by Zarya Shaikh, December 31, 2021
Spending time between Pakistan and the United States as a child, I have learned about different receptions to the LGBTQ+ community in two cultures. I thought that the first time I met a transgender individual was as a 14-year-old in America. After reading Jeffrey Gettleman’s article “The Peculiar Position of India’s Third Gender,” I realized I have met transgender individuals as early as age 8 (and possibly even earlier) in Pakistan. Similar to the Fa’afafine in Samoan culture, Hijras are individuals in Pakistan’s and India’s Muslim history who do not subscribe to a single identity as male or female.1 “Hijra” in Hindi translates to eunuchs, who are sexless individuals. They are castrated to eliminate the desire for love or lust and are meant to be sexless beings who are sexually receptive to men.1 It is important to note that not all transgender individuals in India identify as Hijras. Hijras are an entity that exists under the umbrella identity of transgender.1 During my visits to Pakistan, my family would donate money to Hijras whenever they stopped by our home or knocked on car windows. Gettleman finds that the identity of Hijras stems from a Hindu myth that Lord Rama, a Hindu god. Gettleman describes that Lord Rama “was exiled from Ayodhya and his entire kingdom began to follow him into the forest.” Lord Rama told men and women to leave him and regroup in Ayodhya.1 Hijras were known for their loyalty as they awaited Lord Rama’s return for 14 years in a folktale.1 Scholars of Hindu mythology discount the anecdote, claiming it is not in early versions of ancient Hindu texts. Regardless, the devotion of the Hijras demonstrated by the folktale is a significant characteristic of the Hijra identity.1 Before Britain’s colonization of India, Hijras were “revered as demigods.”1 Britain stripped Hijras of their identity upon colonization and enforced the binary gender system of female and male by suggesting they existed against the “order of nature” and thus criminalized “carnal intercourse.”1
In the modern-day, Hijras dress in sparkly saris and makeup while dancing and offering blessings in the streets. Indians perceive Hijras as beings with the power to bestow blessings or curses on those they meet. Radhika, a 24-year-old Hijra, shared that they were uncomfortable with resigning to a single-gender while in school. Her mother condemned these thoughts and told Radhika to “stick to” the gender binary.1 Soon after this interaction, Radhika’s parents split and her mother died. With no one else to turn to, 8-year-old Radhika met an older sex worker who made her a sex worker in a park.1. Radhika continues sex work today, as there is no other source of income. Hijras are still essential to the hierarchy of harems, which often operate like street gangs. They rely on gurus, also Hijras, who “fulfill the hybrid role of den mother, godfather, spiritual leader and pimp.”1,3 Beneath Hijras in the pyramid are chelas (disciplines) who are used to increase cash flow to the guru. For Hijras, there is not much social mobility due to restrictions placed on education and employment.2 Their rights as humans are often violated; these factors contribute to the cycle of being exploited through sex work and facing humiliation through castrations and social isolation.1 For a majority of the time following colonization, there were no modes of medical care that are easy to access. Countless deaths occurred as a result of the castrations by unqualified individuals.1 In recent years, however, India has recognized being transgender as another gender. Hijras can now undergo gender-affirming surgeries in some hospitals and access government benefits including welfare.1,2 Although this is a step in the right direction, Hijras are still considered inferior oddities who are not respected. The attitudes of society on their roles as sex workers have yet to change.
1 Hylton, S., Gettleman, J., & Lyons, E. (2018, February 17). The peculiar position of India’s third gender. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/17/style/india-third-gender-hijras-transgender.html
2 UK Essays. (2021, August 12). The khawaja sara and hijra: Gender and sexual identities formation in post-colonial Pakistan. UK Essays. Retrieved from https://www.ukessays.com/essays/society/the-khawaja-sara-and-hijra-gender-and-sexual-identities-formation-in-post-colonial-pakistan.php?vref=1
3 Stief, M. (2016, November 22). The sexual orientation and gender presentation of Hijra, kothi, and Panthi in Mumbai, India – Archives of Sexual Behavior. SpringerLink. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-016-0886-0#:~:text=Hijra%20are%20androphilic%20(sexually%20attracted,networks%20that%20are%20hierarchically%20organized