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India's third gender rises again

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CULTURAL RELATIVITY
India’s Third Gender Rises Again
Hijrasare striving to overcome a century of discrimination and reclaim their holy status in society—through a
mix of faith rituals and Facebook.
INA GOEL / 26 SEP 2019
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, high priestess of a convent of hijras, takes selfies with admirers at India’s 2019 Kumbh Mela
religious festival. Ina Goel
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi sat on her temporary throne like a demigoddess in a
jade and scarlet sari. A line of devotees jostled to cram inside her golden
cloth tent, and she joked with them, flirtatiously: “I am giving ashirwad (blessings) only,
not love letters. Everyone be tension-free, and love yourself.”
The crowd giggled, then settled down and patiently awaited their turn. Some of them
had come to this tent at India’s Kumbh Mela pilgrimage festival—the world’s largest
gathering—to receive Tripathi’s advice on everything from loss of appetite to
unemployment. Some prostrated themselves at her feet and made offerings of
money, food, clothing, and jewelry. Some just wanted selfies.
She listened to each person with great interest and enthusiasm, reassuring them and
telling them not to worry. When she bestowed a blessing on someone, she bit a 1
rupee coin and handed it to them along with grains of rice. In India, it is considered
auspicious to be given rice and a coin bitten by a hijra—a person from a “third”
gender community.
There are approximately half a million hijras and other third gender individuals in
India, plus smaller numbers in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The hijra identity is a
unique blend of biological, gendered, and sexual identities underpinned by religion
and bound by a tight-knit social structure.Hijras include people assigned male at
birth who may or may not undergo castration and modifications such as breast
implants, as well as some (but not all) intersex people and transgender women.
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Like Tripathi—the high priestess of the KinnarAkhada convent of Hindu hijra
priestesses—hijras typically dress in women’s clothing, wear makeup, and take
feminine names. To identify as a hijra, as opposed to a transgender or other third
gender person, an individual must be ritually adopted into the community in a
process that can take months to years.
Distinct from transgender and intersex identities in other countries, hijras occupy a
unique and contradictory place in Indian society. Hindu mythology deifies them, and
British colonists demonized them. So today, they are revered by many as
demigoddesses and reviled by others as deviant victims of bad karma. For more than
a century, they were ostracized almost to the point of being forgotten.
Now, Tripathi says, “hijras are reclaiming their lost position in society through
religion.” Their newfound prominence has arisen largely thanks to Tripathi, who
gained fame on a reality TV show and garners followers through her savvy PR and
social media team.
January of this year marked a turning point in the hijra community’s struggle for
respect. For the first time, the Kinnar Akhada fully participated in the Kumbh Mela
festival by taking the “royal holy dip.” Tripathi and her hijra followers bathed in the
sacred confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and (historical) Saraswati rivers—a ritual
traditionally reserved for Hindu priests, who are mostly male and Brahmin, or upper
caste.
For the last nine years, I have worked with hijras as an anthropologist and a social
worker, witnessing their struggles and successes. I learned to speak their secret
language, was ritually adopted into the community by a guru, and later bequeathed
with the title “honorary hijra.” I am continuing my doctoral research with this dynamic
community, exploring gender and sexuality in ways that defy what textbooks teach
us, and hoping to understand how the hijra subculture has survived, despite
numerous attempts to eradicate it.
ijras’ purported supernatural powers are enshrined in Hindu mythology,
and their gender fluidity mirrors the androgynous gods. The god Shiva is
sometimes portrayed as half-male, half-female. There are many stories in which the
male deity Krishna takes the form of a woman to briefly marry a man, and the
goddess Lakshmi and her husband, Vishnu, merge to form an androgynous person.
The Kinnar Akhada, a Hindu monastic order of hijra priestesses, was assigned a remote
location at the fringes of the Kumbh Mela—a placement that mirrors their situation in
society. Ina Goel
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Ancient Indian texts like the Kama Sutra describe the third gender as tritiya prakriti, or
“third nature,” insinuating that three genders are part of the natural order. Most
famously, the 2,300-year-old Indian epic poem Ramayana tells the story of the deity
Lord Rama, who is banished from his kingdom for 14 years. His subjects attempt to
follow him into the forest, but he tells the “men and women” to return to their city.
His hijra followers—not belonging fully to either gender—feel unbound by his order
and stay. Touched by their loyalty, Lord Rama grants them the ability to bestow
blessings at weddings, births, and other important occasions.
During the Muslim Mughal dynasty, which ruled much of India from the 16th to 18th
centuries, hijras were often compulsorily castrated and became trusted guardians of
the harems. In this time period, some hijras also enjoyed prominent positions as
political and legal advisers, administrators, and generals.
Then the British arrived, foisting Victorian sexual mores on Indian culture. The
colonists accused the “eunuchs” of sodomy, prostitution, and kidnapping and
castrating young boys. They saw the third gender as a threat to morality and political
authority. The British criminalized being a hijra under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871,
stripped hijras of their inheritance rights, and launched a campaign to erase them
from public consciousness.
The hijra community was forced underground.
ince then, hijras have lived on the fringes of society. They typically earn
money by asking for voluntary donations in exchange for their blessings,
performing at weddings and stag parties, begging, and engaging in sex work.
Tripathi displays a sari depicting Hindu god Lord Shiva in an androgynous avatar. Ina Goel
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Most people who become hijras come from working-class or lower socioeconomic
backgrounds. As children, they are typically bullied and shunned by their families.
Tripathi has said she was abused by a family member and by several men close to
her. Some of her relatives conspired to kill her.
Hijras are frequently victims of hate crimes, including rape and assault, that often go
unreported. One hijra broke down when she told me about the dangers she faces in
her street-based sex work. Once, a police officer cornered her and sexually assaulted
her, she said. She didn’t report him because she was afraid he would harm her or
forbid her from working in the area again.
Seeking security from attacks and harassment, hijras formed clandestine, ghettoized
communities. Members developed a complex system of kinship and social
stratification requiring the patronage of a hijra guru.
“What is it that we have except our gurus?” Champa,* a hijra living in Delhi, told me.
“Our gurus are our saviors. They have rescued us from the harsh and brutal world.
We have no one that we can trust. Even our families—the one to which we were
biologically born—have disowned us.”
The guru-disciple system is no utopia. Disciples become domestic servants in
exchange for room and board and other benefits, though some scholars have called
this thinly disguised bonded labor. In addition, some hijras have called for an end to
this system because some gurus encourage their disciples to do sex work. And
though most hijras are reluctant to admit it or even speak about it, India’s caste
system plays a role in hijras’ social stratification. For example, Sharmili, a hijra from
near New Delhi, told me her guru does not permit her to collect ritual blessings
because she was born into the lowest caste.
In the hijras’ social
stratification, going
through the castration
ritual garners higher
respect. Tripathi has said
she does not condone a
hierarchy based on
castration but admits
there is strong peer
pressure to get
castrated. She got the
procedure done earlier
this year, but she
downplays its
significance, saying her
soul is more important
than what lies under her skirt. “I have lived my 40 years of akwapan [uncastrated].
Now I just felt like I need to be this way also,” she says. “I want to take all the sides of
life.”
Traditionally, castration is believed to give hijras the power to confer fertility on
couples. Many newlyweds and pregnant women seek hijras’ blessing for a healthy
baby boy. It is also believed that removing the penis and testicles elevates hijras to
the level of religious ascetics, since castration is equated with freedom from desire, a
renunciation of pleasure, and a crucible of pain.
Many people ask hijras to grant their newborn babies good health, since hijras are
believed to have a god-given ability to bestow blessings. Ina Goel
“This is why we
hijras are
considered to be
godlike, as we
undergo such pain
that ordinary men
and women cannot
even think of
bearing.”
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I
Because hijras are usually poor, they do not have access to expensive, advanced sex
reassignment surgery. Instead, most hijras seek out their guru’s networks for
castration, which is typically performed secretly and often by faith healers who are
not authorized medical practitioners (although some private medical clinics in New
Delhi are now doing the surgery).
Some castrated hijras develop life-threatening post-operative complications and even
die. When hijras seek medical care, they have often been turned away from hospitals,
in part due to the existence of male and female wards.
“This is why we hijras are considered to be godlike, as we undergo such pain that
ordinary men and women cannot even think of bearing,” explained Kapila, a castrated
immigrant hijra from Bangladesh. “We are the closest to the Almighty. … In the
Mahabharata—the greatest Indian epic of all times—we are called Ardhanarishwar:
half-(wo)man, half-god.”
The hijras’ rituals and strict internal kinship system have their downsides, but they
also result in a strong sense of community. This may be what has allowed the hijra
identity to survive, distinct from transgender identities in India and elsewhere.
For outsiders, the distinctions between hijras, third gender individuals, trans men and
women, and other gender non-conforming people can be confusing. Many have
understood third gender to mean only the hijra; however, numerous other gender
nonconforming identities fall under this umbrella term—and yet, some argue against
the use of the term “third” gender.
One of the main differences between trans and hijra identities is that trans people
have the freedom to self-identify as trans. To identify as hijra, a person must be
initiated through a lengthy adoption process based on hijra customs that are still not
recognised by Indian law. The general trans population in India does not adhere to
such an internal social system, but subsequently, they have a less tight-knit
community than hijras. Also, conventionally, trans men are not a part of the hijra
community.
But the status and visibility of all gender non-conforming people in India is changing
—thanks to a landmark court decision.
n 2014, India’s Supreme Court officially recognized the third gender. The
decision means the government must provide equal opportunities and legal
and constitutional protection to trans people. The ruling was a result of years of effort
by the LGBTQ community—including Tripathi, who was a co-petitioner in the lawsuit.
Tripathi and her followers prepare for homa, or havan, a Vedic votive ritual in which
symbolic offerings are placed into a consecrated fire. Ina Goel
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T
To her, the ruling meant she could finally consider herself Indian because her country
had once again recognized the third gender identity. Soon after, she embraced
Hinduism and started the Kinnar Akhada, the first Hindu monastic order of hijras.
In another victory, India decriminalized homosexual sex in 2018, overturning a 160-
year-old law instituted by the British.
Still, hijras face many hurdles. In 2016, the Indian government proposed the
Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, which criminalized begging and
denied people’s right to self-identify as trans, instead requiring them to be screened
by a committee.The bill faced such opposition that those provisions were removed.
The revised bill,
which passed in
the parliament’s
lower house in
August, remains
controversial. It
punishes sexual
assault against
hijras far less
harshly than
sexual violence
against cisgender
women (women
whose gender
identity matches the sex they were identified as having at birth). And its vague
language implies that surgery—plus approval from a medical authority and district
magistrate—is required for a person to legally change their gender identity.
Hijras even face discrimination from some in the trans community. In 2016, the
Transgender India Facebook page launched a campaign called “I am not a hijra.” In
the series of images, people hold signs displaying messages (some of which appear to
be written in photoshopped text), including “I am trans, and I am a surgeon. I am not
a hijra” and “I am trans, but I am not a sex maniac. I am not a hijra.”
The campaign was denounced as classist, as it sought to disassociate trans people
who “draw a six-figure salary” from hijras, who are mostly working class and
uneducated. The photos and the conversation surrounding them also fueled
stereotypes about hijras as “loose” sex workers who are “confused” about their
identity.
Amid the campaign controversy, social media users also criticized the hijra practice of
“skirt lifting.” When a person refuses to pay a hijra for their blessing, the hijra may
curse them and threaten to lift their skirt and expose what lies underneath. To the
person being flashed, this is often seen as harassment. To hijras, it’s seen as a way to
turn the tables on discrimination—to use the public’s fascination and discomfort with
hijra sexuality to claim power in a situation in which they have been disempowered.
he hijras’ efforts to reclaim their status through religion and social media
have also courted controversy.
India’s increasingly right-wing political climate, which often promotes Hindu
nationalism at the expense of other cultures, is exacerbating fault lines between
Hindu and Muslim hijras. These tensions came to a head after Tripathi publicly
supported construction of a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Rama on a site where, in
1992, Hindus destroyed a mosque, sparking riots that killed thousands of people.
Many Indian gender-nonconforming, trans, and intersex individuals condemned the
Kinnar Akhada’s support for the temple, saying itfueled anti-Muslim sentiment.
The controversial
campaign fueled
stereotypes about
hijras as “loose”
sex workers who
are “confused”
about their
identity.
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These clashes highlight a dilemma facing the Kinnar Akhada: By attempting to
legitimize the hijras’ status through Hindu doctrines, do they risk excluding non-
Hindus and hindering the tolerance they are trying to encourage?
The Kinnar Akhada’s use of social media has also been met with mixed reactions. The
group gained popularity by streaming live feeds from the Kumbh Mela on Facebook,
letting YouTubers produce exclusive videos, creating exciting and colorful spaces on
Instagram, and getting #transgender trending on Indian Twitter during the Kumbh.
Thanks to the religious order’s PR team, headed by a journalist, images of Tripathi
and other hijras from the Kinnar Akhada taking the holy dip were splashed across
local and national publications.
However, the group’s instant mass appeal was seen as competition for the older
religious orders. The Kumbh Mela’s organizers pushed the Kinnar Akhada to the
fringes of the festival site, far from the main gathering areas. According to a
researcher who conducted fieldwork at the festival, some members of traditional
Akhadas deliberately pointed toward the wrong path when people asked for
directions to the Kinnar Akhada—perhaps in the hope of dwindling their audience.
Still, the devotees managed to find their way to the far-flung site, with its little gold
tent, for blessings and selfies with the demigoddesses. And the hijras felt empowered,
if only momentarily, in their new representative space.
* To protect people’s privacy, all names except Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s and the author’s
are pseudonyms.
Hijras from the Kinnar Akhada convent used social media at the Kumbh Mela to amass
a large following and popularize #transgender on Indian Twitter. Ina Goel
Ina Goel is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong
Kong.
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