India’s Third Gender Balances Acceptance and Religious Identity

The Marathi, the chelas and the gurus.

Hijras Faulan, Savitri, Sandhya and Suraya reside in a communal house in Ahmedabad. Hijras are individuals who are considered transexual, transgender or a eunuch.

AHMEDABAD—Tucked away in a maze of houses in the Gomtipur ghetto is a dusty pink house with a rust colored door. This is the home of Shobha, Shilpa and Joya, members of a small hijra community in the city. The Hijra community has existed for centuries, performing their ancestral rituals and ceremonies across Ahmedabad and India. Unrecognized, this third gender caste has lived on the outskirts of cities, sustaining themselves through their devotion to all faiths. With their recent acceptance as India’s third gender, many hijras are speaking out against change.

On April 16th, 2014, the Delhi Supreme Court recognized a third gender in India, declaring that both the transgender and hijra communities were officially recognized by the state. Activists heralded the change in legal status as a significant step forward for the transgender and hijras communities. The Rights of Transgender Person Bill passed last April was pushed by Vivek Gupta, a member of the All India Trinamool Congress who declared, “These people should be indicated, so that they can get an identity and be counted.”

Shilpa and Joya are two hijra brothers in Ahmedabad.

Hijras Shilpa and Joya live with three other hijras in a small ghetto in Ahmedabad. Hijras believe they are incarnations of the divine and act as religious figures in all faiths.

“Hijras are resistant to all categories,” says Professor Katherine Ewing, Director of Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Sexuality. “There is not a real orthodoxy in this community but rather a local inheritance of practices. The community was at first created because it was seen as a threat to everyday gendered order.”

Though representatives from Ahmedabad’s hijra community agree this bill is a significant step forward, hijras are reluctant to place their confidence in the Indian government. After years of discrimination, the hijras have found sanctuary as a reclusive religious community under the umbrella of many faiths. Despite gaining legal recognition, they fear this new category will prevent them from freely practicing pluralistic religion, both in India and abroad.

A hijra is an individual who is considered a eunuch, intersex, or transgender, and has chosen to live among other hijras in closed, private communities. Hijras have no equivalent in the Western world. According to Shobha, hijras are seen as “children of God”, or physical incarnations of the divine.

Joya holds a dolak which was passed on from one hijra to another in Ahmedabad.

Hijras perform at birth, death and marriage ceremonies. Joya holds a dolak, an instrument often played during these rituals.

The Goddess Bahuchar “is like our mother,” says Shilpa, one of the chelas or students of Shobha. “She gave us this form. We are well-known due to her grace. We are everything just because of her.”

Yet, as Shobha explains, prejudice has been a hurdle for all hijras since birth. “From childhood, I realized that I will not be able to live in society,” says Shobha. “We lose our respect, so it is better to come to our own community. Therefore, I have been here since I was 14-years-old.”

Shobha lounges on a flatbed by the front door, wrapped in a colorful sari, occasionally pausing to spit paan, a tobacco-like substance, into a small silver pot. She presides over the house, sitting crossed-legged. Though she identifies as both male and female, she was born a hermaphrodite. Rather than staying with her parents, she chose to leave as she felt she was “a burden.” As Shobha tells her story, Joya, a younger hijra, nods her head. Also born a hermaphrodite, Joya was given to the hijra community by her parents.

“Even our parents do not accept us because they feel that we will be a disgrace for them. When they throw us out, what could we do for earnings?” says Joya. Without the sanctuary of Shobha’s house, she doubts that she would have been able to survive or find acceptance.

Increased discrimination towards hijras in the recent decades has left the community stigmatized as a lower caste. “It then became a vicious circle,” explains Professor Katherine Ewing. “With no education or jobs, many hijras were forced to turn to sex work – an antithetical behavior to their ascetic way of life.”

Shobha's guru in Ahmedabad.

Shobha’s guru sits in the doorway of the hijras home in Ahmedabad. Each hijras community has a guru at the head of the household.

Believed by many within the community to hold the ability to bless or curse, hijras have sustained themselves by performing rituals at birth, marriage and death ceremonies. As hijras do not identify with a single faith, they perform for families of various religious backgrounds. They join these celebrations to sing devotional songs, dance, play the dholak (drum) and offer badhai (blessings) as part of a ritual.

“This is called hospitality,” said Shilpa, “The only thing that matters to us is the happiness of all people. And [people] give us money according to their wishes.”

Despite their significance in the Hindu faith, hijras maintain that they are equally important in all faiths-based communities.

The importance of embracing differing faiths within the hijra community is evident a few blocks from Shobha’s home. Suraya, Savitri, Sandhya and Faulan Gauri Chappan Nayak live in another house passed on from one Hijra guru to another since the Mughal era. The three hijras consider themselves as the original hijras of Ahmedabad. Their community serves as a hub for the local neighborhood, with their daily prayers being interrupted by a stream of young girls coming to the house to complete their homework.

“We possess the minds of both male and female,” says Faulan, “We tend to have have more wisdom. We don’t discriminate between religions.”

Savitri, 90, is guru of the 'original' hijra community in Ahmedabad.

Savitri is guru of a neighboring hijras community in Ahmedabad. This particular community claims to be the first hijras community in the city.

Faulan, who is originally Muslim, studied both Islam and Hinduism under her Hindu guru, Sandhya. In fact, hijras are also regarded as religious figures in Islam, where they are referred to as “khwaja sara.”

Each of the hijras in Faulan and Shobha’s homes have travelled for religious pilgrimage of all faiths across India to sites such as the Bahuchara Temple in Gujarat or Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan. However, the hijras fear that the new law will create unforeseen obstacles for those looking to go abroad on religious pilgrimages.

In 2009, Shilpa went to Mecca to perform Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, one of the five pillars in Islam. As the Indian government had not yet recognized hijras as a third gender, she had to travel under the male name of Abdul Jabbar.

“The government here has accepted and recognized us as transgender,” says Shilpa, “But, we will not be accepted as transgender there (Saudi Arabia) as it is an Islamic country. So we went there as males. We got our passports, cut our hair, kept light mustaches and wore caps. We did all of these things to visit.”

Shilpa expressed concerns that her guru will not be able to go to the Muslim sanctuary now that the Transgender Bill recognizes the third gender. If hijras like Shilpa or Joya choose to take advantage of their new legal identity, they too will be unable to travel freely for Hajj.

When the Transgender Bill was passed last year, many promises were made. One of the major changes proposed by the government was to include a third column for transgenders in all administrative paperwork within six months of the bill’s passing.

“Their [the hijras’] existence has to be given a legal recognition. Instead of listing them as ‘other’ we need to have female, male and transgender in all the forms that we have to fill,” said businesswomen and social worker Anu Aga on the day of the voting last March.

Almost a year after the Supreme Court decision, Kiran Tirkey, a transgender representative for Naz Foundation, believes that the rehabilitation promised to the hijra and transgender communities is yet to be seen. In fact, India’s third gender population still struggles to find jobs.

Savitri, Sandhya and Faulan are brothers and gurus in the same hijras community.

Savitri, Sandhya and Faulan are brothers and gurus in the same hijras community.

“Although the six months have passed, the law has not been applied. Because you can see in government sector that although [job] vacancies are coming, but there is no column [on applications] for third gender,” says Kiran, who identifies as a transgender, and not a hijra.

The Reserve Bank of India, for example, was recently required to add the aforementioned third column in its forms and applications. However, the government promises do not yet reflect the reality of the community. Until these regulations become fully enforced, the hijra community will continue to look inwards for both social and religious sanctuary.

“People don’t accept us, we are what we are,” says Shobha. “We do not want to lose our history. We are, and will remain, hijras.”

* Translation provided by Maulikkumar Vikrambhai Patel

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