By Maliha Siddiqi
It’s a rather hackneyed picture: burly men clad in bright sarees, their makeup clownish, their signature clap atypical and distinguishable. They hurl the choicest expletives. Their ornaments scream a poor attempt to thrust an image of the banal femininity that exists in the predominantly gender-binary world. They are not men nor women. They call themselves the third gender. In ordinary terms, they are transsexuals which essentially means that they emotionally and psychologically believe that they belong to the opposite gender rather than the original sex that their body was born in.
In the Indian subcontinent, the term ‘hijra’ is often used to provide an umbrella usage for all transgender people. But the fact is that hijras encompass a very small fraction of the people who can be called transgenders. The hijras are a ghettoized community that adheres to a very difficult system of customized code of conduct which every transgender must undergo before being inducted into the hijra community or samudai. The hijras face a lot of dishonor and judgement throughout their lives, from the time they feel incorrect or suffocated in their assigned gender roles. They face psychological distress and, in most cases, sexual abuse. In most reported cases, this segment of the society is marginalized and is forced to be psychiatrically evaluated when in their natal homes. As they don’t conform to the normative and accepted social construct, they are seldom accepted into their homes. As an alternative to the loathing eye of the society, these transgenders choose to live in small pockets where they symbiotically co-exist as families. Typically, in the hijra community, a group of hijras known as the chelas live under the supervision of the leader or the guru of that particular hijra clan. The guru-chela relationship might seem transactional or robotic to some but is indeed a very curious setup. The experienced guru takes under her guidance a group of younger hijras who are provided with protection, care and a roof over their head. In turn, the guru demands unconditional respect, obedience, staunch observance to the prescribed rules and in some cases a fraction of the day’s earnings to help sustain the hijra household.
The hijras are born as men who believe themselves to be women. That is the reason for their discomfort and suffocation in their biological male bodies. They try to alter their gender in any way conceivable to become what may only be a minor step towards the biological female cisgender woman. Some of them just change their attires and daub heavy amounts of makeup to transcend their masculine self, while many take the drastic measure of undergoing castration that sometimes poses a major risk of mortality and medical complications. Many hijras opt of the tedious and taxing cycles of sex reconstruction surgeries which are time-consuming and financially-draining.
The social and economic status of the hijras in India is dismal. Certain contradictions help explain their history, which gets replicated in their present situation. The Hindu mythology boasts of gods and goddesses that have existed in androgynous forms and some of them have had magical powers to convert or transition intersexually to serve a certain purpose. These include Shiva, Lord Krishna and Parvati. Even in religious scriptures, the hijras are mentioned as respectable citizens and in some notable instances have also been revered as demi-gods. On one hand, they are the first to be called at nuptial or birth rituals to confer good luck and fertility on the household as their curse is considered a direct malediction from the gods. On the other hand, they are demeaned and pushed into a vicious cycle of unbearable torture and isolation which draws them further away from mainstream society. The figures who are revered and literally worshipped in a parallel world face sexual abuse and discrimination in the real world. Hijras are often characterized and visualized as beggars who are looked down upon in our conservative societies or perceived as sex workers who present a threat to the moral fabric of our society by denigrating our customs and traditions. While it is true that the hijras and transgenders are mostly associated with these professions, there is another reality to this ostracized community.
As hijras are ostracized and shunned from the normal social and professional spheres of life, it is virtually impossible for them to procure respectable jobs, sometimes owing to their conflicting identities. With literally no other means of earning a living for a basic sustenance, most hijras are forced to turn to begging or sex work as a last resort. They also require money for medical correction of their bodies including psychological counselling, hormonal replacement therapies and the invasive surgical procedures that demand pre- and post-operative palliative care. Sex work or solicitation among hijras exists on a large scale, which causes the community to be blamed for denigration of the moral fabric of the society. They are morally judged by our culture and are prevented from entering the public sphere. The law enforcing agencies also assault them physically and abuse them in addition to extorting money. However, we must remember that a business or transaction cannot exist as a solo entity. If sex work exists, it is sustained by a large clientele for these sex workers. It is strange and inexcusable to impute immorality and perversion to the sex workers, while turning a blind eye towards the consumers of the trade. In most cases, the people who act as the guardians of morals are the ones who latently abuse the same. It is safe to assume that the hijras would not have been forced to live a degraded life if we had offered them an impartial chance at life without discrimination.
It is easy to objectify a certain section of the society, especially when we know hardly anything about it. Taboos persist like malignant yet unseen tumorous growths that slowly erode a body from the inside if ignored as a result of denial and ignorance. Years of humiliation and discrimination have produced a community which has gone through so much abuse that it has de-sensitized them to violence, borne out of our prejudiced behavior. The hijras deserve as much a space in the society as any other valued human beings. It is reductive to approach them through our normative values and notions of sexuality.
Maliha Siddiqi has a master’s degree in mass communication from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is currently pursuing her PhD. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Hatred and Mass Violence: Lessons from History”, edited by Navras J. Aafreedi, Presidency University, Kolkata, India.