The Indian trans women community commonly referred as Hijra have shared a strong lineage within the history of the subcontinent. Their history spans over 400- years and is mentioned in many historical/religious texts. The community is a testament to the often questioned/misjudged sexual diversity that is integral yet often ignored or forgotten in the Indian culture. In this case, maybe unknown means misunderstood, and disregarded. Besides Yoga and spicy food, you might also be aware about Kama sutra. Including many other Hindu ancient literature, the Hijra community also share a significant presence in the Hindu text on sexual behaviour that was written sometime between 400BC and 200CE.
Mahabharata and Ramayana, one of the most widely known Hindu texts, contribute to various plots of the story and with strong associations to the Hindu deity Shiva. One of his forms include him merging with his wife, Parvati, to become and androgynous Ardhanari, who holds special significance between the Hijra community. Beyond these texts, they shared various positions in the courts and ceremonies of the Mughal-era around the 16th century. They held religious authorities and were sought out for blessings, being highly revered amongst people. Some texts also enamoured their role as sexless watchdogs to the Mughal Harems. They seem to have done everything, haven’t they. I wonder what changed.
While Hijras have always been treated with both fear and respect, their presence in society is undeniable. In this case, being known makes one revered, celebrated or feared. But maybe fear came from a certain acknowledged power, as we can often associate these traits to royalties. While this community has been respected for thousands of years, their reputation did not survive the nation's encounter with colonialism. It comes as a surprise that, having colonised much of Southern Asia, the British were very much shocked by the ubiquitousness of the third gender. Following Victorian’s religious and societal beliefs, the British labelled Hijra’s as criminals around 1870, and instructed immediate arrest on sight. Maybe known makes delinquent. 200 years of persistent stigmatisation took a toll on the identity and semblance of the community, epitomised with the official criminalisation of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” That was the beginning, scholars say, of a mainstream discomfort in India with homosexuality, transgender people and Hijras.
The modern day Hijras, that includes transgender and intersex people, are hard to miss. Dressed in Sarees with faces coated in cheap makeup, they move through crowded roads, going from one car window to the other, exchanging blessings for a coin. A lot might have changed, but the stigma or superstition around the cursing power of Hijras still exists, something that they often trade off this uneasiness. They hold special convivialities within them, with even “drag mothers” present, having the role in laying down the rules and hierarchy within the community.
You can find them dancing at temples, crashing weddings and bridal showers, signing and eventually leaving with a fistful of rupees. Their presence is often tainted and unappreciated, something that needs to change within the slow yet steady growth of LGBT communities in India. As they make their way into weddings, the same words appear in the air:
Oh God, the Hijras have arrived...
This nervous pause is often followed by laughter and joy, and a general feeling of both fear and bliss. But behind these theatricality lie the troubled stories of an uneasy existence. Stories of sexual trade and abuse, exploitations, being case out and humiliation. They are often excluded from employment and educational opportunities, which leads to a poverty-stricken life, where one is forced to resort to begging, prostitution for basic survival.
Within India’s LGBT community, the Hijras maintain their own somewhat secretive subculture. And more often than not, they are victims of violence,abuse and harassment by police, and even refused treatments in hospitals. From known, to unknown, to exclusion, they feel a sense of alienation. However, their strong subculture and gurus navigate them through a network of operations. Because of this, they often operate like gangs, setting up disputes amongst themselves.
Recently, Hijras have regained some of the rights and freedoms which they have been denied. By 2014, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh had all officially recognized third gender people as citizens deserving of equal rights. The supreme court of India has stated, ‘the right of every human to choose their gender. The issue has been recognised as not just a social or medical one, rather a question regarding human rights. There has been a shift in open education and job opportunities. While the progress is slow, Rajgarh and Kochi have seen elected Hijra officials and open hiring systems. The government has also initiated protection policies towards transgender persons, by criminalising offense against them These are some positive steps, but the majority of Hijra still live on the street, Despite their power to bless prosperity to Hindu families.
Many societies have groups who are not celebrated, who are not acknowledged. Hijras are a major example that is often overlooked. Maybe a lack of understanding of the history and equity leaves them unknown. Their repudiation leaves them unloved. Maybe the definition of unknown makes unloved has many layers in this case, and such awareness needs addressing. Perhaps the future holds the chance to love the unknown.
When we keep sweeping things under the carpet, we will eventually trip. I wonder when such a fall is going to happen.