Magical Stories of the Hijras

In India, 100,000 hijra eunuchs are a caste unto themselves

| July 29, 2004

In India, they're called hijra. They have a sacred mythology, holy sites, and are a caste unto themselves. Most are eunuchs. They rejoiced in the extravagant performance of gender, usually entertaining at parties, long before the academic theories arrived to describe their behavior as such. They are ancient as the Ganges. There are estimated to be almost 100,000 hijra in India today.

But which gender are the hijra performing? To Western eyes, they are men who dress as women. But as one hijra explained, 'A hijra is born from the stomach of a woman, but can be counted neither among the men nor the women. This is why we are called hijras and why we have a right to nothing except singing and dancing. . . We are separate from god, so that god grants our prayers to us, in every place.'

What is complex about the position of the hijra is that one can find examples of them being both integrated and accepted into society while at the same time they are treated with scorn, rejected, and must take to begging. Perhaps this precarious position is not so different from our own society's attitude toward people who defy standards of gender appropriate behavior. In one myth a hijra was on her way to a holy hilltop site, called Baba Darga in North India, and she offered to help carry a woman's baby. The woman said, 'You are hijra. Do not touch my child.' After being repelled, the hijra asked Baba for a baby of her own. Ten months later she gave birth to a child. The hijra, then, have creatively turned situations of ostracization into miracles though the use of storytelling and myth. Of course, the ostracization is real and while the myth may be fortifying, who's to say it isn't difficult for hijra who wish they were real women and able to have children.

The hijra, like the poor Black and Hispanic queens of 1980s Harlem featured in the documentary Paris is Burning, live in group homes, probably as much for the sake of surviving abject poverty as for company. Their practices are seen as cultish and surrounded by a shroud of mystery. For example, rumors circulate of hijra kidnapping men, of back alley operations.

Given the way transgendered people have been treated in this country, one marvels at the thought that perhaps there are cultures where the majority does not find the phenomenon 'so strange.' But in a caste-based society, the question of deviating from norms may not be the most appropriate questions. The existence of castes expands norms for behavior, creating multiple options for experiencing. And yet one need only think of Gandhi to remember that simply because one has a caste does not mean that one is not scorned by society.
-- Elizabeth Dwoskin

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