Something old, something new, something borrowed, something … transgendered? If you are an Indian in need of some luck on your wedding day you could do no better than seek the blessing of one of the country’s estimated 200,000 male to female transsexuals or "hijras".
Hijras have a recorded history of more than 4,000 years. Ancient myths bestow them with special powers to bring luck and fertility. Yet despite this supposedly sanctioned place in Indian culture, hijras face severe harassment and discrimination from every direction. Deepa is a 72 year old hijra living in Mumbai: “Nobody says, “I’d love to be a hijra!” Not if they know what happens to us. But what else can we do? A hijra has a man’s body, but the soul is a woman.”
Something, however, is beginning to alter in the traditional Indian mindset as right now there seems to be both subtle and appreciable changes taking place in terms of how this group are being treated and recognised by mainstream society. Over the last few months India has seen its first transgender fashion model, a transgender television presenter and in the recent Bollywood epic Jodhaa Akbar a hijra, instead of hamming up the usual comic role, was portrayed as a trusted lieutenant of the female lead.
Yet these developments come after years of crushing social stigmatisation, abuse and general derision from the wider community. Pooja, 27, realises there is still a long way to go: “They make documentaries about us and say all these interesting things, but when we walk out on the street we still get the calling and the whistles.”
The uphill struggle for the hijras first begins with finding acceptance within the family. “My family didn’t know I was castrated,” tells Chandini, 28. “My hijra friends teased me because I still went home in men's clothes, so I decided to go home as I am. When I got there some people in the street spotted me and told my mother, “Here’s your son!” She saw me and fainted. My father came, he said, “I don’t have a son, go away!” I lifted my saree and showed him. I said, "I'm not your son, I’m your daughter now."”
Once the truth is out, hijras are usually forced to leave the family home. Yet the society they must take refuge in is equally as unwelcoming. Hijras have few rights and are not recognised by Indian law. This denies them the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to marry and the right to claim formal identity through any official documents such as a passport or driving licence. Accessing healthcare, employment or education becomes almost impossible. In the face of such odds they are forced to earn money any way they can. “In the day we go around the shops and beg," says Deepa. "They give us a rupee each and we go away. Sometimes we dance at weddings and festivals, we can get good money from this."
Since 2006, hijras in the state of Bihar have been employed by the government as tax collectors, singing loudly about the debt outside the defaulter's premises until they are shamed into paying up − one of the most effective tax recovery methods ever used in India. Yet for many hijras the method of making ends is prostitution. “At night I go with the men,” Pooja says. “I am looking good so I can get a room. Many who don’t look so good must use the vehicles or somewhere else outside. Yes, it can be bad at times but I'm happy with this work.”
As is the case for all gay, lesbian and bisexual people living in India, simply by being sexually active hijras are breaking the law. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) outlaws any “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” − in other words, any sex that is not between a man and a woman with the aim of reproduction. Brought in by the British in 1860 to try and curb the “heathen customs” of the local population, it carries with it a potential life sentence.
Whilst attitudes in the UK have matured considerably and such legislation has long since been removed from the British statute books, it still remains very much part of the Indian system. Although convictions are rare, it is in the name of such a law that the police are able to carry out their worst abuses against the hijra community. It seems that every hijra in India has her own story to tell of police brutality: "Once a policewoman attacked me," remembers Chandini. "She said, "Why are you standing here?" and continued hitting me so I grabbed her hand and she ran away. She came back with two policemen and they took me to the station. There they beat me, stripped me and made me dance."
As well as the police aggression, gangs of local thugs known as “goondas” frequently rob and sexually assault hijras on the street. These attacks are rarely prevented or reported by the locals. The local people I spoke with whilst reporting this story were all apprehensive, amused or downright hostile. “They are a nuisance!” says Akram, a jeweller from Mysore. “They come to your shop and when you don’t give them money they lift up their sarees.” Later he adds, “I’ve heard they even steal babies from hospitals.”
Until very recently these attitudes were mirrored and strengthened by the Indian media which itself seemed to suffer from a certain amount of gender vertigo. Hijras were routinely portrayed as wily tricksters who led unsuspecting men astray or half-man half-woman freak shows, almost devilish in their customs and practices. In 2003, an HIV/AIDS and human rights research centre in Lucknow was raided and the coordinator jailed under IPC 377 for "conspiracy to promote homosexual activities". An English language newspaper ran the headline: Gay Racket Busted- 2 NGOs Caught in the Act
But attitudes are gradually beginning to change.
Thanks to a large number of internationally funded support groups that are gaining considerable momentum in many big Indian cities, hijras, as well as other sexuality minority groups, are slowly starting to get a better deal. Rex Watts, coordinator of the Bangalore support group “Sangama,” let me know how this is being achieved: “We had to take direct action. For instance, every time a trashy story was published we would ring up the journalist and give them a hard time about it. It has taken time but now they usually go through us before they print something.”
Sangama was set up in 1999 and is funded by the Bill Gates Foundation and the Fund for Global Human Rights among others. As well as organising protests and rallies, groups like Sangama have been instrumental in establishing community networks with monthly meetings and safe spaces such as drop-in centres for all sexuality minority groups. Two thirds of their spending goes towards fighting against the spread of HIV infection through awareness programmes and condom distribution. According to Sangama, approximately 18-20 per cent of hijras are HIV positive. “Four years ago,” Rex says, “there were three to four AIDS deaths every month [in Bangalore], now there are three to four deaths every year.”
Just as successful has been the 24/7 crisis intervention. I met Mohammed, a lawyer involved with the project: “As soon as someone calls the crisis number nine people immediately rush to the spot. We aim to get all nine people there within 30 minutes.” In the areas where they have been implemented, the crisis intervention teams have reduced the cases of police violence against hijras to practically zero. “When we are called, to a police station for example, we are straight there, 'Why have you arrested this person? We’ve been told you beat her?' like this. They still hassle them and take money from them at cruise points, but the violence has stopped.”
Vivek Diwan from the Lawyers' Collective argues that attitudes are also changing higher up the legal ladder: "Off the record comments are often made by judges [regarding IPC 377] questioning how this kind of archaic thinking can continue, I overheard one saying only recently, "Get with the times man - there's even a pride parade now in Calcutta!""
Even the Indian government seems to be finally recognising that hijras exist. In March 2000 Shabnam Mausi, or “Aunt Shabnam” as she is affectionately known, became the first hijra to be elected into Indian parliament and since then many others have taken her lead by successfully entering the political arena.
In March this year hijras were factored into the government's policy making for the first time when they were named as a target group for a breakthrough de-addiction programme. In the same month the state of Tamil Nadu allowed hijras, if they wish, to be recognised as “T” rather than just “M” or “F” on ration cards with the same being planned soon for passports and driving licences.
Deepa, at 72, may be too old to really benefit from these new developments but she knows the baton will be carried forward for many generations to come: “If you need joy in your heart, we will come and dance for you.” Deepa lives with other hijras in a house and still dances at weddings and funerals. “We can’t just stop doing this. This is what we feel. And we can’t let it go. This is what we learnt from those before us. And this is what we will teach others. And we can’t let it go.”
Nick Harvey, 31, from Northampton is currently knee-deep into an overland round the world tour. India is his 17th country so far. He hopes to come full circle and re-enter his street from the opposite end when he finally returns home