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The History of Hijras: A Glimpse Into Queerness on the Other Side of the World

In the United States, LGBTQ history is rarely taught in the public education system, which has prompted people to learn about it on their own time. Naturally, with this liberty, people have gravitated towards learning about queer liberation specifically within Western countries, despite the fact that queerness has a rich history of being present in so many different countries and cultures. With that Western focus, we’ve neglected to shed a light on and inform ourselves about the intricacies of queerness all over the world. 

In 2018, I was given a glimpse into LGBTQ history in Asia, more specifically within my own Indian culture. That year, my family and I travelled to India to visit family friends and relatives, and on our drive from the airport, we stopped at a toll booth where I noticed several tall, beautiful women wearing bright sarees and heavy makeup knocking on the windows of the cars around us. Intrigued by the exchanges that were happening outside the window, I asked my dad who the women were, and he told me they were hijras, and that they were offering blessings to the people in the car.

In many Western societies, the recognition of gender outside of the binary male and female has become a topic of discussion more recently, however in Hindu society and South Asian history, non-binary people have held significant roles for thousands of years. 

Hijras are recognized as the third gender in India, separate from the binary male and female genders. The term includes people who are transsexual, transgender, cross-dressers, or a eunuch. Often, hijras are people who are assigned male at birth but present in more traditional “feminine” ways or who are intersex. More recently, some have identified themselves as transgender and seek gender reassignment procedures.

It’s important to note, however, that not all transgender people (or people of any of the identifies listed) identify as being a hijra.

The hijra identity is very complex, and their community holds a long and rich history in India. The community is one that is self-removed from the broader society to teach its practices in seclusion. To be initiated into the hijra community, a young person must follow a guru who will teach the disciple—or chela—of the hijra ways of life, as well as the ritual roles that they perform in Hindu households. 

Not all hijras are Hindu. In fact, many are known to practice different religions such as Islam, and a few practice Christianity. Still, they hold a religious significance, both historically and culturally, in the Hindu religion. Because of this, they are known to perform dances, songs, and blessings at Hindu ceremonies such as weddings and births. Hijras are known to bless a newlywed couple with fertility, and blessings for a newborn will bestow fertility, prosperity, and long life upon them. Hindus believe that if a family is disrespectful or refuses to pay the hijras for their blessings, they have the power to curse them, which is something that is taken very seriously. 

Because of this cultural and religious power, hijras have been treated with both respect and fear for thousands of years—that is, up until colonialism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the British colonized much of South Asia, which entailed stigmatization and discrimination of hijras because of the ways that they contradicted, at the time, Christian beliefs of gender. 

In 1871, the British enforced a law that deemed hijras to be criminals and prompted colonial authorities to arrest them on sight. Due to the significance of their ritual responsibilities for Hindus, they were able to carry out their traditional roles in birth and marriage ceremonies. Not long after India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, the 1871 law was repealed. 

Today, however, mistreatment, contempt, and discrimination towards hijras persist.

Outside of their roles in rituals, they are often excluded from employment and education, which has led to poverty among hijras consequently, a dependence on begging and prostitution for survival. Additionally, they experience violence and abuse, harassment from police, and are often denied treatment at hospitals. 

This experience is similar to that of the transgender community in the United States. Sexual orientation and gender identity-based discrimination and harassment in the workplace, healthcare system, public schools, housing, and beyond has long been the reality of transgender people. The LGBTQ rights movement has made several strides towards equality and liberation for transgender and queer people over the past few decades. In 2009, President Obama signed a federal hate-crimes law that covered crimes motivated by anti-transgender bias. Additionally, in 2015, the U.S. military lifted its ban that prevented transgender Americans from serving in the country’s armed forces. That same year, the Obama administration issued a directive to all public schools stating that transgender students should be allowed to use the restrooms that reflect their gender identity. Still, the fight for equality continues as transgender and LGBTQ members continue to face discrimination. During the Trump administration, many of Obama’s policies were reversed, which rescinded many civil rights that had been gained for transgender people. Numerous anti-trans policies were proposed and enacted during this time as well. Today, many are pushing for the Equality Act to be passed, which is a bill that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to explicitly prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

More recently, progress has been made towards liberation for hijras and the queer community in South Asia. For example, in 2014, the Supreme Court of India stated that

“it is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” and that recognition of the group, “is not a social or medical issue, but a human rights issue.”

This recognition of equal rights for third-gender people occurredd in India and other South Asian countries that year as well, including Bangladesh and Nepal. In India, this prompted the government to open employment and education to third-genderr people, which had previously been denied. Notably, in 2015, India elected its first hijra mayor within the city of Raigarh. The progress of liberation for hijras and the queer community in South Asia has been slow, but very much present and worthy of recognition. Yet for many within the United States, this rich and significant history is unknown. 

The discrimination and oppression faced by hijras, as well as others within the LGBTQ community in South Asia, are parallel and reflective of what the queer community in the United States has and continues to face as well. Although discrimination and oppression continues to this day, especially for queer people of color, the LGBTQ rights movement in the United States has made and continues to make significant strides since its emergence, such as with the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 st
ates. Meanwhile, the decriminalization of homosexuality only happened in 2018 in India, same-sex marriage remains illegal, and many hijras are still facing poverty and violence

The progress of the queer liberation movement in the United States is worthy of celebration during Pride Month and all throughout the year, as is the recognition of how far we still have to go.

But let’s not forget that queerness is not native in just the United States.

It permeates all cultures and countries beyond the Western hemisphere. So while we reflect on the LGBTQ rights movement in the United States, its leaders, and today’s activists that are carrying the torch forward, let’s also educate ourselves and be mindful of the past and present experiences and reality of our queer siblings on the other side of the world.

Staff Writer

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

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We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

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