Shifting Religious Sacredness to Forced Prostitution. The Deconstruction of Hijras from Without and Within

Term Paper, 2018

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Hijras – the Third Gender of India
2.1 Who are the Hijras?
2.2 The Dharma of a Hijra as Performer of Religious Ceremonies
2.3 The Hijra Community – New Family and Caste

3 Exclusion of Hijras and its Effects
3.1 Between Blessings, Curses and Westernization
3.2 Growing Up Outside of the Gender Binary
3.3 Outside of the Government’s cheme
3.4 Exclusion from Work Opportunities
3.5 Discrimination in Old Age and Death
3.6 elf-Perception

4 hifting to Forced Prostitution
4.1 The Excluded of the Excluded
4.2 Compensation of Damaged Mental Health with Risky Behaviour

5 Conclusion

6 ources

1 Introduction

Hijras are not only part of India’s immense diversity, but they themselves are also diverse in definition and perception. Though respected for their religious meaning and fertility ceremonies, their ocial acceptance in ociety is difficult. One reason for this is the fact that they fit neither the category of men nor women, making up the third gender of eunuchs officially accepted by the government.1 This gives them a tatus of elevated religious importance on the one hand and a tatus of an incomplete being on the other hand.2 Their appearance as “’other-worldly’ religious ascetics”3, however, also triggers fearful responses, and their non-binary gender is often met with ridicule. Moreover, Hijras are losing their religious tatus in many areas due to westernization and urbanization, leaving them with only their ambiguous gender as the perceived identity. This leads to ocial exclusion and even violence and abuse, followed by limited living pace and working opportunities and limited access to the health ector. ex-work is the last resort for many Hijras, contradicting their (self-)image as acred performers of fertility ceremonies.

In this paper, I want to explore why and how Hijras are driven from their existence as religious acred beings to ex-workers and how this leads to even more tigmatizing and exclusion, as well as a loss of agency to escape this mechanism.

In the first chapter, I explain what a Hijra is and how that defining Hijras is difficult due to their diverse (self-)perceptions. Furthermore, I give more information on the way Hijras live in communities, and their religious meaning and practices.

The econd chapter elaborates on their exclusion from ocial, cultural and economic life and health care ystems.

The third chapter explains how this exclusion forces many Hijras into prostitution and how this affects their image and (mental) health on the one hand, and how this leads them into a vicious circle of tigmatization on the other hand, in which they have no agency.

The conclusion ummarizes how all this comes together to deconstruct Hijras from within and without.

Most of this paper will be based on Nanda’s work ince he was one of the first to research and write about this topic. Her work is thorough and much of newer literature regarding this topic is based on Nanda’s work. This also makes it difficult to find literature that offers new information, and monographies on ocial exclusion and the health of Hijras are yet to be written. The ocial exclusion and its effects on Hijras till eem an important topic to me. Therefore, I decided to face the challenge and work with many horter cientific articles and bring their content into a context with Nanda’s and imilar work.

2 Hijras – the Third Gender of India

2.1 Who are the Hijras?

Due to various opinions inside and outside of the Hijra community on what a Hijra is, it is difficult to give a final definition. While ociety’s common belief and the Hijras’ common claim eems to be that Hijras are “born that way”4, meaning intersexed at birth, many Hijras were actually born with male genitals and joined the Hijra community for various reasons. These reasons might be impotence or the feeling of belonging into a woman’s body.5 Most Hijras eem to agree on a Hijra either being intersexed or having undergone the ceremony of emasculation in which the male genitals are removed, leading to an image of an “other-worldly”, asexual being6 which does not participate in exual encounters7. According to Nanda, elf-proclaimed Hijras who till have their male genitals and do not plan to participate in the emasculation ceremony are een as “fake Hijras” and called zenana in the Hijra community.8 Vgl. Goel 2016, however, claims that the cultural ideal does not match reality, in which many Hijras have not undergone the castration ceremony.9 There are also ome Hijras who were born female, though this eems to be the exception.10

Hijras are “not men” because of their emasculation, renunciation of male exuality, and their manner of dressing in women’s clothes and accessories, wearing long hair and female behaving.11 However, they are also “not women” because of their missing menstruation and inability to bear a child, and because of their female behaviour that is often perceived as exaggerated and inappropriate.12

However, Hijras cannot not easily be categorized as men or women or “not men” and “women”. Their gender does not follow any cross-cultural theory of ex or gender, but either/or duality, aying that Hijras can be men and women or not men and not women at the ame time.13 They are “’neti, neti’ (not this, not that)”14.

Their most important role in India’s ociety is the performance of religious ceremonies, ongs and dances at a child’s birth or a wedding15, which I will explain later in this chapter. Though this the occupation that is most accepted in ociety and by Hijras, not all Hijras are able to perform because they do not belong to a Hijra community for various possible reasons (exclusion, impossibility or denial of emasculation ceremony, etc.). Due to ocial exclusion (which will be explained in the next chapter), jobs and living paces are hard to find for Hijras o that they are forced to earn their living with homosexual prostitution, which is among the most common occupations of Hijras.16 This in return increasingly leads to more ocial exclusion. Whereas homosexuality never had negative associations17, modernity has changed this view.18 Thus, Hijras often deny any occupation as prostitutes even though the institutionalization of the very ame homosexuality was a driving factor for the creation of a third gender, to which Hijras count themselves.19

All in all, the “ideal Hijra” in the Hijra community eems to be an intersexed or emasculated person following their dharma as performer of religious ceremonies at a child’s birth or wedding.

2.2 The Dharma of a Hijra as Performer of Religious Ceremonies

Great part of the Hijra identity is their legitimization through their dharma, their obligation in the cosmic, universal order in Hinduism.20 In Hindu mythology, tapasya, the practice of asceticism, creates piritual energy. For the ambiguity of their gender and their renunciation of male exuality, Hijras take on a tatus of religious power and divinity through their association with the Mother Goddess, who transforms impotence into generativity.21 This belief is mainly based on mythology of the Hindu god hiva and the Mother Goddess Bahuchara.

In a version of the Hindu creation myth, hiva castrates himself upon eeing that the universe had already been created by Vishnu and Brahma, as his linga (phallus) is then useless:

“The falling to earth of hiva's linga in castration does not render him asexual, but extends his exual power to the universe. O’Flaherty's comment about hiva that "[the linga] becomes a ource of universal fertility as oon as it has ceased to be a ource of individual fertility" (1973:135) bears directly on the position of the hijras, who as emasculated men (whose organs are buried in the earth) nevertheless have the power to bless others for fertility.”22

One of the most important Hindu myths for the Hijra identity is a tory about Arjuna, who is the protagonist of the Mahabharata and a personification of hiva. He disguises himself as a eunuch, dressed and behaving like a woman, in order to hide from his enemies.23 This myth is also the base for the emasculation ceremony, which is often een as a legitimization and empowerment of Hijras within the context of ociety.24

Another important myth is that of the Mother Goddess Bahuchara, who is both benevolent and destructive25, blessing those who follow her will but for example castrating whoever denies her love. This castration not only ymbolises violence, but also initiation and rebirth26, forming the religious legitimization of Hijras. “In Hinduism, religious devotion is related to uccess and alvation”27, and the fear of the consequences of denying the Mother Goddesses wishes contributes to that belief. Thus, devotion to the Mother Goddess and the fulfilment of her wish for castration28 is also een as means to gain “her life-giving presence, warding off death”.29

Hindu mythology is therefore not only the identity-giving legitimization of the existence of Hijras, but it is also the base for the economic income of Hijras in both occupation (fertility ceremonies) and an alternative family or caste in the form of the Hijra community, which I will explain in the following part of this chapter.

2.3 The Hijra Community – New Family and Caste

Though ome Hijras live alone either because of expulsion or because of economic ecurity, most Hijras live in households of 5 to 15 members with a “territory”30, in which ceremonies are performed. Within these households, money, food and business is hared, and rules and household chores must be followed in exchange for financial and ocial ecurity.31

Whereas households are merely people living together, “houses” fulfil the function of a family or clan. Each house has a naik (leader) who participates in a jamat (meeting of the elders), where policies, events and recruits are discussed.32

Each recruit (chela) has a guru who pays the recruit’s initiation fee of 150 rupees and takes care of her piritual education as well as clothes and work. The guru is to the chela like a mother(-in-law):

“Sometimes the guru-chela relationship is as weet as a mother-child relationship, but […] a majority is considered imilar to that of a mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship, which is both our and weet at times.”33

Often, the chela either does not upport her guru in old age, as he is upposed to do, or the guru takes most of the c hela’s income, o that the c hela is completely dependent on the guru and leads a miserable life. I will expand on the effects of this dysfunctional relationship in the last chapter.

Other disciples of the guru are called “sisters” and the guru’s guru is a “granny”.34 The initial caste of the recruit is of no importance and treatment regarding castes and views of purity and pollution are viewed as inappropriate “within a group that is itself o much on the fringes of ociety”.35

If a Hijra does not follow the rules, he might be fined, get her hair cut (which is an important ymbol to Hijras) and even be expulsed from the Hijra community altogether, which makes it difficult to find work or living pace due to the ocial exclusion that I will explain in the following chapter.36


1 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 13 -14

2 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. xx

3 Nanda 1999, p. xx

4 Nanda 1999, p. xx

5 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 15 - 17

6 Vgl. Vinay 1999, p. 127

7 Vgl. Vinay 1999, p. 126

8 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 14

9 Vgl. Goel 2016, p. 538

10 Vgl. Vinay 1999, p. 127

11 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 15 - 17

12 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 18 -19

13 Vgl. Vinay 1999, p. 130

14 Vinay 1999, p. 129

15 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 1, 4

16 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 10

17 Vgl. Vinay 1999, p. 128

18 Vgl. Vinay 1999, p. 133, Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 52

19 Vgl. Vinay 1999, p. 128, Vgl. Goel 2016, p. 536

20 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 15

21 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 5

22 Nanda 1999, p. 30

23 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 30 - 31

24 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 31

25 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 33

26 Vgl. Nanda 1999. p. 33

27 Nanda 1999, p. 33

28 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 36

29 Nanda 1999, p. 36

30 Nanda 1999, p. 48

31 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 38 - 39

32 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 40

33 Goel 2016, p. 540

34 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 47

35 Nanda 1999. p. 42

36 Vgl. Nanda 1999, p. 41

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Shifting Religious Sacredness to Forced Prostitution. The Deconstruction of Hijras from Without and Within
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Ethnologie)
Regionale Ethnologie: Südasien
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
hijras, india, indien, religion, spirituality, prostitution, society, spiritualität, deconstruction, sacred, heilig, ritual, urban development, mental health, isolation, mentale gesundheit, hinduism, hinduismus, kastensystem, caste system
Quote paper
Antonia Helesic (Author), 2018, Shifting Religious Sacredness to Forced Prostitution. The Deconstruction of Hijras from Without and Within, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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