In India, there is color and beauty wherever one looks. But as a hijra (Hindi for transgender/transexual), to dare to be beautiful—to be one’s self—is a punishable offense.
My first encounter with the hijra community occurred on a trainfrom Bangalore to Mysoor. That day was amazing: I visited two
temples, perused the world-renowned zoo, and managed to crash the new king of Mysoor’s coronation procession at the royal palace (complete with elephants!).
Everything was seemingly perfect, but now I look back on that day with a twinge of shame for the beauty I ignored. While riding on the train, I heard clapping approaching my seats. All around me, I saw people scrambling for rupees in their wallets, and my friends urged me to look towards the ground. Don’t make eye contact. Turn your face away. A hijra was coming.
In India, the hijras are an outcasted community placed below almost everyone other than dalits (untouchables) in the social hierarchy. However, this was not always the case. In Hindu mythology, the god Ardhanarishvara, who is androgyne, is celebrated as being half-man, half-woman. As such, hijras used to hold an esteemed position in the royal court as early as the Mughal Empire. Yet as with so many atrocities, colonialism imported the laws and discrimination that continue to plague transgender and transexual individuals today. Now, families force boys who identify as women out of their homes; hijras are beaten or raped in the streets with impunity; the hijra community has the highest rate of HIV, with over 60% testing positive; they have no legal protection for their education, livelihoods, or safety. Although there has recently been legislation that establishes a “third gender” in government documents, hijras have been forced to the periphery of society, primarily making their money through music performances (singing and dancing0, sex work, or extortion through shame.
One of the notable superstitions about hijras is that if they come to your shop, you MUST pay them for fear of being cursed. The absurdity took me aback, as if the transgender community is otherized to the extent of literal demonization. This phenomenon is exceptionally common on trains, as hijras will walk up and down the aisles begging. Everyone desperately searches for cash because if someone is approached and does not pay, the hijras are known to expose their genitals.
If you are like me, your reaction is, “so what?” But in India, the shame of seeing someone in naked in public is so great, that no one would dare take the risk. The embarrassment rests with the passengers rather than the hijras.
Although, I wonder…? Are the hijras embarrassed? Why would they demean themselves in such a way? Well, the cycle of violation comes full circle: Hijras are violated by Indian society, excluded from all socially acceptable means of work, and so they violate Indian society back. Because India largely ignores their health and well-being, they force themselves to be seen in the vulgar and ugly way that has been projected upon them in order to earn a few rupees. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
But my friend and colleague at the Equal Community Foundation,Alex, showed me another side of the hijra community. His rare acceptance into the secretive society has resulted in an exceptional photography project. He has travelled all around India taking black-and-white pictures of these women, placing them in front of a blank background, forcing the viewer to see THEM and not their surroundings. We are pushed to view them as human beings just like us. And during his presentation, a couple of his points left a lasting mark on my conscience.
Interestingly enough, hijras have hierarchies and cliques like any community, but they function shockingly akin to a sorority… or the mafia. Hijras live collectively in a house, with a house mother, or Nayak, they all have big and little sisters, or Chelas, and there is an established pecking order. They become a loving family, replacing those from which they were rejected. Moreover, all of the houses throughout a region are managed by a Kajal Guru (mafia boss, or capo di tutti capi), who coordinates all hijra activities, collects money from her underlings, punishes the rebellious, intercedes with the police, and even runs illegal businesses like the red light districts. Yet few people know the intricacies of hijra society, because no one cares to ask. Alex however managed to give us a snapshot of the rich and fascinating community that is otherwise overlooked.
Another abundantly clear message is that these women are not homogenous: some are thin, masculine, large, feminine, fully-transitioned, short or long haired, thick wristed, bearded, smiling, bejewled, hiding, or radiating their inner divas. They are all unique, but they share one thing in common: the hijras had the courage to bear the weight of their societyâs hatred in order to externalize their inner selves. Some bear the scars of it. But they all are beautiful for that reason.
My last lesson was one that Alex taught me by example. At everyphotoshoot, he takes pictures hugging the ladies. He wants to demonstrate that he is not afraid or ashamed to be seen with them. They are worthy of love, beautiful to be photographed, and will one day be hanging in the galleries of internationally renowned museums.
After Alex’s presentation, I looked back on my experience journeying to Mysore. When the hijra woman passed me, I was filled with shame, not for her but for myself. I was ashamed that I bowed to social conventions, and in doing so, made another human feel invisible. I remember thinking that I wish I had the courage to look up and smile at her, to show her… I don’t know what. That I cared? That I supported her strength? I’m not really sure. But in the end, I put more weight in avoiding shame for my friends, than in appreciating a fellow human being.
One thing is for sure. I will not make that mistake again. No one’s beauty deserves to be invisible.