Published in SouthAsia (September 2007) – Original Link
We see them everyday. We think they are unclean. We might not even acknowledge them, let alone accept them. Such is the plight of the hijras, who are no less human than us, perhaps even more, writes Ayesha Hoda
Hermaphroditism or birth of an intersex child is the result of several biological factors. According to estimates, one person in 150,000 to 250,000, belongs to this third gender.
Hermaphrodites or hijras, as they are generally called, are part of one of the most neglected groups of our society. Our reactions to their presence vary. Some of us fear them, others mock or laugh at them, some abhor and abuse them, others merely ignore them and none of us really thinks of them as human beings, capable of feelings and worthy of respect.
The only characteristic understood and used to define them is that they are “neither men nor women.” Beyond this, nobody comprehends what these ‘eunuchs’ are and what they have to face throughout their lives. Our ancestors and forefathers, however, seemed to have a better understanding and a more tolerant attitude towards the third gender.
The Indian subcontinent saw hermaphrodites in the role of advisors in households of the nobility. Many of them guarded sacred or important places, and acted as a medium of communication between men and women. They were given a place in the rulers’ courts during the reign of the Mughals and often had high positions during this era. This is reflected from not only historical sources and references but also when we see them as characters in literary works of or about that period.
They have been acknowledged in ancient Hindu scriptures. They were linked to Sufi saints and shrines and due to Judea-Christian-Islamic influences, were thought to have special powers of blessing as well as cursing others; they were then treated with reverence, especially in Muslim-dominated areas. Some of them, a minority though, were engaged in prostitution and/or providing entertainment at social events.
Ironically, it was the ‘modern’ British system and western way of thinking that was mainly responsible for ostracizing them. Their new status of social outcasts deprived them of their rights to live as normal citizens and earn their living in an honourable manner.
Today, the only career paths open to them are begging, singing and dancing at social events such as weddings, birth ceremonies, etc. and becoming sex workers. Even educated hermaphrodites, from well-bred families in South India, claim to have been thrown out by their families and find it difficult to find employment in careers of their choice.
Generally, it is perhaps hard for the masses to learn to respect beggars, especially when they are these androgynous individuals dressed in a vulgar fashion, who clap hands in a peculiar manner, make other obscene gestures and sometimes pass rude comments, which has actually become part of the hijra tradition.
The silver screen is also responsible for making us see them as objects of ridicule. They are sometimes introduced in movies as side characters, brought in to make the audience laugh. This is not only true of movies produced in the South Asian region but also of western cinema with its plethora of homophobic and heterosexist jokes.
Lack of respect and sympathy is also a result of the fact that many men these days become transvestites (those who cross-dress) for moneymaking purposes, even though they are neither born as hermaphrodites nor are they transsexuals (those who identify themselves with the opposite sex rather than their own).
In the past few years, there have been some social movements conducted by hermaphrodites to procure their rights in society and to voice their opinions. In this regard, perhaps the most progress has been achieved in India. In 2005, the Indian government updated its passport application forms, incorporating the third gender (E for eunuch). The efforts of people like M. Nikkila, a beautician and therapist in Chennai, must be applauded.
A few years back, Nikkila started training eunuchs or the aruvani of Tamil Nadu, to give beauty therapy. Using her strong network of clients, she thus provided them with an alternate profession and also taught them how to dress properly, carry themselves and adopt a self-respecting attitude.
Indian politics also has an established presence of hermaphrodites. They were given voting rights in 1994. However, Kamla Jaan, who was mayor of Katni (Madhya Pradesh) from 2000 to 2003, lost her job when a judgement was passed regarding her gender status.
Shabnam Mausi was India’s first eunuch MLA in Madhya Pradesh. She was an elected member of the State Legislative Assembly there from 1998 to 2003. During this period, she tried to enter the Congress Party but did not receive support. She says, “I have grown up being called a hijra. That word was like a thorn, which kept piercing me. But now, people respect me.” Her life has also been depicted in an Indian film.
More recently, in Patna (Bihar), policemen turned eunuchs into tax collectors, to benefit from the general feeling of fear that their presence generates amongst the masses and their persuasive manner to procure cash.
In Pakistan, a hermaphrodite Mohammed Aslam was allowed to contest in some local election in Abbottabad, back in 1990. In Multan, in December last year, around 370 hermaphrodites and their gurus (heads) from 40 cities of the country held a convention and demanded quotas in assemblies. During this convention, an All-Pakistan Eunuch Association was also formed.
The condition of hermaphrodites in Bangladesh is even worse than of those in India and Pakistan. Most people there do not believe that the transgender has any special powers. They thus have meagre incomes, are homeless and don’t even earn enough to have medical checkups. They do not have voting rights and the state is not doing anything to check sexual harassment or social discrimination.
Some NGOs in India, Bangladesh, etc. are now working for the benefit of the third gender but they concentrate on this segment of the population as a high-risk community for AIDS, raising awareness about this rather than striving to improve the social status of hermaphrodites and procreate employment opportunities, which will definitely reduce the number of sex workers and incidence of AIDS through homosexuality.
The cause of the strength and visibility of the hijra culture may be attributed to the mistreatment they receive from society. Hermaphrodites become aloof and mysterious. They live together and form their own family networks, as their real families disown them. In the South Asian region, they even have a separate language they use to communicate amongst themselves, called ‘Gupti or Ulti Vhasa’ in Bangladesh.
There is thus, a need to acknowledge the third gender and give these people the status of humans, equal to that of males and females. The government of each country needs to eliminate social and political discrimination against them and to provide a quota for jobs in government offices, as there are for the other two genders. They should be included in the census (as they represent quite a large minority) and should also be part of the suffrage, allowed to vote and to contest seats. Due to their performance in politics in the past, some people in India are actually in favour of having hermaphrodites lead them as they get the work done.
The attitude of the western world in this case should be shunned. Despite transgender or so-called ‘queer’ studies (which, however, concentrate on medicine), it is a practice in North America to hide any sexual ambiguity, especially when surgery for sexual assignment is not possible. We should also reject the local superstitions surrounding the third gender, with regard to the supernatural powers that they possess.
There is a need to integrate the subculture of hermaphrodites with the culture of society. Efforts should be made to help them get rid of the peculiarities they have adopted, to rebel as a result of being involuntary outcasts. The custom of gurus and chelas (older hijras with their protégés) should be abolished.
Many are ready to adapt and change their ways if society gives them the opportunity to prove themselves, without association to social stigmas. They need to have proper educational, housing and medical facilities, at least as much as the other classes have in the third world. There should not be a necessity to register themselves as either men or women. Instead, the third sex should be recognized.
We should learn to look for the unique personalities overshadowed by their asexual definition!