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Hijras and the Governance of Bodies

Written by: Kotono Sagane

Above is an image of Bahuchara Mata, a Hindu goddess of fertility. However, some might recognise her as the mother of hijras – a gender identity in South Asia whose birth sex is male but identify as neither male nor female. While hijras are often mistakenly described under the umbrella of transgender identity, this fails to grasp the spiritual and religious status that the term ‘hijra’ entails. Not only were they respected as the possessor of the power to bless or curse others, but they were also vital administrative figures in the Sultanate and Mughal courts as tax collectors. Nonetheless, South Asia’s long history of colonialism meant that their understanding of gender was further complicated, manifested in the conflictual intersections of hijra identity, legislature and nationalism that we see today.

The institutional discrimination against hijras has its roots in the British colonial era when the Criminal Tribes Act was imposed in 1871. Despite the deep cultural and spiritual linkage between Hinduism and hijras, the Act persecuted “any eunuch … who appears, dressed or ornamented like a woman” to govern how they dress and behave in public. In fact, Hijra’s unique gender identity was perceived as a detrimental threat to the Western morality that the British colonialists established the Indian Penal Code of 1860 by taking inspiration from the 1533 Buggery Act– the first sodomy law in Britain which transferred the responsibility from ecclesiastical courts to the state. The Penal Code’s Section 377 is infamous for its criminalization of homosexuality based on the claim that it goes against “the nature of any man, woman or animal.” Thus, the colonial authority’s insistence on reinforcing control over the ‘deviant’ groups of society indicates how biopower over hijras was a crucial tool of governance under the British Empire.

Approximately 150 years later, it is still questionable whether there has been any improvement in the treatment of hijras. Despite India gaining independence in 1947 and Section 377 of the Penal Code being overturned in 2018, the legacies of the British marginalization of hijras are certainly still visible today. What is surprising is that the legacies manifest themselves not only in forms of discrimination and inequality – such as to the access to jobs, medical care or education, but also, crucially, in the Indian government’s inheritance of the British abuse of biopower.

By creating a façade of Westernization, the Indian government has started to further oppress hijras through the establishment of legislatures that ironically set out to protect the rights of hijras and other gender minority groups. For instance, the 2014 Supreme court ruling on the petition filed by the National Legal Services Authority was praised as a success for the LGBTQ+ community in India as it recognised the rights of transgender men and women to choose their gender on official documents. However, the rejection of such rights to hijras indicated the top-down imposition of conditionality to be eligible for the rights to choose gender. On the grounds that hijras are just ‘cross-dressers’ who have not undergone Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS), they were forced into a label of ‘third gender’ against their will, not being given the right to choose their own gender identity. This perhaps reflects the recent developments regarding LGBTQ+ rights in countries such as the US, Australia and Malaysia where they only legally recognise marriages between a transgender woman with SRS and a man – or vice versa.

The authoritative control over hijras was further strengthened through the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, which had been in discussion since 2014 and was introduced in 2016. Various LGBTQ+ activists have raised concerns regarding the bureaucratization of gender identification, requiring one to apply for a transgender certificate to the District Magistrate upon proof of SRS surgery, which can be later used to apply for a gender certificate to change their identification. The government essentially defined in its narrow terms who ‘trans’ people are, imposing conditions and criteria to claim a certain gender identity. Additionally, District Screening Committees with a Chief Medical Officer and District Social Welfare Officer was created, reflecting the intentions of the government to control, monitor and manage the ‘deviants’ of society, as claimed by Vaibhav Saria.

The targeted oppression of hijras can be understood in the context of escalating discourses of nationalism in India. Hijras have, in fact, been engulfed by nationalist discourses, being identified as a threat to the nation. The 2016 Bill’s criminalization of begging was essentially a deliberate suppression of hijra’s tradition of challa mangana – alms collection that has been integral to hijra tradition for centuries. By portraying hijras as the deviant group engaging in criminal activities like ‘begging’, the government successfully categorized hijras as ‘the others’ who should rightfully be subjected to state surveillance. Additionally, the Indian government criminalized whoever “forces or causes a transgender person to leave household, village or other places of residence,” directly suppressing the tradition of hijra gharana – hijra tradition of leaving natal households to consolidate their asceticism. By identifying this tradition as a threat to Indian households, hijras are again marginalized as ‘the other’ who undermine the security of the nation.

The erasure of hijra’s tradition and the overall criminalization of their existence suggest that the Indian government is not only attempting to marginalize hijras, but also trying to obtain a tighter grip over them. By extension, this exercise of biopower recalls the British colonial governance of non-binary gender identities, making hijras an effective target when enhancing nationalist discourses in Indian politics today.

Featured image by Damian N. Boodram (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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