In South Asian culture, a hijra or Eunuch is a person belonging to a group that is sometimes called "the third sex." They are also known as jogappas, jogtas, shiv-shaktis and aravanis, depending on the region where they live. Many Hijra choose to desribe themselves as being "neither man nor woman." (The term hijra in this context is to be distinguished from an Arabic word of the same transliteration.). "Hijra" itself means "hermaphrodite" in Urdu language. Hijra are also commonly known as "impotent ones."
Bangalore is home to about 2,000 Hijras. The number of Hijra across India is estimated at between 500,000 and one million.
This group consists of people who are born with a male body but with a non-male or female gender identity. In the West they would be called transsexual or transgender. This group also contains people who were born with ambiguous genitalia. Occasionally there are also people who belong to none of these categories but who are instead forced to become Hijras after other Hijras perform a crude castration ritual on them, often without their consent.
Hijra live predominantly in the larger cities and most live out their lives as women with other Hijra in "family" groups. Some earn a living in prostitution or by begging in this lowly but traditional Indian caste.
There is a religious role for Hijra, to perform as mediums for female goddesses. This means they often have a role at weddings and childbirth.
Many Hijra today have access to female hormones, and can feminize their bodies by growing breasts and developing natural female body contours. The combination of emasculation as teenagers combined with use of female hormones enables some Hijra now to become very beautiful even though they do not have female genitalia (vaginas) and are not socially accepted as women.
This socially constructed category involves belonging to a special caste and participating in a religious cult with its own mother goddess, Bahuchara Mata. Becoming a hijra involves a process of gradual socialization into the social group and gradual assumption of a non-male gender identity. The culmination of this process is a religious ritual that includes a crude form of genital reassignment surgery where both the penis and testes are removed. According to Walter Williams (1986, 258-259), Hijra are bitchy like American drag queens. Insistent and bad-tempered, they wear no underwear and lift their skirts to expose themselves to the embarrass guests if they are not paid for the services they offer even if they were not requested to provide them. Hijra also tend to complain and frequently make demands on others in public such as demanding clothes from rich women on the street.
Hijras normally don't marry. Even if they do, it is not legally recognized. Those who marry they often keep it secret in order to protect the groom from being the subject of public scorn and embarrassment.
In India the hijra community is deprived of several rights under civil law because Indian law recognizes only two sexes. This means that hijras do not have the right to vote; marry; own a ration card, passport, or driving license; or claim employment and health benefits. They are often denied seats on buses or trains. Many are harassed or humiliated by those who encounter them. There have been reports by sexual minorities in some areas of illegal detentions, harassment, and sexual abuse including rape by police. The People's Union for Civil Liberties considers the problem not to be "sexual gender expression," but the conservative society's ignorance, discrimination, and intolerance towards sexual minorities.
India and Pakistan
Hijras in India are often far better off in terms of social status and financial security in comparison to Hijra in other countries in Southeast Asia. In India a Hijra named Shabnam was elected a parliamentarian. In Pakistan a Hijra named Mohammed Aslam was put up as a candidate by the people of Abbottabad in the 1990 elections.
The Hijras of Bangladesh have very few social rights. For most Bangladeshis, Hijras are considered diabolic creatures and are often regarded with disgust and fear. Hijras have traditionally been looked at as spiritually powerful entities capable of blessing as well as cursing. The word "Hijra" is often used as a means to disparage people. The utterance of the word can carry with it a sense of denigration. Standard dictionaries in Bengali define the term Hijra in terms of the politics of pleasure. Hijra in Bangladesh are a stigmatized, socially marginalized, and economically impoverished people.
The origins of the Hijra caste goes back thousands of years. They trace their origins to myths in the Hindu holy books, Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Rama, a human incarnation of the Deity, while leaving for the forest upon being banished from the kingdom for 14 years, turns around to his followers and asks all the "men and women" to go back to where they came from. Among these people the hijras alone did not feel bound by this direction so they decided to stay with him. Impressed with their devotion, Rama sanctioned them the power to confer blessings on people on important occasions like childbirth and marriage, and also at inaugural functions. This set the stage for the custom of badhai (a Hindi word meaning "congratulations". It is used mainly in festivals in life such as marriage, the birth of a child, or an achievement in a career, etc.) in which hijras sing, dance and confer blessings, often in exchange for monetary donations.
The legend in the Mahabharata is that Aravan, the son of Arjuna and Nagakanya, offers to be sacrificed to Goddess Kali to ensure the victory of the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra war. The only condition that he made was to spend the last night of his life in matrimony. Since no woman was willing to marry one who was doomed to be killed, Krishna assumes the form of a beautiful woman called Mohini and marries him. The hijras of Tamil Nadu consider Aravan their progenitor and call themselves aravanis.
The hijra community is divided into seven houses, each headed by a `nayak' who appoints gurus or spiritual leaders to train their wards or `chelas' in badhai and protect them. Hijras in South India do not have the same cultural role as their counterparts in North India and most of them take up sex work as a means of earning a living.
For many hijras, sex work is the only option because no one is willing to employ them because of their gender nonconformity. Even as commercial sex workers, hijras are the most vulnerable group as they are placed right at the bottom of the hierarchy of sex workers. This results in their having little bargaining power and being unable to ensure that their customers practice safe sex. Thus they are very vulnerable to infection by AIDS and other STDs. They are also at risk of violence both from customers and the police.
During more recent times the Indian hijra community has begun to mobilize themselves through the formation of a unifying groups. "Sangama," an organization working with hijras, kothis (homosexual prostitutes who dress as women but do not undergo any physical changes) and other sex workers in Bangalore, has played an important role by helping them organize and fight for their rights. Its services include organizing a drop-in center for hijras and kothis, conducting a series of public rallies and marches, using legal assistance in case of police harassment, and establishing links with other social movements.
In December 2002, hijras, kothis and other sexual minorities in Bangalore formed a group called "Vividha." Its charter of demands includes the repeal of laws discriminatory to the hijra community. It has also demanded that hijras be recognised as women, be given equal opportunities, with entitlement to housing, employment benefits and rail travel concession.
That same year, the hijra community in Bangalore organised `Hijra Habba', a festival of sports and cultural events, which was covered extensively and positively by the media. In 2003, the festival was staged again in Bangalore's Town Hall and over 100 hijras participated in the meet.
The organizations of the hijra community can be seen as constituting a larger movement of sexual minority groups in India. They are challenging the constitutional validity of Section 377 (which criminalises "carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal" even if it is voluntary) and are organizing a campaign questioning the government's stand that the law should remain. Hijras are increasingly demanding equal treatment and have begun to ask for certain affirmative actions such as having university spots and other priviliges set aside for members of their groups.
- Collected Information About the Eunuchs of India Known as the Hijra
- Open directory Project
- GLBTQ.com: Hijras
- The Hijras of India Research Guide
- Human Rights Violations against the Transgender Community. A study of kothi and hijra sex workers in Bangalore, India - September 2003
- Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India by Serena Nanda. Wadsworth Publishing, 1998. (ISBN 0-53450-903-7)
- Lovemaps, p. 106, by John Money. Irvington Publishers, Inc., 1988. (ISBN 0-87975-456-7)
- Hijra - The Third Gender in India: Text & Photos by Takeshi Ishikawa published from Seikyusha Pub. Co., 205 pages, Text and about 70 pcs. of B/W pictures.
- Strange Festivals in Asia: Text by Akira Sano and Photo by Takeshi Ishikawa published from Seikyusha Pub. Co., 240 pages, Text and many B/W pictures.
- "Eunuchs want two per cent of society" Copyright © 1999-2007 DesPardes Inc. http://www.despardes.com/India/newsbriefs/2006/20060422-india-news.html
- Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations; by Serena Nanda. Published by Waveland Press. Copyright 2000 (ISBN 1-57766-074-9).
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