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South Asia’s LGBTQ+: The Hijra Community

Date: 31/12/22

Author Name: Lavanya Kaushal

Qualifications: B.A. (Hons) Psychology, M.A. Applied Psychology (Specialisation in Clinical Psychology)

Designation: Former Consultant Psychologist, ACRO Mental Health Services.

Word count: 1,365 words

Reading time: 11 minutes

Reviewed by: Sareem Athar, Mariyam Mohammed, Aishwarya Krishna Priya & Ayesha Begum.

The concepts of "gender" and "sex" are used synonymously with each other (1). However, both words bear very different meanings (2). Sex can be understood biologically in terms of one’s physical traits like external genitalia, hormones and genes (3), whereas gender generally refers to the characteristics that a person is required to have, which classify them as either being "masculine" or "feminine" (4,5).

The concept of gender is no longer considered a binary of a man and a woman.

However, it is also not true that all humans conform to the societal norm of what it is to be a "man" or a "woman." Sexual minorities are frequently referred to as members of the LGBTQ+ community, which includes people who identify as homosexuals, transgender, or queer, to name a few (6-8). Within this larger community, some people do not identify themselves with either of the binary genders (male or female) or some aspects of the gender that are associated with their biological selves. They are generally referred to as the "third gender" in India (9-11).

Who are the hijras?

The existence of people belonging to the third gender is unquestionable in societies worldwide (12). Specifically, in South Asian countries, namely India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, a highly culture-specific group of people belonging to the third gender is known as the hijra community (13). According to a UNDP report, "hijra" is an umbrella term for all sexual minorities (14-16). It states that "Hijra cultures are India’s answer to support systems for sexual minorities (17)." "Long before the West gave birth to gay liberation, India’s homosexuals, bisexuals, transvestites, transsexuals, and kothis found refuge under this umbrella(18)." Sinha built upon this definition by adding the fact that the idea of what a hijra is often blurs the boundaries of the traditional gender roles assigned by society and goes beyond the typical binary constructions of a man and a woman (19-20).

Hijras or Kinnars (also called Chhakkas, Aravani, and Thirunangai, among other names) have been living as an important part of our society for decades (21). Hijras refer to one of the oldest ethnic communities of transgenders, intersex people, hermaphrodites, transvestites, and eunuchs, among others, who describe themselves as being "neither a man nor a woman" . However, this definition doesn’t simply limit itself to just gender or sex (22-24). A huge problem that seems to be prevalent in South Asian society is that the boundaries between a transgender person and a hijra are very blurred (25). While a Hijra can be transgender, not all transgenders are Hijras (26). As mentioned earlier, the hijras are a diverse group of people, and they may not be confined to just being transgender (27-28). Thus, these are mutually overlapping rather than synonymous terms (29).

The hijra community is endemic to South Asian countries

Also, what it means to be a "hijra" has its roots in social and cultural factors as well, in terms of their special customs, practices, and social hierarchy. Hijras across India can be classified into seven "houses," all hijras belong to either one of these subgroups (30-32). These subgroups reflect the lineage of each house, and they do not indicate any social status as such (33). The groups have been retained throughout the years for convenience, as all the Hijras belong to just one caste (34,35). These aspects have slight variances depending on where they reside (36).

History and current situation

Hijras have been referred to in ancient texts such as the Kama Sutra, a portion of which talks about intercourse between two men, one being the "male" who penetrates and the other, a "female," who is receptive (37,38). During the Mughal era, they played a very important role in acting as the guards of the royal harem and held a respectable position (39). However, the dawn of the colonial era caused the entire community to be criminalised under the "Criminal Tribes Act" (40,41). After independence, this law was abolished, and in 1994, Hijras were granted the right to vote as members of the third gender (42). Another law by the Supreme Court in 2014 ruled them a socially and economically backward community, thus making them entitled to reservations in jobs and education. Even with Section 377 of the Indian Constitution not in force anymore (which condemned homosexual sex practices), Hijras are not likely to gain acceptance in society at large, at least for the time being (43-46).

Landmark decisions made by the courts help in the empowerment of the LGBTQ+ community

Despite being respected by some and even sought out to bless newborns or newlyweds by others, hijras also face stigmatisation and live under the constant risk of being abused or discriminated against simply because they are "different" from others (47,48). A majority of the members of this community seemed to have internalised the fact that they will face such ostracism and rejection for the rest of their lives, while a few determined members actively engaged in working towards the social inclusion and betterment of the hijra community. An example of such an individual is Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, who is one of the leading hijra activists in India (49-52).


Thus, while the social status of the hijras may be showing improvement as compared to what it was previously, there is still not enough convincing evidence to support this fact(53,54). Because of the notion that exists in Indian society that Hijras are "abnormal" and since they are often looked down upon for the kind of work that they are engaged in, they are, as a consequence, deprived of opportunities to take up proper jobs and education, thus having to resort to begging, sex work, and so on (55,56), which once again strengthens the stereotypes and notions that people have about the Hijras (57,58). Thus, they are likely to remain in this vicious cycle of stigmatisation and exclusion (59,60). The realisation that hijras are an integral part of society is important, and the acceptance and gradual integration of these people in society at large is crucial as well(61). As Chettiar states, "All hijras are human beings, and logically all human rights apply to all hijras (62)." "As all human beings have the right to live with dignity at all times, regardless of their legal, social, or political status, so do hijras" (63,64).

Audio-Visual Credits

  1. Photo by Ajijchan on IStock

  2. Photo by Teddy O on Unsplash


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