The changing social status of India’s hijra community

The Trump administration’s regressive challenge to transgender rights, through trying to curtail US students’ freedom to use a bathroom of their choosing, isn’t just a setback in American politics. It’s a prominent reminder that from nation to nation, the fight to end discrimination continues.

In India, trans communities have a renowned history. Hijra, roughly translating to eunuch or hermaphrodite, is a term traditionally used in south-east Asia for transgender women who were born male. Revered in sacred Hindu texts, for centuries they performed blessings at marriage and birth ceremonies to bring good fortune. Later in the 19th century, under the British Raj, came their criminalisation. Any “cross dresser” was to be registered and if repeat offences were committed, imprisoned. And though these laws were eventually repealed, societal ostracism proved the hangover. Today, hijras are still subject to transphobic discrimination-associated violence, poverty, and segregation.

However, a historic Supreme Court ruling in April 2014 set the path to acceptance in motion. For the first time, hijras were legally recognised as a third gender in official documentation. Government-set quotas were provided to increase access to job and educational opportunities for newly-defined third sex citizens — an estimated half a million-two million.1 It also meant hugely important changes to social care through grants and welfare benefits and supposed protection by the Indian police service.

Of course, this was a huge development within Indian law and a victory for the trans community globally. But for an isolated community subject to age-old prejudices, how much did constitutional visibility encourage societal tolerance?

For the most part, it didn’t.

Evidently, there is always a difference between policy and reality. Of the allocated number of third gender skills training programmes and college scholarships set out by the court ruling, more than a year later nearly all government and educational institutions had failed to put these into practice.2 But I believe more than mere government failings, societal discrimination meant hijras were simply not employable. 2015 campaigner reports estimated that about 80% were still relying on dancing, sex work, or begging to make ends meet. 3 Exclusion from any viable means of employment meant they remained on the very fringes of society — still vulnerable to poverty, extortion and violence.

Of course, there were exceptions. In this, I’m not ignoring the enormous successes of K Prithika Yashini (the first Indian, transgender police officer) and Manabi Bandopadhyay (the first transgender person in India to complete a PhD) but questioning why there weren’t more instances of this in the first place.

Yet even on the premise there were increased job opportunities for hijras, many remained reluctant to legally identify within the third gender category.4 After decades of government failure to recognise their legal status, why this reluctance?

I believe it stems from a new dimension of discrimination targeted against hijras, in the procedures used to determine who meets the requirements for receiving third gender IDs. It’s important to note that nowhere in the Supreme Court ruling did it state a physical examination was needed for those who have not had gender reassignment surgery: self-identification and a psychological evaluation proved the only requirements for determining third-sex status. However, Dr. Latha Ramakrishnan — a leading activist for Saathi, a non-profit organisation fighting aids in India — reported widespread procedural abuses by hospital staff and sexual harassment, including “groping them to see if they get an erection”.5 Similar reports of degrading ‘medical’ examinations of hijras in Bangladesh were published by Humans Rights Watch, detailing a 2015 hospital leak of examination photos taken of 12 hijras, intentionally provided to the press as ‘evidence’ these individuals were only claiming to be transgender to get access to social care and employment.6

All this seems to paint a vivid picture of continuing transphobic discrimination, profoundly rooted in society and culture. But importantly, discrimination within medical institutions points to a general lack of understanding of transgenderism; even a distrust of anyone not cisgender.

So while a hijra is legally accepted within a society, how can they evade intolerance, and become active members of their community?

Historically, intolerance is born and perpetuated through the existence of damaging stereotypes and community assumptions. I believe a crucial way to confront this is for political issues to become humanised — for the persecuted to have a face. In June 2016 Shakti Astitva Ke Ehsaas Ki, a popular Indian drama featured a main storyline about a transgender woman called Soumya. Unbeknownst to Soumya, she is a ‘kinnar’— born male but has lived her whole life as a woman.7 After being told by her mother directly after her wedding, the shame drives Soumya to attempt suicide and she is later banished from the community by her husband’s family — now proving an unacceptable marriage choice. Eventually, the storyline does take an entirely different course, as it is later discovered Soumya is not transgender as she was swapped at birth. This has lead Shakti to be labelled as blatant tokenism by some critics.8 And though it proves pretty farfetched, I think it is important to consider the implications of having a mainstream audience view some of the struggles transgender people face through Soumya’s previous treatment as hijra. Even through the lens of a fictional character in a TV show, societal ostracism and family abandonment become slightly more tangible and less distant concepts.

In early 2015 we also saw the creation of India’s first exclusively transgender band: the 6 Pack Band. Their journey began with a cover of Pharrell Williams’s song Happy and by July 2016 they had produced 5 hits, had more than 25 million Youtube views collectively, and won the Grand Prix Glass Lion award.

But their success could never be just defined musically. As individuals, each member had prevailed over transphobic prejudices and the consequent restrictions placed on hijras. From community exile, familial rejection, and the inability to find employment — all their stories before fame reiterated the harsh realities of living as a transgender woman in India.

However, far more than personal accomplishments, 6 Pack Band are using hijras’ renowned connection to music and performance to pioneer cultural changes. In an interview with the band members in Hindustan Times, Asha Jagtap explained the hijra community’s connection to music: “We have always been musicians, but it’s only now that people have started noticing [our skill]”.9 Their growing presence in Bollywood is helping to forge a new sense of cultural identity for the transgender community as a whole. Most importantly, their public presence challenges the very nature of a community forced to live in obscurity.

Of course, social change can’t happen instantaneously. But whilst in the US fundamental transgender rights are being reversed, we can only hope that in India the future looks more promising.

As best put by Asha Jagtap: “Today, I am someone”.10

Featured image: iStock.com/kaetana_istock

References

1. Mccarthy, JM, 2014. A Journey Of Pain And Beauty: On Becoming Transgender In India. NPR, 18 April 2014.

2. Roy, VR, 2015. The Road Looks Long for Third Gender. The Hindu, 2 May 2015.

3. ibid

4. Trianni, FT, 2014. Men, Women and ‘Hijras’: India Recognizes Third Gender. Time, 15 April 2014.

5. Murray, LM, 2016. India’s Trans Community Loth to Embrace Third-gender Status. The Guardian, 2 June 2016.

6. Reid, GR, 2016. “I Want to Live With My Head Held High” Abuses in Bangladesh’s Legal Recognition of Hijras. Human Rights Watch, 23 December 2016.

7. India TV Entertainment Desk, 2016. Shakti- Astitva Ke Ehsaas Ki First Look of Soumya as ‘Kinnar’ Revealed. India TV, 7 September 2016.

8. Dutta, VD, 2016. Indian TV Had A Chance To Break Barriers With A Transgender Character In ‘Shakti’ But They Blew It Completely, Lifestyle, 11 August 2016.

9. Tiwari , ST, 2016. Six Pack Band: Meet the Members of India’s First Transgender Group. Hindustan Times, 9 July 2016.

10. Joshi, PJ, 2016. Indias First Trans Band: “Don’t hide us away- Don’t keep us in the cage”. The Guardian, 29 March 2016.

Daniella

History graduate with a passion for research and writing, especially human and animal rights. A proud mum to two pugs.