The Evolving Identity of “Hijras” In India

India has recently witnessed the advent of 49-year-old Manabi Bandopadhyay, the first transgender Principal at a girl’s college in Kolkata. Since her appointment, she has been receiving several emails from students who want to study in her college, as they feel encouraged and emancipated with the audacious manner in which Bandopadhyay has embraced her sexuality.

A new life has breathed into the transgender community with the ‘6 Pack Band’ consisting of six trans-genders, with their first single – Hum Hain Happy- receiving over 1.4 million views on YouTube.

The music questions why a transgender is not respected as a man or a woman is, even though their evolving identity does make them feel secure.

In addition to all these new categorizations, the ‘Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2015’ prescribes that no child, who is born a transgender, shall be separated from his parents. This Bill is certainly out to rupture the age-old cultural tradition of condemning the third gender. Along with it, the Bill instructs the schools and universities to endow admission to trans-genders along with financial help, so that their education is not compromised.

Meanwhile, Kerala, one of the most literate and socially-empowered states of India, has set up the India’s first justice board for transgenders. It aims to provide free legal aid and work to diminish discrimination against them.

Origin of the term ‘Hijra’

The word ‘hijra’ was derived from the Persian word ‘hiz’ which denotes someone who is ‘effeminate’ or ‘disdains women’. Other Persianists believe the word came from ‘hichgah’ which means nowhere. The older name for ‘hijras’ is ‘kinnar’, which is a more formal and respectable term.

Their primary cultural definition states that they start their lives as men, albeit incomplete men. Their defining characteristics are that of clapping hands and wearing female attires. In the process, they also adopt female names and enter into a kinship with a community where they have ‘mothers’, ‘sisters’ and ‘aunty’. During the Mughal period, these emasculated men were given the role to take care of ‘harems’ or ‘sacred places for women.’

Who is a trans-gender?

Quite traditionally in India, transgenders, also called as ‘hijras’ as associated for wearing glittering sarees, face painted with heavy make-up, often found around temples or red-light stops, asking for alms. Especially in South Asia, their community dates back to 4,000 years of seclusion, isolation and abandonment.

Though, the term transgender is not clearly defined in India. Technically, it means a ‘person whose self-identity does not confirm under the unambiguous and clear-cut definitions of being a ‘male’ or ‘female’. But coming out and accepting one as a transgender is still a very painful process in India.

“Parents of transgender individuals tend to be in denial. They feel that this can’t be happening to their children. There is shame associated with the issue. They worry about what people will say or if society will accept their child,” says Hemangi Mhaprolkar, a Clinical Psychologist.

How are they isolated?

In India, transgenders do not play a pivotal role in the social, political and economic decision making of the country. The primary reason is the lack of ‘identity’ which prevents them from exercising their rights. From time to time, there are incidents of violence, harassment and unfair treatment in the areas of job opportunities, renting accommodation or even voicing their views.

They are shunned by their family and closed ones and are treated as an ‘emotional liability’. They are deprived of social and cultural participation and have restricted access of public institutions, health and education. Issues like the ‘Right to Marry’, ‘Right to contest elections or even vote’ or ‘obtaining a passport’ or filling admission forms for entry into educational institutions is deprived for them.

In addition to it, police often molests them, by asking them sexually implicit questions, touching their breasts, stripping them, and in some cases raping them. With or without counting the incidence of violence, such incidents intrude into the personal space and integrity of an individual, making them feel ‘small’ and ‘insignificant’.

Gender Identity

While ‘sex’ refers to the biological identity of being born ‘male’ or ‘female’, gender is a social construct. It basically refers to how people feel about their own identity, how they interact and behave. A person’s gender is not simply an aspect of what one is, but more fundamentally, it is something that one does, and does recurrently, in interaction with others.

Scholars believe that the term ‘woman’ is the creation of a masculine gaze. The masculine conception of women has categorized about how women should feel about themselves. British feminist Laura Mulvey in her work ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ narrates how sexual imbalance orders the world. Thus, the determining male gaze creates its fantasy onto the female figure, which is then styled accordingly.

English art critic John Berger states that ‘To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.’ Living under the tutelage of men and a limited space creates the identity of a woman.

Globalization in India and the Identity of ‘Transgender’

Being a young post-colonial country, India is trying hard to maintain its cultural traditions and yet keep pace with the changing contours of globalization. In spite of modernization and empowerment in thinking, ‘hijras’ are still not accepted by the Indian society. It is important to bring awareness regarding their identity rather than gazing at them with fear or loathe.

With Tamil Nadu getting its first transgender police officer K Prithika Yashini is a great step. The social impact of this case reveals the strength of the evolving transgender community in India, who are now more vocal about their rights and identities. And quite soon, trans-genders would be helping the Kolkata police to perform several duties.

Thus, gradually it is believed that endowing government jobs to transgenders in India would slowly help in building respect for them. It will be a really slow yet evolving process in which the changed perceptions would breathe a new life into this community.

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