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Hijras in Southern New Dehli / Photo: rahuldlucca

For the uninitiated, the first encounter with a hijra can be quite intimidating.

THE FIRST TIME I heard the hand claps, I didn’t know what was coming.

Already, the train journey from Chennai to Kolkata was proving to be a challenging one. As we were getting nearer to one of the poorest areas in India, there was a constant procession of beggars. We were four westerners and too many Indian men sitting together in a regular sleeper-class train compartment.

At every stop, children, men, and women dressed in rags and despair would offer food, goods, or entertainment in the hopes of making a few rupees. Their eyes robbed me of any ease I might be feeling about being there and owning what I own.

Still, the most disturbing encounters were yet to come.

The hijras – eunuchs, transsexuals, or transgender men – announced themselves by clapping their hands and making a racket. When they arrived to our compartment, they stood in all their weight and flamboyance, requiring money before allowing us to continue quietly with our travels.

Fear and Intimidation

The first group that came around did not insist much and were relatively easy to ignore, but the next one proved to be a more experienced and robust couple of go-getters. They quickly selected a sweet-looking Indian man in his late twenties as their victim, and baptized him ‘Uncle’ for the occasion.

Photo: Pladys

The bigger of the two hijras got close to him and began to spurt, in an unpleasant tone of voice, what sounded like obscenities in Hindi. Sweet ‘Uncle’ blushed profusely and said nothing.

No one said anything, but everyone was staring. None of the other Indians looked like they wanted to fight this man’s battle. The New-Zealand woman sitting in front of me could not hide the disdain, disbelief and pure horror from her face as the situation escalated.

For myself, I thought it was not a time to appear impressed. Luckily, I had read William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, in which he tells the stories of a few hijras in Delhi. I knew of their existence, but I did not know they carried out their business in trains, and it was unclear just how far they were willing to go for the money.

As the sweet Indian man was not surrendering any rupees, the big hijra stepped in front of him, lifted his own sari a few times and proceeded to dangle and swing what was left of his “manhood” nearly into the face of the victim. More vulgar sounds ensued and the hijra then bent over to whisper into the man’s ear before slapping him repeatedly on the cheeks.

The intimidation culminated with the two hijras assaulting him, grabbing his wallet and self-serving themselves with the money.

They cursed and left, saying something that might have meant “What is the world coming to, seriously!” It would have made a good scene in a Pedro Almodovar or David Lynch movie – depending on your perspective.

The woman from New Zealand looked like she wanted to call the police or did not understand why security wasn’t there already. Perhaps it was her first day in India. My friend sitting between me and the victim looked on with a stare that had lost some innocence. I figured we were coming out of it all the more learned about the world.

Outside the Norm

Hijras are often referred to as members of the ‘3rd gender’ in India. They themselves will describe their sexual identity as being neither male nor female. Many have undergone castration, or are otherwise of ambiguous sexual status.

Hijras are often referred to as members of the ‘3rd gender’ in India. They are marginalized and largely left to their own devices to sustain themselves.

They are usually rejected for what they are and the way they live. Still, they are tolerated when they show up uninvited at special ceremonies such as births and weddings where they cash in for performing dances and blessings.

Avoiding confrontation and the curse of the hijras seems to be the priority for Indians in such circumstances.

In any case, they are marginalized and largely left to their own devices to sustain themselves – which include prostitution, dancing, singing and sexual embarrassments of various kinds.

It was not always as such for the hijras. Their presence is recorded far back into India’s history. During the time of the Muslim rule before the British, the hijras had a place at court and were generally valued by society. They did not have to resort as much to the sometimes vulgar means of survival they lend themselves to today.

Yet, as a result of their marginalization, a closely-knit subculture has evolved, and in recent years hijras are slowly emerging on the national stage, standing up for their rights.

No Surrender

A few more groups of hijras came along the train before we reached our final destination, but none were as ferocious as the first group.

One hijra touched my face at some point so as to provoke me. But without looking at him I simply raised my fist slowly and slightly.

He left without insisting.

I was later told that it was a very bad idea to take on a hijra as they are notoriously aggressive and can come back with reinforcement. Was this simply prejudice or wise advice from a kind Indian man? I was perhaps lucky to not have found out.

What do you think about the hijras approach? Share your thoughts below.

Community Connection

See the beauty that India has to offer in photographer Allison Grossman’s photo essay Window on India. There’s also good reasons to visit India in the summer, as Mariellen Ward outlines in Indian Summer: 11 Reasons to Visit India in the Summertime.

Culture + Religion


 

About The Author

Jean-Francois Gervais

Jean-Francois is currently living in Montreal and planning another trip to Asia for 2010.

  • http://musictravelwrite.wordpress.com Michelle

    Wow…I honestly knew nothing about this. Fascinating article!

  • Brandon

    I think it’s disgusting that they prey upon a person’s natural instinct to avoid conflict.

  • http://www.julianehuang.com Juliane

    Echoing Michelle– truly fascinating article. I’m conflicted in how I feel about hiras and how confrontational they were in your encounter. It’s definitely given me a lot to think about. Great article, thanks for sharing.

  • Jean-Francois

    Thanks for the comments :) If we look at it from the other side, the hijras are also on the receiving end of violence and ridicule and given that they are evolving in a country as intense as India, their tactics can be somewhat understandable. They’re not all necessarily unfriendly but from what I have read and heard along with my own encounters with them, they are an intimidating group.

  • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

    Wow, I’d never heard of hijras either. Thanks for this.

  • http://paudecanela.net/kiwivera vmcalves

    What a fascinating story. I had never heard of the hijras but you’ve made me want to go and read more about them. Thanks for sharing. :)

  • christine

    I have a couple of friends who grew up in India, and the point of view that I’ve heard from them was quite the opposite of intimidation. Though I didn’t know the name “hijra,” they told me that at every wedding, these transsexual men would show up and dance, and they would always have a good time with them (maybe this was the view from a child’s eye?).

    And, to shed a little bit more light from the perspective of the hijra, they are often taken from their families (or given by them) at a very young age because of their differences, and are not allowed to grow up around “normal” people. In some ways, it reminds me of the women (and girls) widowed in India who are grouped away from the rest of society, and made to beg in order to survive.

  • Vianne

    I would like to point out, firstly, that the title of this article should be corrected. Hijras were correctly identified as a 3rd gender within the article however–yay for you! “Gender” is not interchangeable with “sex”. Sex is the biology construction of having male, female, or ambiguous genitalia whereas gender is a cultural construct that denotes the societal obligations, roles, and behaviors of being a man or woman or neither etc. I found your article very interesting, especially the way you noted the many different points of view regarding the Hijras. They are somewhat of a paradox– shamed and obnoxious male prostitutes and sacred devotees of Bahuchara Mata. Holy and yet unholy. As an anthropology student, the Hijras are an interesting case study of the third gender, because it has existed for so long in South Asia. Many Native American groups also had third gender roles (usually a religious or spiritual role) but they have all but disappeared. If you want to read a really good ethnography on the Hijras, check out Neither Man nor Woman by Serena Nanda. She spent several several years researching and getting to know the Hijras of India. She mostly talks about the paradoxes of the Hijras, their roles, and their identities–how they view themselves and how the rest of India does. Check it out! Really like that you decided to write about the Hijras and how you handled it!

    • Lauren

      These are all very interesting comments and opinions. It is important to note that during the 20th century, under the British Raj empire, the Hijras and Eunuch communities became condemned for their cultural and religious practices which granted them certain privileges within South Indian societies. Under the British colonial rule they were deemed unholy and further oppressed through their sex/gender binary system (male vs. female). It was through such Acts implemented by the British that these people were to become India’s newest members to the caste system. Although South India is no longer ruled by the British, these ideologies have long prevailed, leaving a legacy that has devastated the Hijra communities.

      • Yavsrajesh

        Its Pathetic that You are all sympathizing with this Abusive community called hijras. these hijras are terroririzing the common middle class man and you are sympathizing with those anti social elements!!!

  • Jean-Francois

    Again, thanks for the comments, it is quite interesting for me to read them.

    Christine : I am not surprised that some people will get along well with them nor did I mean to imply the contrary in the article. In my personal experience, none of the other Indians present wanted to interact with them – then again, the context was probably quite different than what your friends experienced.

    I think interacting with transsexuals, transgender men and woman or even homosexuals is not something most people in Western countries are entirely comfortable with as well.

    Vianne : Thank you for these precisions and the book suggestion. I will see what can be done about the title.

  • Joey

    great article. extremely interesting. i’ve heard of the hijras before and saw them featured in travel shows on discovery channel (but they were just part of the feature… not exclusively about them) … its quite a paradox that they’re welcomed in wedding and birthday celebrations and yet they resort to such rash tactics to survive.

    fascinating. it just goes to show you how complex Indian society is.

  • http://rajatghosh.com rajat

    am yet to meet a hijra who if told nicely” I cant pay today, cause I don’t want to ”
    they never bother one, but then exceptions are always there.

  • http://www.findingtheg-spot.com Jean-Francois

    Again, thanks for the comments, it is quite interesting for me to read them.

    Christine : I am not surprised that some people will get along well with them nor did I mean to imply the contrary in the article. In my personal experience, none of the other Indians present wanted to interact with them – then again, the context was probably quite different than what your friends experienced.

    I think interacting with transsexuals, transgender men and woman or even homosexuals is not something most people in Western countries are entirely comfortable with as well.

    Vianne : Thank you for these precisions and the book suggestion. I will see what can be done about the title.
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

  • http://stacysquires.com Aaron

    What a mesmerizing story, this is the first time I have heard of the hijras, I have learnt something new today thanks for sharing

  • http://therecessends.com/ Austin Chu

    wild. truly opened my eyes.

  • N

    The first time I saw a hijra was in Deepa Mehta’s fascinating film Water. Lots of stuff to ponder in that film, lots of dangerous controversy while filming (the production was shut down because of riots from the fundamentalist population). Unfortunately, the hijra character isn’t too likeable here either. But it’s a great film, you should see it!

  • http://nodebtworldtravel.com brian from nodebtworldtravel.com

    That is a mugging, plain and simple. I don’t care how oppressed they are or their life circumstances.

    I would have never known about this. Thanks for the article!

  • http://pulkitvasudha.com/volatyle Pulkit

    I grew up in India, and have had many encounters with hijras. It’s true that hijras only harass men.. it’s also true that hijras harass, quite frequently. They’re far more aggressive than beggars, because really, they don’t beg, they mostly demand money. I have never seen them mug anyone, probably because I’ve always seen men get intimidated and give them a handsome amount of money (at least 10 times more than they’d give a beggar).

    I have also done a meager amount of research on their living conditions as a journalist. They have a very strong subculture, and they often live beyond the boundaries of the city/town. Whenever they hear of a birth, or wedding, they arrive in groups to sing and dance and are given money by the family. They’re detested in the society, they can’t work in regular jobs, there are few opportunities to earn respectably. They’re forced to do what they do to feed themselves, yet, I can’t convince myself that their aggression is justified.

    It’s very disturbing.

    • Raj

      Most of the Hijras are not of Biological 3rd Gender and Gays live normal life like any Heterosexual Man. If Homosexuality is to be considered as the cause for someone turning into Hijras, then why we dont see Lesbian women doing the same? Hijras are growing in number due to Laziess of certain unlawful elements

  • http://www.rajatghosh.com rajat ghosh

    yes they are agressive , but are kind, n they resort to intimidation as a business practice to get more money as we all try to earn money, n they are no different.
    R

  • fks

    Hijras are the most detestable among the beggar gangs which torment travellers in India. It is not true that they harass only men — women, especially white or fair skinned women dressed in western clothing are also their regular targets. I should know, since I have had to deal with them more than once. At present the Koramangala area of Bangalore has become regular haunt of eunuchs, each one aggressively demanding money from motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike, and threatening their victims with dire consequences of the sexual kind if they refuse. And all this under the very nose of the policemen too! Because of that, walking in that area has become a positively frightening experience, even in the daytime.

    Really, there is no excuse for their behaviour. If they are marginalised by society, it is because they present themselves as uber-sexualised caricatures of femininity, and that too in a society where women are expected to, and do go to some lengths to present themselves as conservatively as possible. Even heterosexuals would be banned from work-places and social events if they behaved as the hijras do. Hijras are also known to indulge in baby-snatching. In fact, one of the reasons why are they are paid off when they turn up to celebrate births is because traditionally, they would demand to check the gender of the baby, and if was transsexual, they would take the baby away with them, to live out its life as a hijra. Overall a disgusting lot, and given the corrupt state of Indian state and society, nothing can be done about them either.

    of strangers,

    • Raj

      Well Said!!! I am so happy that there is someone who wishes to put an end to the hijra menace. Its a fast growing Industry. 15/16 years back they were not encountered as frequently in South of India. Mumbai was the only place where they had considerable presence. Over the past few years, they have become more aggressive and more in Number.Andhra Pradesh and TamilNadu have the highest number of Hijras.
      And They arent Gays, they live as gays

  • http://theartofindecision.blogspot.com shakester

    As an Indian having grown up in Delhi, I’ve seen hijras all the time. As a kid, I was always more than alittel afraid of them. They were the ‘unknown’ and certainly the unpredictable, and never failed to make me nervous with their presence- which, admittedl;y is almost always a very aggressive one.

    Needless to say, their status in Indian society is non-existent. At best (and worst) they are heckled and looked down upon or shunned; most of us are disgusted by them and I won’t claim otherwise. Their physical demeanour (and physicality), combined with very in-your-face, crass, intimidating behaviour makes me recoil (at least mentally); while my scarcely hidden disgust feeds their aggression. Its a vicious cycle, alright.

    At some point I lost that childhood fear. It was replaced by a studied indifference and desire to not give in to their demands. Which brings me to their presence at Indian weddings (especially in the north of India, this is almost a given). In all the weddings I have been a part of, I have never seen their dancing ‘enjoyed’ by the wedding party, their visit is purely to extract money (often absurdly large amounts) under the guise of ‘blessings’. After the occassional bout of resistance by some indignant member of the wedding household, these demands are usually given in to, all that remains is the negotiation for the amount. Its mostly because nobody wants conflict and melodrama at a happy occassion like a wedding.

  • Gary

    I am agree that they are aggressive, but I heard that most of the hijras which u find in trains are not real hijras, originally hijras are nice people, they worship Bahuchar mata and even they stand in elections because of their popularity in their area. Most hijra beggers in trains are poor men who just wear clothes like hijra to earn money.

  • CDJ

    The way the Hijras behave is a direct result of the way they have been treated (or mistreated) by Indian society and their communities. They did not decide to become outcasts or to have to resort to begging in order to survive. If people in India find the Hijras’ behavior distasteful, perhaps they should consider the roots of that behavior which starts with the prejudices of the community itself. The Hijras are personifications of someone’s bad karma.

    As a Westerner, I would like to add that Westerners should refrain form making arbitrary judgments about people in other cultures based on their own biases, particular since most Americans/Europeans know very little about India and the history and culture of its people.

    If you’ve ever had the occasion to meet and actual Hijra (not a beggar in drag, but an real Hijra), what you’d find is a person not so unlike yourself doing the best they can to survive with what the world has given them.

  • http://www.expatheather.com Heather Carreiro

    Love your opening sentence. I lived in Lahore for three years and hijras are a common sight in Pakistan as well. My husband would get really upset as the begging hijras would often try to grab us or touch us as we walked by.

    Sometimes we saw a lone hijra quietly leaving through a locked gate of a posh house in the Defence suburb.

    If anyone wants to know more about hijra life, I recommend Louise Brown’s “The Dancing Girls of Lahore.” She spent quite a bit of time living in Lahore’s red light district, and as a foreigner she was able to befriend some in the hijra community as well.

  • http://google.com radhakrishna

    Reason for becoming Hijra
    Owing to the intolerance they face from their families, Hijras and kothis often use public spaces like parks and toilets to entertain sexual partners, lovers and sometimes even clients. The lack of protection or privacy afforded by their own accommodation makes them vulnerable to violence, inflicted largely by the police.

  • MEYHAR

    Dear friends; am going to prepare a documentary on Hijra very soon. if any one interested for this please mail me your complete folio at studiopineapple9@gmail.com

    looking forward to seeing you…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Moni-Milon/100002816816934 Moni Milon

    honesly like a friendship

  • Third Gender

    alwyas feel…..

  • Pinkusingh

    hi koe hijra kolkta me hi mujhe sex kerna hi ek baar plz call me 9748035426

  • caissg

    What we need is an honest and open discussion about the truth and the third gender. We need equal rights for all and laws can only be passed if we speak the truth. 

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