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In the Indian subcontinent, Hijra[n 1] are eunuchs, intersex people, and transgender people. Also known as Aravani, Aruvani, Jagappa, or Chhakka (derogatory), the hijra community in India prefer to call themselves Kinnar or Kinner, referring to the mythological beings that excel at song and dance. In Pakistan, they are called Khawaja Sira—equivalent for transgender in Urdu language.
Hijras are officially recognized as third gender in countries in the Indian subcontinent, being considered neither completely male nor female. Hijras have a recorded history in the Indian subcontinent from antiquity onwards as suggested by the Kama Sutra.
Many hijras live in well-defined and organised all-hijra communities, led by a guru. These communities have consisted over generations of those who are in abject poverty, rejected by, or flee, their family of origin. Many work as sex workers for survival.
The word "hijra" is a Hindustani word. It has traditionally been translated into English as "eunuch" or "hermaphrodite", where "the irregularity of the male genitalia is central to the definition". However, in general hijras are born male, only a few having been born with intersex variations. Some Hijras undergo an initiation rite into the hijra community called nirvaan, which involves the removal of the penis, scrotum and testicles.
Since the late 20th century, some hijra activists and non-government organizations (NGOs) have lobbied for official recognition of the hijra as a kind of "third sex" or "third gender", as neither man nor woman. Hijras have successfully gained this recognition in Bangladesh and are eligible for priority in education and certain kinds of low paid jobs. In India, the Supreme Court in April 2014 recognized hijras, transgender people, eunuchs, and intersex people as a 'third gender' in law. Nepal, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh have all legally accepted the existence of a third gender, with India and Nepal including an option for them on passports and certain official documents.
The Hindustani word hijra may alternately be romanized as hijira, hijda, hijada, hijara, hijrah and is pronounced Hindustani pronunciation: [ˈɦɪdʒɽaː]. This term is generally considered derogatory in Urdu and the word Khwaja Sara is used instead. Another such term is khasuaa (खसुआ) or khusaraa (खुसरा).
A number of terms across the culturally and linguistically diverse Indian subcontinent represent similar sex or gender categories. While these are rough synonyms, they may be better understood as separate identities due to regional cultural differences. In Odia, a hijra is referred to as hinjida, hinjda or napunsaka, in Telugu as napunsakudu (నపుంసకుడు), kojja (కొజ్జ) or maada (మాడ), in Tamil as thiru nangai (mister woman), ali, aravanni, aravani or aruvani, in Punjabi as khusra or jankha, in Kannada as mangalamukhi (ಮಂಗಳಮುಖಿ) or chhakka (ಚಕ್ಕ), in Sindhi as khadra, and in Gujarati as pavaiyaa (પાવૈયા). In Bengali, hijra is called হিজড়া, hijra, hijla, hijre, hizra, or hizre.
In North India, the goddess Bahuchara Mata is worshipped by Pavaiyaa (પાવૈયા). In South India, the goddess Renuka is believed to have the power to change one's sex. Male devotees in female clothing are known as Jogappa. They perform similar roles to hijra, such as dancing and singing at birth ceremonies and weddings.
The word kothi (or koti) is common across India, similar to the Kathoey of Thailand, although kothis are often distinguished from hijras. Kothis are regarded as feminine men or boys who take a feminine role in sex with men, but do not live in the kind of intentional communities that hijras usually live in. Additionally, not all kothis have undergone initiation rites or the body modification steps to become a hijra. Local equivalents include durani (Kolkata), menaka (Cochin), meti (Nepal), and zenana (Pakistan).
Hijra used to be translated in English as "eunuch" or "hermaphrodite", although LGBT historians or human rights activists have sought to include them as being transgender. In a series of meetings convened between October 2013 and Jan 2014 by the transgender experts committee of India's Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, hijra and other trans activists asked that the term "eunuch" be discontinued from usage in government documents, as it is not a term with which the communities identify.
In India, some Hijras do not define themselves by specific sexual orientation, but rather by renouncing sexuality altogether. Sexual energy is transformed into sacred powers. However, these notions can come in conflict with the practical, which is that hijras are often employed as prostitutes. Furthermore, in India a feminine male who takes a "receptive" role in sex with a man will often identify as a kothi (or the local equivalent term). While kothis are usually distinguished from hijras as a separate gender identity, they often dress as women and act in a feminine manner in public spaces, even using feminine language to refer to themselves and each other. The usual partners of hijras and kothis are men who consider themselves heterosexual as they are the ones who penetrate. These male partners are often married, and any relationships or sex with "kothis" or hijras are usually kept secret from the community at large. Some hijras may form relationships with men and even marry, although their marriage is not usually recognized by law or religion. Hijras and kothis often have a name for these masculine sexual or romantic partners; for example, panthi in Bangladesh, giriya in Delhi or sridhar in Cochin.
Most hijras live at the margins of society with very low status; the very word "hijra" is sometimes used in a derogatory manner. The Indian lawyer and author Rajesh Talwar has written a book, titled The Third Sex and Human Rights, highlighting the human rights abuses suffered by the community. Few employment opportunities are available to hijras. Many get their income from extortion (forced payment by disrupting work/life using demonstrations and interference), performing at ceremonies (toli), begging (dheengna), or sex work ('raarha')—an occupation of eunuchs also recorded in premodern times. Violence against hijras, especially hijra sex workers, is often brutal, and occurs in public spaces, police stations, prisons, and their homes. As with transgender people in most of the world, they face extreme discrimination in health, housing, education, employment, immigration, law, and any bureaucracy that is unable to place them into male or female gender categories.
In October 2013, Pakistani Christians and Muslims (Shia and Sunni) put pressure on the landlords of Imamia Colony to evict any transgender residents. I.A. Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said, "Generally in Pakistan, Khwaja Sira are not under threat. But they are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province because of a 'new Islam' under way."
In a study of Bangladeshi hijras, participants reported not being allowed to seek healthcare at the private chambers of doctors, and experiencing abuse if they go to government hospitals.
Since India's Supreme Court re-criminalized homosexual sex on 13 December 2013, there has been a sharp increase in physical, psychological and sexual violence against the transgender community by the Indian Police Service, which is not even investigating when sexual assault against them is reported.
On 15 April 2014, in National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India ruled that transgender people should be treated as a third category of gender or as a socially and economically "backward" class entitled to proportional access and representation in education and jobs.
The hijra community developed a secret language known as Hijra Farsi. The language has a sentence structure loosely based on Hindustani and a unique vocabulary of at least a thousand words. Some of the kinship terms and names for rituals used by the Hindi-speaking Hijra community are different in use from those used by people outside the Hijra community. For e.g. dādī in Standard Hindi is the term for paternal grandmother, and in the Hijra community is used to address the Guru's Guru. Beyond the Urdu-Hindi speaking areas of subcontinent the vocabulary is still used by the hijra community within their own native languages.
The governments of both India (1994) and Pakistan (2009) have recognized hijras as a "third sex", thus granting them the basic civil rights of every citizen. In India, hijras now have the option to identify as a eunuch ("E") on passports and on certain government documents. They are not, however, fully accommodated; in order to vote, for example, citizens must identify as either male or female. There is also further discrimination from the government. In the 2009 general election, India's election committee denied three hijras candidature unless they identified themselves as either male or female. In 2013, transgender people in Pakistan were given their first opportunity to stand for election. Sanam Fakir, a 32-year-old hijra, ran as an independent candidate for Sukkur, Pakistan's general election in May.
In April 2014, Justice KS Radhakrishnan declared transgender to be the third gender in Indian law, in a case brought by the National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa) against Union of India and others. The ruling said:
Seldom, our society realises or cares to realise the trauma, agony and pain which the members of Transgender community undergo, nor appreciates the innate feelings of the members of the Transgender community, especially of those whose mind and body disown their biological sex. Our society often ridicules and abuses the Transgender community and in public places like railway stations, bus stands, schools, workplaces, malls, theatres, hospitals, they are sidelined and treated as untouchables, forgetting the fact that the moral failure lies in the society's unwillingness to contain or embrace different gender identities and expressions, a mindset which we have to change.
Justice Radhakrishnan said that transgender people should be treated consistently with other minorities under the law, enabling them to access jobs, healthcare and education. He framed the issue as one of human rights, saying that, "These TGs, even though insignificant in numbers, are still human beings and therefore they have every right to enjoy their human rights", concluding by declaring that:
- Hijras, Eunuchs, apart from binary gender, be treated as "third gender" for the purpose of safeguarding their rights under Part III of our Constitution and the laws made by the Parliament and the State Legislature.
- Transgender persons' right to decide their self-identified gender is also upheld and the Centre and State Governments are directed to grant legal recognition of their gender identity such as male, female or as third gender.
A bill supported by all political parties was tabled in Indian parliament to ensure transgender people get benefits akin reserved communities like SC/STs and is taking steps to see that they get enrollment in schools and jobs in government besides protection from sexual harassment.
In the 1990s, about 10,000 people belonged to a national organization called Treetiya Panthi Sanghatana (TPS). As of 2003, the president was Kajal Nayak. A younger Kajal Nayak, who was 27 years old in 2019, is the president of Jajpur's Transgender Association.
The ancient Kama Sutra mentions the performance of fellatio by feminine people of a third sex (tritiya prakriti). This passage has been variously interpreted as referring to men who desired other men, so-called eunuchs ("those disguised as males, and those that are disguised as females", male and female trans people ("the male takes on the appearance of a female and the female takes on the appearance of the male"), or two kinds of biological males, one dressed as a woman, the other as a man.
Franciscan travelers in the 1650s noted the presence of "Men and boys who dress like women" roaming the streets of Thatta, in modern Pakistan. The presence of these individuals was taken to be a sign of the city's depravity. During the era of the British Raj, authorities attempted to eradicate hijras, whom they saw as "a breach of public decency." Anti-hijra laws were repealed; but a law outlawing castration, a central part of the hijra community, was left intact, though rarely enforced. Also during British rule in India they were placed under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 and labelled a "criminal tribe", hence subjected to compulsory registration, strict monitoring and stigmatized for a long time; after independence however they were denotified in 1952, though the centuries-old stigma continues.
Many practice a form of syncretism that draws on multiple religions; seeing themselves to be neither men nor women, hijras practice rituals for both men and women.
Bahuchara Mata is a Hindu goddess with two unrelated stories both associated with transgender behavior. One story is that she appeared in the avatar of a princess who castrated her husband because he would run in the woods and act like a woman rather than have sex with her. Another story is that a man tried to rape her, so she cursed him with impotence. When the man begged her forgiveness to have the curse removed, she relented only after he agreed to run in the woods and act like a woman. The primary temple to this goddess is located in Gujarat and it is a place of pilgrimage for hijras, who see Bahuchara Mata as a patroness.
One of the forms of Lord Shiva is a merging with Parvati where together they are Ardhanari, a god that is half Shiva and half Parvati. Ardhanari has special significance as a patron of hijras, who identify with the gender ambiguity.
In some versions of the Ramayana, when Rama leaves Ayodhya for his 14-year exile, a crowd of his subjects follow him into the forest because of their devotion to him. Soon Rama notices this, and gathers them to tell them not to mourn, and that all the "men and women" of his kingdom should return to their places in Ayodhya. Rama then leaves and has adventures for 14 years. When he returns to Ayodhya, he finds that the hijras, being neither men nor women, have not moved from the place where he gave his speech. Impressed with their devotion, Rama grants hijras the boon to confer blessings on people during auspicious inaugural occasions like childbirth and weddings. This boon is the origin of badhai in which hijras sing, dance, and give blessings.
Mahabharata includes an episode in which Arjuna, a hero of the epic, is sent into an exile. There he assumes an identity of a eunuch-transvestite and performs rituals during weddings and childbirths that are now performed by hijras.
In the Mahabharata, before the Kurukshetra War, Iravan offers his lifeblood to goddess Kali to ensure the victory of the Pandavas, and Kali agrees to grant him power. On the night before the battle, Iravan expresses a desire to get married before he dies. No woman was willing to marry a man doomed to die in a few hours, so Lord Krishna ( as Mohini ) marries him. In South India, hijras claim Iravan as their progenitor and call themselves "aravanis".
Each year in Tamil Nadu, during April and May, hijras celebrate an eighteen-day religious festival. The aravani temple is located in the village Koovagam in the Ulundurpet taluk in Villupuram district, and is devoted to the deity Koothandavar, who is identified with Aravan. During the festival, the aravanis reenact a story of the wedding of Lord Krishna and Lord Aravan, followed by Aravan's subsequent sacrifice. They then mourn Aravan's death through ritualistic dances and by breaking their bangles. An annual beauty pageant is also held, as well as various health and HIV or AIDS seminars. Hijras from all over the country travel to this festival. A personal experience of the hijras in this festival is shown in the BBC Three documentary India's Ladyboys and also in the National Geographic Channel television series Taboo.
There is evidence that Indian hijras identifying as Muslim also incorporate aspects of Hinduism. Still, despite this syncretism, Gayatri Reddy notes that a hijra does not practice Islam differently from other Muslims and argues that their syncretism does not make them any less Muslim. Reddy also documents an example of how this syncretism manifests: in Hyderabad, India, a group of Muslim converts were circumcised, something seen as the quintessential marker of male Muslim identity.
Hijras have been portrayed on screen in Indian cinema since its inception, historically as comic relief. A notable turning point occurred in 1974 when real hijras appeared during a song-and-dance sequence in Kunwaara Baap ("The Unmarried Father"). There are also hijras in the Hindi movie Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) who accompany one of the heroes, Akbar (Rishi Kapoor), in a song entitled "Tayyab Ali Pyar Ka Dushman" ("Tayyab Ali, the Enemy of Love"). One of the first sympathetic hijra portrayals was in Mani Ratnam's Bombay (1995). 1997's Tamanna starred male actor Paresh Rawal in a central role as "Tiku", a hijra who raises a young orphan. Pooja Bhatt produced and also starred in the movie, with her father Mahesh Bhatt co-writing and directing. Deepa Mehta's Water features the hijra character "Gulabi" (played by Raghubir Yadav), who has taken to introducing the downtrodden, outcast widows of Varanasi to prostitution. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the film generated much controversy. There is a brief appearance of hijras in the 2004 Gurinder Chadha film Bride & Prejudice, singing to a bride-to-be in the marketplace.
In the 2000 Tamil film Appu, directed by Vasanth and a remake of the Hindi film Sadak, the antagonist is a brothel-owning hijra played by Prakash Raj. (In Sadak, the brothel-owning character was played by Sadashiv Amrapurkar under the name "Maharani".)
In Anil Kapoor's Nayak, Johnny Lever, who plays the role of the hero's assistant, gets beaten up by hijras, when he is caught calling them "hijra" (he is in habit of calling almost everyone who bothers him by this pejorative and no one cares much, except this once ironically, as the addressees are literally what he is calling them.)
Vijay TV's Ippadikku Rose, a Tamil show conducted by postgraduate educated transgender woman Rose, is a very successful running program that discusses various issues faced by youth in Tamil Nadu, where she also gives her own experiences.
In the Malayalam movie Ardhanaari, released on 23 November 2012, director Santhosh Sowparnika tries to depict the life of a transgender person. Manoj K Jayan, Thilakan, Sukumari and Maniyanpilla Raju perform leading roles.
Transgender activist A. Revathi became the first hijra to write about transgender issues and gender politics in Tamil. Her works have been translated into more than eight languages and act as a primary resources on gender studies in Asia. Her book is part of research project for more than 100 universities. She is the author of Unarvum Uruvamum (Feelings of the Entire Body), the first of its kind in English from a member of the hijra community. She acted and directed stage plays on gender and sexuality issues in Tamil and Kannada. The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story is part of the syllabus for final year students of The American College in Madurai.
The 1992 film Immaculate Conception by Jamil Dehlavi is based upon the culture-clash between a western Jewish couple seeking fertility at a Karachi shrine known to be blessed by a Sufi fakir called 'Gulab Shah' and the group of Pakistani eunuchs who guard it.
Murad (English: desire, but film's the English title was Eunuch's Motherhood), was an award-winning biographical telefilm drama made by Evergreen Media Europe for Pakistan's television channel Indus TV that aired in 2003. It featured some of the country's top male television actors-- Sohail Asghar, Nabeel, Qazi Wajid, and Kamran Jilani playing the roles of hijras. It was directed by Kamran Qureshi, written by Zafar Mairaj and produced by Iram Qureshi. It won both Best TeleFilm and Best Director awards at 2003 Indus Telefilm Festival. The story revolves around Saima, a transgender woman, who adopts a child named Murad. For the first time, influential male actors showed their support for hijra rights during interviews, pointing out that in Pakistani English at that time eunuch was the term to describe a transgender person, and khwaja sara had not yet replaced what is now considered a derogatory term due to decades of heckling and name calling.
In 2004, Kamran Qureshi directed Moorat (English: effigy but released in English under the title Eunuch's Wedding. It a 33-episode series produced by Humayun Saeed and Abdullah Kadwani with more than a dozen cast members. It was nominated for Best Drama Serial, Abid Ali for Best Actor, and Maria Wasti for Best Actress at the Lux Style Awards 2005. The show was credited with making people understand the pain and abuse that hijra constantly endure when people make fun of the way they look or dress. The story involves a young lady who is engaged to be married. It turns out her husband is transgender. The story unfolds the trans community and their deprived and isolated world. It portrays eloquently how they, too, are not far away from human emotions and feelings and their world is not much different from the heterosexual community. Even though they are in plain sight, they are taboo subjects and are not taken seriously. This makes them suffer endlessly in silence wrapped in slurs. The 33-episode series therefore touches on transgender abuse, abuse against women, poverty, the immorality of arranged marriages and child abuse.
Bol (Urdu: بول meaning Speak), is a 2011 Urdu-language Pakistani social drama film. It concerns a patriarch, Hakim, who is a misogynist, a domestic abuser, a bigot and a zealot who forces religion on his family. They face financial difficulties due to Hakim wanting a son. He rejects his transgender daughter, Saifi, as he wanted an heir and she identifies as a girl. Saifi is deeply loved by the rest of her family. As she grows up, men want to take advantage of her and she does not understand at first. However, her oldest sister intervenes and teaches Saifi about what kind of touching is inappropriate. As Saifi grows older, she is not allowed to leave the house. She finds her sister's dresses compelling and tries them on, revealing her gender identity. A neighbour played by famous South Asian singer Atif Aslam, who is in love with one of the sisters, gets Saifi a job at a place where they paint trucks, with the blessing of Saifi's sisters and mother. Saifi dresses like a boy; however, other boys sense her lack of self-esteem and eventually gang-rape her. She is saved when another transgender person, played by Almas Bobby (a transgender actor), finds her and takes her home. Hakim overhears Saifi telling her mother and Zainab what happened. When everybody is asleep, Hakim locks the room and suffocates his child for luring the men for the "shame" he would have to bear if the story got out. It received several positive reviews from critics and went on to win the Best Hindi film award in IRDS Film awards 2011 by Institute for Research and Documentation in Social Sciences (IRDS).
In the graphic novel Habibi by Craig Thompson, the protagonist, Zam, is adopted by a group of hijras.
In the TV comedy Outsourced (2011), a hijra is hired by Charlie as a stripper for Rajiv's "bachelor party", much to Rajiv's utter horror.
Hijras feature prominently in John Irving's 2002 novel A Son of the Circus.
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