Ina Goel works to demystify this complex group who are simultaneously revered, sought out, and socially marginalized.
The first thing that comes to mind while hearing the word hijra could be the many stories and folklore one has heard through generations attached to them. This rise in popular flavour has been backed by many inherent stereotypes and myths giving the hijra community a supernatural status. The construction of the hijra identity draws its inheritance of power from its strong fairy-tale inceptions, mostly resulting from the portraits of hijra characters playing significant roles in Islamic mythology and popular Hindu epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The confusion persistent towards their birth and their animated appearance yet remain ambiguous. Has it become a distant terrain for understanding or a neglected one is worth thinking? As we are well aware that the society has always marked what categories of ‘normal’ behavior should be encompassed within its boundaries and what ‘abnormalities’ have to be excluded, the hijras definitely fall within the latter.
In contemporary times, hijras are normally considered to fall under the umbrella term MSM, i.e. men-who-have-sex-with-men in scientific nomenclature. This subgroup of a larger group of MSMs has not been adequately explored primarily due to a lack of data regarding their population, their size estimation and hidden nature. It was for the first time that an attempt was made to capture official estimates of the hijra population in India in the Census of India 2011. However, many efforts are in process, still there is a considerable lack of understanding of the hijras as a community. This results from the mismatch between the normative standards of relations between the biological sex, the gendered identity and sexual orientation, as they are a complex mesh of overlaps not falling under the binary functionalist conventions of being male or being female in the stereotypical view.
Being a male is often found to be conflicting with the idea of masculinity. Masculinity however, time and again refers to the socially and culturally constructed ideas of a particular time in society of what it means to be a man. And hence, we may see sparks of hostility, animosity or on many occasions repulsiveness within us while being approached by a hijra at any particular point of time in our lives. But, would that be the correct approach to the entire phenomenon?
Being hijra, would rather be an open space that allows one to be gender variant. This also allows choosing between alterations of the bodies hormonally or surgically, or both, and not. It means having cross-gender characteristics which implies that a hijra could either be in the role of a woman or in-between being a man or a woman. It is this journey between the two sexes that establishes their animated being. However, there are many rules and regulations to be accepted in the hijra community as they have traveled time to vanguard certain idiosyncratic expressions. Acceptance into the hijra community would require one to have a guru (head) who would then acquaint the would-be hijra or his chela (follower) to the prevalent norms and traditions of the community. To pursue a guru for being accepted into the hijra community, one needs to identify any hijra to which one would like to become a chela and serve in terms of domestic assistance for a particular time period. In return of this, the guru offers social security and protection to the chela in terms of housing, clothing and food. There are many debates surrounding the nature of this symbiosis as many see this also as a euphemism for some kind of bonded labour. Nonetheless, we see how systematic and organized this community is within itself. Acceptance would result in the chela getting access to the deras  with a newly assigned name, generally in the female derivative. It is from here that a new beginning is marked assuming an altogether fresh identity that one becomes a hijra. After becoming accustomed to the hijra underworld, the chelas contribute to the household by turning shares from their earnings over to their guru.
However, it is vital to understand the intricacies of the complexities around which the lives of hijras revolve. Livelihood limitations have been a predominant reason for the hjras to look for self-employment. Due to poor or no educational background and abject discrimination faced by the ‘mainstream’ society in general, their means to earn livelihoods has been that of toli-badhai or earnings by donations made for seeking their blessings as it is a belief that they (the hijras) have denounced sexual pleasures achieving nirvana earning the power to bless or curse. The hijras are also seen dancing and performing at stag parties and many times are invited to perform at functions at homes and marriages. With the need for survival in recent times, their traditional profession of toli-badhai is dying especially with gated communities and this forces them to seek various other means of earning income including begging and sex work.
It thus becomes necessary to reflect on the living experiences of people of the hijra community as a complex and unique socio-cultural group. The interactional space established between these people and the society is constantly undergoing a process of change and it is the dialectics of this process that needs to be explored.
1. A dera is the most typical housing style of many hijra gurus similar to a traditional commune where many chelas would stay under one roof with the guru.
Originally published at www.newsyaps.com
Image courtesy: Samkit Shah
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