The Hijras. An alternative Gender Role in India

Seminar Paper, 2013

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Religious and mythological context

3 Defining Hijras
a as not men
b as not women

4 Hijra’s role in society
a Ritual performances
b Sexuality

5 Social organization of the hijra community

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

How do we know whether a person is male or female? We usually do not explicitly ask for a demonstration of their sex but in most cases the outer appearance, the physique, the clothing, and the way of behaving help us to identify a person’s sex and gender. In our society, knowing one’s sex and gender builds the basis for all kinds of interactions with each other. The identity as being either “male or female or as a member of an alternative gender makes a difference in who you are, what you have, how you interact, and what you can become” (Peoples 238). But how do we as individuals know which gender we belong to? To answer this question, we first have to differentiate the two basic terms sex and gender. “Sex is the biological identity into which all humans are born (XX = female, XY = male), while gender […] is the system of socially constructed ideas, beliefs, and associated behaviors of what is feminine or masculine within a given culture” (Boyd and Lassiter 217). This definition clearly illustrates that if we refer to the term sex, there are only two categories that people could fit, namely being either male or female. On the basis of the binary system of sex, a firm belief within western society has arisen, that accordingly two and only two genders exist, namely being either feminine or masculine. In the course of one’s life, everybody learns right from the beginning on how to “perform” a certain gender role and how to be either male or female. “One is not born, but, rather, becomes [a man or] a woman” (Butler 61).

However, “these notions of roles are often idealized and do not address the possibility of people who do not fit a model based on binary opposition” (Boyd and Lassiter 217). Still, in every culture there are people whose sex cannot be clearly identified or who do not identify with the gender that is designated for them. These individuals are in a state of liminality, which means that they are in a situation that is “ambiguous or indeterminate” (Boyd and Lassiter 218). The word liminality comes from the Latin word limen, which means “threshold”. Hence, these people cannot exactly classify themselves as belonging to one or the other sex or gender.

A famous example of such people are the hijras of India who represent an alternative or mixed sex/gender role since they “are culturally conceptualized as neither man nor woman, neither male nor female” (Nanda 2008: 461). The hijras, the so called third gender in India, are usually represented by biological males who take on a feminine gender or sexual role. They are “people whom we in the West would differentiate as eunuchs, homosexuals, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and transvestites” (Nanda 1993: 175). However, a great difference between alternative genders in India and the West can be seen especially concerning their social acceptance. Our Western culture, “where ideas about sex and gender are conflated rather than viewed separately, [is] not well socialized to the possibility of gender variation” (Boyd and Lassiter 217), whereas the hijra’s “role is so deeply rooted in Indian culture that it can accommodate a wide variety of […] gender identities [and] cross-gender behaviors […]” (Nanda 1993: 175). Why the hijras of India take an established role within Hindu culture, who they really are, and what their role in society actually is, will be presented in this work.

2 Religious and mythological context

The most important basis why the hijra community is so successful in being accepted by Indian society is Hindu religion and Indian mythology. Hinduism, in contrast to many western religions, “believes in the existence of multiple gods, many of whom are androgynous [which means that they have] both female and male characteristics” (Peoples 248). Also Indian mythology “contains numerous examples of androgynes, impersonators of the opposite sex, and individuals who undergo sex changes, both among deities and humans” (Nanda 1993: 176).

One of the most important sexually ambivalent figures in Hinduism is Shiva, a deity, which incorporates both male and female aspects. There are two reasons why hijras identify especially with this deity. First, Shiva is represented in many different ways, but the most popular form is that of Ardhanarisvara, a form that embodies a female as well as a male side. Because of this combination of masculinity and femininity Shiva is widely acknowledged as a super-god that is especially worshiped by hijras. Second, its “most powerful symbol and object of worship is the phallus – but the phallus is always set in the yoni, the symbol of the female genitals” (Nanda 1993: 176). So again there is this unification of two sexes. But the phallus even holds another symbolic role. According to an anecdote, Shiva’s self-emasculation became the major source of its creative power. By removing the penis and the testicles, Shiva made himself impotent. However, since “Hinduism not only accommodates [sexual] ambiguities, but also views them as meaningful and even powerful” (Nanda 1993: 176), impotence is not a taboo in India, on the contrary, “in Hinduism, impotence can be transformed into procreative power through the practice of asceticism, or the renunciation of sex” (Nanda 2011: 263).

Following the example set by Shiva, hijras imitate exactly this state of being. They unify their male bodies with female characteristics by dressing and acting like women. Moreover, just like Shiva, hijras undergo an emasculation ritual, an operation which is called nirvan, or rebirth, which involves the removal of the penis and the testicles. “Only after the operation do hijras become vehicles of the power of the Mother Goddess whose blessings they bestow at weddings and childbirth” (Nanda 2011: 264). The operation transforms impotent or ‘useless’ men into a hijra and confers the procreative power of the Mother Goddess on them. Hence, Shiva is the deity that most hijras identify with very closely. Therefore they often worship at Shiva temples or “they worship Bahuchara Mata, one of the avatars of the Hindu Mother Goddess” (Peoples 248).

Since androgynous deities and mythical figures are part of Indian religion and culture, it makes it easier for hijras, as an alternative gender, to maintain a place in Indian society. This is in stark contrast to western cultures, which according to Serena Nanda “try to resolve, repress or dismiss sexual contradictions and ambiguities as jokes or trivia […] Hinduism [however] has a great capacity to allow opposites to confront each other without necessarily resolving the opposition” (2011: 260). Unlike Western cultures and religions, Hinduism is more open concerning alternative genders or gender transformations and “gives positive meaning to the lives of many individuals with a variety of alternative gender identifications, physical conditions, and erotic preferences” (Nanda 2011: 260).

Hijras of India make use of this openness in Hinduism and define themselves as being neither male nor female, they are Hijras. But how is it possible that they are neither male nor female?

3 Defining Hijras

a … as not men

Although hijras are born into the category of being male, they are not real males but some kind of ‘in-betweeners’. Defining hijras as not men starts with the fact that they are usually impotent or incomplete men. When focusing primarily on the anatomical characteristics of hijras, their penis is usually either imperfect or absent. But being impotent and having stunted genitalia “is only a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a hijra” (Nanda 1999: 15). In order to be a real hijra they need to have their genitals cut off. The emasculation ritual “is the dharm (religious obligation) of the hijras, and it is this renunciation of male sexuality through the surgical removal of the organ of male sexuality that is at the heart of the definition of the hijra social identity” (Nanda 1999: 15). Hence, as Wendy O’Flaherty puts it, after the operation at the latest “hijras are man minus man” (cited in Nanda 1999: 15).

Furthermore, most of them claim not to have the same sexual desires normal men have. Hijras do not feel attracted by women and do not have “the ordinary desires of men to get married and have families” (Krishna, a hijra, cited in Nanda 1999: 16). On the contrary, when they choose to live their lives as a hijra, they are willing to live as ascetics and to renounce all sexual desires because their religion tells them to do so. However, this is not the case with everyone who changes their identity. A young hijra prostitute called Kamladevi claims: “Older hijras […] say they don’t have the sexual desires and all, they have become very religious minded and don’t do all that. But when they were young, I can tell you, they were just like me. We hijras are born as boys, but then we ‘get spoiled’ and have sexual desires only for men” (Nanda 1999: 15). The fact that there are hijras who do not live as ascetics but actually do engage in sexual relationships will be discussed at a later point.

It has already been said that hijras are ‘man minus man’, but in a way they are also ‘man plus woman’ because of their outer appearance and their behaviour. “Hijras adopt many aspects of the feminine gender role” (Nanda 2011: 262). The most obvious aspect of hijras being like a woman is their dress. They usually wear female clothing which depends on the region; hijras in South India wear saris, whereas hijras in North India wear “salwar-kameez (the loose shirt and pants worn by women in North India)” (Nanda 1999: 17) or they even wear Western women’s fashions. Furthermore, their female dress is typically “accompanied by traditionally feminine jewelry, such as wrist bangles, nose rings, and toe rings, as well as bindi – the colored dot applied to the forehead of all Hindu women who are not widows” (Nanda 1999: 17). Another must for hijras is to wear their hair long. Since it is such an important point of their identity, it is even considered a punishment and an insult for hijras if their hair is cut off by elderly hijras because the younger ones may have misbehaved. In addition, hijras are not allowed to shave but they have to pluck out their facial hair so that their skin remains smooth like a woman’s.

But it is not only the outer appearance of hijras that identifies them as ‘women-like’, but it is also their way of behaving. Hijras adopt female behaviour; “They imitate, even exaggerate, a woman’s “swaying walk”, sit and stand like women, and carry pots on their hips, which men do not” (Nanda 1999: 17). Moreover, they take female names as part of their gender transformation and “use female kinship terms for many of their relationships with each other, such as sister, aunty and grandmother” (Nanda 2011: 262). Some even attach a certain importance to use a special, feminized language “which consist of the use of feminine expressions and intonations” (Nanda 1999: 17). In public transport they request “ladies only” seating and in the census they want to be counted as women rather than men.


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The Hijras. An alternative Gender Role in India
University of Trier
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hijras, gender, role, india
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Nina Daub (Author), 2013, The Hijras. An alternative Gender Role in India, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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