“Why Should I Care About the Hijra?”

By Madeline Linnell

 

“Di, di?”

Tap-tap-tap.

“Di, di?”

A glamorous figure, adorned in a vibrant sari and thick make-up, knocks on the passenger-seat window while the car sits in traffic, calling me the Hindi term for “Ms.” She wants money…Or is it ‘he’?

The traffic refuses to budge, and the beggar continues to knock on the window. I fix my gaze on my sweaty palms. Maybe “they’ll” leave soon. I wait. No more taps or di di’s. Did “they” go? I gamble a glance at the window, hoping the beggar had left. “They” hadn’t. Eye contact made, “they” grins. The beggar’s teeth are pearly, the smile flirtatious.

In that moment, however, the red traffic light flickers green; the car moves; the beggar slinks to the pavement, into the shadows. Regret and guilt flood my head and trickle down to my gut. I could have at least smiled in return, but “they” had disappeared. Then a disturbing question surfaces, “Why should I care about this person?”

The encounter, albeit strange to many of us Westerners, is an all-too common occurrence in India. The beggar witnessed in my tepid account is a member of the hijra community, who are castrated eunuchs or transgender people. They typically live in colonies led by spiritual teachers, gurus, after being exiled from home villages, their families too ashamed to call them ‘sons.’

The hijra’s sexual identity and tragic status are heavily enmeshed. A recent New York Times article for instance, wrote about the colonies in Mumbai and how many hijras are being pimped out by gurus. [1] Historically, however, hijras were neither victims of exploitation nor social pariahs, but were key players to imperial rule. Let’s explore this story then, equipped with that knowledge, and return to the hijra’s current plight and the Westerner’s tempting indifference, which I felt strongly after my first introduction to the third gender group.

During the Mughal Dynasty, which spanned from 1526 to 1857, the third gender group were respected elites. They would guard and manage rulers’ harems, which connoted prestige—an increase in space and number of women corresponded with an increase in power. Known as eunuchs at that point, hijras were more readily trusted compared to a penis-in-tact man, who might get funny ideas about stealing property (this includes women). Branching from this role, the eunuchs gained opportunities to serve as “confidants and political advisors.”[2] The hijra’s subsequent downfall was due to India’s succeeding imperial ruler, the British.

Hijra were marginalized and often associated with words like homosexual, a form of criminality—things the prim Victorian moral code deemed “unnatural.” Washington Post reporter Max Bearak offers a concise and informative summary of the British influence on third gender people, from the 19th century to even today. He said,

“In 1891, the British colonial government passed a sweeping law that criminalized entire sections of society, including hijras, who they said were “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences.” From then on, hijras and other “third-gender” communities could be arrested on the spot.”

The British exodus left the hijra, now occupying a Hindu-majority India, scrambling to define who they were. So, they adopted Hindu beliefs to validate their spiritual merit. Hijra aligned themselves with two significant Hindu gods, Shiva, an androgynous deity known as the destroyer of evil and transformer, and Bahuchara, the Mother Goddess. These two gods bear immense creative power. The phallus was viewed as the epitomic object of ‘earthly desire,’ and by way of castration, hijras would sacrifice such desire to these two gods and in return gain the gods’ own generativity and superiority. [3] Equipped with spiritual tort-de-force, hijras are then empowered to bestow blessings or curses.

Though British colonialism is long gone, reporter Bearak says, the “legacy of that law, and the discrimination it spawned” lingers in India today. Hijras resort to begging as many employers will not hire them, despite the 2014 Supreme Court ruling that recognizes hijra as third gender therefore protecting their rights to education and employment. Bearak continues, “A great many participate in the sex industry, and the rate of HIV among hijras is more than 100 times the national average. Recent studies document a wide range in prevalence, from 17.5 percent to 41 percent.”[4] Sexual activity counters the traditional hijra’s castrated abstinence, the ultimate source of empowerment, leading hijras into an existential crisis. [5]

Learning these different facets of the hijras’ history, I cannot help but ask, why should I care? I may currently reside in India, but, if I was sitting comfortably in the UK, my engagement would immediately falter. This leads me to ask, does distance and foreignness justify apathy? I find the answer “yes” unsatisfactory.

By shutting ourselves off from the hijra, we limit ourselves from asking deep, personal questions and shrugging off certain civic responsibilities—not to mention forgoing any kind of moral obligation to take interest in another human being. Thus, I propose two reasons why we, as Westerners, ought to seriously fathom the hijra’s tale. Stories of the marginalized, generally, should both be told and listened to for the sake of generating sympathy

A key component to the human condition, the ability to sympathize with another being, despite jarring differences, reminds oneself of the reality of liminal perspective and experience. One cannot assume others share an identical predisposition, thus forcing oneself to reflect upon the “birthing place” of ideological framework along with its validity and moral credibility. The exercise can, ideally, contribute to a strengthened and more dynamic ideology.

Sympathy can also create change on societal, cultural and political levels. It can engender collective rage—a righteous anger of sorts towards the injustice—and foster the will to stigmatize the wrongdoing and even demand policy reform. This is happening in the U.S. right now in the wake of the Florida school shootings. Incensed by the massacre of teens and teachers, Parkland High School students are demanding for improved gun control policies. Their collective voice has sparked a national movement. On 24th March, hundreds of thousands of people participated in the protest “March for Our Lives” across the nation. People identified with the pain. The idea of losing a child, friend or even one’s own life stirred willpower to do something about the problem of opaque gun control measures. Sympathy is at the heart of human connection and can dismantle discrimination or erect justice, on a personal, collective and systemic level.

Though we may not share the same space, culture or religion as hijras, we can digest their plight and wrestle with our own prejudices, no matter how hidden they may be.

Sympathy entails putting oneself in another’s shoes, to use the classic idiom, even if their shoes don’t look or feel like one’s own. In the case of the hijra, we can, however, find at least one similar feature (other than being human, that is). I am referring to our shared history: Victorianism. It may sound strange, but it is nevertheless true. Our British ancestors, their world and worldview entered the Indian context as the imperial ruler.

As many reporters and academics concur upon, the Brits are largely responsible for dismantling hijras’ ‘fab’ position in society and driving it into the deplorable status seen today. The Brits projected their own cultural perceptions of men who (a) do not have penises and thereby (b) fall short of the ideal masculine portrait onto the religious sect of castrated eunuchs.

That ideal masculine portrait, by the way, is well-summed by historian John Tosh, who writes, “To form a household, to exercise authority over dependents, and to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining and protecting them—these things set the seal on a man’s gender identity.”[6] It would seem that the Brits associated the hijra’s decided impotence and recusal from family life as a sign of the “unnatural order” and immorality, which encompasses homosexuality. However, it must be mentioned, that at this stage in history, hijras were not sexually active. Their abstinence was a defining trait, both in the Muslim and Hindu contexts—hence the symbolic castration. The overall marginalization of the hijra community, therefore, is a case of cross-cultural misunderstanding of massive proportions.

If anything, these caustic ramifications on hijras should force us to pause and contemplate our own inheritance of sexual ideology. For, I would argue, that like hijras, the narrative constructed during the Victorian period surrounding sex and gender feeds the attitudes towards those very personal subjects today. Food for thought.

Colonialism launched the globalization project unfolding today. The practices of London affect the practices of Kolkata, whether it be through the trade of goods, services, ideas, culture and news. The world is tightly knit creating a kind of amped synergy, yet Western countries like the U.S. and UK still bear a greater influence in the direction of that energy as they wield more competent, dynamic economies. Therefore, the physical and not-so-physical products prevalent in these countries are easily accessible and consumed in developing countries like India. As citizens of the UK, then, we should consider this influence. For, the beliefs and brands we publicize could very well interrupt the life of a hijra, for better or worse.

 

Works Cited

Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, ed. Jodi O’Brien (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2009), s.v. “Hijra.”Google Books. Web. 28 Mar. 2018.

Jeffrey Gettleman. “The Peculiar Position of India’s Third Gender,” New York Times, Feb. 17 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/17/style/india-third-gender-hijras-transgender.html

John Tosh, “Boys Into Men,” in A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian Englan. (New Haven: Yale UP, 2007), 102-123.

Mark Bearak. “Why terms like ‘transgender’ don’t work for India’s ‘third gender’ communities,” Washington Post, Apr. 23 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/04/23/why-terms-like-transgender-dont-work-for-indias-third-gender-communities/?utm_term=.24d058757fc1

Swadha Taparia, “Emasculated Bodies of Hijras: Sites of Imposed, Resisted and Negotiated Identities,” Indian Journal of Gender Studies 18, no. (2011): 167-184, doi: 10.1177/097152151101800202.

 

[1] Jeffrey Gettleman. “The Peculiar Position of India’s Third Gender,” New York Times, Feb. 17 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/17/style/india-third-gender-hijras-transgender.html

[2] Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, ed. Jodi O’Brien (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2009), s.v. “Hijra.”Google Books. Web. 28 Mar. 2018.

[3] Swadha Taparia, “Emasculated Bodies of Hijras: Sites of Imposed, Resisted and Negotiated Identities,” Indian Journal of Gender Studies 18, no. (2011): 167-184, doi: 10.1177/097152151101800202.

[4] Mark Bearak. “Why terms like ‘transgender’ don’t work for India’s ‘third gender’ communities,” Washington Post, Apr. 23 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/04/23/why-terms-like-transgender-dont-work-for-indias-third-gender-communities/?utm_term=.24d058757fc1

[5] Taparia, p. 180.

[6] John Tosh, “Boys Into Men,” in A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian Englan. (New Haven: Yale UP, 2007), 102-123.

About the Author

My name is Madeline Linnell, and I am a recent graduate currently working in India. I serve in a communications role within a human rights organisation. During university, I studied English Literature and Classics and, additionally, wrote for the student newspaper. A stereotypical expat in India, I relish a good mango chutney and chai.
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