Understanding the social context of Hijras in India

Understanding the social context of Hijras in India:A short synopsis

The discussion surrounding who is a Hijra necessitates comprehending the fundamental and nuanced discussion surrounding sex, gender, sexual orientation and lifestyle. Sex can be defined as the anatomical and biological differences between men and women (reproductive organs, chromosomes, hormones). Gender is the socially constructed difference between masculinity and femininity, which translates into what it means to live as a man and a woman (differences in the process of socialization, expectation, roles, responsibilities or stratification). Sex is assigned at birth based on visible physical characteristics and has conventionally been grouped into male, female or the intersexed. Technically speaking the intersex population are those whose sexual manifestations does not fit into the binary classification. In more developed nations of the world intersexed children often undergo surgery later on– consistent with one of the binary sex identifiers which has been assigned to them.

Gender is different from the physical definitions of sex. One might be born as a biological male but identify as a woman later on. This might then include transgender identities of being a trans man or a trans woman, medical procedures to undergo the transition, choices of lifestyle/ dressing up, or non-conformity to the binary categories. Outside of gender or sex based identities, it is important to remember that sexual orientation or emotional and physical attraction to members of a particular sex might or might not be determined by the set expectations of a heteronormative world and could include attraction to members of the same sex or homosexuality, both the sexes or bisexuality, attraction based on individual in isolation from their sexual identity or pansexuality, and even being asexual.

Traditionally associated with the intersexed, the hijras in India (official count close to 500,000), now include the transgender population—predominantly transwomen. Their sexual orientation can include attraction to members of the opposite or same sex (after their transition into trans-women) or other types specified. Hijra is a lifestyle signifying ritualistic presence during wedding and births, singing, dancing etc. Their kinship arrangement includes a guru-chela hierarchy. Unlike urban myths, the hijras do not recruit but members willingly join. The worship of Bahuchara devi is a common practice and Indian tradition traces their origin to the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Currently the community provides food, shelter and livelihood for those ousted from their home– since for many, living as a trans woman might not be an option.

Prosecuted by the system and misunderstood by society.

–Tanni Chaudhuri


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Tanni Chaudhuri is an Associate professor of sociology and graduate director at Rhode Island College