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Saris and Dust: India's Hijras

Mon 11 Jul 2005 In: True Stories View at NDHA

India's hijra gender minority featured on a Prime Television documentary on Tuesday evening (12 July 2005). What are hijras? As Zia Jaffrey explained it in her book about one rural hijra community, the closest western equivalent would be eunuchs. They're unlike western transexuals because they undergo surgical castration at a comparatively young age. Often, hijra bands induce impoverished parents to part with young male children, who are then surgically modified to undertake the hijra lifestyle. For the most part, this consists of popular entertainment. Hijra are known for descending on wedding parties, singing, and won't go away until they are allowed to bless the nuptials. Of course, there are also local differences from western models of the eunuch. Hijra are transvestites, which differentiates them from the pattern of castrati singers until the eighteenth century within Catholic choral practice, although there were similarities in the model of impoverished parental sale of promising juvenile males to institutions and surgical castration afterward. However, Western Catholic castrati/eunuchs were not transvestites, and some even managed to father children! As with the castrati choral lifestyle, perhaps one shouldn't judge parents too harshly for wanting relative economic security for their children, given arduous rural poverty within Indian society. The hijras aren't 'transsexuals,' as they do not undergo what we would consider gender reassignment surgery, although it would be legitimate to consider them transgendered. Therefore, the Prime docco title is misleading- the hijra should not be considered 'India's ladyboys,' as Thai kathoey may avail themselves of reassignment surgery. Moreover, hijra are mostly rural transvestites, who may have little awareness or comprehension of urban western models of gender and sexuality, despite recent rapid Indian modernisation. India's hijras demonstrate that traditional rural societies may not always be benighted havens of gender and sexual conservatism, although hijra social roles may be circumscribed by those same traditions. Unfortunately, India's current prosperity, rapid economic growth and modernisation may lead to the marginalisation of this traditional model of alternative gendered lifestyle, as western models of gender and sexuality make their presence felt. For now, though, we can still appreciate the glamour of hijra entertainment within rural Indian communities. Recommended Reading: Zia Jaffrey: The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India: New York: Pantheon Books: 1996. Serena Nanda: Neither Male or Female: The Hijras of India: Belmont: Wordsworth: 1990. Gayatri Reddy: With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India: Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2005.     Craig Young - 11th July 2005

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Monday, 11th July 2005 - 12:00pm

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