“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.

Not Proud – London Pride 2017

By Fran Springfield

As an out gay woman I have always loved going to Pride. From small events to the big London parade, I have always felt part of a wonderful celebratory community. But not this year.

The posters and Equinox alphabet video, as part of their ‘Commit to Something’ campaign, do not resonate with me at all. The furore of complaints in the gay press has assured me I’m not alone in my unhappiness.

Let me dissect the video, a short film entitled “LGBTQ Alphabet: Six Letters Will Never Be Enough.” The music was good, great dancers too. I like the idea of of using the LGBTQI alphabet soup as way of being inclusive. But they just got it so wrong. This is the list they used:

Here is the full list of the alphabet definitions described in the video:

A – Ally

B – Bisexual

C – Coming out

D – Drag

E – Exhibitionist

F – Femme

G – Gay

H – Heteroflexibile

I – Intersex

J – Justified

K – Kink

L – Lesbian

M – Masc

N – Non-binary

O – Out

P – Pansexual

Q – Queer

R – Real

S – S & M

T – Trans

U – Undecided

V – Vogue

W – Womxn

X – Xtravagant

Y – You

Z – Ze | Zir

A for Ally – because?  Is the implication that we still need allies?  This is a Pride video – the hint is in the title – why do we need to be proud that we have allies? Pride is about celebrating our community. Having “straight” allies is fine, but Pride is about us.

Why not have A for androgyny? What about asexuality or agender?

B and C are fine, but D for drag should mention Drag Kings too and what about D for Dyke?

E I can cope with, but F for Femme? Acceptable but hardly used these days.

Surely F for Fluid as in Gender Fluid is much more relevant? Especially as it is an identity which more younger people are comfortable with.

H, works, even though it includes “hetro”.

I’m particularly pleased that I for intersex was included is being more visible. For people who are born with any of the complexities involved in that diagnosis, more visibility, awareness and understanding can only be a good thing. Though again, it could have been used to show that being intersex is a diverse identity, with some people presenting as male, others as female and a number of identities in between.

J to M are self-explanatory – though Masc is a new descriptor to me – and is very male-centric.

I’m delighted that N for non-binary is there – again this is giving greater visibility for an identity that is often poorly understood.

O and P make sense too.

But Q just being for queer? There’s also Gender Queer – a term that is being heard much more often and is often regarded as the twin of Gender Fluid.

What about Q for questioning? Something nearly all of us have gone thorough at some stage of our lives. Because there are multiple gender and sexual identities visible these day, it can take time for many children and teenagers to find where they are on the gender and sexuality spectrums.

We need to send the message that questioning is fine, if done of ourselves. But by others? That’s a whole other conversation. No-one has the right to question how we see ourselves and who we love. That message should be part of Pride and who we are. Anything less demeans us.

Real and S&M speak for themselves.

However T for trans does not. The word is transgender or transsexual. Trans if often regarded as a term of abuse and is disliked by many who are proud to be transsexual or transgender. Which of those identifiers to use is an argument all of its own, which I’m not going to to even attempt to begin here. There are strong views on both sides. So use both, but not just trans. Remember too that not all transpeople identify female, at least 25% identify as male.

Whilst not often encountered in the UK, Two Spirit people, often from Native American heritage, are equally valid to be part of the T within our community.

The remainder of the letters from U to Y work fairly well. Though Vogue strikes me as something fleeting and transitory.

It’s great to see Ze/Zir included as gender neutral pronouns. I look forward to their increased use over the years to come. For me they are friendly and easy to use and work well in everyday speech. Whilst I respect people who wish to use “they, them and theirs”, I personally feel uncomfortable using these pronouns. I guess that’s because of my years working within the transgender community, where for transsexual people “they” is seem as term of derision. Its use by family, friends and work colleagues who don’t want to deal with the realities of somebody’s transition is hurtful and shaming.

Sorry Equinox, you’ve really missed people out. Definitely could do better. More inclusion needed for next year please!


About the Author

Fran Springfield RGN MSc, is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Gender Identity. 25 years ago she became the first Specialist Nurse in the UK to gain that designation. She has written and lectured on gender identity issues both in the UK and internationally. Throughout her career she has been an advocate for transgender rights and equality.


Dysphoria, the Trans Movement and Choice: An Argument

By Lilifer Penfold

Disclaimer: I think it is important to clarify before I start this spiel that I’m not anti-trans. I don’t have ill will against anyone, regardless of how they choose to live their life and, as someone who has identified and been identified as trans, I think it’s important that I clarify that this is not a critique against what people choose to do; it’s against an ideology, one which I think is harmful due to its missing the point.

I also want to clarify that this may not be a critique against all trans movements, just as an attack against a certain religion will not take account of all the multitude of sects that are contained within it. I feel here, there may be movements which share my sentiment, although I feel they may be miscategorising themselves, for I’m reading ‘trans movement’ as one that promotes trans-genderism: the freedom to choose one’s gender, within a binary system, regardless of sex.

To read more about me, please read my biography here.

My main argument against the trans movement is that it achieves little more than the ideology it attempts to overcome, that it provides only an ounce more freedom; a choice of gender, but in doing so it fails to break away from the social pressures that have caused people to feel dysphoric. It provides two boxes where there was previously one, when what it should be aiming for is none.

To begin with, I have a few minor points that I will lay out as food for thought, but that will also form part of my later arguments.

The first of these is related to the language of the trans movement. Although the movement holds up the importance of distinguishing between sex and gender, there are certain terms that don’t do this. Take ‘male to female’ as an example, many advocates of the trans movement would, I hope, hold that sex and gender are distinct aspects of a person that just because one is male they need not be a man, but the language here suggests that when one transitions it is between sex, a biological anatomical kind, not gender, a social kind.

The second is the confusion around the meaning of dysphoria, for it is too often read as meaning that one has the wrong body. If this were the case then what is being discussed is again sex, not gender, and it suggests essentialism about sex: that there are male and female brains that are distinct. However, when looking at how most people (those who haven’t knowingly experienced dysphoria) think about their gender, they may only do so when it comes to the products they buy, the activities they do and the people they choose to spend time with, and even then this may be done minimally. Otherwise gender is not something that occupies most people’s minds they don’t walk down the street and wonder what the other people see and whether it matches up with how they identify, but for the dysphorics among you this is a regular occurrence. There is this desire to be seen a certain way, and that failing to be seen in that way is a failure to be the person you feel yourself to be. The dysphoria is caused not because one isn’t the sex or gender they are meant to be if it were this, then a dysphoric would never feel at ease with their body but because one feels that they are not seen as they would like to be; they experience societal pressures to be a way they do not want to be, and this is why amongst other trans people or confidants, a dysphoric may feel released from these pressures, forgetting them momentarily.

With this out the way I now move on to the problems I think the trans movement faces.
The trans movement can often be conceived as pro-freedom-of-choice (pro-foc) by this I mean that the freedom to choose between either being a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is promoted. The extent of this can be seen in Brighton where councils have at least considered (how far this has gone I am uncertain) letting primary school children pick their preferred gender, or in any environment where a young child is asked to choose what they would prefer. This ‘pro-foc’ mentality I feel is misguided, as it fails to realise its similarities to the ideology it attempts to oppose. There may be progress in giving freedom to choose between two boxes, but in doing so it still maintains that those ‘boxes’ exist and that people are either one or the other, and that the person has to behave, look and generally be a certain way. Asking a child if they would prefer to be a boy or a girl is like asking them if they prefer blue or pink and saying that because of this choice they now have to conform to a whole range of conditions.

Pro-foc is, I believe, at most, mildly better than that which it tries to oppose as it gives one extra choice, but I feel that it still misses the point the point being that what is needed to begin to create a society without dysphoria is the complete removal of a need for gender identification. By using these categories in this way people are being placed in boxes which will either be so loose to be meaningless, “I identify as a woman because I say so,” or too tight, “you are a woman so you must do x, y and z.” It is only through assuming that one’s gender choice dictates something about oneself that any reason can be given for letting people choose, for otherwise it serves no purpose.

The second problem arises when it comes to treatments. There are a vast number of treatments available to a dysphoric, most of which are either hormonal or cosmetic, and these are sought to allow one to obtain the body they feel that they should have. This, however, seems to blur the lines between sex and gender, for if it is necessary for one to have the biological features of the sex one’s chosen gender is thought to have, then this doesn’t conform with the sex/gender distinction, it suggests an essentialism. If these treatments are necessary then one is dysphoric about their sex not their gender. Furthermore, if it is truly about gender then it suggests that one must have certain physical features to be of that gender, and it ignores the broad variation of physical features that exist within each sex alone: there are hairy females and hairless men, flat chested females and boobed men, females with deep voices and males with high voices, and so on. The idea that one needs to have treatment to be the gender they want ignores these variations it suggests that certain things are needed to be a gender and if this is so then there are many whose assigned birth gender would not correspond due to a lack of these features.

Overall the trans movement seems very confused with itself. It seems to want a gender/sex distinction, but in its attempts to do so it suggests that there are certain essential sexed features that are necessary for gender, and its pro-foc mentality serves only to place individuals in ill-fitting boxes.

Why Do People Feel the Need to Transition? And What Should We Do?

I think there is a strong analogy between why people feel a need to transition and why people feel a need to wear makeup. People who wear makeup can be broken-down into two, non-mutually exclusive groups: those who feel they have to and those who want to. Those who feel they have to, do so because they feel pressured by society to look a certain way, they feel that a failure to do so undermines who they are and their role within society. I hold that the same is true for most dysphorics who feel a need to transition. They are doing so not because they want to but because they feel a need to they feel that if they do not look like the sex of their preferred gender then they fail to be who they want to be and how they can be within society. None of this is surprising either when considering how persecuted trans people have been, if the only option for fitting in and survival is to appear fully as the sex of one’s preferred gender, then it is only natural that one would feel a need to be so.

I hope, with time, that this feeling of needing to transition will subside; that those who transition do so because they want to, much as one gets any other body modification, whether it be cat, lizard or standard human cosmetic. I say this because I think the trans movement, in trying to do good, has made people think that transitioning is the only answer to their unhappiness. From my personal experience I believe that this is not the case transitioning may help some, but not all, feel more comfortable within themselves, but it’s not a real solution as for many it may make things worse. What I think will help those who experience dysphoria is the breaking-down of gender roles, removing the pressures to conform, something which will aid dysphorics and non-dysphorics alike. The solution then is not to give people the bodies they think they need, but to breed a society in which one does not feel pressured due to their physical form; that to wear a dress and makeup and be all girly does not require soft skin, ample breasts and a certain hormone level.

Thank you for reading to the end.

Neither Man Nor Woman: Coming to Terms With my Transsexualism

By Georg(ia) Penfold

I have moments in my life when everything kaleidoscopes together, whereby my entire sense of the world is shattered and rebuilt with both new and old pieces, and in so doing, it reveals aspects of myself that were previously unknown, neglected or repressed until then. Today was one of those days, for the first time in my life I had come to understand and accept my own transsexualism.

I had been reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl the night before and found myself physically unable to put it down. I’d reach the end of the chapter and begin closing it, but then catch a glimpse of the first few lines on the next page and feel compelled to go on. I read through it ravishingly until I reached the fourth chapter, “A frank discussion about hormones and gender differences”, in which I found a near identical account of the emotions and rationale I had been knowingly going through since I was sixteen. 

Up to this point I had been ignorant about the distinction between transsexual: feeling that the sex of your body does not match your subconscious sex — and transgender: feeling that your gender does not match the one you were assigned at birth. I had conflated these issues, thinking of them as equivalences, and in so doing, I was ignoring the finer psychological issues at play. For although I had experienced many moments in my life where I wished I had been born female, where every ounce of my being would internally scream at itself that the way it was wasn’t how it was meant to be, resulting in both physical and verbal self-harm, I had always reduced these feelings to wanting to be able to have the experiences that women typically have but with little importance as to actually being female or appearing so. This formed my world view which I had been living with up to now; I had discarded gender and removed the idea of sexed differences (other than those most physically apparent) and thought that I could create a new way of being that broke free from gender norms with which I could experience those things which I had so longed to feel. I became androgynous in my style, clashing masculine and feminine aspects together in a way that highlighted that which I wanted to express most about myself, finding comfort in being able to express myself in a way that I had not been able to before. But it still never felt quite right, I still never felt comfortable in my own skin.

I tried hard to rationalise my feelings, to make sense of transsexualism in a way that showed it as misguided and inherently oppressed by a binary gendered society. I saw trans people as failing to realise the potential they had to create wholly new ways of being; I saw the use of hormones and surgery as no more than superficial cosmetic practices, no different to a face-lift. I realise now how my insecurities about my own feelings had led me to this trans-phobic way of thinking: by denying who I was, I had to give reasons for why those who deep down I identified with most, were wrong and lesser than me. I now realise how much more complex trans identities really are, for although I still don’t identify as either a woman or a man, I now realise that I do feel the  need to be female-bodied, that my physical and mental form do not align with one another and that this is ultimately the cause of so much self-inflicted harm in my life.

Again, the complexity of the situation goes even deeper, for when I say ‘female-bodied’, I do not mean that I solely desire to have breasts, a vagina and an overall more feminine form, instead what I mean by this is that I feel a need to be Estrogen dominant, not for physical form but for psychological harmony. In essence I believe that the potential effects of female hormones (increased emotional response, reduced sex drive, etc.) would be beneficial to me, as they would allow me to experience my life with reduced dissonance. The question of how far my transition will go, will rest upon my feelings once I have taken these first few steps, once I have been given the chance to psychologically be the person I know myself to be, removing the persona I have been building my entire life to pass.
Although my being trans means that I desire to be female-bodied — and in a way then identify as female — this is not how I want people to relate to me. My reasoning for this is that if they relate to me on their level, as opposed to appealing to my own, then I know that they would perceive me as a person based upon my appearance, behaviour and an understanding of my own personal feelings. I do not seek to choose pronouns that I will correct people on. Rather, I’m far more interested in seeing which pronouns people would feel comfortable using. Furthermore, this allows for both my actual identity and my perceived identity to flow, as I begin to relate to myself differently as well. For I cannot truly say where I am heading, all I know is that I need to take this path even with the uncertainty of where it goes, so although I currently identify as trans-female, non-binary, indifferent to pronouns and comfortable with the name “George” (Georg(ia) being little more than pen-name), I cannot say how I will feel down the line.