Hijras: The Age-Old Transgender Community in South Asian Culture

Featured Artwork: Madhura Kamat

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Growing up in an Indian-Malaysian household, I’m glad I was constantly surrounded by my culture, whether it was through stories my grandmother told me during sleepless nights or the many vibrant pictures and paintings that decorated the walls of my house. I always had a reminder of my heritage. I can’t even remember a time before that. As you can tell by now,  my home was practically a monument of Indian memorabilia. As I grew older and my curiosity started to flourish, I decided to delve deeper and uncover the lesser-known stories of my heritage. The ones I didn’t just hear in a regular old conversation. One of the main things that coincided with my heritage that astounded me as I grew older was how prominent transgender culture was in Indian history.

I recall going to a variety of Hindu religious celebrations and being mesmerized by a number of people adorned in colourful garments and sarees dancing to their heart’s content. Most of them were transgender women, intersex, or simply just men dressed in women’s clothing. All of them celebrating religious deities through carefully configured choreography, and at the same time acting out different characters. Basically, giving many of us as bystanders a visual representation of the stories we were told as kids.  You see, I never thought people who were transgender, intersex, or dressing up as the opposite sex were abnormal in any way. It had become very much normalized to me. I saw it in my comic books when reading about the many Gods in Hinduism, in artworks, or even on TV when they used to play live performances. I remember so distinctively how in awe I was of their ability to show the most specific expressions through their eyes and project it to the audience. It was all merely an art form for me and I solely believed that they were just born that way. It was only as I expanded my horizons that I realized how much stigma there is towards transgender and intersex individuals. They were constantly being ridiculed and demeaned by my peers, which always perplexed and angered me.

I knew, however, that in order to understand why they were getting severely mistreated, I needed to figure out the history behind intersex and transgender individuals in Indian culture first and why it had been put on a normal footing for me from such a young age.

The Indian transgender community, also known as Hijras, have been part of the subcontinent since the beginning of its civilization.

They are said to have existed for nearly 4,000 years. The earliest they were mentioned was in the ancient text “Karma Sutra” where they were referred to as the third sex. This was written sometime between 400 BCE and 200 CE. In addition, they have played significant roles in religion. In Hinduism, Hijras are known to have been granted a boon by Lord Rama after impressing him with their loyalty and devotion towards him. This boon allows them to confer blessings on people during auspicious occasions, and still to this day, people invite them to their homes to bless newborn babies and newlyweds. The boon originates from badhai in which Hijras sing, dance, and give blessings. Subsequently, some of the Hijra communities in India also prefer to call themselves Kinnar or Kinner which are mythological beings that excel at song and dance. There are also many Hijras that practice Islam as well as incorporating certain aspects of Hinduism. Even though there is some syncretism, Gayatri Reddy (an anthropologist) has stated that “a Hijra does not practice Islam differently from other Muslims and argues that their syncretism does not make them any less Muslim.”

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Featured Artwork: Véronique Piaser-Moyen

The Hijra community has been recognized all across South Asia such as India, Pakistan, and Nepal and they really thrived during the pre-colonial era. Sadly, it was short-lived. In Pakistan, Franciscan travelers in the 1650s noticed the presence of “men and boys who dressed like women” in Thotta, which led them to think it was the sign of the city’s corruption. Furthermore, during the era of British-Raj, many of the authorities tried to eradicate Hijras because they were perceived as “a breach of public decency.” Anti-Hijra laws were repealed later on, but a law outlawing castration, a core part of the Hijra community, still remained untouched. Furthermore, the British colonizers also placed the Hijras under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 and labeled them “a criminal tribe”, which included strict monitoring, compulsory registration, and stigmatization. After gaining independence from the British, they were denotified from The Criminal Tribes Act in 1952. However, the centuries-old stigma still remained and carried its way to many other nations and cultures. This false, discriminatory notion was constantly being preached and taught to so many for so long from people of higher power and colonizers that it eventually stuck and was probably why I was hearing it all the time. It’s saddening, but now I know what the transgender and Hijra community have been dealing with for so long. Their objectives were twisted and made to look wrong.

Of course, there have been huge leaps and bounds in terms of making the Hijra and transgender community feel more accepted in general. Bills and policies have been implemented that benefit them, but the stigma still lingers. Generally, they’re still socially and economically challenged. They face severe discrimination and don’t have as much access to education and jobs. A lot of them have been forced to succumb to sex work, which leads to a plethora of human rights issues because the sex work they fall into tends to be very abusive and often brutal. Additionally, transgender people in most parts of the world still don’t get sufficient healthcare, housing, employment, and any bureaucracy which makes it impossible to place them into male or female gender categories.

I think there is still so much that can be done to help the transgender community all over the world until all the derogatory actions made towards them can be eradicated. Personally, I feel the Hijra community is a testament to the sexual diversity that is fundamental yet often forgotten or not appreciated in Indian culture and all cultures for that matter.

Happy Pride!