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The day they began to matter to me- India's third gender, the 'hijra'.

Hijra in Hindi is eunuch in Englishand male-to-female transgender to westerners is a woman trapped in a man's bodY.

Pink Pages and the ' Hammam'

Somewhere someplace it’s still just a little before the crack of dawn. And no one else is present for this ‘ceremonial’ ritual other than the ‘dai-ma’ and her assistant. The oil is boiling hot when the knife is dipped in it. A normally born male baby is playing around on the soft bed. The genitals of the baby are slashed in one cruel wave and after dressing the wound, a nail with a string attached is tied to the waist and drilled into the stump, which would with medication and time, begin to look somewhat like a female crotch. A ‘hijra’ is born today.

In a crude surgery (called castration) done in the most unscientific, threatening to the health of the patient and done in the most unhygienic conditions, this operation called ‘nirban’ meaning ‘mukti’, is not permitted by the Indian legal statutes. Therefore, it is done in absolute secrecy by dais or the country nurses whose training is based solely on experience. The whole act is given the colour of a religious ritual like the ‘deeksha’ for a better life in the next birth. The act suggests a ‘transition’ of the person from one ‘life’ to another. The breasts develop because the seat of the male hormone- the testicles- has been removed. When the female hormones take over the growth of secondary sexual characters like facial hair is restricted. So also the regular change in voice.

This is India’s reality of the ‘hijra’, the third gender. To modern westerners they are called the ‘eunuch’, the ‘male-to-female transgender’ and ‘effeminate homosexuals’. There is no official count of this special community. While one source claims that there are 2,000,000 of them another source mentions the number at 7,50,5000. Wikipedia explains the eunuch as a person who may have been castrated, typically early enough in his life for this change to have major hormonal consequences; or may be a man who is not castrated but who is impotent, celibate or otherwise not inclined to marry and reproduce. These men are women trapped in a man’s body.

After nine months of following them and sixteen days of intensive research I felt I was ready for the field now. My informants I knew would be there in the traffic junction under the Hebbal Flyover, you cannot miss this important landmark if you are entering my city Bangalore from the airport. With a heartbeat which sounded ‘techno’ in genre, I was wondering if I had got my note pad, if my voice recorder was there in my pocket and if I had charged the batteries of my SLR!! I waited patiently trying to merge in the background of hundred bystanders there for half an hour. And then they came.

A group of seven of them dressed in chiffon sarees with indiscreet matching blouses, hair coiled in a high bun, bindi, cheap lipstick on their mouth and ‘alta’ on the soles of their feet . They crossed the wide main road with a grace hard to fathom and quicker than I was prepared for, to tell you honestly. Here they were right in front of me, and my wits seemed to have left me. I forgot the things I had practiced I would remember to tell them before I began our little conversation. So I sighed a little, and told myself, I’d do what my heart tells me to do today. I let go of all the preparations I had thought in my mind before and walked in small deliberate steps towards them.

I would fight discrimination of these special people and the best place to begin, was perhaps, to begin with myself!!

I saw people wind down their car window glasses to shell out coins and cash to them. In fact, I had first seen them here a couple of months back when I had rolled down my windows to doll out a 10-rupee note to one of them. Our eyes had met briefly but I had caught something there which I now define as hopelessness. Since then I had found myself do this every time I came across them. I knew they aren’t ‘beggars’ as we would like to believe. Aren’t beggars people who choose to not work, fiend a handicap-real or unreal, and take money and sympathy from us. In this light, these eunuchs can’t be called beggars at all!!! These are people that the society has not accepted as one among them, people who never get employed because the employers are uncomfortable with their gender, they are people who the world has chosen to not ‘look at’ and now they are left far behind , so behind that they aren’t even there in the ‘rat race’.

I spoke to each one of them. And they didn’t seem to need any goading from my side to begin to talk about their woes and what is it that they really want at the end of the day. Each one of them told me in different words that they just want to be loved and they feel angry that their families pushed them away. Suman, 16, told me, “They should have stood by me rather than following what society tells them.” Shiba, 26, says, “My family got rid of me very early in life but when people in my village came to know I am a transsexual, my sister was unable to find a husband because of this stigma and she recently committed suicide.” In my interaction with them, they spoke about their loneliness and the sense of injustice that they feel facing severe discrimination and harassment everyday from the society and the police.

Hijras have traditionally survived by demanding money from families in return for blessing a newborn child or a newly married couple. They also dance and sing and tell bawdy jokes at weddings and festivals. Many families gave them money because they fear being cursed. But with changing times it has become more and more difficult for hijras to earn their livelihood through this source of income. In big cities where they tend to live, to escape stigma in their hometowns, the advent of high rise flats and gated neighborhoods has reduced their opportunity to collect money. All this has really hurt the community and they are now opting for begging and prostitution. Activists say prejudice towards hijras makes it difficult for them to get mainstream jobs and many feel that sex work is the only alternative. The hijras are not very educated owing to the traumatic life they led within their families, disrupting their education. More and more of them are turning to becoming sex workers.

This community is clearly worried about where they are heading. Sahana, 21, says, “Earlier we were recognized and got some prestige but over the last decade more from our community have got involved in sex work and our reputation has got worse. This has affected our traditional way of earning from weddings and child birth ceremonies,”

The most grave threat posing this sizeable community is the threat of HIV where infection rates are found to be as high as 86%, as compared to 0.036% in the average population of India. Former Health Minister, Anbumani Ramadoss advocated legalizing homosexuality in India and campaigned for changing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes homosexuality an unnatural act and illegal. He said that the National AIDS Control Program (NACP III) had a component for transgender under the category abbreviated as MSM or ‘ Men having Sex with Men’ but if section 377 was not changed, then it would interfere with health ministry’s effort to tackle HIV/AIDS epidemic among the transgender as even the doctors treating them could be punished under the law. Kavi, an advisor to UNAIDS mentions that “…the transgender can’t access government services and government can’t access them, so there is a huge barrier in treating them.” Jeffrey O’Malley, Director of the United Nations Development Programme on HIV/AIDS, said “Countries protecting homosexuals from discrimination had better records of protecting them from getting infected by the diseases. But unfortunately in India, the rates of new infections among men who have sex with men continue to go up. Until we acknowledge these behaviors and work with people involved with these behaviors, we are not going to halt and reverse the HIV epidemic.”

These HIV positive transgender are then like human time bombs waiting to explode into a bio-disaster if something concrete is not done to help them to be socially, economically and politically ‘included’ into the mainstream.

Pushed away from their own families; lonely; vulnerable; with an ambiguous gender; inability to form and maintain relationships; facing harsh discrimination and harassment from the society and the police; socially, economically and politically outcast; left to beg; forced to take up prostitution; inflicted with HIV/AIDS and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases- is there anything more left for them to look on?

What’s the saddest part are the assumptions associated with them regarding their identity, integrity, character and intent. You will be stunned when I tell you that eunuchs were actually slave men who were chosen by the kings and rulers to be guardians of women or harem servants and were castrated, usually in order to make them reliable servants. The hijras in the Indian culture have a recorded history of 4000 years. Eunuchs were frequently employed in Imperial palaces by the Mughal rulers as servants for female royalty, and often attained high status positions in the society. Highly valued for their strength, ability to provide protection for ladies’ palaces and trust worthiness, allowed eunuchs to live amongst women with fewer worries. Eunuchs therefore served as messengers, watchmen, attendants and guards for palaces. They even doubled as part of the King’s Court of advisers. Poor families would convert one of their sons into a eunuch to attain this high status. This practice however was banned throughout the Empire in 1668 by Aurangzeb but continued covertly.

Once employed by the sultans, the hijras live today on the fringes of society. The story goes that after a eunuch dies, the others of the group give the dead body 27 beatings with their slippers so that the person is never again born as a eunuch. If you care for these trapped human souls, feel free to lower your car windows each time a hand extends to you for support. It may just be a 10-rupee note for you but you may be saving someone from turning to sex work, HIV or AIDS or from committing suicide.

Urmila Chanam
The Sangai Express

* Pink pages is India’s National Gay and Lesbian magazine run by a group of writers/activists who stand for the rights of the transgender community hoping to bring about a better informed younger generation. Hammam is a bath house originally constructed as baths/rest houses for truckers cruising the highways, but now are the exclusive domain of the city’s eunuchs who operate out of these dingy structures as sex workers. A typical example of a hammam can be found on Bazaar Street in Ulsoor in Bangalore.

Forced into sex work because all doors to earn livelihood closes on them
Human rights violations against them begins from home
Among the 4.5millioN stronG hijra/eunuch community the HIV infeCTION ratE is 80% while its 0.036% in the rest of India's population infection rate) .
Seen here with a very successful and powerful leader in her own community who voices the woes of the hijras
One evening spent with the community of transgenders at an NGO called Samara


I was immediately drawn in by the topic of this post, disbelieving that it happens in the 21st century and at the same time, admiring the courage of these people who from day one have no control over their destiny. The last line about the body being beaten 27 times so that they do not return as a eunuch broke my heart.

As they are called upon less and less to bless newborns, weddings or events, why is the tradition continuing? Due to my lack of knowledge about the hijras, I am unable to understand why parents today would subject their baby to this horrific practice.

Stella Paul wrote a powerful piece about how women living with HIV in Hyderabad have mobilized to form a network of support, training and empowerment. The women are learning new skills and creating employment opportunities for themselves that represent the first step towards a life beyond their illness and society's ostracism.

Perhaps you can connect with Stella to see if such an idea might work for the hijra. They have already formed an informal network and perhaps they can brainstorm over entrepreneurial opportunities in their area. If they are associated with life events such as births, weddings, etc., are there charms or tokens like the ribbons that they can bless and then sell? In Tibet, prayer flags that have been blessed by the Dalai Lama are a major income generating product for the Tibetans. What is nice about this idea is that only the hijra can bless the tokens and so no-one can take this entrepreneurial venture away from them or commercialize it. I would be happy to share ideas with you to come up with solutions that are sustainable and scalable.

Dear Janice,

'Hijras' are not an occurrence of our tradition sister, rather they are a biological phenomenon and that which got entwined with traditions long ago in the Indian system of life. They are individual transsexuals born as men but who want to be women, and are attracted to men. It is a genetic or biological thing. Like the other day, I was interacting with one such person who shared with me how he was born a man with male genitalia and till 18 years lived like a man. Gradually, he began to want to be a woman and began dressing like one. Finally, at 22 years he could not take it anymore and decided to opt for 'castration' , after which he felt he had acquired the body he had always pined for! Today he calls himself by a feminine name and I use a feminine pronoun to address her.

However, this is not always the case. There are different combinations of morphology and anatomy found in these individuals, which I will be happy to share with you over e-mail.

Parents and family disown their own blood who show inclination to become a hijra. In initial years they are kept away from the eye of other relatives and social contact with others, out of shame. However, this fails to retain a hijra at home for much longer after he/she achieves adulthood. Hijras often leave homes and families to go and live in association with other hijras.

In my coming articles I will explore the different facets in their lives- livelihood pursuits and failure in that; love relationships and frustrations galore; seeking their own identity.

Thank your Janice for the innovative idea for entrepreneurship. I will certainly remember to recommend this in the appropriate forum here in my city and share with you what comes out of it. It was brilliant!!!

In solidarity,
Urmila Chanam

It takes just one to change many

JaniceW's picture

I see

I thought the hijra referred just to the babies that underwent the surgery and did not realize it included all transgenders. I would love to brainstorm with you in coming up with ideas to help them become self-employed and that presents opportunities other than the sex trade. I look forward to hearing their feedback when you discuss it with them.

Urmila Chanam's picture

For a better world

Dear Janice,

You, my dear, have a heart of platinum, more precious than gold. I feel so fortunate to be receiving your support in this. I am interviewing a lot of individuals from the community and at the end of this month, I should have an array of responses which could be a great place to begin from.

In my next mail here I will send you my skype ID. I think it's time we speak to each other sister and share our experiences, vision and how we want to go ahead TOGETHER on this.

Wish you a bright week ahead.

All my love
Urmila Chanam

It takes just one to change many

This is an enlightening piece Urmila. The road to empowerment is long, winding, circuitous and uphill but it has to start somewhere. It has to start with them recognizing their strengths and potentials. It will be more beneficial if the assistance given to them will be on "teaching them how to fish, rather than giving them fish". Education and skills training and developing entrepreneurial mindset will widen their choices.

The number of transgenders in the Philippines is growing. Most of them are educated and talented people with admirable personalities. They are a darling and are taken seriously and respected by society.

The LGBT community have organized themselves to form a party list group and will be participating in this year's elections.

The conditions and culture of hijras and India is different. It is much more complicated. Just like our quest for women empowerment, the struggle has to be fought in all fronts (and back).

Writing and publishing about them is a good start. Congratulations, Urmila. Wish you the best in everything you do, beautiful sister.

Y's picture

This practice was founded on

This practice was founded on protecting vulnerable females. I am horrified by this practice which was also practiced for many years by the Roman Catholic church. Those who already exist, though, need to have a place in society where they may be honored. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could ask these brave people to accompany vulnerable children to receive their educations. We may be able, in this way, to return them to the dignity of their historical places in society while we all fight to stop this barbaric custom.


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