and allied specialties, to understand the endocrinology of Hijras and to optimize it.
Hijras, in everyday lives, practice transaction roles as a distinct, linguistic, and ethnic group in their dealing with men. In Western countries, the Hijras or transgender people are very much part of the society, then why not in India they will be given recognition and respect like others. The Hijras are an important, and integral, part of Indian society. No celebration is considered complete without their participation and blessing. Multiple problems are faced by Hijras, which necessitate a variety of solutions and actions. While some actions require immediate implementation such as introducing Hijra specific social welfare schemes, some actions need to be taken on a long-term basis reducing the negative attitude and molestation of the general public and increasing accurate knowledge and humanity about Hijra communities. The required changes need to be reflected in policies and laws, attitude and notice of the government, general public, and health-care providers.
Hijras face multiple forms of subjugation. They frequently face sexual stabbing and physical violence from society. They also face exclusion from social and cultural participation. We need to take a look either into their past or the future to stop vast discrimination against such a large portion of the population and to help them to divert their way from sex workers to good citizens. Antidiscrimination laws to prevent discrimination against Hijras and other marginalized groups need to be seriously considered. Currently, the Indian Legal System is silent on the issue of sex change operations. Movement in favor of the transgender community must be initiated by the policy planners of the government and nongovernment sectors. The ultimate target is to ensure a supportive and congenial environment where, along with men and women, Hijra, as citizens of India, can live fulfilling lives by upholding their human, gender, and citizenship rights. The problems faced by Hijras can be well addressed by implementing some progressive measures such as:
- To sensitize the society with regard to their identity
- Support of civil society organization to advocate for their cause and efforts such as advocate for land and shelter, creation of separate public toilets, hospital wards, recognition of their right to vote as citizens, reservation of seats in elections, etc
- Support of media both print and electronic, to highlight their status, and plight rather than portraying them in poor light
- Extend financial support for community-based organizations run by transgender communities. All Hijras are human beings and logically all human rights apply to them. As all human beings have the right to live with dignity at all times, regardless of their legal, social or political status so do Hijras
- Few Hijras complained that they suffered inhuman and disrespectful treatment, especially in the Government hospitals at the hands of the doctors and nurses. There are various NGOs which have been working for the social uplift of Hijras. Some of them provide professional training to financially empower them.
The initiatives taken by the Indian Government for the welfare of Hijras and also to provide various suggestions and recommendations as to how, passing of more mandates, legislations, and proactive role of Indian government can change the viewpoint of Indian society toward Hijra and bring them to the social mainstream. The Hijras thus defy the natural boundaries of man and woman by presenting themselves as a rather unique perspective on gender, sexuality, and the body. Being in the marginalized groups, they are not only the socially excluded groups of the society but also fall preys because many have them are infected with HIV. Considering the complex activity in socioenvironmental phenomenon and the sizeable number of Hijras in India as well as in the world, it is not possible to close our eyes easily and ignore their existence in our societal periphery. It must be noted that the third gender in India is not adequately provided for, though their existence is evident in our country, society, and customs. A vertical intervention of rights is necessary in recognizing Hijras as equal citizens of India. Hijras require understanding and support of the government, health-care professionals, general public as well as their family members. We need to understand and accept that humans are diverse. People have the right to be what they are and what they want to be. For Hijra people, the same holds true.
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Originally published by Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry 34:1 (2018, 79-85), DOI:10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_21_17, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.