This summer has seen a whirlwind of human rights news: The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, racially charged protests and discussions on transgender rights. Society is becoming more aware of people’s differences in opinion, be it their lifestyle choice or political standing. However, some of these differences, which are considered to be radically different than the norm, have actually been around for thousands of years. Such is the case of the hijras, the South Asian transsexual and transgender community in India, who have been open about their self-identification for centuries.
The term hijra is widely used in South Asia, social workers and community activists encourage the public to use the socially conscious and more encompassing term hwaaja sira; this includes persons who identify as transgender, transsexual, a cross-dresser, or eunuch. There are a number of terms used throughout India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and their various dialects that reference these communities, but for consistency purposes, these communities will be referred to here as hijras within the context of this article.
The history of hijras dates back thousands of years, where a third sex is first mentioned—and they are celebrated—in ancient Hindu texts such as the “Mahabharata” and the “Kama Sutra.” In 1897, during the British rule of India, hijras were deemed as criminals. And, members of these isolated communities sought solace in a guru or protective leader (sometimes seen as a “mother figure”) who could offer emotional or monetary support. Hijras even developed their own secret language, Hijra Farsi, to protect their identities while still maintaining tight-knit communities. Over time, members of these communities have been appointed elected leaders in politics.
As with many transsexual and transgender people around the world, hijras are the subject of extreme discrimination in employment, housing, health, education and many other basic human rights—but advances are being made in gaining more human rights for the community of hijras. A 2014 ruling in the Supreme Court of India declared that a third gender would be recognized on all official documentation for the transsexual, transgender, eunuch, and cross-dresser communities. This legal status aimed to allow equal access to education, healthcare, and employment.
The hijra community still faces low social standing in South Asia today. Often times these individuals must revert to sex work to earn a living. Despite their social status, hijras are considered auspicious in modern day India, where they are often times asked to bless special occasions such as weddings and childbirths. If treated improperly, hijras are also believed to curse such functions.
With a reputation for colorful saris, playful personalities, and brash singing and clapping, hijras make their presence known. Members of these communities are also standing up for noble causes outside of their own—for instance, in the below PSA for seatbelt safety in India.
Society’s opinions on the ostracized but solid communities of hijras vary greatly in South Asia and can certainly be polarizing: some believe they are criminals while others believe they are a sign of good fortune, who deserve access to basic human rights. People will maintain their opinions as long as they are entitled to have them. But the hijra community’s long-standing self-identification for so many years has forced the world to pay attention, hopefully recognizing them in a more humanistic light.