Being A Eunuch
By Siddarth Narrain
I can remember, I have always identified myself as a woman. I lived
in Namakkal, a small town in Tamil Nadu. When I was in the 10th standard
I realised that the only way for me to be comfortable was to join the
hijra community. It was then that my family found out that I frequently
met hijras who lived in the city. One day, when my father was away,
my brother, encouraged by my mother, started beating me with a cricket
bat. I locked myself in a room to escape from the beatings. My mother
and brother then tried to break into the room to beat me up further.
Some of my relatives intervened and brought me out of the room. I related
my ordeal to an uncle of mine who gave me Rs.50 and asked me to go home.
Instead, I took the money and went to live with a group of hijras in
* "My name
is Sachin and I am 23 years old. As a child I always enjoyed putting
make-up like `vibhuti' or `kum kum' and my parents always saw me as
a girl. I am male but I only have female feelings. I used to help my
mother in all the housework like cooking, washing and cleaning. Over
the years I started assuming more of the domestic responsibilities at
home. The neighbours started teasing me. They would call out to me and
ask: `Why don't you go out and work like a man?' or `Why are you staying
at home like a girl?' But I liked being a girl. I felt shy about going
out and working. Relatives would also mock and scold me on this score.
Every day I would go out of the house to bring water. And as I walked
back with the water I would always be teased. I felt very ashamed. I
even felt suicidal. How could I live like that? But my parents never
protested. They were helpless."
- From the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (Karnataka) Report on Human
Rights Violations Against the Transgender Community, released in September
Hijras (Eunuchs) in India have virtually
no safe spaces, not even in their families, where they are protected
from prejudice and abuse. The recently released PUCL(K) Report on Human
Rights Violations Against the Transgender Community has documented the
kind of prejudice that hijras face in Bangalore. The report shows that
this prejudice is translated into violence, often of a brutal nature,
in public spaces, police stations, prisons and even in their homes.
The main factor behind the violence is that society is not able to come
to terms with the fact that hijras do not conform to the accepted gender
divisions. In addition to this, most hijras have a lower middle-class
background, which makes them susceptible to harassment by the police.
The discrimination based on their class and gender makes the hijra community
one of the most disempowered groups in Indian society.
However, the human
rights movement in India has begun to take notice of the concerns of
the community only recently. Legal scholar Upendra Baxi, in the foreword
to the PUCL(K) report, says: "The dominant discourse on human rights
in India has yet to come to terms with the production/reproduction of
absolute human rightlessness of transgender communities.... At stake
is the human right to be different, the right to recognition of different
pathways of sexuality, a right to immunity from the oppressive and repressive
labelling of despised sexuality. Such a human right does not exist in
have existed in most parts of the world with their own local identities,
customs and rituals. They are called baklas in the Philippines, berdaches
among American Indian tribes, serrers in Africa and hijras, jogappas,
jogtas, shiv-shaktis and aravanis in South Asia. The hijra community
in India, which has a recorded history of more than 4,000 years, was
considered to have special powers because of its third-gender status.
It was part of a well-established `eunuch culture' in many societies,
especially in West Asia, and its members held sanctioned positions in
Hijras trace their
origins to myths in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Rama, while leaving
for the forest upon being banished from the kingdom for 14 years, turns
around to his followers and asks all the `men and women' to return to
the city. Among his followers the hijras alone do not feel bound by
this direction and decide to stay with him. Impressed with their devotion,
Rama sanctions them the power to confer blessings on people on auspicious
occasions like childbirth and marriage, and also at inaugural functions.
This set the stage for the custom of badhai in which hijras sing, dance
and confer blessings.
The legend in the
Mahabharata is that Aravan, the son of Arjuna and Nagakanya, offers
to be sacrificed to Goddess Kali to ensure the victory of the Pandavas
in the Kurukshetra war. The only condition that he made was to spend
the last night of his life in matrimony. Since no woman was willing
to marry one who was doomed to be killed, Krishna assumes the form of
a beautiful woman called Mohini and marries him. The hijras of Tamil
Nadu consider Aravan their progenitor and call themselves aravanis.
The hijra community
is divided into seven houses, each headed by a `nayak' who appoints
gurus or spiritual leaders to train their wards or `chelas' in badhai
and protect them. Hijras in South India do not have the same cultural
role as their counterparts in North India and most of them take up sex
work as a means of earning a living.
Kothi is a term
used to describe male homosexuals who take on the female role; they
are largely from a non-English-speaking lower middle-class background.
Many kothis marry owing to family pressure but continue to have same
sex relationships. There is a symbolic relationship between kothis and
hijras, which has been strengthened because of the lack of other support
systems for kothis in cities and smaller towns.
For many hijras
and kothis, sex work is the only option because no one is willing to
employ them because of their gender identity. Even as commercial sex
workers, hijras are the most vulnerable group as they are placed right
at the bottom of the hierarchy of sex workers. This results in their
having little bargaining power and being unable to ensure that their
customers practise safe sex. They are also at risk of violence both
from customers and the police.
According to the
PUCL(K) report, violence is a widespread and everyday reality for hijra
and kothi sex workers in Bangalore. Owing to the intolerance they face
from their families, hijras and kothis often use public spaces like
parks and toilets to entertain sexual partners, lovers and sometimes
even clients. The lack of protection or privacy afforded by their own
accommodation, makes them vulnerable to violence, inflicted largely
by the police.
The harassment and
surveillance by the police sometimes extends into the privacy of their
homes. The place with the most scope for abuse is the police station
where the police, on a regular basis, violate all canons of civilised
behaviour by physically, sexually and verbally abusing and humiliating
hijras and kothis.
Prisons are also
places where anyone who is seen as not being `masculine enough' is harassed
and often physically and sexually abused. According to the PUCL(K) report,
the deeply sexual nature of the violence indicates that the sexuality
of the hijra becomes the target of prurient curiosity, which could in
its extreme form manifest itself as brutal violence. Sexual abuse and
violence, apart from being the most systematic tool for dehumanising
an individual, can be understood as a punishment for not conforming
to the gender roles laid down by society.
According to the
two main diagnostic systems used in the Indian medical establishment,
transsexualism is defined as a `gender identity disorder'. The doctors
usually prescribe a sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), which currently
resorts to hormone therapy and surgical reconstruction and may include
electrolysis, speech therapy and counselling. Surgical construction
could include the removal of male sex organs and the construction of
female ones. Since government hospitals and qualified private practitioners
do not usually perform SRS, many hijras go to quacks, thus placing themselves
at serious risk. Neither the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR)
nor the Medical Council of India (MCI) have formulated any guidelines
to be followed in SRS. The attitude of the medical establishment has
only reinforced the low sense of self-worth that many hijras have at
various moments in their lives.
The media have also
reinforced stereotypes about hijras. In December 2002, Chandini, a hijra
from Bangalore, died of severe burns in her home. The hijra community
alleged that her husband, who had a long-standing relationship with
her, had murdered her for money, and demanded that an impartial probe
be held. The police refused and stuck to their version that it was a
case of suicide. The local newspapers, including Police News, portrayed
the incident as an exciting romantic tryst between two strangers, in
which the unsuspecting man discovered the true sexual identity of the
wily hijra. Even a progressive and anti-establishment publication, in
its story, described hijras as a race apart, freaks of the underworld,
half-man half-woman, almost devilish in their customs and practices.
This kind of gender stereotyping was seen in many local English newspapers
The systematic violence
that hijras face is reinforced by institutions such as the family, media
and the medical establishment, and is given legitimacy by the legal
system. The violence that the hijra community faces from the police
can be traced to the 1897 amendment to the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871,
which was subtitled "An Act for the Registration of Criminal Tribes
and Eunuchs". Under this law, the local government was required
to keep a register of the names and residences of all eunuchs who were
"reasonably suspected of kidnapping or castrating children or committing
offences under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code". The law also
decreed eunuchs as incapable of acting as a guardian, making a gift,
drawing up a will or adopting a son.
The law that is
used most to threaten the hijra and kothi communities, as well as the
homosexual community in India, is Section 377 of the IPC, which criminalises
"carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman
or animal" even if it is voluntary. In effect, it criminalises
certain kinds of sexual acts that are perceived to be `unnatural'. The
law, which has its origin in colonial ideas of morality, in effect presumes
that a hijra or a homosexual person is engaging in `carnal intercourse
against the order of nature", thus making this entire lot of marginalised
communities vulnerable to police harassment and arrest.
The Immoral Traffic
Prevention Act (ITPA) of 1956 (amended in 1986), whose stated objective
is to criminalise brothel-keeping, trafficking, pimping and soliciting,
in reality targets the visible figure of the sex worker and enables
the police to arrest and intimidate the transgender sex-worker population.
Winners of the Miss Koovakkam 2003 beauty pageant for eunuchs held at
Villupuram, Tamil Nadu, in April. Hijras converge at Koovakkam every
The hijra community
is deprived of several rights under civil law because Indian law recognises
only two sexes. This means that hijras do not have the right to vote,
marry and own a ration card, a passport or a driving licence, or claim
employment and health benefits.
In north and central
India, hijras, who have contested and won elections to local and State
bodies, are now facing legal challenges. In February 2003, the Madhya
Pradesh High Court struck down the election of Kamala Jaan as the Mayor
of the Municipal Corporation of Katni. The court's logic was that since
Kamala Jaan was not a woman, she could not contest the seat, which was
reserved for women. Lawyer Pratul Shandilya, who is arguing Kamala Jaan's
case, said: "I have already filed the Special Leave Petition (SLP)
before the Supreme Court, and the court has also granted leave in the
The High Court verdict
came despite a direction from the Election Commission (E.C.) in September
1994 that hijras can be registered in the electoral roles either as
male or female depending on their statement at the time of enrolment.
This direction was given by the E.C. after Shabnam, a hijra candidate
from the Sihagpur Assembly constituency in Madhya Pradesh, wrote to
the Chief Election Commissioner enquiring about which category hijras
were classified under.
BUT around the world,
countries are beginning to recognise the rights of transgender people.
In a landmark judgment (Christine Goodwin vs. the United Kingdom, 2002)
the European Court of Human Rights declared that the U.K. government's
failure to alter the birth certificates of transsexual people or to
allow them to marry in their new gender role was a breach of the European
Convention on Human Rights. It said that a test of biological factors
could no longer be used to deny recognition legally to the change of
gender that a transsexual had undergone. In New Zealand, in New Zealand
Attorney General vs. the Family Court at Otahuhu (1994), the court upheld
the principle that for purposes of marriage, transsexual people should
be legally recognised in their re-assigned sex.
In Victoria, Australia,
the Equal Opportunity (Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation) Bill,
debated and amended in the State Assembly in 2000, has laid down a comprehensive
definition of gender identity by incorporating various social and cultural
factors that shape a person's gender and sexual identity. The International
Bill of Gender Rights, adopted in 1995, provides for the right to define
and express freely one's gender identity, and is therefore a model for
progressive legislative change.
OF late the Indian
hijra community has begun to mobilise themselves through the formation
of a collective. Sangama, an organisation working with hijras, kothis
and sex workers in Bangalore, has played an important role by helping
them organise and fight for their rights. Its services include organising
a drop-in centre for hijras and kothis, conducting a series of public
rallies and marches, using legal assistance in case of police harassment,
and establishing links with other social movements. When the owners'
association of the apartment complex where the Sangama office was located
objected to hijras visiting the premises, the organisation sent letters
to, among others, the Chief Minister and the National Human Rights Commission
(NHRC). The Chief Minister responded saying that he would ensure that
the matter was investigated. A letter from the NHRC to the police station
concerned resulted in the police assuring Sangama that the rights of
all residents of the building, including the employees and visitors
to Sangama, would be protected.
In December 2002,
hijras, kothis and other sexual minorities in Bangalore formed a collective
called Vividha. Its charter of demands includes the repeal of Section
377 and the ITPA. It has also demanded that hijras be recognised as
women, be given equal opportunities, with entitlement to housing, employment
benefits and rail travel concession.
In 2002, the hijra
community in Bangalore organised `Hijra Habba', a festival of sports
and cultural events, which was covered extensively and positively by
the media. In 2003, the festival was staged again in Bangalore's Town
Hall and over 100 hijras participated in the meet. Kajol, a hijra who
addressed the packed hall on the occasion, said: "I was initially
told not to speak in front of the media because it would affect my family.
But I decided that it was important for me to speak and assert my identity."
She added that "hijras were part of a wider community of sexual
minorities" and singled out society's treatment of lesbians for
whom there exist very few spaces.
of the hijra community can be seen as constituting a larger movement
of sexual minority groups in India. They are challenging the constitutional
validity of Section 377 and are organising a campaign questioning the
government's stand that the law should remain. The discrimination and
violence that hijras face show that it is high time that both the government
and the human rights movement in the country begin to take this issue
with the seriousness it deserves.
Copyright © 2003, Frontline.