Hijras in India and the transgender community in the U.S.
India’s hijras are male-to-female transgender individuals. Although they are called eunucåhs and are thought to include hermaphrodites (people with reproductive systems including both male and female elements) and those with indeterminate genitalia stemming from endocrine conditions, a physician in a Doordarshan interview indicated that he had examined 100 hijras and none had any of these reproductive abnormalities nor diagnosable endocrine issues. This physician indicated that each person examined was genetically a male but identified as a woman. The category of ‘hijra’ thus best maps on to the category of transgender women in America (males who become females).
Let us take a look at how hijras played a role in history. At the time of the Vedas, criminals were reportedly castrated. The resulting eunuchs were considered lower than untouchables. Then, in the Mahabharata, Pandava charioteer Shikhandi is referred to as a eunuch but seems to have been a transgender male; in most versions of the legend, he is born a female but eventually comes to identify as male. Given that he is biologically female and that one should not fight a woman (according to the dictates of the times), Shikhandi serves as a deterrent to Kaurava warriors like the eminent Bheeshma. On principle, Bheeshma refuses to fight Shikhandi, who acts as a human shield behind whom Arjuna shoots a volley of arrows, mortally wounding the functionally disarmed Bheeshma. Later in Indian history, Muslim rulers employed hijras in their harems. They were considered strong like men, and yet not a threat to women. After the Mughal court disbanded, the hijras occupied a strange niche— respected and yet marginalized.
Everyone who has grown up in India knows that India’s hijras have long been a marginalized community, who are discriminated against for employment and who, shunned by society, have banded together in their own tightly-knit communities. They support themselves economically by singing and dancing; they are often unwelcome at wedding at births but will insist upon performing (sometimes with minimal clothing on) and take money from families in exchange for going away. Without this and prostitution, they would be unable to survive. Families reject transitioning youths, who are viewed as bringing shame to the families; they are also bullied at school. Somehow the hijra community hears of them, or they reach out to the community, and end up running away from him with them. Families claim their kids have been kidnapped but rejected at home and welcomed by the hijras, their kids have found belonging and emotional sustenance. Stateside, I have worked with transgender men and women, and their stories are heartbreaking. They begin to feel trapped in the wrong body, and this brings on intensely negative feelings as they begin to hate themselves and their bodies. They identify with the other gender and long to be freed to dress and live like that other gender. They often feel suicidal in this time as they are in significant emotional distress. Eventually, the pendulum of gender identity swings to the point where they identify firmly with the opposite sex to their birth, begin dressing that way, and seek hormones and/or a sex- change operation, plus change their names. Two women and one man transitioned to the opposite gender in my seven years at my current job, and last week, a colleague emailed us to let us know that her son had transitioned and preferred a different name and different pronouns (she/they).
William Dalrymple’s brilliant book about New Delhi, “City of Djinns”, devotes several pages to his understanding of this marginalized yet unique and resilient community, and is recommended reading. There are also multiple YouTube videos illuminating the plight of the hijra community.
This past weekend’s virtual play, Mahesh Dattani’s Seven Steps around the Fire, directed by Subrata Das and with costumes by Jayanti Bandyopadhyay, was both superbly-executed and timely in that the fight for transgender rights in America continues to play out; while hijras have made some progress regarding their own rights in India, significant barriers remain. In both countries, ongoing discrimination persists despite legislative edicts, as attitudes reside in the hearts of people and laws cannot change that. I hope we can grow to understand and accept those different from us and afford them respect and human rights, both in legal terms and in practice.
Rohit Chandra is a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.