The transgender community is a group of humans that defy a bunch of standards, norms and expectations of society, but are often looked upon as disturbers of these norms. They are perceived as an insignificant minority group, with complex needs, that require a lot of attention for issues that are hard to understand for people who can’t relate. As with many things, these negative feelings towards something we don’t understand comes from a lack of (correct) information in the first place, and perhaps even a lack of mental flexibility from the side of the majority.
In the previous article of this series an explanation was given for the most common terminology on this subject, such as the difference between gender identity and expression, cisgender and genderqueer, the gender spectrum and sexual orientation. If these concepts are still a bit confusing, go have a look at them here.
Hijra is the name of the people living in the India-Pakistan-Bangladeshi area, who are born male or intersex and adopt a female gender identity and expression. Or more poetically: men who are born with the souls of women. A proper translation of the term to English doesn’t exist, and matters complicate right there. Labels such as hermaphrodite, eunuch, transsexual and transgender are thrown around, most often completely missing the point. Transgender can be used as an umbrella-term for anything that doesn’t fit in the binary box, but most often it refers to people being born in the wrong body who want to switch to the other option. But in fact, this is a definition too narrow to encompass the Hijra experience. Physical transitions have nothing to do with their identity. Surgery or hormones are not a requirement to “pass” as Hijra. So they prefer to be referred to as ‘third gender’, which allows for less strict definitions and the possibility to be a whole range of identities.
The Hijra identity is one that has existed for centuries, which can be hard to imagine when it seems such a sign of the times that ‘transgenders’ pop up everywhere. What’s important to keep in mind is how the projection of the western view on their culture has affected them. During the Mughal Empire, which took place between roughly 1500 and 1750, Hijras were valued immensely and held a semi-sacred status. They served the courts as servants of female royalty, as guards of the royal harem, or even as royal messengers. They were valued for their strength and trustworthiness; they didn’t pose a threat to the women, yet they were able to protect them from harm. In the hierarchy of servants they were often installed as chiefs, called the “Khwaja Sara” (guards of the harem). Still to this day Hijras refer to themselves with this name, referencing to a time where they were respected and valued for their particular identity.
Change came in the colonial era. First, through the British East India Compagnie from 1757 and later when responsibility was transferred to the Crown during the British Raj (1858-1947). Hijras were eradicated, seen as breaches of public decency and prosecuted according to the sodomy laws instated all over South East Asia, commonly known under section 377 of the Penal Code, criminalising all “unnatural offences”. The Hijras were seen as a “criminal tribe” and the stigma was never really undone.
Their sense of community is very strong, however. The prejudices they face every day still make them seek refuge together, frequently under the protection of a guru. In exchange for their earnings, which are shared with the group, the guru provides security and a home, which they have lost more often than not. Families reject children who come out as Hijra, so they seek out the Hijra communities for protection. They are then tied to that community, they undergo a ceremony and from then on are part of a new ‘family’.
Once introduced to the community, they learn a new language know as Hijra Farsi. It isn’t actually Farsi, but originates from the Hindustani language, spoken by Muslims. Hindu Hijras (more common in the south of India) speak a Gupti variant. Hijra Farsi is centuries old and dates back to the Mughal Empire, and the fact that it still exists today proves the care and protection with which they treat it. To them it is part of their identity, it is not a mother tongue, but a language they learn once they are accepted into their Hijra community. It’s not a simple list of codewords, it has its own lexicon and syntax, and they treat it as a separate language, which makes it all the more valuable. They never share it with outsiders, that would breach the integrity of the system, and when asked about it they lie or play it off as a dialect. They protect one another by communicating in a tongue outsiders don’t understand, to be able to warn each other when danger arises. This is the reason why it is vital for the language not to be compromised by outsiders.
Their persistence is remarkable as well, they have managed to gain a little bit of respect and a bare minimum of rights over the last decade, despite backlash and discrimination. In 2014 India passed a judgement that recognises Hijras as a third gender, therefore recognising their existence. Previously, they had to identify as either male or female in order to have access to education, healthcare and employment. Pakistan allowed for a third option in 2010 already, but required a medical examination to be passed in order to receive official confirmation. This of course is problematic, because it is not up to others to determine one’s identity, let alone decide on its validity. In Bangladesh the third gender has been recognised since 2013, in Nepal since 2007, even though they are only allowed to change from M/F to O (other), not choose to go from male to female, or vice versa.
They still live outside of regular society however, and survive by performing, begging and prostitution. The superstition that a curse from a Hijra will come true doesn’t help their fate, and keeps them in an in-between spot where they are feared for their status - which is why begging works because people give them money out of fear to be cursed - yet they are invited to weddings, baptisms, important family gatherings and celebrations, because their blessing is equally valuable. Nevertheless, they are only treated well when it is convenient, or out of fear.
Shahria Sharmin is a Bangladeshi photographer, based in Dhaka. She started this project in 2012, and it is still ongoing. She shows her own journey in understanding the Hijra community through this project, which features Hijras in Bangladesh, as well as a number of Hijras who migrated to India where social acceptance is a little higher. Her goal is to amplify their voices, show the beauty of these people and inspire other Hijras to carve out more space for themselves.
"I, like almost everyone else in my society, grew up seeing them as less than human. Their habits, way of life, and even looks marked them as different and deviant, as if a living testimony of biological aberration. Then I met Heena, who showed me how wrong I was." - Shahria Sharmin
It confirms the prejudice taught to everyone about these people, but it also shows hope. Through spending time with Heena, a Bangladeshi Hijra, she got to know them and realised they are as valuable a person as anyone else. She takes her time on the project, because she wants to show them as individuals rather than performers:
"The intention is to capture the stories of the voiceless hijra community when they are most comfortable with themselves without performing to the world. The photos tell stories of struggle, momentary joys and hidden dreams -the intimacy every individual has with their thoughts when no one is looking." - Shahria Sharmin