Some time ago, I took to Facebook and wrote about an encounter with a member of the Hijra community, and how, because I didn’t have any change to offer, she (Ms Roy) told me she’d be happy if I could give her one of my makeup products. I gave her my almost-new, orangey-red lipstick, which made both of us happy. There was a debate in the comments section of my post, as to whether or not I should’ve used the word “hijra.” While “hijra” is a Hindi word, it is, according to Ram Sarangan, “a term used to refer to what governments in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—among other countries in South Asia—have legally recognised as a ‘third gender,’ and does not inherently possess derogatory, slanderous or disparaging properties” (The Indian Express).
That being said, “third gender,” despite being the official term, is problematic because, in that case, there has to be a first and a second gender. “First,” “second” and “third” sound a lot like ranks, which immediately put men at the top of the hierarchy and Hijras at the bottom, thereby encouraging and cementing patriarchy, which in turn maintains the status quo. According to Arnav Srinivasan, a member of the Hijra community, it’s “like classifying the third gender as a separate gender while you are prioritising the first and second genders. So tell me, who is the first gender here—the men? And why is that so?” (The Times of India).
However, many use the word “hijra” in a derogatory manner, especially when insulting a “weak”/feminine man, essentially making it an emasculating identifier, the English equivalent of which could be “sissy.” The word “hijra” has a lot of hatred associated with it—Hijras have long been ostracised, persecuted, and treated like ugly, unwanted debris. But where does this dehumanisation come from? Is it cultural?
The Hijra community was once a respectable one in undivided India, where they’d offer their blessings at weddings and childbirths. Their inclusion is evident in both Ramayana and Mahabharata; Hindu scriptures/mythologies have never otherised them. They also held important positions during the Mughal Empire. It is the British who enforced the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act, which criminalised the Hijras as “innately corrupt” (Indian Penal Code, Section 377). The law was repealed after India’s independence in 1947, but despite the passage of 75 years, the stigma remains and Hijras continue to suffer in ways no man or woman can understand. If it hadn’t been for colonisation, would we have questioned the usage of the term “hijra”? Decolonisation, in this case, cannot simply involve amending colonial laws; it requires decolonisation of the mind—something that is yet to happen.
Noteworthily, despite their social/political status during the Mughal Era, Hijras were castrated males who, through their emasculation, got jobs such as custodians of emperors’ harems, as they were deemed sexless bodies (“Khawaja Sira” in Persian, “eunuch” in English). Hijras today are not all castrated males as they were in pre-colonial times.
If we look at Bangladesh’s government and its efforts to make this country a more inclusive one, it moved away from classifying Hijras as “jouno o lingo protibondi” (sexually and genitally handicapped) and put them under the category of “third gender.” Consequently, they planned on appointing them as low-ranking government officials, but the plan came to naught upon humiliating medical examinations where candidates were classified as fully-functioning men pretending to be Hijras. What the government failed to understand was the fact that Hijras are not all intersex—that is, a person who has both male and female genitals/organs. Many of them were assigned the male gender at birth, but later identified as women and decided on joining a Hijra clan. This, according to LGBTQIA+ lingo, would be referred to as “transgender.” However, according to Max Bearak’s article titled “Why terms like ‘transgender’ don’t work for India’s ‘third-gender’ communities,” one key distinction between transgender people and Hijras is “the time-honored ritual of leaving one’s home—or being forced out—and undergoing induction into a clan of Hijras led by an elder” (The Washington Post), and of course, leading life according to its distinct subculture. This is precisely why I used the term “hijra” in my Facebook post—because I couldn’t find a suitable English equivalent.
And what about when we speak in Bangla? I don’t think anyone interacting with a member of the Hijra community needs to call them that. For example, I wouldn’t be saying, “Kemon achhen, Hijra apu?” I mean, do you ever greet an unknown man or woman by saying, “Kemon achhen purush bhaiya?” or “Kemon achhen, mohila apu?” It’s only when we have a dialogue or write about this community that we may need to give them an identifier. In Tamil Nadu, Hijras want to be referred to as “Thirunangai”—a Tamil equivalent of “hijra.” A Bangladeshi Hijra, in the documentary film “Understanding Gender: Narratives of Hijras in Bangladesh,” proudly says, “I am a Hijra, I like calling myself Hijra, I feel proud to call myself a Hijra.” Does this mean that it is okay for me to use the term “hijra”? I am unsure. It is the Bangladeshi Hijra community that possesses the right to decide on the term that should be used by non-Hijra citizens to refer to them.
While I wait to know from the Hijra community if I should/shouldn’t continue to use the word “hijra” (in a respectful way and not as a form of abuse), I will continue to treat them as I’d treat men and women. I believe that every person, irrespective of their gender (among other differences) is like a unique flower in a garden and the distinct features of each flower are what makes that garden so pleasing. We may be too blind to realise the beauty that lies in the diversities of the human race, but I’m hopeful that the veils of discrimination shall burn down and our vision may become world-embracing.
Noora Shamsi Bahar is a writer and translator, and a senior lecturer at the Department of English and Modern Languages in North South University (NSU).