The Secret World of South India’s Transgender Women

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Image: Sahar Fadaian

While halted at traffic lights in an Indian city, it is not unusual to see a figure in a bright sari sashay down through the lines of waiting vehicles. The hijra stops at each car or auto-rickshaw, braving the noise and fumes, and holds out a hand for alms. Some motorists may studiously ignore the entreaties of the woman or shoo her away; others may slip her a few coins and receive a blessing in return.

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Image: Sahar Fadaian

In India hijras are officially aligned with a “third gender” – that is, they’re classified as neither solely male nor female. Often, the word “hijra” is synonymous with “eunuch,” but the term also encompasses those who are transgender or intersex. In fact, only a minority of Indian hijras are actually castrated – something that proves to be an agonizing, illegal and sometimes fatal ordeal. More often, hijras are those who were born biologically male but go on to take on a feminine appearance. Their hair is grown long, and their faces are plucked – rather than shaved – smooth. Their community is both highly visible and incredibly ostracized.

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Image: Sahar Fadaian

Iranian photographer Sahar Fadaian first encountered hijras while studying and working with charities in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. “Back in those years,” Fadaian explains, “one group of people I could hardly not notice in the streets were transgender women who would come to you at the stop signals and ask for money. And when you give them something, they put their hands on your head, say some prayers and smile to you and go.”

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