Image: Hijras in Laxman Jhula.
India has a complex relationship with the trans community. Historically, trans people have occupied a unique space in rituals; yet they still fight for basic human rights today. Many people in the West are not aware of India’s intersex and transgender community, known as eunuchs or Hijras (sometimes referred to by the derogatory term Chhaka). As a community, Hijras have been acknowledged in Indian history for over 4,000 years.
In traditional Hindu culture, the Hijras enjoyed a degree of tolerance and respect. Under the British Raj, however, authorities attempted to completely eradicate the Hijras. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 subjected them to monitoring, compulsory registration, and increased stigmatisation as a breach of public decency.
Much like in the modern day, colonial-era discrimination led to the emergence of stronger community bonds. Today, the Hijra community continues to act as a refuge for many who have experienced poverty, violence, or familial rejection. Unfortunately, these scenarios are all heartbreakingly common in India, where queer identities are still seen as unnatural from a cultural standpoint.
Surprisingly, it is through religious tradition that Hijras have found representation and validation. In a version of the Ramayana, Rama blesses the Hijras with the ability to sing, dance, and give blessings to others. The Hindu epic relates that when Rama departs for the forest, many villagers come to mourn him and so he says, “Men and women should return to their places.” On his return after a 14-year-exile, he finds that the Hijras alone have not moved from the spot where he gave his speech. Their devotion moves him, and he grants them these gifts.
Additionally, Hijras are considered pious and usually seen as worshippers of the Lord Shiva. Many Hijras identify with Shiva, who merges with his wife Parvati to take the ambiguously gendered form of Adhanari; they also celebrate their Progenitor, Iravan or Aravan. Aravan appears in the Mahabharata, where he offers his bloodline to the Goddess Kali during a war. As a blessing, Kali grants his desire to be married before he dies in battle. Krishna takes the form of a beautiful woman and marries Aravan.
As a result, Hijras have a unique role within religious ceremonies today as they are appreciated as a special caste. They are seen to have the ability to bless and curse, inspiring fear and awe in the people of India. They are invited (or sometimes even crash homes) to conduct rituals during weddings, births, and other festivities. In an 18-day religious festival in Tamil Nadu, they commemorate the wedding of Lord Krishna and Lord Aravan by performing ritual dances and breaking their bangles — often in conjunction with holding HIV and AIDS seminars. Many Hijras from all over the country travel long distances to participate in this joyous festival and experience its support network’s sense of unity.
Behind the celebrations, though, it can be a difficult and lonely existence. Most Hijras nowadays have few employment opportunities available to them and obtain their income through begging, sex work and performing at ceremonies. They are frequently subjected to brutal and public violence, even in police stations, which is often not investigated. India’s transgender community faces a risk of contracting HIV which is 26 times higher than the national rate; yet there is often discrimination against trans people in healthcare.
Hijras’ only layer of legal protection is that they are now classed as “the third gender”. Even though some may question whether this treats them as an anomaly (essentially denying their right to identify as a man or woman), it is important for their identification on passports and other official documents. There was no option besides male and female on any documentation in India before April 2014, when Supreme Court Justice K. S. Radhakrishnan recognised Hijras as a “third gender”. He described this change in Indian law as an effort to safeguard their basic human rights, stating that it was “a social or medical issue but a human rights issue”.
Today, many people understandably continue to be dissatisfied with the status of trans rights in India. In November 2019, demonstrators took to the streets to protest the proposed transgender rights legislation. It was passed a few days later, but protesters urged the President to reconsider the matter as it does not adequately protect the already-vulnerable community. Coming just a little over one year after the government decriminalised homosexuality, the bill does provide some aspects of protection, such as prohibiting discrimination in employment, education, and renting property. However, it still requires trans people to undergo the long, demanding process of obtaining medical proof in order for their gender identities to be legally recognised.
A member of the LGBTQ+ community, who is currently studying at university in Chennai, commented: “At present the scenario is not great for anyone, let alone the trans community. Indian society is relatively kinder is some ways to trans folk over queer people, but the trans bill shows a lot of discrimination against the trans community as it does not provide the same level of punishment to criminals who hurt them. If the victim is trans the criminal gets max up to two years in prison. It also stipulates that a trans person can’t identify as the other gender without going through screen tests and getting approval of a board to change their birth certificates…which is disgusting.”
Although progress is slow, what is truly inspiring is that the community of roughly 2 million people successfully took their demand for recognition to the Supreme Court, with little financial support to obtain lawyers and media attention. It was a process that led to many companies in India also questioning their own policies and creating more inclusive workspaces — a promising sign. There is hope for a future where Hijras can be appreciated for who they are.