The word hijra is an Urdu word meaning eunuch or hermaphrodite. However, in reality, hijras are very diverse and most join the community as young boys. Hijras consist of hermaphrodites, as well as women who are unable to menstruate and lead the “normal” female life which consists of getting married and producing children. However, a great number of hijras are men who identify themselves as more feminine than masculine, mostly because their sexual desire is for men and not women.
The hijras are an ancient community in the Indian subcontinent with members in Pakistan and Bangladesh. They are classified as the third sex and have their own gender role. Serena Nanda describes them as “man minus maleness” and “man plus woman”. They are not considered either because of their inability to reproduce. In the Indian subcontinent, great emphasis is placed on one’s ability to have children. Someone who is unable to have children is not considered a true man or woman. Therefore, hijras are a separate identity, who fit into neither category, with aspects of both genders.
The population of hijras in India is estimated to be between 50,000 and 1.2 million. There is a huge disparity in the numbers because population censuses only give space to define either males or females. There are no reliable statistics.
The traditional occupation for hijras consists of begging for alms when bestowing blessings on male babies and at weddings. They are notorious for knowing when a baby boy is born and arriving at the right house to sing and dance and demand alms. Most of their songs are about pregnancy and their dances are mostly parodies of pregnant women. They also demand to inspect the baby to check if he is a “normal” boy or an intersexed baby, in which case they might start demanding that the child be handed over to them as it is a hijra. It seems ironic that the hijras, who are unable to reproduce, have the power to bestow fertility blessings on brides. The power to do so comes to them through Bahuchara Mata who is a version of the Mother Goddess. The Mother Goddess plays the role of the mother, who is the creator and nurturer, as well as the destroyer. Hence, she has the power to grant fertility or take it away. However, because of increasing westernization, the traditional roles of hijras are no longer in as much demand as they used to be. Hijras have a hard time accessing houses and apartment buildings because of security, and with an increasing middle class that has access to other forms of entertainment such as cinemas, hijras are no longer required for diversions. A great number of hijras are turning to prostitution which goes against the hijra ideal of asceticism. Ideally hijras are meant to renounce sex and be the devotees of Bahuchara Mata.
All “true” hijras are required to undergo an emasculation operation called nirvan. Nirvan means rebirth and most hijras see this operation as their rebirth into the hijra form from the male. It consists of the complete removal of the penis and testes and is essential in transforming them from men to women. Only after this are they granted their special powers of blessings and curses. The operation consists of three stages: the preparation, the operation and the recovery. All stages consist of various complex rituals. The preparation stage involves praying to Bahuchara Mata and waiting for a good signal from her. One such gesture is the breaking of a coconut, and unless the coconut is broken in half, the hijra-to-be does not go through with the operation because it is seen as a sign that Bahuchara Mata does not want this person to be a hijra just yet. Once the operation has been granted to a hijra, she is given a period of rest where she is not allowed to work or be involved in any sexual activity. This can vary from a week to a month. The actual operation is done by a hijra called a dai ma who is granted the power to do the operation by Bahuchara Mata. On the day of the operation, the dai ma lets herself into the room of the hijra to be operated on and prays to Bahuchara Mata. Then she awakens the hijra to be operated on and encourages her to pray and repeatedly chant Mata, so that she falls into a trance like state. Then the assistant holds the hijra back and encourages her to bite on her hair while the dai ma ties up the penis and testes, makes two diagonal cuts in them and pulls them out. The severed genitals are then buried under a tree and a tube is placed in the urethra. The blood coming out is allowed to flow because it is seen as the bad “male” blood and getting rid of it will get rid of the male inside the hijra. This is one of the reasons why hijras do not get proper doctors to operate upon them since they would stop the blood flow. The time when the blood is flowing is considered the most important time where the hijra, who has just been operated upon, is battling between life and death. Many prayers are said for her, but the blood is never stopped. The recovery period also involves many rituals which include forty days of rest (similar to that for a woman who has just given birth) and vomit inducing foods to get rid of the “maleness”. This operation is against the law in India; therefore, it is done behind closed doors.
Although most hijras dress as women, they engage in activities that would be considered inappropriate for Indian women such as dancing in public. They almost seem to be a caricature of women because hijras wear their hair long and wear saris and other traditional female dresses, whereas, in modern subcontinental society, the upper and middle class women cut their hair and wear western “male” clothes. Hijras also sing and dance and sway their hips in public, which women do not do.
All hijras are part of one community. The community consists of households where all the members contribute to run it like an Indian subcontinental joint family system. All hijras are part of one of seven houses which function as a family unit. Each house has a chief who represents them at meetings with all the other houses in order to discuss important issues. Being part of any specific house does not mean having an advantage or disadvantage over anything. They came into being in order to organize the community. Anyone wishing to join the hijra community must be sponsored by a guru whose house she will join. The guru functions as a teacher, as well as a mother. In fact, hijras refer to their guru’s guru and other members of their household with feminine relative names such as grandmother (nani for the guru’s guru) and aunt (khala for their guru’s sisters). Hijras, whose gurus have more than one disciple, refer to each other as their sisters.
Although most hijras identify with Islam, they do not seem to have a conflict with being part of a community that worships the Mother Goddess instead of Allah. Most of them fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramzan, get buried instead of cremated, and if they get married, they have a Muslim wedding called a nikkah. Some hijras do get married and live with their husbands, but by doing so, they are not cut off from their community. They live apart from them but still work with them. Most of them also adopt Muslim female names.
The hijras acceptance into Indian society is due to Hinduism more than Islam. Many Hindu deities are linked to the hijras such as Arjun (who lives for a year as eunuch), Vishnu (who transformed himself in to the most beautiful woman in the world in order to defeat a demon by seducing him), Shiva (who is both male and female and whose image is represented by a phallus in a vagina), and Krishna’s son Samba (who was a homosexual and cross dresser). “What is noteworthy about the hijras is that the role is so deeply rooted in Indian culture that it can accommodate a wide variety of temperaments, personalities, sexual needs, gender identities, cross-gender behaviours, and levels of commitment without losing its cultural meaning.” (Nanda, Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India 19-20). Because hijras are able to identify with different figures in Indian mythology, they are tolerated and were traditionally much respected as the third sex. Also, as Serena Nanda points out, hijras do not have to conform to one set of norms since they are a very diverse group and have room for such diversity in their community.
The British rulers in India stripped the hijras of the laws that granted them the protection they received under Muslim rulers and regarded them as a menace to society. Because the hijras did not fit the category of male or female, the British passed laws that required the hijras to wear turbans in order to distinguish them from women.
Hijras in India are actively involved with raising awareness on issues, such as the problems related to discrimination against hiring hijras for certain jobs because of who they are. All official documents require that the sex of the individual be stated as either male or female, leaving no space for hijras. Hijras are not allowed in most restaurants, even when they have the money to eat. The treatment of hijras in hospitals is an issue of great concern because whenever a hijra is admitted in to a hospital, the doctors never knows whether to place her in the male ward or female ward. Some hijras are actively involved in raising awareness about AIDS because it is estimated that one in three hijras in Bombay is HIV positive.
Q: Do the hijras leave the penis and take out the testes only?
A: In order to become a “true” hijra they have to remove both so that they are as close to being a woman a possible.
Q: Hasn’t hijra prostitution been around for a very long time?
A: Not to the extent it is today. Earlier, hijras used to sell sex at certain temples for religious purposes. However, today some gurus encourage young hijras to become prostitutes because that brings them more money than other jobs do.
Q: Are hijras incapable of reproducing biologically?
A: Yes. One of the most important tests for joining the hijra community last century was proof of impotence. Potential hijras were made to sleep next to a prostitute for a number of days.
Q: Do hijras marry within the hijra community, or do they marry men or women?
A: They marry men and refer to them as their husbands.
Q: How are hijras treated in Pakistan and India?
A: They are viewed with different attitudes. Some people regard them as a menace whereas others feel sorry for them. Because Pakistan is a Muslim country, hijras do not have the same kind of respect as they would get under Hinduism. They are harassed and do not have much protection.
Q: Did the concept of hijras come to the Indian sub-continent from the Muslims?
A: They probably brought a different attitude with them which must have merged with what the hijras are today, especially since most of them identify with Islam. However, the concept of hijras is in Hindu literature and is part of the Hindu religion.
There were two major sources used for this presentation:
Nanda, Serena. Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India. 1999, Belmont, Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Herdt, Gilbert, ed. Third Sex, Third Gender. 1994, Zone Books, New York.