The construction of femininity

4 mins read

By Merle Ecker

Once upon a time, when the divine prince Rama was sent into exile into the forest, he was followed by people who wanted to support him. Rama, however, told the men and women to return home. The people left, except for those who were neither men nor women, as they were confused and did not feel addressed by Rama’s order. Many years later, when Rama returned, those same people were still waiting for him. When Rama discovered them, he blessed them and praised them by saying, that one day they will rule the world.  So, it is being told in the Sanskrit poem, the Ramayana.

According to the ancient Veda tradition, present preliminarily in South Asia, gender is categorized into three. The stri-prakrti, equivalent to the western female-nature, the pums-prakrti, equivalent to the male-nature and the tritiya-prakrti. Today, it is believed that the latter gender included a wide spectrum of identities, such as intersexuals, male-bodied and female-bodied individuals. Further, the God Shiva is often depicted as an androgyny, named as Ardhanarishvara, meaning both male and female. The male part, Shiva, is depicted with his usual attributes, such as a serpent, a crescent moon and the river Ganges, though split in the middle and combined with the divine Shakti, the preliminary female energy of the cosmos who often is depicted holding a lotus flower. There are several interpretations of this composite, such as the indivisibility of the male and female nature or gender ambiguity and the third gender.

“Even under the ancient Hindu law, medical, astrological and linguistic research suggests that third gendered people were common and recognized.” The Manusmriti, for example, is the foundation of Hindu law and provides an explanation of the biological origin of the third sex. Within Hinduism these third gender people are often called Hijras, a 4000-year-old religious community, following a guru. They are believed to have divine powers to bless and to curse and are often a significant part in religious celebrations. Other Indian cultures rather refer to Aravanis, Kothis, Jogtas or Shiv-Shakthis when talking about people of the third gender. Historical records show the third gender’s somewhat respected role in Indian society during Hindu and Muslim rule, where they often served as dancers, singers and protectors of the Mughal harems.

In 1871 the British Empire imposed the Criminal Tribes Act in India, criminalizing “unnatural” sexual acts, with the perception that certain tribes are criminal by birth. Hijras and other third gendered, were grouped under this category, and hence gradually became outcasts and dropped into poverty. Many children considered as boys, became orphans when parents suspected their feminine behaviors and inability to fulfill gender expectations, while there is much limited information about children considered as girls who contradict gender norms. Said family’s neglect is often justified with shame, diminished chances of the child’s potential marriage and inability to take care of the elders in the future. Thus, the children often found refuge within Hijra communities. Those individuals can be part of any Indian caste, however, rarely receive the benefits of the higher castes. Due to the high amount of unreported people, there is a dark figure about the number of Hijras, which is estimated between two to six million people. At the same time, some Hijras have a high visibility in the public for performing ‘Badhai’, clapping hands on trains for alms, and for selling their bodies on the streets, without being properly protected from the police who often constitute a source of abuse themselves. Unemployment and illiteracy among these communities is high, as well as the HIV rate and depression.

Hijras have loosely accepted the equivalent western term of transgender as an umbrella term, when referring to themselves, in the sense of transgressing social gender norms, despite the partly recognized third gender in Indian society. Some Hijras use the term transgender deliberately to connect with other people on a global scale and do not think it is contradictory to be Hijra and a transgender woman. While other Hijras do not feel that the term transgender can prevail their complexity, diversity and history. The word Hijra is a Hindi-Urdu term, derived from the Arabic stem root “hjr”, in the sense of leaving, deserting or contravening. Alternatively, as it is put by a famous Hijra rights activist, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Hijras are those who leave their own families to find their true natures.  

“In the last years a series of steps have been taken in India towards more rights for the third gendered and transcending people.” The state of Tamil Nadu pioneered in 2008 by establishing a welfare board for transgendered people, concerning education, income and other measures for social security. They have also introduced identity cards with the third gender as an option and it is the first Indian state to perform government sponsored sex reassignment surgery. In 2009 Delhi’s High Court made a controversial statement that homosexual acts, in private, are not criminal. Third gendered also got the ability to vote as “woman”, “man” or “other”.

In 2014 the Supreme Court of India officially recognized the third gender as a legal category, following similar examples from Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, arguing it is a human right to choose one’s gender. Consequentially, Hijras can now apply for quotas for government education and jobs. In 2015 a bill was passed by the upper house for increasing trans population’s economic and educational opportunities and for protection from violence.  Since then, Manobi Bandopadhyay became the first transgender college principal, in Tamil Nadu the nation’s first transgender became a police officer and Madhu Bai Kinnar was elected as a transgender mayor in Raigarh, beating her opponents, India’s largest party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Due to the rapid changes in Indian society, feminist reporter Zainab Salbi has described this as the third-gender-revolution. However, it should not get neglected that the majority of third gendered are still considered to be an outcast and often times live with the typical consequences of people in poverty in India, such as rape, low health care and bad protection by the legislature. Hijra activists press their sisters around the world for the need to fight against the patriarch and to begin to appreciate femininity of any kind. Femininity, just as masculinity, is a complicated social construct influenced by religions, traditions, the law and an ancient history. As the activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi explains: “India, or across the world, has never taught women to love themselves, but I had that ability because I rediscovered the woman of my soul, and I discovered it so beautifully.”

By Merle Ecker

Image: Merle Ecker

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