Magical Stories of the Hijras

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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Magical Stories of the
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