Hijra: India’s historical relationship with gender and sexuality

Hijra are a community of people that reside predominantly in South Asia. According to the BBC, the word hijra encompasses transgender people, transsexual people, cross-dressers, eunuchs and transvestites. Essentially, they are widely defined as not conforming to common gender and sex binaries. Some Hijras are born intersex, but most tend to be born with male genitalia and undergo a rite called nirwaan to remove the male sex organs.

They often live in organised communities, led by a head hijra called a ‘guru’ and have their own language with thousands of unique words. They make up one of the oldest transgender communities in the word, existing in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. India has the highest population of Hijras estimated at around one million.

In fact, following decades of lobbying, India became one of the few countries in the world to officially recognise a third gender, as a means of safeguarding their human rights. It was said in court: “The spirit of the Constitution is to provide equal opportunity to every citizen to grow and attain their potential, irrespective of caste, religion or gender.”

As of 2014, Hijras were eligible to claim certain benefits and were recognised as their own gender on legal documents such as passports, marking the letter E for eunuch.

Despite this perceived progression, many recent reports have documented the suffering that Hijras face, forced to the fringes of society. While they may be legally recognised as a third gender, they tend to not be treated with the same respect within society, denied medical care for instance.

Indeed, the term hijra is often used as an insult. Likewise, certain legalities such as voting or running for candidature still require binary female or male identification.

They have, generally, low status in society and therefore live in poorer conditions. They are stigmatised in their communities at large, facing discrimination and physical attacks quite regularly. These spiked following India’s supreme court re-criminalising same-sex sexual acts in 2013. While this was overturned in 2018, the discrimination ensues, limiting them in terms of employment, too; and more worryingly, turning to prostitution as a means of survival. This is complicated further by the fact that some Hijras in India do not identify with sexuality as a concept at all, but rather that their sexual energy become sacred powers.

However, interestingly, the link between this prevailing stigmatisation and mistreatment of hijras is being linked to British colonial rule. Eunuchs and homosexual sex actually play quite a large role in India’s history.

Prior to colonialism, members of the third gender such as Hijras, made up an important part of culture and the community, dating back as far as ancient Hindu Scripture. Third gender members also had important roles in courts and as rulers in Medieval India. This then begs the question of what changed?

Geeta Pandey wrote for the BBC that ‘their fall from grace started in the 18th Century during the British colonial rule, when the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 categorised the entire transgender community as criminals.’ A court case that points to this change in attitudes is the 1852 murder of Hijra person named Bhoorah in northern India. The judges were disgraced by the eunuch and the ‘negative’ image reflected on the British government, seemingly disregarding the hijra as a victim of brutal murder, and rather using the case as evidence for criminality among the transgender community. Bhoorah was essentially stripped of humanity and human rights following death.

Pandey adds that ‘they were arrested for dressing in women’s clothing or dancing or playing music in public places, and for indulging in gay sex.’ Unfortunately, these attitudes continued after independence in 1947.

While more studies and reports surrounding this topic are emerging now, the community remains widely stigimised in India and beyond; the government and society have a long way to go to change mentalities and eradicate this violence.

Image: Adam Jones via flickr.com

 

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