This dissertation explores the lives of eunuchs, the ‘third gender’, in contemporary India. It aims to bring out the several misconceptions harboured about this community and suggest measures to improve their living conditions.
“One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings.” – Anonymous
Over the years, the hijra or eunuch community has occupied an extremely marginalized position in Indian society. By and large, their presence has provoked mixed feelings of fear, awe and contempt from the general public. Over the last two decades, the community has captured the western scholarly imagination as an idyllic case in the transnational system of ‘alternative’ gender sexuality. When it comes to these type of analyses, as Rosalind Morris states, the ‘hijra’ becomes either,
“an interstitial gender occupying a liminal pace between male and female or a ‘drag queen’ who is a hero(ine) in a global sexual resistance”
Yet there exists a very different reality from that suggested by these theorists – a reality
based on rejection by family, cultural and societal isolation as well as neglect. Their identification as a uniquely positioned third sex becomes a lot more complicated when the hijra lifestyle is discussed with respect to this contemporary reality, instead of historical or mythical representation.
The community has been subjected to vicious abuse or a lack of empathy, on a mental or physical level from different sections of society at various levels. These sections include the lay person, law enforcers and worse, their own biological parents and relatives.
Lying at stake is the fundamental human right to be different, the right to recognition and choice of different pathways of sexuality, in other words a right to sexual orientation, a right to immunity from the oppressive and repressive derogatory labelling of despised sexuality.
Expressed in the form of narratives that were penned down after listening to a number of Hijras, this piece of work, at a very primary level, captures the lives of a few of the people from the community that we all choose to shun, despise or simply not bother about. It brings out and analyzes the many stereotypes and superstitions associated with this community. The testimonials of the Hijras and Kothis with whom I interacted bring alive the unimaginable and gruesome violence they are subjected to, especially, at the hands of the police. This dissertation also aims to bring out and deride the atrocities the hijras are subjected to, the injustice that has been meted out to them in various spheres of life and suggest developmental measures in this regard. Above all, this piece of work is dedicated towards creating a little more sensitivity and empathy for this community, that so far does not enjoy most of the basic human rights that we, the ‘normal’ people, take for granted.
THE HIJRAS: WHO WE ARE
The ‘hijras’ are generally considered to constitute a ‘third gender’, neither male nor female. Even in their own narratives, the hijras view themselves not simply as ‘neither man nor woman’, as the title of Nanda’s(1990) ethnography on the hijras suggests, but also as deficient in terms of masculinity and not completely feminine. Instead of taking a place outside the female-male binary, the Hijras have created a life somewhere in between, one that is restricted by deep-rooted cultural constructions of femininity and masculinity.
Largely, the community expresses a feminine gender identity, coming closest experientially to what would be referred to in the West as a transsexual, that is, ‘a female trapped in a male body.’ It is a socio-religious construct marked by extreme gender nonconformity in the sense that there is no correlation between their anatomical sex and gender identity.
In India, there is a widespread belief that hijras often pick up or kidnap infants and castrate them in order to increase the population of the community, but there are no statistics or factual evidences to support the same.
Most hijras in India live in groups that are organised into seven houses, known as ‘gharanas’, Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad being the more populous centres. Each house is
headed by a ‘nayak’. This person’s job is to appoint spiritual leaders or gurus who train their ‘chelas’ ( wards who are lower in rank) in ‘badhai’- the well known singing, dancing and blessing ritual. The guru’s responsibility is furthered to act as a protector of his chelas, both from within as well as outside the community. Any quarrels amongst hijras are decided within the community by the ‘nayak’ and senior gurus acting as law makers, the punishment ranging from imposing fines and expulsion from the community, if the offences were of a higher degree.
According to popular religious practice, they are believed to be endowed with special powers to confer fertility on newlyweds or new born children. According to tradition, they are expected to sing and dance at weddings as well as childbirth functions, and in lieu of their services they are rewarded with money, clothes, jewellery etc. Singing and dancing has a respectable status in the Hijra community; it gives them a sense of power as it reaffirms the fact that the people who asked them to sing and dance during the childbirth or any other functions, believe in their powers. The custom of hijras being called for dancing in weddings and childbirth is more prominent in the north, and therefore, sadly, the number of Hijras in the south who take to prostitution to earn money are much more than those in the northern parts of the country.
One of the more common Hijra complaints in the form of public appeals to the government is the non availability of decent jobs for them, hence they do not have any choice but to take to prostitution to earn their livelihood.
Kothis like hijras are transgender persons who identify themselves with the feminine gender. The kep difference lies in the fact that hijras usually settle into a fixed gender role after the castration process, whereas kothis display an ambiguous dual gender identity that swings between the masculine role of the husband demanded in the marriage relationship and the feminine role in the same-sex relationship outside. In simpler words, a kothi can be
described as a male homosexual who takes a feminine role in sex with other men. They, largely and essentially belong to a non-English speaking lower middle-class background and feel marginalized in all contexts, whether in terms of economic status, language, education,
or sexuality. Due to the pressure extended by family as well as society to conform to ‘normal’ norms like marriage and reproducing, many kothis marry and raise families , but continue to have same-sex relationships outside, often under hidden and covert circumstances. Economic problems within families as well as non acceptance of this ‘abnormal’ member within the family drives many other kothis to sex work.
Sadly, even when they do make an effort to seek employment in more ‘decent’ professions, both hijras and kothis are very often subject to sexual harassment at the workplace which makes it impossible for them to continue working there.
There exists a visible, symbiotic relationship between hijras and kothis that is strengthened in the face of oppression, due to the lack of support systems for kothis in cities and towns. This has led kothis to depend upon hijra subcultures for both assistance and support – emotional as well as otherwise. Hence due to the existence of such a relationship, there is a constant, perpetual exchange of languages, behaviour, mythologies between the hijra and the other homosexual subcultures.
The early years, the young transgender – confused; and the attitude of parents:
Typically, when they are young and born into so called ‘normal’ families, initially the parents humour the boy child if he behaves like a girl. But as he grows up, once he turns eleven or twelve, the parents start getting irritated at the child’s behaviour. By the time he is in his teens, the father typically starts abusing and beating the child. Such an attitude displayed by the parent is more pronounced in villages and small towns since here awareness is less. The transgender child himself does not realize the reasons behind his behaviour; he cannot understand why he feels like a female inside, and gets more frustrated with the constant chastising by the parents. Soon he runs away, usually with the aid of a sympathetic elder in the village, who directs him to a hijra community in some other village.
The hijra community and the first signs of awareness by the individual about his own biology:
When he reaches there, the hijra community welcomes him and explains to him the reasons behind his so called ‘queer’ behaviour. They give him the option of becoming a part of their community after the conversion process into a transsexual, castration followed by surgical regeneration of the vagina, or to remain as he is and explore the world by himself. In most instances, the individual at that moment decides to stay as he is, and goes into the village to seek employment opportunities. As most hijras testify, very soon the transgender individual is then raped, in most cases by policemen who arrest them on the supposed grounds that they are homosexual. It is tragic to know that the law enforcers are usually the ones who sexually violate these individuals first. After being abused multiple times, sexually as well as physically, the broken individual returns to the hijra community and asks for acceptance into their family.
The castration process is never smooth in nature, usually carried out without the aid of modern anaesthesia or antibiotics. The operation costs for the surgical reconstruction of the female biological organs (such as the vagina) range from a minimum of seven thousand rupees (no anaesthesia) to a high of fifty thousand rupees. Since most of these individuals are poor, they settle for the operation that requires lesser costs. Depending upon the money, the expertise, and the success of the operation, the surgical reconstruction varies from being partially to fully complete. In many cases, if the surgery goes wrong, it might lead to blockage in the urinary passage and this could be terribly painful for the individual.
The hijra family:
A hijra family comprises ‘daughters’, ‘sisters’ and ‘mothers’ – no males. After being rejected by their own biological families, the hijra family becomes the first and only source of emotional support. They are strong, close knit and provide safety and security for the abandoned people.
However, due to poverty, discrimination, lack of education and skills, many of them have no means of earning money. So, they engage in commercial sex work and begging. Most hijras do not think twice about joining the sex trade, what with being abused physically and mentally multiple times.
Transgender, Transsexual and Intersexual:
At the most basic level, we take a look at the meanings of terms, ‘transgender’, ‘transsexual’, ‘intersexual’ and ‘androgyne’. A Transgender is a person who is assigned a gender at birth based on his/her genitals, but feels that the assigned gender is a false representation of himself/ herself. Such a person’s identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender roles, but combines or moves between these roles. ‘Gender-queer’, ‘third gender’ are also names given to transgender individuals.
According to The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health (ICD), “Trans-sexuality is a need that certain individuals have to live and be acknowledged as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by a sense of discomfort with one’s one’s current sex, and a desire to have hormonal and surgical treatment to make one’s body conform as much as possible with one’s preferred sex.” On the removal of the sexual organs he/she was born with, a transgender becomes a transsexual. In simpler words, Transsexual men and women desire to establish themselves permanently as a member of the gender with which they identify, often using medical help for the same.
One out of every two thousand births is an ‘intersex’ child, and usually the birth leaves the parents of the child frustrated, confused and depressed. It also leaves them with a dilemma as to which gender the child belongs. ‘Intersexed’ individuals do not have all the regular combinations of physical features; they have some chromosomal, genital anomalies. In simpler terms, such individuals may have biological characteristics of both males and females, i.e, these individuals have some parts of males and some of females. In some cases, an intersex person might look unambiguous sexually, but internally the sex anatomy is mixed, i.e he may have AIS – complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome and therefore, even though he has a Y chromosome and testes, the individual is otherwise completely female on the outside. Thus the fundamental difference between an intersex individual and a transgender is that unlike an intersex individual, a transgendered person is born with the conventional male or female anatomy.
All the same, unlike other ‘normal’ humans, he feels himself/herself to be a gender different from the one he/she born as.
Discrimination against hijras: Education, health, employment
The highly populated country that India is, with several different castes, religions, languages, the hijra community becomes an almost invisible minority. Biases against hijras are prevalent in our society in all walks of life. They are not granted education in schools, colleges or universities. Over ninety percent of the hijras have not even completed their secondary education. Hence, they do not get jobs, and in the rare occurrence that they do get employed, the salaries they receive are minimal. Due to the harsh economic conditions, they resort to sex work and begging. Hygienic activities are not practiced by those who are in the flesh trade. Even though the usage of condoms is insisted by them to protect themselves as well as their clients from HIV/STD, the people involved in this trade are still prone to getting other diseases like skin diseases due to lack of hygienic and safe practices. Even in hospitals and clinics, many transgender and transsexual people are discriminated against, and not given the respect or dignity that every human being deserves.
Most of the transgender and transsexual people live in slums. Even if they have the monetary power to rent a house, due to the misconceptions about their lifestyle, most people refuse to give them a house on rent. Contempt, hatred and fear form a major part of the general impression about this unfortunate ‘third gender’. Even in public places like bus stations, railways stations, theatres, temples, offices, malls, even in public toilets, hijras are abused.
A LOOK THROUGH HISTORY:
Most hijras believe their origins to date back to the period of the Mahabharata. In it, Arjuna has to hide himself for a year. He decides to dress up as a woman as this is completely opposite to his till then great warrior status. During this period when he is a ‘drag’, he is a dancer in the king’s court, and also a wedding singer.
Then later, during the Kaurava Pandava war, the pandavas want to make a human sacrifice, believing that it would ensure victory in the war. No one is ready to volunteer, till finally, Aravan, the son of Arjun comes forward and offers himself for sacrifice. He has only one condition, that, he should enjoy one night of marital bliss before the sacrifice. This proves to be a difficult situation since no king is willing to marry his daughter to Aravan, knowing fully well that she would be widowed the next day. Finally, Lord Krishna takes a female form and spends one night of marital bliss with Aravan. Aravan is duly sacrificed the next day. The story has become more and more popular through the ages and now, every year, in the village of Koovagam in Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu, there is a temple festival and thousands of hijras travel through the breadth of the country to attend it. Aravan is the temple’s main deity and thousands of hijras pay homage, or in a mock ceremony get married to his idol, and in the process become ‘Aravanis’. One night before the festival ends, the hijras enjoy a night of ‘marital bliss’ with their lovers and the next day, a massive effigy of Aravan is taken through the streets of Koovagam and then the body is set to flames.
There is a passage in Zia Jaffrey’s book, ‘The Invisibles: a tale of eunuchs in India’, that talks about the Ramayana. According to legend, when Rama went to the forest, many people followed him. Rama then asks all the ‘men and women’ to go back. The hijras, being neither ‘men nor women’ stay put and wait for Rama to return for fourteen years. On Rama’s return, he is touched by their devotion and blesses them for their loyalty by sanctioning them the power to grant blessings on auspicious occasions like childbirth, marriage, and other functions – hence the custom of ‘badhai’, in which hijras sing, dance and confer blessings.
The hijras also worship ‘Bahuchara mata’. As legend goes, a woman, Bahuchara was travelling through a forest in Gujarat. She is accosted by some dacoits who threaten to rape her. She cuts off her breast and offers it to them, in exchange asking them not to touch her. She then dies and becomes an earth goddess. During the ‘conversion’ process, i.e, the castration process, a hijra midwife cuts a coconut to see if the process should continue. If Bahuchara mata agrees, the coconut will slice into two clean halves. The hijra who is undergoing the castration process, mutters ‘mata mata mata’ until the process is complete. As legend goes, Bahuchara mata appears in front of impotent men and orders them to cut off their genitals and become her slaves. If they do not agree, they would become impotent for the next seven generations.
According to another popular legend, a king in Gujarat fell madly in love with ‘Bahucharimatha’, a beautiful goddess who rode a peacock. The king wanted to marry her, but she was not ready to have a sexual relationship. When he continued to persist in his endeavours, she relented but told him to first have a bath in a pond. On coming out of the pond, he was aghast to discover that he was emasculated, and would not be able to consummate his union with the goddess. The goddess pacified him by saying that he would soon find a community of people who would voluntarily castrate themselves in his honour.
Around the world
Eunuchs were a part of the Egyptian court, during the time when the Assyrian empire was ruling the country.
In Rome, Emperor Constantine had a number of eunuchs tending to him for haircuts, baths, dressing and other functions.
In the Byzantine royal court too, there were a number of eunuchs employed to handle domestic and administrative work.
The Ottoman Empire had two categories of eunuchs taking care of the harem. The black eunuchs served the officers with maids of lower ranks, whereas the white eunuchs (those brought from the Balkan states) served those who were recruited in the Palace school.
In India, eunuchs were employed by kings to take care of the ladies’ palaces, serve as guards and messengers for the royal ladies.
After getting a general understanding of the hijras, the categories, their lives, their history, I would now proceed to examine the literature that has been devoted to them.
The Invisibles: A tale of Eunuchs in India is a bold, beautifully written, thought provoking book about the hijras of India by Zia Jaffrey. In the book, Anita, a hermaphrodite is handed over to the hijra community by her parents when she is just four years old because they cannot accept the fact that they do not have a ‘normal’ child and are crushed by what they see. Another character, Kamal, born as a male, believes herself to be a female and castrates herself, while a third character Jagoman is kidnapped in Delhi, drugged and then castrated against his will. In the book, Jaffrey takes us on a journey throughout the country to find out who the hijras really are, why the subject has not been researched on much and why is it taboo, and why their history was never recorded. The book gives a detailed description of the lives, practices, culture and history of this unfortunate gender; raises pertinent questions about society’s attitude and in many ways illuminates not just the grim world of the eunuchs but also that of India, itself.
‘Neither Man, nor Woman: The hijras of India’ is an astounding piece of writing by Serena Nanda. Initially, it aims at correcting the common misconception that all hijras are men who undergo a ritual castration, thereby removing their genitals and becoming hijras. The book informs us that the hijras might have come from various sexual ambiguous backgrounds – some may have been born as intersex, while others would have been born as male or female but failed to develop at puberty, or males who continued living as hijras without ever getting castrated. Nanda goes on to make comparisons of Indian hijras with other alternative gender roles belonging to other cultures, such as the transsexuals living in many Western societies and also with the ‘Berdache’ of native North America. What is intriguing but all the same extremely interesting to note is that although most societies, especially the Asian, accept the ambiguity of gender by creating a third gender role, Western society seems extremely adamant on the theory that a person can be either male or female only. In fact, even the homosexuals and transsexuals in these societies are considered to be a member of either of the two above genders.
‘Transgender Rights’, as the title suggests, is a book on the transgender rights movement that started in the United States of America thirty years back and is still going strong. The book assesses the victories and failures of the movement, the future challenges as well as opportunities. The movement fought for the rights of transgenders and transsexuals. The book is, in essence, a collection of articles that covered the rights movement, offering new perspectives and it examines important topics like employment opportunities, public health, economics, and grassroots organizing. This path breaking book is an essential resource in the fight for the freedom and equality of those who cross gender boundaries
‘Changing Sex and Bending Gender’, edited by Alison Shaw and Shirley Ardener is a compilation of nine essays about the cultural and historical construction and deconstruction of sex and gender. The initial chapters speak about the definitions of sex and gender; and that even though sex is based on biological characteristics and gender on social classifications, the definitions do not stand fixed across cultures. The next two chapters discuss the cultural pressures in the sex classification when a child is born. With 1.6 percent of children all over the world being born with ambiguous genitalia, the book offers several examples of the response to this, across cultures. As expected, the reactions do not vary much across cultures. The final three chapters deal with the lay man’s interpretations and misconceptions about other alternative genders. The objective of the book is to bring out the fact that sex and gender are not ‘fixed’ concepts and what happens when individuals push these two concepts beyond the point that society has defined as permissible. The book is an excellent read, especially for people who want to pursue anthropology or gender studies.
‘The Female Eunuch’ by Germaine Greer is one of the most popular and widely read books on feminism. Published in 1970, it became an international bestseller and was translated in over ten languages. It is a passionate, almost furious, hard hitting book on the present standing of women as compared to men, in the world. The book, at that time, served as a wakeup call to all women. It contends that sexual freedom is the key to women’s liberation. It compares the psychological differences resulting from years of social conditioning, with the biological differences that are present between men and women. A section has been attributed to society, of its origins, its development over the years and where it currently stands. Through this book, Greer exposes the nature of inequalities that exist when it comes to gender rights and issues, and suggests strategies that could help improve the situation, if anyone chose to do so.
‘The Autobiography of a Sex Worker’ by Nalini Jameela is an extremely personal, honest account of the life of Nalini. The book gives deep insights about the life of sex workers, and the circumstances in which they make their choices. Brought up in an Ezhava family, in her early years, Nalini works in the clay mines. Through the course of the book, we notice the slow yet gradual changes in society. Being extremely poor, and having children to support, she decides to resort to commercial sex work to earn money. The story goes back to the dark days of Emergency, when the police used to routinely arrest and torture innocent people, most of them who were poor and whose voices could not be heard. She recounts her interactions with the police in a chillingly, honest manner. Over the years, with the advent of organizations that worked for social rights, gender rights etc, the situation improved even though there were still innocent people who were jailed. The account is neither cynical, nor does it have any traces of self pity. Nalini understood that to take care of her children, she would need to sell her body. The love that she displays for her daughter is heart warming. The book is an important read, one that helps us to understand that society can be exploitive, unforgiving and it has multiple layers, many of which are hidden to the naked, believing eye.
At the most basic level, there exists a lack of knowledge amongst the lay man about hijras. The first step, therefore, should be to create basic awareness in the minds of people, to sensitize them, to reach a stage where hijras can also expect a life of dignity.
There are too many misconceptions and stereotypes related to hijras. This has led to a lot of social stigma being attached to this gender.
Lack of opportunities, be it education, employment, health.
The objective of my research methodology would be to illustrate the social marginalization of eunuchs by pointing out, statistically and otherwise, their absence in social, legal and political organizations.
This will be done through,
Analysis of secondary data
A review of works on the subject by authors, academic as well as non academic literature, news reports, blogs and websites.
Taking interviews of hijras, first-hand accounts to verify conclusions derived from the secondary data. Also, conducting interviews of individuals working in social organizations, devoted to improving the conditions of hijras.
My thesis does not claim to have a tangible and substantial measurable contribution but adds to the domains of human sensitivity, sensibility and conscientization. A postmodern condition, such as the one we claim to have arrived at, cannot be complete unless all its participants have equal access to what constitutes a minimum ‘life of dignity’
However, the objective of my research, studies and thesis, does comprise suggesting measures that, if implemented, would ensure that the hijras can enjoy a life with certain rights that every human being deserves. These would include sustainable and feasible proposals for employment, education and healthcare opportunities.
THE CONTEXT OF MARGINALIZATION:
Indian society is deeply divided along the lines of gender, caste, religion, class, language, education, all of which intersect with sexuality to create deeper divides and
oppressions. While hijras are despised and treated with contempt in most societies, they are supposed to have a sanctioned place in Hindu society (especially in weddings, births and festivals) as a recognized ‘third gender’, accommodating gender variation, ambiguity and contradictions. There is an arguement that says that unlike other sexual minorities such as ‘bisexuals’, ‘gays’ and ‘lesbians’ – all that largely remain closeted, the hijras overall are a visible force , and part of an organized community. Despite this supposedly elevated status amongst the sexual minorities, reality is starkly harsh. All over the country, in any part where the Hijras reside, their lives are physically, mentally and emotionally scarred by experiences of shame, dishonour and gruesome violence. In the contemporary scenario, it’s not just the ambiguous gender but also the class dimension of the hijra and kothi community that has a severe impact on issues which the upper class so conveniently take for granted, such as access to education, employment etc. The violence that they suffer on a daily basis is something that no other community in this country faces.
Imagine yourself in a situation where practically the entire world looks down upon you, a mere look at you is met with contempt, imagine a world where you do not even enjoy basic privileges like education, a job, a life. Imagine a world where not even your parents and siblings can accept you for who you are and choose to hate you for no apparent fault of yours. Imagine being beaten up every day by random men. Imagine being penetrated physically, mentally every day by random men. Imagine crying every day.
Welcome to the world of Hijras.
In most of South India, the hijras do not even have the cultural role that their counterparts have in the northern parts of the country. Most employers are not ready to hire them for available jobs. Often, they resort to hiding their gender identity but if found out, in most cases, they are thrown out from their positions. Therefore sex work becomes, in most cases, the only form of employment. They usually run bath houses, also known as ‘Hamams’. The Hamams are generally visited by working class men and the police. Of course, most of these men are married. It is an extremely dangerous profession, as they are often subjected to the sadistic whims, fancies and atrocities of cruel customers.
Narrated below are the testimonies given by some of the hijras I had the privilege of meeting and speaking to. As is clear, kothis and hijras take up sex work for a variety of reasons. One reason involves the pragmatic consideration of supporting the family. There is also the pride which comes from being able to support the family. Another reason has to do with the
self-acceptance of being a hijra and with the related discovery of a certain kind of freedom that living in the hijra community can provide. Many hijras and kothis fiercely assert that there is nothing disreputable about being a sex worker and it is as legitimate a piece of work as any other.
Journals & Publications
People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Karnataka(2000).Human rights violations against sexuality minorities in India report (first edition).PUCL KARNATAKA.
People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Karnataka(2007).Human rights violations against sexuality minorities in India report (second edition).PUCL KARNATAKA.
Bodies That Don’t Matter: The Discursive