“Why Should I Care About the Hijra?”

By Madeline Linnell


“Di, di?”


“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.

Girl from the North Country

Girl from the North Country

By Natalie Lever

By Natalie Lever

If I smile at you with cherry red lipstick, I do it out of courtesy and not curiosity.’ — Vinatoli Yeptho

Vinatoli Yeptho is from Dimapur, Nagaland. She wrote and performed a poemshared many times online, counteracting stereotypes that emerge from the Northeast of India and expressed defiance against the labels given to her as a girl from this unique part of the country.

A common perception is that ‘Northeasterners’ are spoiling traditional Indian culture by being more Westernised. Women and girls specifically, are sometimes reprimanded for their choice of attire; Western, tight-fitting clothes paired with fairer and oriental-looking face (‘once, when I was in Ahmedabad, a girl who was very friendly towards me asked me which part of China I come from) invites second-glances and staring when they travel out of their states and into the ‘mainland’. There’s no denying that it’s cold up there, so what’s the use in a loose, cotton kurti over warm, denim jeans?

Before the British colonised India, except for some parts of the Brahmaputra valley, most of the Northeast existed as a separate land, isolated, with their own religions. It was only with the British that the introduction of the Evangelical church converted almost all the tribes to Christianity. The church exposed them to new standards of the modern world including scripts for their languages, education, and new clothing and custom; the people I meet dress in Western clothing, have Christian names and seem slightly more free to display a relationship in public with those of the opposite sex (in Meghalaya’s capital, Shillong, we felt the sense of companionship amongst mixed-gender groups walking in the streets being much more at ease, and this was much more frequent than in Mumbai). This hybrid culture, mixed with remainders of Hinduism, the introduction of Buddhism, traditional Indian cuisine, new languages, ancient tribes (throwing in the astounding physical geography) makes it a place unlike any other I have ever seen; a kaleidoscope of India.

In Meghalaya, Matriliny gives women from the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribe-culture rights of inheritance and succession. The youngest daughter of the family inherits the family property and is considered the custodian and preserver of her clan, family, and lineage. Under the matrilineal system, the family lineage (and name) is passed on through the mother’s clan line and when a child is married, they move in to live with the family of the daughter rather than, traditionally, with the son. Karolin Kluppel is a German photographer who has captured powerful and beautiful images in the beautiful backdrops of the state. But, I think that these visuals seen out of context can obscure the fact that although women have more control in some ways, they are still living under the guise of patriarchy in more traditional structures (such as in formal institutions like the legislative assembly). While the women are the head of the family, when it comes to ascertaining their political rights, they are in a disadvantageous position. In the political system, women are entrusted with administrative functions and not with leading or protective roles.  It is encouraging though, to know that women in Meghalaya can have the freedom, independence, and choice in family matters and, to an extent, it appears ironic and a little disorientating to hear of campaigns from men who live there who are fighting for more equal rights.

Kingdom of Girls
Photo by Karolin Kluppel

In the capital Shillong however, we meet a twenty-year-old student named Livi and we have a positive conversation about her experience as a young woman living there. She tells me that in Shillong, it is ‘known as one of the best places for education in the whole of Northeast.’

‘I feel that a woman could be seen to be more respected in the Northeast than in other parts, and I think that in general, they feel safer due to the way people around them are helpful, kind and generous at all times. I personally find Nagaland to be one of the safest places in India; our people are very hospitable, well-cultured and very much founded in traditions. I am not only proud of my home, but I know that it is unique and different. You notice the freedom as soon as you arrive here.’

On the long train home to Mumbai from Darjeeling, we found ourselves without a confirmed ticket and only on the waiting list for beds. We chose to board the train anyway, hoping to upgrade, when a man named Binoy offered us his bed for the most part of a day whilst he shared with other passengers until we could upgrade our own tickets. Packed like sardines, we talked and shared food (even tasting hot chillies from the plains of the Northeast). Binoy later told us that he didn’t think twice about helping us because he respected us; we had told him our story and he admired that although we knew about how difficult it can be for women in India, we had still chosen to come and work here. He explained that he was proud of being from the Northeast and always thought of it as a more equal and just place for women; he wanted to do anything he could to solidify this.

‘Are you not scared?’ we are often asked as solo women in India. Never scared, we think, only curious, grateful, and happy to learn from the people we continue to meet.

‘Remember that my forefathers were head hunters. I was born out of a clan of warriors / Remember the world’s hottest chilli is growing in my grandmother’s garden.’

[Vinatoli is a student at the National University of Juridical Sciences. Her poem has opened avenues for discussions around the racism that people from Northeast India must face every day from the rest of the country.]

They Hold Up Half the Sky

By Natalie Lever

‘A businesswoman’.

Looking up at me, this is the reply of thirteen-year-old Nikita to my question ‘What do you want to be?’, her eyes fill up with tears and her mouth is slightly smiling. No-one notices this but I nod at her and move the subject on, careful not to draw attention to her reaction.

We are in the middle of our daily Aspire class, which I co-develop and lead with another teacher named Kirsty at Gandhi Shikshan Bhavan School (GSB) in Juhu, Mumbai. Together, we meet each day with twenty teenage girls in the ninth standard, in-between teaching other classes. These sessions consist of discussions and project-based work; we focus on topics such as employability, sustainability, the role of women in society and democracy, activism, and current affairs, as well as skills-based workshops to promote women’s empowerment.

A large proportion of students at GSB are from disadvantaged backgrounds and approximately 20% are ‘first generation learners’ (FGL). This term refers to the students who are the first one in their entire family to go to school and receive an education or whose parents have attended the formal education system only up until the primary level of schooling.  These children often face a multitude of academic, psychological, socio-economic and cultural challenges, all of which affect girls most seriously.

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Academic support from parents is often limited due to their own lack of education or lack of time to spend with their children as a result of having demanding jobs. In general, it is mothers who interact more with the school system here in Mumbai; mothers who take their small children to school each day and mothers who sit down with their child to study, even if she is unable to provide them with any academic help. It is the mother who is often the sole provider of motivation and valuable support, and it is she who will play a central role in passing on these good habits and skills to her children. Yet, whilst India has seen a steady increase in primary school enrolment — which is evidenced in large class sizes of both boys and girls — many of these female students drop out before they have finished their primary schooling (usually before the age of fourteen), or whilst they are at secondary school.

Uniquely, the school works under the Gandhian philosophy, ensuring that its teachers are agents of social change and inclusive development and that its students are well-rounded and socially-conscious members of the community. This kind of environment creates an equal learning platform for both boys and girls, making sure that they stay in school beyond the consistent eighth standard drop-out period. Most of these learners are typically children of bus drivers, labourers, civic-sanitation workers and housemaids with no educational background. As a result, these students may find themselves ‘on the margins of two cultures’, often having to renegotiate a relationship at school and at home to manage the tension between the two. This is manifested in the number of absences in school; it is still rare that there is full attendance in our class and on a day to day basis, it is difficult not to think about the causes and consequences of this.

I think back to when we recently celebrated India’s Independence Day at GSB. The morning was spent singing patriotic songs together and hoisting the national flag above the trees that surround the school premises. Performances were also given, one of which included a short play made by some younger students. It depicted the scenario of a family not allowing their young daughter to complete her schooling, so that she may leave to marry a man in a nearby village.

‘Please can I go to school? Just for one day?’ the girl argued.

‘But what would you even do there?’ her father replied.

After some talk of her obligation to marry versus the benefits of staying at school, the conclusion of the play was positive; the mother and the father discussed her options with their daughter and agreed for her to complete her education. Afterwards in her speech, the head teacher of the school reflected on this and reminded everyone of their main ethos, echoing the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘We cannot succeed as a country if 50% of our population is at home and not being heard.’

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There are a number of things that need to and can be done in order to improve this situation, including curriculum development; more involvement of (often uneducated) families in school life in order to help to manage their child’s education; reducing or omitting the cost altogether for the most vulnerable children and compensating families for the loss of labour (a frequent reason why children drop-out). School hours should be more flexible, so children can help at home and still attend classes. In addition, the safety of girls travelling alone should be addressed, particularly in villages. This is a major concern for Indians and at GSB, a female teacher will stay on the school-bus until every child has been dropped off, so that no girl is left alone which can make them more vulnerable to ‘eve-teasing’ or assault.

The Indian woman today faces unique challenges at every step, within her own home and outside of it. Not in all circumstances, but in far too many, an Indian girl with any trace of ambition has a long, hard road ahead of her. I am still unsure as to why Nikita reacted in that way to that question in that class, nor will I ever ask her. But I think of the words of the head teacher on Independence Day and I think of my own beliefs concerning the importance and power of girls’ education. An educated woman acquires the essential skills, information and self-confidence and strength that she needs to be a better parent, worker and citizen. When women and girls are given the opportunity for full participation and a full education (this includes completing their studies from primary through to secondary without changing schools or dropping out entirely), women will gain more control over their future and consequently their whole family, community and country will benefit.

In hindsight, I believe that one reason that Nikita reacted the way she did was perhaps that she felt relief; she felt happy in a moment where in the safety of her peers and in a silent room of listening ears, she was able to bravely reveal her aspirations and admit that she had the hope to achieve them.

Educating India: An Interview with a Maitreyite

By Natalie Lever

As part of a short placement with the British Council in India last year, Natalie spent three days experiencing life at Maitreyi College in Delhi.

Maitreyi (meaning ‘friendly one’) was a Hindu philosopher who lived during the later Vedic period in ancient India. Considered a symbol of Indian intellectual women, she is the namesake of an all-girls college in Delhi, the starting point of my story.

A green oasis in the heart of a busy city, Maitreyi College (a part of the University of Delhi) states that ‘education is the best asset of a nation.’ Single-sex colleges are rare in the UK and I have always wondered to what extent they have an impact on academic success and overall how useful they are in terms of being an accurate representation of ‘real life’. Is it right to separate academia by gender? Walking into the college for the first time, I was sceptical of the environment, filled with questions for the young women who studied there.

(Walking through the green campus © Natalie Lever)
Walking through the green campus © Natalie Lever

Entering through the main doors, I am flooded with warm greetings and gestures, a thumb-print of rich red paint is placed in the centre of my forehead (a simple mark which represents a blessing), and I walk in to stand in front of a lit candle, placed on a floor which was painted with swirling, coloured dust — a careful work of art which I still remember vividly. The girls are cheerful and smiling and I eventually meet a group who I now call my friends. One of them, named Falguni, shared her views on college life as we walk beneath the canopies of the outdoor hallways; it’s a warm day in Delhi and I could never imagine studying in this heat.

“The thing that I majorly love about my college location is the surrounding! There’s so much greenery all around and the best part is that our college is surrounded by Embassies! So anywhere we go, we always get to interact with so many new people from different countries,” she explains after I ask about the setting of the tree-filled campus.

“For many years I had been hanging around with boys at school, so coming to an all-girls college was a big change for me, but I’m happy that I got to experience this, it’s a fun environment and you can be yourself, wear whatever you want, without being conscious of a male presence.”

(Lunch in the sun © Natalie Lever)
Lunch in the sun © Natalie Lever

I wondered why the presence of the opposite sex was an issue — this was something that would not bother me or any other girls I knew at university at home. However, I am told by students that they are sometimes the victims of ‘Eve teasing’ (a euphemism used throughout South Asia for public sexual harassment) on various levels. I am naturally concerned by this and as I discover more of the open campus, I feel calm and begin to understand why it would be peaceful to study here. The conversation moves on to India itself.

“Since India is such a diverse country, we have all sorts of different religions, customs and occasions and our college represents all of them! We come together and celebrate all different festivals together as a family, whether it’s Diwali, Holi or Christmas,” she explains.

Dance is a huge part of college life and my visit overlapped with ‘Miss Maitreyi’, the annual festival which takes place in a huge marquee in the forecourt, celebrating the achievements of the college. This festival revolves around dance of all kinds, including the Garba (a traditional Gujarat dance performed with sticks), and it is clear that the students have chosen it as a central form of expression. Falguni believes that “Dance is a representation of joy and happiness in all castes. We dance to express our inner joy. Dance and music are the two forms that connect to all Indians no matter what language they speak, or what caste they belong to.” It is clear that this attitude towards dance is shared; during the day I am taught a routine to be performed at the festival along with the students!

(Inside the festival tent © Natalie Lever)
Inside the festival tent © Natalie Lever

Between exploring the grounds and attending dance rehearsals, I notice the many encouraging, empowering, and often political posters created by students that line the walls concerning gender equality and gender violence. I took note of a particular one which read that ‘Empowering women is important not only for the betterment of women, but also will lead to a change in society.’ Our conversation turns to the future.

“I feel free and confident as a young Indian woman in the 21st century,” Falguni tells me. “We have come a long way from where we were. Today, no girl in India would have to think twice before stepping out and doing what she wanted to do; we are free to choose the career that we want, free to dress as we want, free to travel as much as we want. But just like the universal paradox, we are free to choose, but not free of the consequences.”

“A lot of challenges still remain for women to be on a par with men. We are still doubted on our capability of achieving high ranks. It is difficult for people to accept the fact that a woman can run a business as good as a man and it is still hard to believe that a lady can become the CEO of a company, but we are proving ourselves and a day will come when no one will be surprised to see a lady as a leader or as a boss. It will be completely normal.”

We carry on dancing to prepare for the festival. I consider what she says and I think more about my day spent at the college — being welcomed, being involved, and being a part of their celebration. These girls do not have anything to ‘prove’ to anyone, but if anyone should be a representation of young people in India, I want it to be them.

Falguni has now graduated; she wants to continue her education by completing a master’s degree and a language course. She then hopes to prepare for the exams to work in government services and undoubtedly, to carry on exploring India. She has recommended we all visit the Himalayas in the North and Kerala in the South.