India's Transgender Hijra Community Searches for Acceptance
Advocates say a Supreme Court ruling granting rights and recognition to the community has done little to curb the sexual violence and poverty many face.
Hijra sit in a protest for their political rights. Photo by Sindhuja Parthasarathy
Pulling her shoulder out from a tight black shirt, Nitai Giri exposed a swollen, red wound where a client once shot her after an attempted rape.
"I get abused because of my physical body structure," Giri, who lives in the east Indian city of Kolkata, said. "My features are like a man's, and my appearance is like that of a girl's—people's perception of me changes and they start sexually exploiting me."
In India, 35-year-old Giri is considered hijra: the country's large but mostly uncounted community of non-cisgender third gender citizens, many of whom were assigned male at birth but identify as female or non-cis male. The nuanced community is often equated with begging and sex work, and being forced out of one's home.
Whether transgender, eunuch, or intersex, hijra are often systematically deprived of equal opportunities. Because British colonial law criminalized the hijra—a law that was not struck down until 2009—the community became deeply marginalized. Often, hijra cannot find adequate healthcare or employment.
Prior to 2014, when India's Supreme Court officially recognized hijra as a "third gender" in a landmark case, the community did not have an option beyond "male" or "female" to tick on applications to schools and jobs. Today, few rights beyond that decision have been achieved or ensured by national or state governments.
In Kerala state, the government kicked off a program in Kochi this May to hire 23 hijra as metro workers. A viral video made by the Kerala government and largely hailed by the media told a happy tale of empowerment. But the initiative was mostly a failure, with 11 of those hired unable to find safe or affordable housing and forced to resign shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, some still working found they had to supplement their incomes with sex work and received death threats.
In India, hijra can be seen as holy in the Hindu religion. They can earn money from giving blessing at weddings and births, but such opportunities are rare. "The majority of hijra go into sex work," said Jana. "Trying to be worshipped is an option, but most can't earn what they need—they still need income and opportunity."
More often, they turn to begging or sex work to make ends meet. "[Hijra] have to face a lot of social animosity because they are not seen as natural," said Smarajit Jana, an epidemiologist whose work has focused on the public health of India's sex workers for decades. He helped found Durbar, a roughly 65,000-member union of sex workers across West Bengal state.
Jana said that hijra often become beggars or sex workers because "most have not studied in school and their opportunities are compromised… the social system is highly skewed. Only parents who object to [social norms] will put their transgender child in school, and that chance is one in a thousand."
Giri is one of the few whose parents enrolled her in school, even when she began dressing in female clothes at a young age. But in spite of her parents' efforts, bullying from other students and discrimination from her teacher quickly derailed her education.
Giri dropped out of school to become a child worker at a bag factory when she was ten years old, where she said was raped. She moved to another factory, but Giri said she was sexually assaulted there, also. She then left factory work behind and tried her hand at dancing with other hijra on the street—where she says she was again sexually assaulted. Feeling she had few other options left, Giri turned to sex work at 13.
"I've faced so many problems," said Giri. "Customers do not give me proper money, sometimes after bringing me to a hotel they snatch my belongings, and they also have sex with me without condoms."
Giri, despite a life of hardship, believes positive change is possible for India's hijra. Today she is the president of Anandam, an LGBTQ rights and anti-violence advocacy group that works closely with lesbian and male-to-female transgender victims of violence in Kolkata. Anandam's members try to intervene against police officers and families—often the most violent offenders against hijra—through education and outreach programs.
Not all non-cis Indians identify as hijra, with some identifying instead as transgender, a word more closely associated with Western cultures. One is Rajkumar Das, who works as a paralegal for India's National Legal Services Authority, which brought the Supreme Court case against India for the recognition of the "third gender." Das also advocates for hijra rights with Anandam.
"The transgender population wasn't visible 10 years ago," she said. "They stayed hidden because there was no social activism—but while many are now visible, the discrimination is still there."
Das said that if non-cisgender children continue to be stigmatized and kept from receiving an education at an early age, they will continue to face a spiral of poverty and danger. "We have a new government but it's not working," Das said. "They're doing nothing for us."
Poor mental health echoes that desperate lack of help. A December 2016 study found that about 31 percent of transgender Indians will commit suicide, and at least half have attempted suicide before turning 20 years old. The suicide rate is most likely higher because of undocumented deaths in red-light districts and slums.
Jana said that little would improve for India's hijra unless the Supreme Court considers further protections for the community. "Hijra are often at the mercy of police and administration—they do not recognize 'transgender,'" he said. "They instead recognize male or female, which creates confusion from hospital admission to the use of toilets."
In Sonagachi—India's largest red-light district, in Kolkata's northern slums—sex workers gathered on July 12 to celebrate Durbar's 22nd anniversary of unionization. In a bare apartment above the stage, with pale blue walls and windows covered by cream-colored iron, a group of hijra dancers prepared for a show, trading makeup from small plastic kits.
But this dance is not just for entertainment: the hijra community there used the gathering to call for an end to deep-seated discrimination in the red-light district. In Sonagachi, hijra are not allowed a space to operate their own brothels. Instead, they solicit clients at cruise spots like cinemas, parks, and on the street, where they're more vulnerable to violence.
"There is no money, no education, and no respect for transgender people," said Das, as a crowd gathered downstairs by the stage despite July's punishing monsoon rains. "The government is so high above us that we cannot simply just reach up—we don't know what can be done next."
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