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A society in denial: ‘Ghosts’ who live among us, demand basic rights

With the loss of their traditional role in Indian society, hijras find themselves marginalised at every step. Hijra Habba, a first ever dedicated national conference, tries to find ways to address issues plaguing them, reports Manjusha Madhu

Manjusha Madhu  8th Jul 2012

Divya Sagar, a transgender, at the event.

n May this year, Maria was brutally murdered in Kollam, Kerala. Her throat slit body was found with chilli powder smeared on it, possibly to prevent sniffer dogs from picking up smells. Hardly reported in the mainstream media, this incident would have been passed off as yet another act of violence in misogynistic Kerala if it were not for Maria's queer identity. Though male bodied (she was born Anil Sadanandan), she identified herself beyond and above the boundaries of male and female. Her sexuality and gender were fluid concepts that refused to be labelled and easily categorised.

This violent use of force against members of the transgender (TG) and hijra community is a regular fare across most parts of the country. With their traditional systems of living fast disappearing, hijras and transgenders are finding themselves lost and susceptible. To take cognition of their desires and demands, the first national 'hijra habba' was organised on 2 June, 2012. Bringing together hijras and transgenders from across the country, the national conference provided an opportunity for community members to discuss issues, modes of empowerment and policy intervention.

Organised under the aegis of Pehchaan in association with India HIV/AIDS Alliance, the national meet was a culmination of six regional meets that happened across the country on 17 May – the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. Each regional consultation brought together community members to discuss priorities and identify strategies for action. "We are looking for health and social well being of hijras and transgenders. Community strengthening initiatives and capacity building measures are areas of interest," says Abhina Aher, a hijra who is programme manager at India HIV/AIDS Alliance.

A significant impediment to reaching out to the transgenders is the lack of any comprehensive mapping of the community, an issue that was repeatedly reiterated at the meet. According to government records, there are only 25 lakh transgender people in India. Anybody who is part of the community will point out that this is a gross under-estimation. Kerala state records maintain that there are no transgenders while UP, which has a population of 200 million, put the official number at a mere 17,000. "It's almost as if we are ghosts, when it comes to us a fear permeates society," says Abhina.

The census recently introduced an 'other' category in an attempt to get an estimate but that road has been severely fraught with difficulties. "Most hijra people migrate from their hometowns and this is largely because they are disowned by their families. The stigma attached to being a hijra is so massive that the families deny their existence. In such a scenario, the censor officials will never know of a hijra's existence. Moreover, the officials are also prone to prejudices because of which it is imperative that they are sensitised," points out Simran, a hijra and programme officer at India HIV/AIDS Alliance.

A significant impediment to reaching out to the transgenders is the lack of any comprehensive mapping of the community across the country.

The creation of 'other' is also an indicator of the ongoing categorisation battle. Most hijras are against being referred to as 'male' or 'female' leading to the creation of categories like 'other' and 'third gender'. "But who said male is the 'first', 'female' is the 'second' while we are the 'third' gender?," asks Gauri Sawant, general secretary, Transgender and Hijra welfare board, Maharashtra and one of the speakers at the convention.

he necessity of translating sexual practices into English has resulted in 'naming' communities, which has led to massive discrepancies. For example, hijras maintain that a eunuch is not the equivalent to a hijra and most consider the English word demeaning. "I am not a man or a woman and I want to be known as a hijra. This is very different from a 'eunuch' which is a surgically created category," says Simran. Similarly, there are other communities like kothis, aravanis, menakas, etc which are usually shoved under the wide umbrella of hijras and eunuchs, especially in the mainstream English media. "Most of these terms are western imports and have been given by researchers who do peripheral study and decide to name these practices. These labels have now entered our vocabulary," says Dr Himadri Roy, professor at IGNOU.

With the advent of globalisation and the LGBT movement, queer politics and alternative sexuality are slowly becoming areas of interest and debate. A significant role was played by AIDS in generating attention. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) India, HIV prevalence in transgender and hijra communities varies between 26% and 49%. In earlier NACO (National AIDS Control Organization) programmes, interventions aimed at the transgender and hijra population were clubbed together with those for men who have sex with men (MSM).

With the realisation that their needs are unique, NACO's recent programmes have become more community specific.

"Alternative sexualities have had a complex history across the world. And for me, HIV has been the defining tragedy, which has become a tool for social engineering. It expanded the debate and led to humanising gay lives," says James Robertson, country director, India HIV/AIDS Alliance. However, not everyone from the community shares the same view. "You can't talk about health without social and economic well being. About 40-45% from our community are now educated, yet there are no jobs for us," says Abhina.

Stereotypes, employment opportunities and police violence were some of the other issues that came up at the meet along with cost friendly and bureaucracy free SRS (Sex Reassignment Surgery) . "A hijra who wants to undergo SRS has to declare in court that she has been a hijra for so many years, and needs a certificate from a psychiatrist among other requirements," adds Laxmi N. Tripathi, a well-known hijra activist and president of Asian Pacific Transgender network. Such impediments lead to most resorting to unsafe and illegal surgeries done by unqualified doctors.

Yet, the greatest hurdle in understanding alternative sexualities is the heterosexual norm that we celebrate in our everyday lives. Homosexual relationships continue to be defined by the heterosexual-patriarchal gaze. A beginning can be made by addressing these norms, if communities like the hijras are to have a meaningful future.

Hijras in History

  • Before Mughal times hijras were fortune tellers. But, during the Mughal era they were deputed as harem caretakers.
  • The ostracisation of the community is believed to have begun with the British, when hijras were forced into sex work and begging (mangti).
  • Bhadai (where community members go to auspicious ceremonies to give their blessings and receive money) derives from an ancient Hindu legend. When going for vanvas, Lord Rama asked all the men and women to return to their homes. The hijras, not asked to leave, stayed back. On finding them at the same spot on his return, Lord Ram showered them with his blessings.
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