The roughly 4000 year old story of the hijra community, which is that of an estimated 6 million people today, is a complicated entanglement between acceptance and non-acceptance, fulfilling a niche in society and living as an outcast. As the title of the article points out, hijra is translated from Semitic roots hyr meaning to leave ones tribe. This term is rather fitting considering the life style nearly all hijras are forced to live, as they are usually shunned from their families at a very young age.
To explain the complex area of society that the hijras occupy, I am going to discuss the same three factors that also served as common themes in my previous posts- religion, colonization/politics, and self-identity- all of which have been significant contributors to the entanglement of hijra society.
To start, religion has coded the hijras as possessing spirituality and thus providing them with the niche of spiritual being-giving blessings to Hindus. This idea originates from some Hindu gods that have both female and male genitalia-what would be considered ambiguous reproductive organs in today’s western society. This gives hijras an intersex status in society as well as a guru status for the older and well known hijras-who make several hundred dollars for each blessing they do at weddings, business openings, and naming ceremonies. The majority of hijras make very little income however (and have to give much of what they do make to the gurus they work under), which leads to the entanglement of acceptance/non-acceptance. This is because many hijras supplement their income with prostitution and many leave home so young that they do not have the education or parental guidance to have proper communication skills; another reason why the rest of society has coded the hijras as not just a third gender, but also a third class.
That in mind, the political climate the hijras are living in today is much different than it once was, with the new bill passed by the Indian Federal government which officially recognizes the hijras as a third gender and protected class; hijras now have the right to vote and go to university. This is a big leap from British colonial times, when the hijras were stripped from their high class status as spiritual beings and criminalized as homosexuals, prostitutes and sexual deviants. This criminalization was justified on the basis of the belief in the nuclear family and the rigid two gender system of the much more conservative British culture. The criminalization of hijras lead to a hyper-sexualisation, which in turn, lead to the hijras being coded as both societal outcasts as well as simultaneously acting as an indulgence for the British, leading to their complex status today. The hijras have been organized into society in many different ways over the centuries as everything from first class to third class, to highly regarded individuals to criminalized prostitutes, but they have always kept their place in society as an ancient spirituality.
With this understanding of how the hijras have come to find their current social status-the most important question arises-how do the hijras view themselves? To answer this question I have done a great deal of research reading interviews of individual hijras done by journalists and I have come across an interesting fact. Many (but not the majority) hijras were not born wanting to be a hijra, but rather joined the society because it offers a niche in life to exist within, and a way of attaining money. After some time these individuals, who felt they had no other choice but to become a hijra, then started to feel the embodiment of this third gender. This acts as proof that gender truly is a social construction and that it is the right of each individual to define that construction for themselves and continually redefine it through out an individual’s life if they choose to do so.