One question I seem to get all of the time is ‘are you a drag queen?’ which stems from my outwardly feminine gender presentation. While the question itself doesn’t essentially irritate me, along with the regular task of having to explain the complexities of my gender identity, it does follow me seemingly everywhere in my life. While I love the art of drag, my presentation is not for the entertainment of others, nor is it an exaggeration of another gender as drag is. Along with being confused for a drag queen I’m also often mistaken for a transwoman, which is definitely closer to my actual preferred gender marker, but alas still no cigar. Non-binary is another label often given to me which, similarly to being mistaken for a transwoman, doesn’t offend me exactly – it just isn’t accurate.
My actual preferred gender marker is known as ‘Hijra’: the Hindu concept of being of the third gender. We Hijras also go by other names such as Aravanis, Khawaja Siras, Chhakkas and Kinnars, the last of which is derived from mystic Hindu beings that excel in dance, music and the arts. In contemporary India the term often is used interchangeably with transwoman but there are some clear and distinctive differences.
The concept of being third gender first of all is a uniquely Hindu understanding of gender and historically had a much more diverse representation that the modern presentation of Hijras, who like myself, were assigned male at birth but present in feminine ways. We also often do not feel the need to go through permanent body modification such as gender reassignment surgery or hormone replacement therapies. This is because, unlike the transwomen I am so often mistaken for, I don’t experience dysphoria with my body. The soft alterations I make through dress, makeup and my hair are enough for me. With this being said, some Hijra do chose to undergo more permanent body modifications and do not have the same relationship with transgenderism that I myself do. We also differ from non-binary people because we exist within a distinct system of categorising gender, not apart from one or in between two gender markers.
Being Hijra is being a distinct gender all of its own, and means identifying with a set model of three genders where we occupy the third gender. While it may make sense to say that we still exist as non-binary people because this label is in response to the Western male/female binary of gender – of which we do not find ourselves fitting – for me to identify as non-binary in the West and then Hijra with other Hindus is a complicity in the idea that I should mimic Western ideas of what gender is, while not embracing what my own understanding of gender is.
Being Hijra is however, about more than simply wearing makeup and looking feminine. Hijras are considered spiritually significant beings in many different Hindu traditions as we are seen as understanding the energies and ways of both men and women. This reflects the different genders present in the Hindu pantheon and because of this, Hijras in India are sometimes considered sacred beings. We are also considered earthly embodiments of the goddess Bahuchara Mata, the children of Kali Ma and having the power to pass on the blessings of the Lord Rama for the devotion a group of Hijra showed him in the Ramayana.
Personally I as a Hijra associate most closely with Kali as her devotee. It is for this reason that Hijra are traditionally celebrants at Hindu rituals by blessing weddings, newborns and other festivities. Traditionally, we also sing and dance at celebrations. Hijra are also now considered their own caste, making us the only caste not inherited but instead joined through personal choice. With this in mind, it possibly won’t shock you that Hijra are legally recognised in India as the third gender, but Hijra are also legally recognised in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal too.
While it is clear that historically Hijra had earned our place in South Asian culture, and that position is maintained somewhat today, in contemporary South Asia we are are now greatly marginalised in many ways. The Hijra native to India today often turn to sex work to make money because it is legal to deny Hijra work in most fields of employment and because of this, it is the case that Hijra are more likely to become infected with STIs. In India we are one of the most vulnerable groups, susceptible to abuse, sexual assault and discrimination. It can be argued that this stigmatisation of the Hijra originated with the British colonial occupation of India when rigid and conservative ideas of gender and sexuality were imposed on Hindus and our culture.
I would argue that the enforcement and policing of the Hijra, as well as other LGBT+ people for the sake of ‘civilising’ Hindus is one of the deepest set and most damaging hangovers of Christian Western colonialism in South Asia. The problems faced by my Hijra sisters in India translate across to my existence as a Hijra in Britain too, as I also experience regular abuse (though almost always in the form of homophobia or transphobia). Parents hold their children away from me in public, on crowded buses other passengers would rather stand than take the seat obviously free next to me. Like my Hijra sisters in South Asia, I also experience a great deal of fetishisation from men who think my appearance is an invitation for graphic, sometimes violent, and always unwanted sexual messages, advances and misconduct.
Despite the challenges that are present in being a proud Hijra, I feel that it is important to – especially as it is LGBT+ History Month – to continue to wave the flag for Hijras and my community, so that one day we might be able to see legal recognition of our gender identity in the West, as well as legal recognition for non-binary people and other gender minorities.