That’s shown by a brief history of hijra, India’s third gender…
By Adam Zivo
Some international critics of the LGBTQ community have argued that gender nonconformity is a Western invention, but that isn’t true – there are ample examples of gender divergence around the globe. Hijras are a relatively prominent example of this. Found throughout South Asia, hijras inhabit an ambiguous, occasionally mystical, space in the region’s cultural landscape. They are not exactly men or women, but neither do they neatly conform to the terms “nonbinary” or “trans,” although Western activists and commentators, as well as some South Asian LGBTQ activists, often impose those labels upon them.
To better understand the hijra world, I interviewed a Toronto-based hijra, Tanveer, who spoke at length about their experiences and complicated relationship to the hijra identity. While hijras can be found throughout most of South Asia, Tanveer is Bangladeshi and so this article is focused on Bangladesh.
Hijras live highly distinct lives that are defined by far more than just gender nonconformity. Hijras typically live together in quasi-families under the leadership of a hijra guru. They rely on one another to survive in a culture that scorns them, and, owing to their widespread illiteracy, typically turn to begging and sex work for income.
Despite their economic marginalization, many hijras find their lifestyle liberating – they are their own bosses, so their poverty comes with a great degree of freedom. For this reason, employment programs sometimes find it difficult to support hijras, who are resistant to regimentation in the formal economy.
Many queer Bangladeshis become hijras because no alternatives exist for them. Owing to virulent cultural prejudice, gay and trans Bangladeshi youth are often kicked out of their homes and seek out hijra communes for a sense of belonging and protection. However, this support comes with a price. Gurus are often exploitative and keep their communes’ earnings for themselves.
While hijra communities are technically open to people of all gender identities and orientations, most hijras are effeminate queer men or bisexuals. However, hijra culture aggressively pressures members to perform hyper-femininity, sometimes to the point of physical self-alteration. That can mean pressure to get surgeries and hormones and, in some cases, ritualized and unsafe castration.
Though most new hijras are already queer in some sense, this isn’t always the case. Mature hijras often patrol train stations in search of runaway children to recruit. These children are then told that they are hijras, regardless of their actual orientation or gender identity.
Imposing femininity on an individual under the threat of group ostracization or expulsion is inappropriate, much in the same way it is inappropriate for biological families or others to impose masculinity under the threat of disownment. Generally speaking, it is best to let people adopt whatever gender expressions feel most natural to them, and while hijra communities can carve out space for some people to be their genuine selves, they can also lock others into gender inauthenticity.
Given all of these factors, hijra communities have a complicated moral status. Though they are a distinct and rich subculture that provides vital support to the marginalized, they are also slightly predatory, economically exploitative, and can inappropriately force feminization on cisgendered members.
In 2013, Bangladesh legalized the hijra identity and recognized it as a third gender – though homosexuality remains criminalized. Hijras also now benefit from affirmative action policies that carve out professional opportunities for them in the public sector. However, this does not mean that hijras are seen as legitimate members of Bangladeshi society. The government accepts hijras because it considers them to be sexually disabled. Relatedly, it uses a narrow definition of “hijra” that relies on genitals for legitimacy.
Legally speaking, one is considered a hijra in Bangladesh only if they do not have male genitalia. Official recognition as a hijra typically involves medically invasive checkups at government hospitals. Hijras who have not medically transitioned are excluded from government support systems, despite being vulnerable to social scorn. Hijras receive some assistance from international organizations, but this assistance is typically provided through the lens of HIV reduction, because hijras are so intimately connected with sex work. As a result, international aid is more focused on the symptoms of stigma (STIs in the context of sex work) than its underlying causes (prejudice against gender nonconformity).
In precolonial times, hijras were respected in South Asia. They were considered wise eunuchs and were given influential positions as political advisors and guardians of harems. They were also considered somewhat divine. Interestingly enough, though, these historical perceptions utilize many of the assumptions that are still made about hijras today – for example, desexualization and mystification at the expense of normalcy and equality.
Once European colonial influences seeped into the region, hijras were rebranded as perverts and deviants.
Hijras, activism and Western labels
The term “hijra” is highly stigmatized in Bangladesh and is akin to the word “faggot.” As a result, many Bangladeshi activists consider the term to be a slur and are reluctant to use it, either for themselves or for others. As an alternative, they push for the adoption of Western terminology, such as “trans” and “nonbinary,” which lacks the toxic cultural baggage of “hijra.”
However, this Westernization of local language can be pernicious. As hijras are so profoundly marginalized, they rarely have the social and economic clout to engage in organized activism. As a result, Bangladeshi LGBTQ activist circles have scant hijra representation. Most of Bangladesh’s LGBTQ activists are highly educated and come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Their socioeconomic privilege grants them the protection needed to advocate for change in a hostile environment. In the face of criminalization, activism persists underground, and yet, because it must be shielded by money and education, it is available only to the monied and educated.
This association with wealth is problematic because wealth begets a yearning for cosmopolitanism and respectability – privileged LGBTQ Bangladeshis want to simultaneously escape their culture and be embraced by it. On one hand, they want to be seen as legitimate in Bangladesh, which means building up an aura of respectability that is, at this time, simply incompatible with the stigma surrounding hijra culture. They fear being associated with hijras like a hypochondriac fears mud. Yet, at the same time, they want to flee the parochial confines of Bangladeshi culture, which, in practice, means emulating Western values.
The resulting power dynamic is strange. Middle-class activists vigorously debate about the language used to describe impoverished hijras who are conspicuously absent from conversations concerning their own well-being. They want to protect hijras, because doing so is necessary within the larger fight for LGBTQ rights – yet at the same time they are embarrassed by them and want to obscure their identity using a Western linguistic framework that hijras are not familiar with.
Perhaps the closest Western analogue to this would be well-off homosexuals debating about what label would be most respectable for trans sex workers, without actually inviting trans voices to chime in with their own perspectives. Yet this comparison is not entirely apt, because, at this moment, trans people have the capacity to advocate for themselves and so inviting them to speak is feasible. For Bangladeshi activists, what are the alternatives to the status quo? Unfortunately, some hijras genuinely lack the capacity to forcefully advocate for themselves, which thus consigns them to being paternalistically represented by outsiders who see them as inferiors.
On the other hand, the push to adopt Western terminology has inspired fierce pushback from some hijra groups, who have taken offence to what they see as attempts to erase their culture and community. Some hijras have gone so far as to threaten the lives of Bangladeshi trans activists who advocate for Western labels. However, Western language continues to filter into Bangladeshi queer life due to widespread use of the internet, which diffuses ideas from across the globe.
Some hijras manage to climb out of poverty and attain education and formal employment. However, fearing stigma, these individuals often choose to shed the term “hijra” and instead self-identify as trans. This is understandable – overcoming social barriers is exhausting and no one should be begrudged for wanting peace for themselves. However, this further complicates the debate around the term “hijra.” Yes, some hijras shy away rom the term, yet, at the same time, they represent a well-off faction of their own community and it’s unclear whether their preferences should be imposed upon other community members who remain marginalized and find the term “hijra” integral to their sense of self.
Tanveer, the hijra I interviewed for this story, says, “Hijras are not on any NGO [non-governmental organization] boards and are only beneficiaries of aid, not administrators. On one hand, they want to use the thin layer of legality associated with the label ‘hijra’ so they can get ahead. Sometimes, people who are gay or lesbian do queer activism under the jargon of helping hijra people, but none of them want to call themselves hijra. On the whole, the hijras cannot speak for themselves.”
Tanveer (pictured above in the article header), who uses they/them pronouns, is an acquaintance of mine and one of the few people in Toronto who self-identifies as a hijra. Growing up in Bangladesh, Tanveer was often called a hijra by their homophobic father. Sometimes these slurs would come with beatings. As a teenager, Tanveer tried to run away from home. They had heard on TV that there were hijras in a nearby city, and so they went to the train station in the hope of connecting with other people like them. They boarded a train to go to the other city, but their father found them before the train left and forced them to return home.
Tanveer recently decided to start calling themselves a hijra – yet that choice is controversial to some. Hijras in Bangladesh are unlikely to recognize Tanveer as one of their own, because Tanveer, though gender-nonconforming, does not have a history of living among hijras and participating in the hijra lifestyle. More Westernized Bangladeshi LGBTQ activists may also reject Tanveer because these activists consider the term “hijra” to be highly regional and inapplicable to someone living in Canada, even if that person is Bangladeshi. Even Tanveer’s mother is unsupportive, given the term’s stigma, and prefers that they use the term “nonbinary” instead.
Yet hijra is the identity that Tanveer is most comfortable with because it honours their cultural background in a way that terms like “trans” and “nonbinary” do not. For Tanveer, to self-identify as a hijra is a way of reclaiming cultural heritage and reconnecting to an exiled homeland. At the same time, it is precisely Tanveer’s distance from Bangladesh that makes this reclamation comfortable, because self-identifying as a hijra in Canada comes with few social costs – most people have no idea what a hijra is.
Sometimes Tanveer feels that they shouldn’t self-identify as a hijra, and yet, when these feelings percolate, they wonder what their life would have been like had they been born into a lower socioeconomic class or if their father hadn’t stopped them from running away. In either case, it is likely that Tanveer would be a full-fledged hijra today. If Tanveer was called a hijra by their father and could have very easily become a hijra in another life, why, then, should they be entirely cut off from the hijra identity? The heritage Tanveer hopes to claim is one of a life that was almost lived – a life that continues to reside within them in some way to this very day.
ADAM ZIVO is IN Magazine’s politics and culture columnist. He is a Toronto-based social entrepreneur, photographer and analyst best known for founding the LoveisLoveisLove campaign.
That’s shown by a brief history of hijra, India’s third gender…