In the culture of South Asia, hijras (Hindi:हिजड़ा, Urdu: ہِجڑا, Bengali: হিজড়া, Kannada:ಹಿಜಡಾ, Telugu: హిజ్ర Punjabi ਹਿਜਰਅ) or chhakka in Kannada, khusra – ਕੁਸਅਰਅ in Punjabi and kojja in Telugu are physiological males who have feminine gender identity, women’s clothing and other feminine gender roles. Hijras have a long recorded history in the Indian subcontinent, from antiquity, as suggested by the Kama Sutra period onwards. This history features a number of well-known roles within subcontinental cultures, part gender-liminal, part spiritual and part survival.
In South Asia, many hijras live in well-defined, organized, all-hijra communities, led by a guru. These communities have sustained themselves over generations by “adopting” young boys who are rejected by, or flee their family of origin. Many work as sex workers for survival. The word hijra is a Hindi-Urdu word, derived from the Arabic root hjr in its sense of “leaving one’s tribe,” and has been borrowed into Hindi. The Indian usage has traditionally been translated into English as “eunuch” or “hermaphrodite,” where “the irregularity of the male genitalia is central to the definition.” However, in general hijras are born with typically male physiology, only a few having been born with male intersex variations. Some Hijras undergo an initiation rite into the hijra community called nirwaan, which refers to the removal of penis, testicles and scrotum.
Since the late 20th century, some hijra activists and Western non-government organizations (NGOs) have been lobbying for official recognition of the hijra as a kind of “third sex” or “third gender,” as neither man nor woman.
The Urdu and Hindi word hijra may alternately be romanized as hijira, hijda, hijada, hijara, hijrah and is pronounced [ˈɦɪdʒɽaː]. This term is generally considered derogatory in Urdu and the word Khwaja Saraa is used instead. Another such term is khasuaa (खसुआ) or khusaraa (खुसरा). In Bengali hijra is calledহিজড়া, hijra, hijla, hijre, hizra, or hizre.
A number of terms across the culturally and linguistically diverse Indian subcontinent represent similar sex or gender categories. While these are rough synonyms, they may be better understood as separate identities due to regional cultural differences. In Telugu, a hijra is referred to as napunsakudu (నపుంసకుడు), kojja (కొజ్జ) or maada (మాడ). In Tamil Nadu the equivalent term is Thiru nangai (mister woman), Ali, aravanni, aravani, or aruvani. In Punjabi, both in Pakistan and India, the term khusra is used. Other terms include jankha. In Gujarati they are called pavaiyaa (પાવૈયા). In Urdu another common term is khwaaja sira (خواجه سرا).
In North India the goddess Bahuchara Mata is worshipped by Pavaiyaa (પાવૈયા). In South India, the goddess Renuka is believed to have the power to change one’s sex. Male devotees in female clothing are known as Jogappa. They perform similar roles to hijra, such as dancing and singing at birth ceremonies and weddings.
The word kothi (or koti) is common across India, similar to the Kathoey of Thailand, although kothis are often distinguished from hijras. Kothis are regarded as feminine men or boys who take a feminine role in sex with men, but do not live in the kind of intentional communities that hijras usually live in. Additionally, not all kothis have undergone initiation rites or the body modification steps to become a hijra. Local equivalents include durani (Kolkata), menaka (Cochin), meti (Nepal), and zenana (Pakistan).
Hijra used to be translated in English as “eunuch” or “hermaphrodite,” although LGBT historians or human rights activists have sought to include them as being transgender.
Gender and ।sexuality
These identities have no exact match in the modern Western taxonomy of gender and sexual orientation, and challenge Western ideas of sex and gender. Most are born apparently male, but some may be intersex (with ambiguous genitalia). They are often perceived as a third sex, and most see themselves as neither men nor women. However, some may see themselves (or be seen as) females, feminine males or androgynes. Some, especially those who speak English and are influenced by international discourses around sexual minorities, may identify as transgender or transsexual women. Unlike some Western transsexual women, hijras generally do not attempt to pass as women. Reportedly, few have genital modifications, although some certainly do, and some consider nirwaan (“castrated”) hijras to be the “true” hijras.
A male who takes a “receptive” or feminine role in sex with a man will often identify as a kothi (or the local equivalent term). While kothis are usually distinguished from hijras as a separate gender identity, they often dress as women and act in a feminine manner in public spaces, even using feminine language to refer to themselves and each other. The usual partners of hijras and kothis are masculine men, whose gender identity is as a “normal” male who penetrates. These male partners are often married, and any relationships or sex with “kothis” or hijras are usually kept secret from the community at large. Some hijras may form relationships with men and even marry, although their marriage is not usually recognized by law or religion. Hijras and kothis often have a name for these masculine sexual or romantic partners; for example, panthi in Bangladesh, giriya in Delhi or sridhar in Cochin.
Social status and economic circumstances
Most hijras live at the margins of society with very low status; the very word “hijra” is sometimes used in a derogatory manner. Few employment opportunities are available to hijras. Many get their income from performing at ceremonies, begging, or sex work—an occupation of eunuchs also recorded in premodern times. Violence against hijras, especially hijra sex workers, is often brutal, and occurs in public spaces, police stations, prisons, and their homes. As with transgender people in most of the world, they face extreme discrimination in health, housing, education, employment, immigration, law, and any bureaucracy that is unable to place them into male or female gender categories.
Beginning in 2006, hijras were engaged to accompany Patna city revenue officials to collect unpaid taxes, receiving a 4-percent commission. Hijras are often encountered on streets, trains, and other public places demanding money from people. If refused, the hijra may attempt to embarrass the man into giving money, using obscene gestures, profane language, and even sexual advances. In India for example, threatening to open their private parts in front of the man if he does not donate something. Hijras also perform religious ceremonies at weddings and at the birth of male babies, involving music, singing, and sexually suggestive dancing. These are intended to bring good luck and fertility. Although hijras are most often uninvited, the host usually pays the hijras a fee. Many fear the hijras’ curse if they are not appeased, bringing bad luck or infertility, but for the fee they receive, they can bless goodwill and fortune on to the newly born. Hijras are said to be able to do this because, since they do not engage in sexual activities, they accumulate their sexual energy which they can use to either bestow a boon or a bane.
Hijras can also come as an invitee to one’s home, and their wages can be very high for the services they perform. Supposedly, they can give insight into future events as well bestow blessings for health. Hijras that perform these services can make a very good living if they work for the upper classes.
The ancient Kama Sutra mentions the performance of fellatio by feminine people of a third sex (tritiya prakriti). This passage has been variously interpreted as referring to men who desired other men, so-called eunuchs (“those disguised as males, and those that are disguised as females”), male and female transvestites (“the male takes on the appearance of a female and the female takes on the appearance of the male”), or two kinds of biological males, one dressed as a woman, the other as a man.
During the era of the British Raj, authorities attempted to eradicate hijras, whom they saw as “a breach of public decency.” Anti-hijra laws were repealed; but a law outlawing castration, a central part of the hijra community, was left intact, though rarely enforced. Also during British rule in India they were placed under Criminal Tribes Act 1871 and labelled a “criminal tribe,” hence subjected to compulsory registration, strict monitoring and stigmatized for a long time; after independence however they were denotified in 1952, though the centuries-old stigma continues. Recently campaigns have emerged with the intent of protecting the hijras from persecution. Raheed Patel, known locally in the hijra community as Pineapple Andy Kaid, has been quite active in this quest and the push to recognize marriage amongst the hijra. A hijra polygamist himself, Mr. Kaid has lobbied in earnest for the hijra cause.