Academic journal article Knowledge Cultures

Education for the Hijras: Transgender Persons of India

Academic journal article Knowledge Cultures

Education for the Hijras: Transgender Persons of India

Article excerpt


The term transgender (TG) is an 'umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to their biological sex' (SC Judgment, 2014), which includes emasculated or castrated men, non-emasculated men, and inter-sexed persons or hermaphrodites. Numbering around 490,000 in India, they are commonly known as hijras who are 'biological males who reject their "masculine" identity in due course of time to identify either as women, or "not-men", or "in-between man and woman", or "neither man nor woman'" (SC Judgment, 2014, pp. 47-48). On its part, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 (TPR Bill, 2016) defines a transgender person as one who is 'neither wholly female nor wholly male; or a combination of female or male; or neither female nor male; and whose sense of gender does not match with the gender assigned to that person at the time of birth, and includes trans-men and trans-women, persons with intersex variations and gender-queers' (p. 2). This article uses the term hijra and transgender persons interchangeably.

The traditional occupation of hijras in India has been to dance and sing, with or without invitation, at homes where a baby has been born (usually births of male babies) or where a wedding has taken place. Hijras who perform this traditional role, involving 'conferral of blessings' (Reddy, 2010, p. 56), are known as badhai hijras, with badhai referring to 'their payment for these services' (Reddy, 2010, p. 56). As Bearak (2016) observes: 'They are an undeniable part of the country's social landscape and enjoy high visibility, with most Indians encountering them regularly while going about their lives.' Nanda (1999) vividly portrays below a scene of how hijras conforming to their traditional role turn up on auspicious occasions, 'the sound of clapping, drumming, and ankle bells announced that the hijras were arriving. Tossing their spangled scarves, flashing their heavy jewelry, and carrying with them the dholak, the two-sided drum that accompanies all of their performances, the group stood in the small courtyard in front of the house where Ram [the name of a male child] had been born' (p. 1).

In other words, celebrating auspicious functions is a major feature of hijras' relationship with the mainstream society of which they are largely an alienated and marginalized segment on account of their identity that does not conform to the binary notion of gender--male or female. Of late, hijras have been known to resort to prostitution (Patidar, 2011) and begging for a living. The roots of their social alienation are traceable to the colonial period in India when the British government enacted the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, classifying certain tribes and communities, including hijras, as criminal, considered to be 'addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences' (Brown, 2014, p. 12). The Act was repealed by the independent India in 1952 since it was repugnant to the spirit of the Indian constitution, viz., equality before the law.

Hijras are believed to have had a respectable social status in the pre-colonial period. Anecdotes and stories related to their roles figure in Indian mythological and religious texts (Kalra, 2012). For instance, in South India, they are believed to have originated from Aravan, a son of a warrior called Arjun. Lord Krishna, a male deity, is said to have assumed a female form to fulfil Aravan's wish to get married as a precondition for his sacrifice to Goddess Kali for the victory of a clan called Pandavas in the Kurukshetra War (Reddy, 2005). Further, in the medieval India, hijras were known for protecting harems during the Mughal rule (Verma, 2014).

Presently, the social status of hijras exhibits contradictions--though revered by society in general owing to the supposed power of their blessings, they reportedly face discrimination in public places and experience harassment at the hands of the police in public places, with implications for their access to employment, education, and health facilities. …

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