Accepting the Third Gender

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!

Beyond Honour

Book review published in SouthAsia (November 2007)
“Created out of man and for man, to relieve his loneliness and to help him, woman is shown to be responsible also for man’s troubles, not the least of which is his loss of immorality.” (Agonito, Feminist Researcher)

In her book, Tahira S. Khan has recollected the various ways in which the male elite has, throughout history and in all civilizations, interpreted religion and formulated laws, to keep female sexuality under its control. One of the most common ways of doing this has been the creation of the vague idea of ‘honour’, which is endangered only if a woman (and not a man) has loose morals. Honour has been projected in such a way that it has led to torture and numerous killings of women, over the centuries, in some of the most brutal ways imaginable.

More appalling is the fact that these atrocities are committed by a woman’s own family members (fathers, brothers, husbands, even mothers)and are in turn socially sanctioned: when the community openly supports such acts or adheres to the culture of silence.

Khan has, however, taken a historical materialist approach (Marx’s philosophical materialism or approach to social sciences and Engel’s further analyses) and has tried to look beyond the notion of honour as the motive behind these honour killings. Her research shows that generally loss of respect in society and shame are used to hide the real purpose of these felonies.

Most common reasons are sex and money or what are locally termed as causes of all conflicts: zar (woman), zan (money) and zamin (property). Material greed has even led to the economisation of the concept of honour. There are a number of ways in which this is done. For instance, intra-family marriages to keep money in the family or accusing a woman of adultery or fornication to extort money from her supposed lover, are quite common practices.

Through various examples of incidents and laws in different countries, Khan proves that such crimes occur not only in Pakistan, but also in a number of other countries. In the west, these are generally “crimes of passion” rather than honour killings as the society there is no longer obsessed with honour and shame. Due to dissimilarities in economic systems, geographical expansion, cultural amalgamation and political pressures, we can observe different attitudes of Muslim and non-Muslim
communities. However, in most places, it is shocking to note that the legal system does not consider this as serious an offence as murder.

The focus of the book is on Muslim countries and specifically Pakistan, where cases have been highlighted time and again, by national as well international media. The writer has included some personal observations and experiences. She also discusses the sexual socialization of youth in the country, the sexual ethics imbedded in our culture, patriarchy, linear purity, politics of the family institution, power hierarchy, misogynistic attitudes, feudalism and a great number of other factors, which together shape our society, culture and customs, the way they are today.

Despite the author’s in-depth analysis, the book is rather confusing on the point of whether Islam actually has laws that paved the way for the subjugation and social degradation of women or whether it was only the result of extremely biased interpretation by male Muslim scholars.

For instance, at one place she says that “during the time of the Prophet and the four Orthodox Caliphs, the concepts of the modern veil (Hijab, Purdah), separate quarters for women within households, or the exclusion of women from outdoor social and economic activities did not exist.”

At another place, it is said, “Allocation of separate spaces for men and women, and the practice of veiling introduced during the early days of Islam has strengthened segregation in the Muslim world through the centuries until today.” This ambiguity, unfortunately, exists throughout the book. Moreover, the author insists that chastity was not prescribed for Muslim men, which can be rebutted by even a brief
overview of Islamic teachings.

However, in other respects, the research work is laudable as well as extensive: there are discussions on the role of Pakistani political parties and their relationship with women’s rights activists, the chaos created by the existence of multiple legal systems, why socially deprived young couples still opt to transgress socially acceptable boundaries, the very controversial Hudood Ordinance, how new religious groups with their dars (preaching) offer their own set of puritanical solutions (often misguiding rather than guiding women) and so on.

In Khan’s opinion, the approach of feminist researchers, social workers and NGOs to this issue has not been as effective mainly because they raise their voices about cases or political reforms in isolation and fail to address the structural changes that are required(which should be more focussed on the exploitive economic system) to actually root out such crimes.

Overall, the book is a very comprehensive guide to the history and present state of things for women and will be of interest to a general audience, although description of some disturbing cases may be skipped. Readers can then draw their own conclusions to what is the right way to address this problem.

Tahira S. Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Studies from the University of Denver (Colorado) and is presently teaching gender studies in the United Sates. She has also published numerous articles and reports and is a women’s/human rights activist.

– Ayesha Hoda

The Organ Bazaars of South Asia

Published in SouthAsia (August 2007)

Nothing substantial has so far been attempted to check rampant illegal organ trafficking in South Asia or to provide systematic treatment for organ failures and ailments, writes Ayesha Hoda

The bazaars of human organs are bustling with activity in South Asia. The underdeveloped world seems to be more privileged than the developed world, at least in one aspect: it has a large population of live donors, with organs for sale at cheap rates!

Peasants, bonded labourers, slum-dwellers and other poverty-stricken people with large families to support, are more than eager to offer their organs, especially kidneys, for meagre amounts of compensation.

In 2005, Shefali Begum, a penniless mother in Bangladesh, offered one of her eyes for sale through a newspaper advertisement. This resulted in a massive outcry from the public and the international press. So did a number of organ-rejection cases in Britain recently, concerning twenty Scots who had unofficially bought kidneys in Pakistan. But this is just a small glimpse of the horrendous world of organ trafficking.

In the village of Eranavour, Tamil Nadu (India), one hundred and fifty Tsunami survivors have been left on the streets sans compensation, after having their kidneys removed at very posh hospitals in Chennai. Sadly, the merciless organ mafia was their last hope when the Indian government failed to provide them with any protection or means of survival.

The question is, who has made the entire process of illegal inter-human allotransplant so easy and successful? The black market in the region is full of internationally-affiliated organ brokers, with government officials as accomplices. The former may be outlawed surgeons or medical technicians operating underground laboratories or anyone interested in making skyrocketing profits quickly.

“Pakistan has become a factory for regional transplant tourism,” says, Dr. Syed Adibul Hasan Rizvi, founder and director, Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation. “Recipients travel to Pakistan, where the temptation for money and greed is great.”

The gap between the number of recipients and the number of donations is widening. There is a higher incidence of kidney and renal failures. Most people, especially in South Asian societies, do not like to give away organs of their deceased loved ones. There is a serious lack of data and no systematic way to bring recipients and willing donors into contact. Hence, there are fewer deceased or cadaveric donations.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 200,000 people around the globe are on waiting lists. Patients with kidney failure, registered on these official lists, often die waiting to receive organs or looking for the perfect match. Some have no proper access to transplantation or dialysis. In such cases, an argument is often forwarded by some that the human body only needs a small percentage of one kidney to survive. Therefore, with donations, two people can live instead of just one.

However, others such as medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, firmly declare this practice as unethical:

“The ultimate fetish is the idea of ‘life’ itself as an object of manipulation. This fetishization of life – to be preserved, prolonged and enhanced at almost any cost – erases any possibility of a social ethic.”

This also leads to the issue of forced donations. Very few donations are altruistic or Good Samaritan (donating willingly to a relatively unknown recipient, without acquiring any benefits in return).

The lower classes have been exploited for a very long time, in every way imaginable, and this is one common example. Mostly, donating kidneys is not even the end of the story. Such people are ignorant of some adverse consequences and complications that may result from the operation. They are left without any post-surgical advice, care or treatment. Medication is unaffordable.

In view of all this, laws have been formulated in different countries pertaining to the legitimacy organ trade. In 2006, Iran became the only country in the world to legalise the sale of kidneys to unrelated recipients, at market prices of $2000 to $4000! However, some may argue that countries like India, which actually have laws against this practice, have rather booming markets for organs.

The Human Organs Transplant Act was passed in 1994 in India. This set down rules and regulations for organ transplant and banned organ sale, with high penalty for any parties involved. It only allowed organ donation out of affection, that is, only to recipients well-known to the donor. In the case of family members, there is no requirement for a government clearance. However, there have been numerous cases of transplantation marriages in India, where poor girls are forced to tie the knot, donate their kidneys and are then divorced.

Even in Nepal, the Organ Transplant Committee, formed by the government to check the smuggling of kidneys from the country, only allows donations to relatives. However, fake relationships are established on paper to combat this rule.

In Pakistan, a few years back, Dr. S.A. Jaffar Naqvi, CEO, Kidney Foundation, introduced the Bill for Organ Transplant in the Senate and obtained a fatwa from Justice Tanzeel ur Rahman (the then Chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology), which declared organ transplant to be legal in Islam. However, there was no further development for a proper donation system, which would have been beneficial for all.

More recently, however, and after much deliberation and hindrances, the federal cabinet has approved the Transplantation of Human Organ and Tissues Ordinance 2007. But there are many apprehensions about this law, as it does not provide a transparent system for promoting a positive organ donation culture and disrupting trading activities in the black market. Some analysts are of the opinion that there are certain clauses within the ordinance, which actually legalise rather than curb or criminalize unofficial and coercive organ sale.

Trading organs, irrespective of whether the donor is living or deceased, is illegal in Bangladesh. However, as with all the other countries mentioned above, the implementation of this law is rather questionable.

Organ trade is growing day by day. It is not only a cause for concern for social scientists or bio-medical ethicists. It is a very serious problem pertaining to the violation of basic human rights (Articles 3 and 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). In accordance with this, payment to live unrelated donors is also forbidden under the WHO Guiding Principles.

There is then a need for the WHO to overview, along with its promotion of health systems and altruistic donations, the negative impact that such publicity might unintentionally have had and it should suggest and formulate ways to counter this.

On the medicinal front, people should have cognisance of the possibility of transplant failures, due to rejection of foreign organs by the body’s immune system. Requirements of thorough check-ups before transplantation will lead to a lower death rate due to organ-rejection. Also, the introduction of more preventive drugs and medical care will check the rise in diseases, such as diabetes, which may lead to organ failure.

There should be awareness programmes to promote and encourage donations after demise as well as about factors causing damage to organs. Governments of South Asian countries should improve access to donors by collecting relevant data and building more kidney care and research centres.