Kamil Hamid, a student from Islamabad, passed on a contribution piece to CHUP by Nabiha Meher Shaikh, a graduate from York University, where she majored in women’s studies. Below, Nabiha delves into a discussion about the subcontinent’s hijra community, known as “the third gender,” [the full article was originally posted on Nabiha’s blog, I am Woman, Hear me Roar]. Although the evolution of this community is deeply rooted in the region’s history, there is still not a lot known about these hijras and they are largely ostracized from society. Although they are technically allowed to vote and contest in elections in Pakistan, [see a related post by Chowrangi], hijras are often denied basic education and work opportunities, and are rejected by most families. Below, Nabiha, who has spent much time researching and interacting with the hijra community in Pakistan, discusses their background and current obstacles [Image from a photo essay by Dennis Drenner]:
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, consisting of getting married and producing children. However, a great number of hijras are men, who identify themselves as more feminine then masculine.
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.
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. It seems ironic that these hijras, who are unable to reproduce, are seen to have the power to bestow fertility blessings on brides. Nevertheless, because of increasing Westernization, the traditional roles of hijras are no longer in as much demand as they once were. Moreover, 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 them are turning to prostitution, which goes against the hijra ideal of asceticism.
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. Only after this are they granted their special powers of blessings and curses. 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 women of the subcontinent, 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 more western clothes.
Although most 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 Ramadan, get buried instead of cremated, and, if they get married, have a Muslim wedding called a nikkah. Most of them also adopt Muslim female names. However, their acceptance into Indian society is due to Hinduism more than Islam, particularly because many Hindu deities are linked to the hijras such as Arjun, Vishnu, and Shiva. Because hijras are able to identify with different figures in Indian mythology, they are tolerated and were traditionally very respected as the third sex.
The British rulers in colonial 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 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 in certain jobs because of who they are. 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 one is admitted in hospital, the doctors never know whether to place them in the male or female ward. Some hijras are actively involved in raising awareness about AIDS because it is estimated that one in three hijras in Bombay are HIV positive.