What is a hijra

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"They often appear suddenly, in no time it gets loud and shrill - and when they leave you feel as if it has ripped you out of a short but violent nightmare. I don't like them, but you have to be nice to them , because they have magical powers and can easily bewitch you ", my West Bengali seatmate on the train was silent for a few meaningful seconds and looked after the garish troop, who singing and jokingly pulled through the aisle of our car. It was not my first encounter with these peculiar figures, but his words aroused my increased interest in them.

Outdated, western terms such as eunuch, castrato or hermaphrodite do not apply to the hijras. The term of the so-called "third gender" (third gender) seems to me to be more suitable for you. When I talk and write about Hijras, I still use the feminine gender, as I would consider the neuter in this case to be disrespectful and they call themselves a being that is neither man nor woman, but feminine first names and pet names choose.

Hijras - concept and organization of the third sex

There are no precise figures on the number of hijras in South Asia, with estimates ranging from 700,000 to several million primarily in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. In addition to the term Hijra, which is mainly used in Urdu and Hindi, there are also other terms such as Mukhannath or Muhannas (Arabic term for castrated men in female form or female souls in male bodies), Khusra (Punjabi), Alis (Tamil) and Hizra (Bengali). Hijras can be found in the Hindu and also in the Muslim environment. In the Buddhist regions of South Asia they come - in contrast to the Kathoeywho often refer to themselves as ladyboys in Southeast Asian Thailand - rarely before. Today's Kathoey show some similarities with Hijras, because on the one hand they are often transsexuals, that is, they were born biologically as men, and do not feel emotionally "masculine", however, the majority of them strive for a gender reassignment operation in order to become completely outwardly a woman (so-called man-to-woman transsexuals or trans women).

Despite their feminine clothing, hijras often have a more masculine appearance due to, among other things, strong hair. Older hijras are often bald and rarely wear wigs. Not only in arguments do they appear with a loud, deep, masculine voice. From the point of view of the majority of South Asians, who are characterized by a traditional understanding of women, they often do not behave very "ladylike". In turn, they also embody male fantasies for which "decent" women are not available. Their cheeky sayings, open play with sexual stimuli and flirting seem to stand in stark contrast to the superficially prudish societies in South Asia. This reinforces the impression that they are more of a mixed form of their own that, in their own way and with their own "partly-partly-and-neither-nor-expression", occupies an individual social niche. This is in contrast to the dichotomous woman-man division elsewhere. In Europe, for example, the prevailing view is that transgender people should be either fully male or female. Mixed forms are hardly accepted, apart from the fashion trend of "metrosexuality" exemplified by David Beckham, for example, which corresponds less to a sexual orientation than to an extravagant lifestyle.

According to the traditional view, hijras are a certain form of man-to-woman transsexuals, for whom it was previously known that there was no option for gender reassignment surgery, but who were usually castrated or born as a hermaphrodite. Hijras differ from the so-called in their own perspective Feces (homosexual transvestites who keep their male genitals and who are with their husbands (Giriyas) live together in a marriage-like community and take on the role of women). Hijras can also live in marriage-like relationships with men, but are usually integrated into a hijra commune. In recent years, however, these barriers have shifted, transvestites and transsexuals are increasingly defining themselves as hijras, which they mostly accept. With the new possibilities of hormone therapy, surgical gender reassignment and cosmetic surgery, new possibilities and forms arise. Hijras are mostly to be found in urban areas, although they belong to the poorer population groups. This is based on the one hand on their social stigmatization - according to their acceptance of the status as Hijra, they can only move within the framework of the roles assigned to them. On the other hand, they themselves often only have very limited access to educational opportunities; 70 to 80 percent of them can hardly or not at all read and write. Many come from a poor environment and / or have been rejected by their families in order to avert ridicule and malice from the family honor.

Hijras mostly live in their own communities or communes that are hierarchically organized. Several hijras follow as Chela (Student) theirs guru, this hijra directs the local community and, in turn, is supraregional Nayaks who exercise a spiritual guiding function. The money is mostly administered by the Guru-Hijra, other property is largely shared. The use of masculine terms - Chela, guru and Nayak - to denote internal hierarchies in contrast to their preferred feminine first names and kinship categories seems to refer to an intermediate position of the hijra.

The castration ritual

The majority of the Hijras of South Asia still go through the painful path of castration outside of any medical care, especially since this operation is officially prohibited by doctors, in contrast to sterilization interventions. Many simply lack the money and the knowledge of other options. In addition, semi-public castration as a ritual of transformation into the third gender is still very widespread within traditionally distinct Hijra communities. To what extent hijras are recognized as full-fledged hijras within their community before or without castration, e.g. in the case of intersexuality, is difficult to determine in a general way, as there are regional differences.

There are different castration rituals. In the following, the traditional form of the ritual will be described, of which most reports and descriptions exist and which is mainly practiced in the West Indies and southern Pakistan.

The oldest hijra decides about the appropriate time for castration, who at the same time assumes the position of the guru within the local hijra community. At this point in time, the person to be castrated has generally already lived within the community for a longer period of time and has on the one hand demonstrated their suitability for this and on the other hand has repeatedly expressed their willingness to take this final step. Reports about the kidnapping of boys who were then quickly "emasculated" are often told by outsiders, but have never been proven.

If the date for the ritual has been set, a fasting period begins for the person concerned, at the same time opiates are often consumed in advance, so that on the day of the ritual the subject is in an intoxicated state. The entire community is involved in the preparations in advance as well as in the actual castration or the numerous ritual acts and members of neighboring Hijra communities are invited.

In the decisive ritual, numerous hijras usually gather in a back yard around the person to be castrated. The scrotum and penis are tied off and then cut off with a knife in an arc-shaped motion. Meanwhile, in the Hindu context, the assembled crowd calls mother goddesses and pleads for success; in the Muslim context, Sufi saints in particular are asked for assistance. After the cut, a small wooden or metal tube is inserted into the ureter so that it remains open when the wound is closed. The wound is not immediately covered so that the blood symbolically flushes out the rest of the manhood, sometimes this is also seen as ritual menstruation. Finally, hot oil is poured over the wound and a compress with medicinal herbs is applied to accelerate the healing process. The remaining scars, however, are mostly large and disfiguring. Wound infections are common. A gender reassignment does not take place and is not intended, many hijras have problems with controlling urination after this form of castration.

Since the castration ritual is officially forbidden, but is mostly tolerated by the local police, those involved move in a gray area and the life of the affected hijra is considerable. In particular, the poor hygienic conditions during castration and the "surgical instruments" are problematic, there is a lack of medical-surgical knowledge, and in the rarest of cases, emergency medical help can be called upon if complications occur. On the one hand, there is seldom enough money for hospital treatment and the necessary bribes cannot be raised due to the incident that has to be reported.

Mythological background

In the mythological consideration of the Hijras, the Hindu background dominates in Western literature, since Hinduism in its great variety apparently offers very good explanations. The equally important Muslim factor, on the other hand, is rarely mentioned, although South Asian Islam also contains very different forms and characteristics that have an important influence on the Hijra communities. Around half of the hijras are Muslims.

Hindu mythology is rich in gods and mystical beings who change their gender identity, there are also many hybrid beings and every male force is opposed by its female counterpart, often again united in one and the same deity.

In the epic of the Mahabharata there are several stories that can be used as the mythological origin of the hijras. The most widespread is the story of Avaranan's wedding, which is celebrated at the largest hijra festival in India every spring in the temple of Koovagam, 250 km south of Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu. Avaranan, son of the hero Arjuna, was to be sacrificed the following night in a battle between the Pandava brothers and their cousins ​​Kaurava in order to gain a tactical advantage. However, they didn't want him to die as a bachelor. However, there were difficulties in finding a suitable bride, because nobody wanted to marry their daughter so that the next day she would be afflicted with the stigma of widowhood. Krishna took pity on this situation, turned into the beautiful Mahoni, married Avavaran and probably also consummated the marriage. When his husband died, Krishna threw the marriage symbols (gold marriage band, flower garland, toe rings and bezels) into the fire of the pyre according to the mourning ritual. However, he did not turn back into a man and remained trapped in the female form.

This is the fate that befell Krishna in another story. Parvati, wife of the god Shiva, is desired by a king. When she is bathing in a lake, it tries to track her. Krishna, who wants to prevent this, assumes the form of Parvati and the lustful king experiences an erotic encounter with the false Parvati. In this case, too, Krishna can no longer transform himself. Some hijras, however, interpret the latter story somewhat differently and believe that Krishna did not want to change back into a man after experiencing it. The magic power in Hinduism, which is often assigned to Hijras, results from the belief that male and female energy are included in them in equal parts, although neither can give new life through birth, which strengthens the magic power.

In Islam, on the other hand, the mystical side tends to dominate. Here one assumes a female soul that is trapped in a male body. Their special powers result from the fact that their prayers are particularly powerful, as God compensates them for the fact that they cannot have children or live in a normal family. They are also said to be in the tradition of the eunuchs who guarded the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed and the holy mosque in Mecca. Several high-ranking hijras emphasize being part of a community that reached as far as Moorish Spain in the early days of Islam. Numerous Sufi saints and dervishes called themselves brides of God, such as several followers of the Suhrawardiyya Suhagiyya Sufi order or the Sufi poet Yatim Shah as well as numerous other historical figures. Hundreds of hijras from Pakistan and India gather at the Urs Festival of Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer (see also About holy men and their "marriage" to Allah). Many hijras from South Asia also celebrate the Hajj to Mecca.

Many customs and traditions are very similar within the South Asian Hijra communities. A syncretistic belief is also often practiced. Many Sufi mystics are also worshiped by Hindu hijras, and Muslim first names seem to be particularly popular. They also have similarities at the end of their lives, because hijras are always buried and not burned.

Historical role of the Hijras of South Asia

In addition to their mystical powers and related religious services, hijras in the Hindu context have apparently always been active in the broader field of entertainment, be it as singers and dancers or - as described in the Kamasutra - also as temple prostitutes. In the caste system they were settled far below, but enjoyed a special cultic position, since they are neither man nor woman.

In the Muslim context, many hijras were given a higher status. They guarded the women's quarters, worked as servants, raised the children, and often taught the Koran. Numerous hijras also reached influential positions and held important political offices or were also active in the Muslim context in the aforementioned entertainment area.

With British rule, many conditions for hijras changed. Castrations were banned and occasionally severely punished. The criminalization of all homosexuality as a sodomist act hit Hijras in particular. Thousands were arrested, often arbitrarily. The colonial system of the British Raj pushed them out of respected positions and forced them into social niches, so that apart from entertainment, almost no fields of activity were open to them. Independence did not improve their situation, as the discriminatory colonial laws retained their validity and the ruling elites and large parts of society had long since internalized Victorian prudery.

Small bright spots, little improvement - today's life situation of Hijras

Hijras still lead their lives on the fringes of South Asian societies, and their discrimination continues to a large extent. On the other hand, the Hijra community itself changes and opens up and thus integrates new forces. Hijras can rarely apply for "hijra-untypical" professions. Security guards prevent you from entering offices and every form asks whether you are female or male. Most of the professions are still traditionally taboo for them. The illiteracy rate among them is very high, many had to drop out of school and come from the poorest classes, few still speak English and have access to information or can form supra-regional networks to represent their interests. As a rule, medical care continues to be very precarious for them.

They are often victims of sexual violence by criminals and pimps unless they are backed by a strong local hijra community. Outside of their often ghetto-like communities, abuse by the police and other security forces is unfortunately the norm. (see homosexuality and human rights in India)

So they go about their "normal handicraft", gather in front of shops and have fun with the irritated customers until the shopkeeper encourages them to move on with a donation and they go begging through trains. In the cities they learn about births and weddings via a local network, then come without being asked if they are not invited, and dance and sing in front of the house until they are let in to bless the newborn.There is a historical reason for this, especially when it comes to the birth of intersex people, which is partly still relevant today: if the newborn was obviously intersex, they took it in and thus averted social disregard or ridicule from the family and thus in some cases also saved the life of the newborn Child who would otherwise not infrequently have been neglected or locked away. This still happens occasionally today, so hijras also have a social function in this area.

In metropolitan Pakistan, some husbands have an extramarital relationship with a hijra, which according to some traditions is not considered adultery. The spread of very strict to extreme Islamist currents, however, leads to increased violent attacks on hijras.

The majority of the hijras in South Asia are also forced to engage in prostitution. There are no separate surveys on the HIV quota at Hijras, but in Mumbai, for example, an overall quota of at least 60 percent HIV-infected sex workers is assumed. In this area they are also threatened with the so-called "trans / gay panic" by suitors. This is an excuse used by suitors to defend their violent offenses against the police and the courts because they allegedly first mistook the hijras for women and then freaked out in anger over the "malicious deception" or apparent "perverse turn-on". This excuse is mostly accepted by the security forces and the judiciary. Hijras who want to report assaults are often threatened with ridicule and even rape by the police themselves.

But there are also small advances: Hijras appear more frequently in society and in films, some even thematize the life of Hijras. The films "Darmiyaan" and "Tamanna", for example, deal with the life of the Hijra Tikku. "Darmiyaan" tells the story of her youth and her relationship with her mother, a once successful Bollywood actress in the 1940s, and in "Tamanna" Tikku, who now works as a makeup artist in Bollywood, takes on an abandoned girl. To pay for Tamanna's upbringing, she and several hijras set up a shared apartment - and when Tamanna is kidnapped, everyone stands together and fights for the girl's liberation. In other Bollywood films, however, they appear more to the amusement of the audience and here it comes to the use of prevailing clichés. However, they are increasingly conquering other spaces. Numerous beauty pageants for hijras have been held in India in recent years and have been widely reported in the press. In some fashion shows they walked the catwalk together with normal models, whereby these events were often more about targeted shock effects by skilled marketing professionals than real anti-discriminatory intentions behind them.

Some hijras are increasingly entering the political arena. Shabnam Mausi, who entered the parliament of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, served as the figurehead. She was followed by other hijra politicians, such as Asha Devi, mayor of the medium-sized city of Gorakhpur and her counterpart Kamala Jaan in Katni. At the local level, hijras are increasingly active, not only in India - also in the other South Asian countries - but none of them have made it onto the big political stage (yet).

Even if on a small scale, Hijra activists network. National networks in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are unlikely in the near future. A South Asian merger - if it can ever be realized - will be a long time coming. Hijras receive very little support, mostly in the context of AIDS prevention programs. The cooperation in the area of ​​cooperation with some women's rights activists, some of whom accuse the hijra of giving priority to sexual exploitation, is also problematic. Many hijras simply lack access to many topics because they do not define themselves as women but as the third gender. They are not demanding better quotas for women, but rather their own quotas for themselves and also in the area of ​​those who have succumbed to it, etc. take contrary positions. Some lesbian rights activists criticize that some of the hijras view lesbian love with suspicion if they are not hostile to it even from a traditionalist male-chauvinist point of view. The situation is similar with regard to gay and transsexual discourses, although there are more points of contact. In general, it is feared by many hijra activists that they will be appropriated by certain sides for their interests and that their own separate status beyond the sexual dichotomy would be lost in the process.

For the time being, however, their peculiarity will be retained. Their obvious presence in trains and bazaars will continue to irritate those around them. They will have to continue to live with discrimination.

This post belongs to the focus: Queer South Asia.


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  • Jog, Ninad: Kotis and Giriyas.
  • Leyla: Muslim Hijras in India and Pakistan.
  • Marks, Sara: The Hijra Research Blog with lots of links to news and background information.
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  • An interesting series of photos about Hijras in Pakistan by Dennis Drenner.