Gender Diversity: Hijra

In India, there are centuries of traditions around hijras. Hijras are also called Kinnar, Kothi, Aravanis, Jogtas/Jogappas, Khusras, or Shiv-Shaktis, depending on the community. India is a very large country and conditions vary by geography. Hijras were previously respected as spiritual authorities in the region and frequently played a role in religious and spiritual ceremonies. They are understood to be connected to the half-male, half-female image of Shiva in Hindu teaching.

Language about eunuchs was imported by the British, during the time that the British were colonizing India (19th century). Hijras were criminalized. As a result, hijras were relegated to high-risk and low-paying economies such as dancing, entertainment, sex work, and begging. Hijras survived in part by creating their own communities with other hijras forming their own families complete with parental figures.

Conditions have begun changing since 2014 when India’s supreme court officially recognized the third gender, but conditions remain precarious due to continuing stigma, discrimination, stereotypes, and violence.

In a globalized world, there is cross-fertilization between Indian elements and Western transgender dynamics. The Al Jazeera video below (2014) includes activists and academics who use Western language as well as Indian terms. People with intersex variations and those assigned female at birth have historically been included in the category of hijra. However, those assigned male at birth continue to be the most visible and well-known segment.

It seems as complicated to sort through all of the diverse perspectives in India as it does in the West. Yet, the Indian context is fundamentally different insofar the role and culture of the hijras was never successfully eliminated by the colonizers. Hijras provide an important example of how OtherWise-gendered people have had to negotiate and renegotiate our roles in society as the culture has changed. That process continues, as does influence from the West.

More resources:

India’s Third Gender Rises Again (Sapiens, 2019)

We can’t erase our hijra culture (India Today, 2019)

The long history of criminalising hijras (Himal magazine, 2019)

How Britain tried to erase India’s third gender (BBC, 2019)

 The Zainab Salbi Project story (2016):

Al Jazeera (2013) story (Transfaith’s summary):

Compiled by Mx. Chris Paige on October 10, 2019.

Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have additions, corrections, or concerns.

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