I find the hjira’s fascinating. They are not ‘trans’ in the western meaning and have been part of Indian society for thousands of years. ‘A Son of The Circus’ by John Irving contains hjira characters. That was the 1st time I’d ever heard of them.
Some western writers have glamourised the hijras but, while there is some evidence of them having favoured places in the courts of some maharajas, or being viewed as holy in some sects, the fortunes of the hijras have generally been unfavourable. They have at times been celebrated, but they are mostly feared and shunned. At the moment, they have few rights and are mostly viewed as pariahs by mainstream society. It is not an easy life. It is not surprising that many resort to prostitution or extortion.
It is wonderful that legislation and social programmes are being put in place to lift hijras out of poverty and the criminal sub-culture. I think this may be due to a growing awareness that people from privileged backgrounds can have transgendered identities too. In other words, classism.
Also, not all hijras will be happy to be classed as ‘third gender’. Although it is wrong to project western politics and identities onto other cultures, there is evidence that some hijra activists want to be recognised as female, not labelled as ‘third sex’. So, while this law is being heralded as progress and a step towards equality, it will only be empowering if it is a matter of choice for the individual rather than a label imposed on them.
Aasha Bharathi, president of Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Association said “Don’t call us eunuchs or Hijras or by other ‘names’. We like ourselves to be called as females….Yes we are transgendered females,” Reported in “Aravanis get a raw deal”, by M. Bhaskar Sai, The News Today, November 27, 2005. ‘Aravanis’ is an alternative, regional name for hijras.