We need to understand and accept that humans are diverse. Hijras require understanding and support of the government, healthcare professionals, general public, as well as their family members
The term transgender is generally used to describe those who transgress social gender norms. Third gender or third sex is a concept in which individuals are categorised either by themselves or by society as neither man nor woman. Transgender is often used as an umbrella term to signify individuals who defy rigid, binary gender constructions and who express or present a breaking and blurring of culturally prevalent stereotypically gender roles.
In the Indian subcontinent, the Hindi word ‘Hijra’ has traditionally been translated into English as ‘Eunuch’. They are also known as Aravani, Aruvani, Jogappa, Thiru nangai in Tamil Nadu, Durani in Kolkata, Menaka in Cochin, or derogatorily, Chakka and Laanch in Kashmir. The Hijra community in India prefer to call themselves Kinnar, referring to the mythological beings that excel at song and dance. In Pakistan they are called Khwaja Sira, the equivalent of transgender in the Urdu language.
The eunuchs or hijras have been an integral part of society since time immemorial. The hijra community in India has existed with a recorded history of more than 4,000 years. Hundreds of years ago, under traditional Hindu culture, hijras enjoyed a certain degree of respect. In Islamic times, eunuchs were prized as guards of harems, and as companions by kings and emperors.
But the British thrust upon India their ideologies of sex-gender binaries and heteronormative sexuality perspectives. The hijra body was a problem because it wasn’t the abled procreative-heterosexual body. They were criminalised under the criminal Tribes Act, 1871, which deemed the entire community of hijras as innately ‘criminal’.
We now use the acronym LGBTQ to describe the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community. The Q can also sometimes mean questioning. As per the census of 2011, the total population of transgender in India is 4.88 lakh, represented largely by hijras (biological males who reject masculine identity), kothis (represent themselves as male) and Aravanis (woman wrapped in male body). In the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the number of transgender as per census of 2011 is 4,137.
As far back as the 16th century, transgender enjoyed a special respect in Jammu and Kashmir (Dabla). They were considered caretakers, trusted messengers, and skilled entertainers during the Mughal period. Transgender people in present times are called “Laanch” in Kashmir which in itself is stigmatisation and a ground of discrimination. They face unfairness in every aspect of life be it employment, legal recognition, access to social resources including decent life standard and education.
Their low academic qualification makes them ineligible for white-collar jobs. For all of them the struggle usually starts from an early phase. Families reject transgender for fear of being shunned by society, and society scorns them because their families have turned them away. They don’t have the confidence to take part in social and political decision making. The nature of their harassment includes verbal abuse, assault, bullying, sexual violence, etc. According to psychiatrist Dr Arshad Hussain, “Mental health is a serious concern in Kashmir. The transgender community succumbs to a variety of psychological issues like panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorders, depression, suicidal tendencies.” They are also exposed to health related issues like STI (Sexually Transmitted infections) and HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) due to poor sanitation and lack of education.
Transgender people are mentioned in the Holy Quran in Surah Al Shura verse 49-50. In Kashmir when a hijra joins the transgender family, he or she goes through ‘dupteh traawun’, a traditional ceremony one must be a part of to be accepted as a benih (sister). Sether thaawun is another ritual one has to be initiated as a koor (daughter or chela) to the naien (grandmother or guru).
Transgender community in Kashmir usually make a living by matchmaking (Manzimyoer) and performing at weddings. Earlier, people used to call them to dance and sing at marriage functions and they used to get good money as well. Eventually, they were replaced by DJs. Now they have to resort to other means to make both ends meet.
Their situation has deteriorated after the abrogation of Article 370 and the means of income are further drying up because of the ongoing Covid pandemic. Some of the famous transgenders of Kashmir who have earned fame and recognition are singers like Reshma, Shaboo and make-up artist Manu Bebo.
It can be concluded that there is an immense need to intervene at the individual, community and policy level to safeguard the rights of transgender. Considering the sizeable number of hijras, it is not possible to close our eyes to them and ignore their existence. Hijras require understanding and support of the government, healthcare professionals, general public, as well as their family members. We need to understand and accept that humans are diverse. People have the right to be what they are and what they want to be. For hijra people, the same holds true.