The Hijra Are a Recognized Third Gender in Hindu Society
Recognition of gender outside of the binary may feel like a recent development when we look at it through a Western lens, but for the rest of the world this often is not true. For example, a third gender has been recognized in Hindu society as far back as ancient Indian times. And while there are a few different groups in South Asia that fall into this category, the most common by far are the hijra.
Generally, hijra are assigned male at birth, though some are intersex. They wear makeup and dress in traditionally female clothing, and many undergo a castration ceremony to remove their male genitalia. As gender identity is an incredibly personal and complex topic, some hijra consider themselves transgender, and some do not. Interestingly, in 2014, India’s Supreme Court announced that transgender folks could identify as a third gender and gave them full legal recognition. While this recognition of basic human rights is crucial, the conflation of “transgender” and “third gender” is perhaps an unfortunate one.
A case study from Harvard Divinity School writes: “Often called transgender by outsiders, Indian society and most hijras consider themselves to be third gender — neither male nor female, not transitioning. They are a different gender altogether. However, hijra identity is complex, and recently, some have identified as transgender and sought gender reassignment procedures.”
Though there are as many as 3 million third-gender people living in India today, hijras still seem to occupy an “outsider” role. They are believed to have the power to curse or bless a household, and are expected to perform rituals at Hindu weddings and births. “To many Hindus, it is the third gender nature of hijras — including their sacrifice of their procreative ability to the goddess — that grants hijras this incredible religious power.”
As is often the case in history, colonization played a big role in the destruction of this culture.
“Hundreds of years ago, under traditional Hindu culture, hijras enjoyed a certain degree of respect. But Victorian England changed that. When the British colonized India in the mid-19th century, they brought a strict sense of judgment to sexual mores, criminalizing ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature.’ That was the beginning, scholars say, of a mainstream discomfort in India with homosexuality, transgender people and hijras.”
Nowadays, many hijras are engaged in sex work and often feel alienated from society.
Did you know about this third gender, the hijra?
Featured image by Nick Kenrick’s “India Series” / Flickr