An Overview of the Hijra from GAIN

From: gain <gain@terminalgarden.com>
To: <gain-all@tgender.net>
Date: Fri, 11 Oct 2002 18:31:14 -0400
Subject: [GAIN] GAIN Digest, October 11, 2002 - 9 items

GAIN [Gender Advocacy Internet News] Digest, October 11, 2002 - 9 items

[. . .]

>>>--------------------------->>> ITEM #8 <<<---------------------------<<<
>>> Date: Oct. 6, 2002
>>> News: India's impotent are a force to be reckoned with (INDIA)
>>> Author: David Orr
>>> Source: "Scotland on Sunday" via Scotsman.com
>>> URL: http://www.news.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=1106892002
>>> Via: TransgenderNews

The onlookers clap their hands in rhythmic accompaniment to the lusty hip gyrations of the performers on the makeshift stage.

The object of their attention is not a group of beautiful Bollywood starlets or the latest icon of Hindi pop. It is altogether more exotic -- the eunuchs are in town.

More than 2,000 eunuchs assembled in Bhopal last week to celebrate the annual Shraddha period when Hindus remember their dead forefathers. The religious festival is an opportunity for members of the so-called 'third sex' to gather from around India, making mischief and providing entertainment for those who have come to pay respect to their ancestors.

Shraddha is a sombre time but, come the evening, the eunuchs who had converged on the central Indian city could no longer contain the riotous exuberance for which they are known.

Despite their outward flamboyance, much of the secret world of the eunuchs -- or 'hijras' (impotent ones) -- remains a mystery.

According to some estimates, there are more than a million eunuchs in India. Many are young men with gender-identity problems who have chosen castration and a life on the fringes of a society that has no place for homosexuals.

The youthful misfits seek out the hijras and most eventually submit to a crude operation without anaesthetic during which their genitals are severed with one cut. A eunuch will act as their guru, introducing them to the insular hijra community and assisting them during the castration ritual.

Although most choose to become hijras, it is rumoured that young boys are abducted on the orders of eunuch leaders and ritually castrated. The practice is said to have been common in India for centuries. Eunuchs deny forcibly mutilating male children to keep their secret societies alive but a number of such cases have come to light over recent years.

A small number of eunuchs are hermaphrodites, possessing both male and female characteristics, or transvestites.

The hijras generally adopt feminine dress and assume a single, woman's name.

While most eunuchs occupy the shadowy margins of society more and more are emerging into the social and political mainstream. There have even been suggestions that they might form their own political party and contest the country's next parliamentary elections.

Raj Sinha, leader of the Delhi Hijra Union, a collective of thousands of eunuchs in the Indian capital, said: "A large section of society sees eunuchs as a better option against corrupt politicians. We don't have the same vested interests as other people."

While Bhopal is more associated with the horrors of the Union Carbide poison gas leak in 1984 than with carnivals of dancing and cross-dressing, the choice of the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh for the festival last week was significant, given the high profile which local eunuchs have come to enjoy in recent years.

Shabnam Mausi has become the first eunuch in India to occupy a seat in a state assembly. Interestingly, she contested the election not on a 'eunuch ticket' but on her anti-corruption policy.

Another eunuch, Kamla Jaan, is currently fighting a legal battle to retain the mayorship of Katni in Madhya Pradesh. Elected mayor of the town two years ago from a constituency seat reserved for women, Jaan is challenging a verdict which ruled her a 'he' and not a 'she'.

Having no family ties and usually living in communes, eunuchs are able to portray themselves as more likely to serve the people rather than their own interests. Politics, however, appeared very low on the agenda of last week's gathering.

"We're here to have a good time," said Shabana, a young eunuch from Rajasthan, back from shopping in Bhopal's markets.

Shanti, who had travelled from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said: "We don't have families of our own. This is a chance for us to get together with our own kind and share our experiences."

The eunuchs form a subculture of sexual outcasts who rank lower in India than the 'dalits' or 'untouchables'. They are principally known for crashing weddings and family occasions such as the birth of a new child. They sing raunchy songs, dance provocatively and make a nuisance of themselves until they are paid to go away.

In the distant past, eunuchs often enjoyed the patronage of Hindu kings or maharajas, in whose courts they would sing and dance. During Muslim rule in India, they were employed as harem guards and given unrestricted access to private apartments in the Mughal palaces.

Nowadays, their position in society is less secure. Most still make a living from singing, dancing and the bestowing of blessings. Some resort to prostitution, though those who sell their bodies are regarded with disdain by other hijras.

Indians are wary of the eunuchs' ire and supposed occult powers. The curse of a hijra is considered terribly unlucky. There is a belief that it can bring impotence, ill-health and financial ruin to a man, or make a young woman barren.

The only thing worse than being on the receiving end of a eunuch's curse, it is said, is to be flashed at by a eunuch. A recent trend to emerge from India's commercial capital is for debtors to be threatened with the sight beneath a eunuch's sari.

[. . .]

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This page first created 1/6/03. Copyright Stephe Feldman, 2003. Last update: 4/30/05.