Cora Gäbel, University of Tübingen
Homosexuals, Prostitutes or Transgender? The Hijras in South Asia
While some Hijṛās are born as hermaphrodites, most of them are biologically male. Some time between puberty and adulthood they become Hijṛās. That is, they start to dress, speak and behave like women, or rather, they exaggerate women’s natural behavior. Some Hijṛās are castrated – actual sex-change is not the issue – and many are forced to become sex workers.
Hijṛās do not form a homogenous group. They do not fit into established categories of gender, which is why the term third gender has established itself in the academic world. Describing Hijṛās as either men or women would ignore the fact that they view themselves as neither. Other terms used are transgender or gender-queer, but never words like transsexual or homosexual, let alone prostitute. While these designations may apply to some Hijṛās, they are not characteristic of Hijṛās as such.
South Asian society has an ambivalent attitude towards Hijṛās: on the one hand, they are asked to bless male infants and married couples after their wedding, in order to ensure male heirs, but on the other hand people – particularly men – fear them. Their presence at festivals and marriages can be auspicious, but Hijṛās are also said to have the power to curse people, particularly to cause impotence in men.
Even though the concept of transgender is not exclusively South Asian (c.f. the Two-Spirit People among Native Americans, or the Kathoey in Thailand), Hijṛās seem to have by far the greatest presence in public life. Though a well-known phenomenon, few studies have been made about Hijṛās. Lately they have become more accessible through documentaries and popular articles. It remains to be hoped that recent verdicts favoring the legal standing of Hijṛās in Pakistan will lead to more research.
Yet, neither the many prejudices against Hijṛās, nor the cultural value of Hijṛās, nor their physical appearance will be the subject of this presentation. The focus will rather be on the everyday life of Hijṛās, what they do and how they feel about their life. This will be demonstrated through several video clips. Besides this, I will discuss the distinction between gender and sex, as well as the improved legal situation of Hijṛās, to give a deeper insight into the lives of South Asian Hijṛās.