The Secret World of South India’s Transgender Women

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.

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.

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.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The hijras’ requests for donations were not always gentle, though. As Fadaian recalls, “In some cases if a man resisted giving them money, they would scare him by showing their privates, following him, screaming at him until he finally gives up.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Fadaian found herself increasingly intrigued by the colorful hijras. “I had some moments of such strange eye contact with numbers of them when I was stuck in traffic or I was walking in their neighborhood,” she explains. “One day I thought to myself, ‘They are just people, like you, Sahar. Only with faces and bodies that don’t get approval.’”

Fadaian felt a personal connection with the hijras and their situation. “I come from a country where I was never approved of by my family, and I could never fit in with the cultural revolutions and the constant mask the government wants us to wear,” she says of life in Iran.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

“I sympathized with them just like any other person I ever photographed and wrote stories about,” Fadaian continues. “I felt I have what it takes to walk into the privacy of their lives just to hear what they have gone through and how they get by, and what their hopes and dreams and fears are.”

However, getting access to the private lives of hijras is not a simple matter, especially for someone who doesn’t speak the local dialect. For this reason, Fadaian enlisted the services of a dependable auto-rickshaw driver to arrange meetings with hijra women and interpret their conversations. And even then, communicating with the hijras proved challenging, as the driver’s English was itself rather tricky to comprehend. Fadaian resolved to record several of her encounters and later show them to a bilingual acquaintance to make sure that she hadn’t misunderstood anything.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Most hijras have fled from society or been kicked out of home by unsympathetic families. Some settle in group residences, presided over by a “guru” who looks after them in exchange for their income. A “godmother” of the house is also often appointed, and it was these figures that Fadaian had to win over in order to be allowed inside the hijras’ secretive abodes.

According to Fadaian, each suburb of Bangalore has its own “damp, dark, tiny” hijra house. Fadaian asked her auto-rickshaw driver assistant to introduce her to each house’s godmother and explain the photographer’s intentions. “In some cases, I wasn’t welcomed and they’d ask me to leave – either politely, or rudely, or even screaming,” Fadaian says.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Once allowed into a house, though, Fadaian was able to take these photographs and talk to the occupants. “I was not a reporter or an employee of anywhere or anyone. I was a person doing this firstly for myself,” she says of her motivation to meet the hijras. “I wanted to have my own perspective and understanding by knocking at their door, talking to them face to face, holding their hands and hearing as much of their story as they wanted to share.”

Unfortunately, the stories many hijras would have to tell are ones filled with struggles and injustice. Disowned or condemned by their relatives, they face life alone in a society that is often far from accepting.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

At worst, hjiras can face cruel physical violence at the hands of the general public, the police and even their own families. Indeed, the only times they may be welcomed into society is at celebrations, such as births and weddings, when their blessings are sought. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that theirs is considered one of the most oppressed communities in India.

Despite such harassment, hijras actually have a long and distinguished history in South Asia. They can trace their antecedents back as far as the times of the ancient Hindu Mahabharata and Ramayana texts. In fact, it is said to have been the god Rama himself who gave hijras the power to bestow their celebratory blessings on others.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Hijras were even once respected enough to hold power in the Mughal courts. However, the British took over rule in India during the 19th century, and they saw hijras as detrimental to public decorum. The British Raj went on to marginalize and watch over hijras, even designating them as a “criminal tribe.” And the stigma surrounding hijras still remains in modern Indian society; many of these transgender individuals feel that the only means of making a living open to them are through begging and prostitution. The turn toward sex work, however, has meant that a staggering fifth of the members of hijra communities in the Indian city of Mumbai have become HIV positive.

Recently, though, there has at least been one positive move toward improving the lot of the Indian hijra community. In 2014 the country’s Supreme Court decreed that hijras can now be recognized as an official third gender. Yet whatever the official stance on hijras, it seems that it could be a long time before they are fully accepted into society at large.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Regardless, Fadaian was struck by the calm acceptance that she found among the hijras, “in the look in their eyes, in spite of years and years of pain and abandonment.” She saw resilient ties within the hijra families and a determination to carry on with their lives as best they could.

“It was nature that created them this way,” Fadaian says of the hijras, “but it’s the mindset of people and society that lead and narrow their lives to only two options: begging and prostitution. It’s not even a choice when you are left with nothing to survive. They should have the right and place to grow, to educate, to work and be among all other types of people.”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

For Fadaian, her “camera is just a tool” to document the remarkable story of the hijras and present the community and its individuals to a larger audience. She says, “This is the only way I can raise my questions – reflect what I like to see more and less in the world.” Her work documenting the hijra community in Bangalore was published in the Winter 2014/Spring 2015 issue of Zymbol magazine and on a Persian anthropology website.

We’d like to thank Sahar Fadaian for allowing us to use her fascinating photographs of hirijas, giving a glimpse into the lives of some of those within this secretive and all too often maligned community.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT