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India’s third gender: A journey of Hijra community from mythology to harsh reality

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Piu Roy
Piu Roy is pursuing her Master's Degree in Political Science at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, West Bengal, India. She is interested in reading, writting and painting.
 

The word “Hijra” is an Urdu-Hindustani word derived from the Semitic Arabic root ‘hjr’ in its sense of “leaving one’s tribe,” and has been borrowed into Hindi. The ‘Third Gender’ usually refers to people who are not recognized as either male or female. The Supreme Court of India has recognized kinnar or hijra people as the ‘Third Gender.’ Also, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Germany, New Zealand, and many other countries have recognized ‘Third Gender.’ The Hijra community in the Indian subcontinent has a broad historical background. This community has a history of more than 4,000 years. They are mentioned in various ancient texts. The Kama Sutra, written by Vatsyayana, is one the example in this regard.

Hijra Community in the Epic Ramayana and Mahabharata:

According to an incident in Ramayana written by Valmiki, Lord Rama went into exile for fourteen years. Many people of Lord Rama’s kingdom followed him out of love and respect. But when Lord Rama found out about this, he ordered all the men and women to return their homes. Lord Rama, on his way home from exile, saw that the Hijras had been sitting in that particular place for fourteen years. Pleased with the devotion of the Hijras, Lord Rama blessed them and said that they would bless people on various auspicious occasions like childbirth and marriage. Discussion about the Hijra community can also be found in the epic Mahabharata. According to an incident in the Mahabharata, one of its characters, Arjuna, went to exile, and there he once assumed the identity of a Hijra, which is known as Brihannala. Arjuna also performed ceremonial functions with the identity of a Hijra. There is also a transgender form of Shiva, one of the main deities worshiped by the Hindus, which is known as Ardhanarishvara.

A Brief Historical Background of Hijra Community in India:

During the period of Mughal Rule in India, the Hijras held various important administrative positions. They also had a significant role in some religious matters. During the British colonial rule in India, people of the Hijra community were identified as criminals. However, in the aftermath of independence, such laws enacted by the British were repealed. Although even after independence, the contemptuous attitude of the society towards the Hijras did not change much. They make money by begging or by blessing a newborn baby. This is their identity in the so-called modern society. After birth, they are expelled from their family. It is true that in many cases, Hijras use obscene gestures or bad language while begging. On the other hand, it is also true that people do not understand the pain of their lives.

Social Problems:

 

The government has adopted many welfare schemes for the Hijra community. But the question remains as to how much they will be able to enjoy the benefits of these schemes. There is an unwritten ban on their entry everywhere from, restaurants, cinema halls to grocery stores. Even if they want to use public toilets, they face problems. They also do not have separate toilet facilities. This raises the question of whether the rights enshrined in the Indian constitution, irrespective of race, religion, caste, or gender, are reflected in practice or not.

Economic Problems:

The economic problems of the Hijras originate from the lack of opportunities for their education. Most of the Hijras do not get the opportunity to get admission in school. Moreover, most of those who get this opportunity are forced to drop out of school midway for different reasons. If they voluntarily reveal their sexual identities, they are subjected to physical and mental harassment at different stages of their life. Thus, due to the lack of adequate education and employment, they choose the path of begging. Even if they get job opportunities in some way, they are subjected to various forms of harassment in the workplace. Complaining against such behaviour does not provide adequate legal redress. In most of the cases, they do not get any help from their families also. According to the view of society, the Hijras are causing ‘social pollution’ through ‘sexual pollution.’

 

Legal Problems:

All citizens of India have equal fundamental and other legal rights in several matters. Above all, the question of human rights matters the most. The human rights of the Hijras are constantly being violated. For this reason, the government needs to take appropriate legal action. In order to protect the dignity of the Indian Constitution, it is necessary to protect the rights of this vulnerable class. The culture, customs or any type of so-called unconventional activities of the Hijras are not sanctioned by society. So this problem can be solved only through an appropriate legal system and by raising awareness.

Political Participation:

India’s sexual minority groups have begun to seek greater representation in regional and national politics. They need to participate in the political arena to address their all concerns. Their presence in the decision-making process of politics will protect the interest of the people of their community and other equivalent marginalized groups. However, over the past century, political connections with people belonging to the middle-class homosexual community have increased. But in this case, the Hijras have remained neglected as always. In Indian society, there are many divine misconceptions about the Hijras. These ideas are also one of the reasons behind their deprivation. Due to the deprivation of society, they have become a pathetic ‘marginal class.’ Thus, their representation and participation in various spheres of society and politics became almost zero. Instead of returning violence in response to deprivation, they have been involved in multiple social awareness activities. In particular, they have played a commendable role in raising awareness for the prevention of deadly diseases such as HIV. However, this kind of social work has gained success and legitimacy with the initiative and support of many NGO’s. Moreover, they need a closer connection in politics to solve their problems.

Involvement in Electoral Politics:

The key factor of electoral politics is voting. Every adult citizen of India can exercise their voting right. In this case, in order to enjoy the right to vote, it is mandatory for a citizen to have a ‘Voter Id card.’ This Card is also very essential as an identity proof and for receiving various important public services. People in the Hijra community generally admit that most of them have voter cards. But the problem starts from here. The name they got by birth is on their voter cards. Later they have to face various problems while applying for the name change. They also face different hurdles when it comes to voting. When they try to vote in women’s clothing, they are asked about the difference between their appearance and the photo on the voter card. Apart from this, they are naturally apathetic to politics. They are not close to politics, and they even consider it irrelevant to their lives. Political parties also made no effort to reach them. This is why they do not think of participating in political contests. Hijras believe that no one will vote for them except the people of their community.  Other people will only mock and scold them.

Conclusion:

In Indian society, Hijras still do not have the right to participate in any social or cultural activities. They are deprived and expelled by both family and society. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India granted them the ‘Third Gender’ status. But in reality, they have not yet gained any social recognition. All Indian citizens have equal social, legal, and political rights. Therefore, the Indian government needs to pay close attention to this matter so that this class of people can equally enjoy their rights. However, government level measures will only succeed if people change their negative attitudes towards the ‘Third Gender.’

References:

  1. Hijra (South Asia). (2020). Retrieved 18 June 2020, from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Hijra (South_Asia)
  2. Kinnar Samaj. (2020). Retrieved 18 June 2020, from http://kinnarsamaj.blogspot.com/?m =1.
  3. Sapna Khatri, Hijras: The 21st Century Untouchables, 16 WASH. U. GLOBALSTUD. L. REV. 387 (2017), https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_globalstudies/vol16/iss2/10.
  4. Jogappa Gender, Identity, and the Politics of Exclusion (2014), (1st ed., pp. 1-122), Bangalore: Aneka. Retrieved 18 June 2020, from https://s.docworkspace.com/d/AHV4 nD3o8ss04dDsgNWdFA.
  5. Cakrabartī, S. (2015). Halade golāpa (1st ed.). Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing.
  6. Michelraj, M. (2015). Historical Evolution of Transgender Community in India. Asian Review of Social Sciences, 4(1), 17-19. Retrieved 18 June 2020, from https://s.docwork space.com/d/AAavR7zo8ss04detgtWdFA.
  7. Filip Rudorfer, L. (2014). Hijras, the third gender?. Sexual And Gender Identities In History Journal. Retrieved 18 June 2020, from https://www.academia.edu/35968127/ HIJRAS_the_third_gender.
  8. Hinchy, J. (2019). Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra, c.1850–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108592208. Retrieved 18 June 2020, from https://www.academia.edu/38571577/Governing Gender_and_ Sexuality_in_Colonial_India_The_Hijra_c.1850_1900.

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Piu Roy
Piu Roy is pursuing her Master's Degree in Political Science at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, West Bengal, India. She is interested in reading, writting and painting.

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