Hijra community
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Who are the hijras?

By Utpal Gore Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - 10:44
The word ‘hijra’ is specific to the South Asian region. It can either refer to an individual or the community. Let’s try and understand this term better.

Hijra - the community and the individual

A hijra is mostly a male-assigned-at-birth, whose gender identity isn’t congruent with their gender assigned at birth. Hence, the hijra community comprises of trans women. These women often dress up in ‘feminine’ clothing and are seen at various functions such as the birth of a child, death, marriage ceremonies etc, which is a major source of their income.

The hijra community is constituent of such individuals, with distinctive ritualistic practices, cultures and alternate family structures, and even provide much needed emotional and social support to each other in the time of need.

Not all trans people are hijras

It is important to say here that not all trans people, especially trans women in India, are hijras or form a part of the hijra community. It is only when they seek out the community and the community accepts them that they become/are called a hijra. Sometimes, individuals also undergo the ritualistic castration practice.

The hijra community is divided into gharanas and havelis. Each haveli is headed by a naik and many hijra people live together in these gharanas or havelis. They have matrilineal relationships and strongly follow a guru-chela (teacher-student) system, where new entrants into the hijra community are placed under the wings of any older hijra woman who teaches her the ways of the community.

Other nomenclatures

The term ‘eunuch’ has also been used to describe the community, but this has been discontinued because of the negative connotations attached to it. It was used to refer to those male individuals who were forced to undergo castration.

Kothi are men who are considered ‘feminine’ in their expressions. They might not consider themselves to be trans and unlike the hijra community, do not live together in a particular place.

A history of marginalisation

The hijra community has been mentioned in many ancient manuscripts and there is even evidence of them holding some degree of power in the Mughal court. Yet, this doesn’t mean that they haven’t been historically marginalized and ostracised.

This marginalisation became further entrenched when the colonial government categorised them as ‘criminals’ under the Criminal Tribe Act of 1871. The colonial government saw them as criminals and wanted to eradicate their population.  

The community got voting rights in 1994 to officially vote as the third sex and in 2014 the Supreme Court officially recognised hijra and trans individuals under the category of ‘Third Gender’. This meant that apart from getting legal recognition on paper, they can also avail special reservations in colleges and while seeking government jobs.

Many members of the community now hold important offices, such as Manabi Bandopadhyay, who was appointed as the principal of a government college in West Bengal, or even Madhu Bai Kinnar and Shabhnam Mausi who have held important political offices.  

Challenges remain

The community still faces significant discrimination. As their importance in various rituals is decreasing, they increasingly have to take to begging or sex work. Due to the history of violence that they have faced, they are still to occupy jobs that provide them with a decent wage and dignity. Apart from that, they also face physical and sexual violence.

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