‘Here They Can Be Themselves’

How the trials and triumphs of an ancient transgender community could make headway for the slow-moving fight against a blame-the-victim culture in India.


Perched daintily on the floor of the one-room community center she oversees just outside Delhi, hijra activist and model Rudrani Chettri Chauhan is dressed like an American teenager in low-slung jeans and a form-fitting, blue long-sleeve T-shirt, her enviably thick hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. The crumbling wall behind her is covered in meticulously arranged posters with slogans like “Trans and Proud” and “Queer but Not So Different,” and a gaggle of teenage boys leaf through a magazine together on a worn mattress in the corner.

India’s hijra community is known as the “third gender,” and it has deep historical and religious roots that set it apart from transgender communities elsewhere in the world. (The community was beautifully documented by photographer Yannick Cormier in Foreign Policy’s most recent issue.) The role of hijras, who are typically (though not always) castrated and male-to-female, dates back to around the 4th century B.C. According to the Ramayana, one of the holiest texts in Hinduism, Lord Rama blessed them and gave them powers that make them auspicious figures; they feature in a number of other ancient Hindu scriptures as well. Even today, they appear at births and weddings to dance and bring good luck to the child or couple.

But, as Chauhan describes, the community’s sanctity is a double-edged sword. “Hijras are seen as both goddesses and people to be hated,” she explains, fidgeting mindlessly with her cell phone. The stigma and discrimination hijras face is incongruous but also deeply intertwined with their role as a kind of religious deity, and the bigotry they experience from their own communities tends to surface when they stray from the narrow cultural role ascribed to them.

“I will go to a family’s house to do blessings in the daytime and they will touch my feet and give me huge respect. But if I see their sons in the streets after dark, they will beat me and call me a whore,” Chauhan says, her slumped shoulders betraying genuine pain. “The time of day is not going to change me. I am the same person in the day and the night, but they think if you are out at night then you are doing something wrong.” Estimates vary on how many hijras are living in India (there are also significant populations in Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh), as censuses in India can be dubious and the hijra descriptor is not actually an option on questionnaires. Six million is a common ballpark figure in the press, but nearly everyone I met felt this was a wild underestimation.

Most hijras self-identify as non-male (either female or transgender) at a fairly young age and will leave their home seeking to join a community led by a guru or a kind of den mother. These more experienced hijras will guide their protégées through the process of becoming a hijra, which in most cases involves a ritual castration. (In years and centuries past, and to a large extent even today, this procedure was quite dangerous due to lack of sanitation and medical expertise among the community. Today there are a few doctors who specialize in treating hijras and some hijras opt for the modern type of sex reassignment surgery seen in the West.)

Their communities tend to be insular to protect their members from the violence that often characterizes their lives, from random beatings and harassment on the streets to rape and assault by police, customers (in the case of sex workers), and other “upstanding” members of society.

Chauhan’s description of the treatment of hijras mirrors the victim-blaming mentality shown in Leslee Udwin’s controversial documentary India’s Daughter, in which Mukesh Singh, one of the men accused of a notoriously brutal rape of an Indian woman on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, states, “A decent girl won’t roam around at night. A girl is more responsible for rape than a boy … about 20 percent of girls are good.”

Despite being banned by the Indian government and inciting criticism from some Indian feminists, among others, Udwin’s film helped fuel the fire in the long-overdue fight against the sexual assault of women in India. The hijras’ plight shares a number of characteristics with these women’s struggle; however, in the case of the hijra community, the ability to fight back against rape and sexual assault continues to be hindered not just culturally, but also legally.

In December 2013, the Supreme Court of India reinstated Section 377 of the Indian penal code criminalizing homosexuality, making same-sex intercourse a punishable offense; in cases of rape, this means that charges can be brought not only against the perpetrator but also the victim. This was a huge step backwards for both their community and India’s gay population at large, and added to the many obstacles hijras face — some of which begin very early in life.

According to Chauhan and a long list of books and studies, young boys who identify as female or transgender typically run away from home at a fairly young age, in some cases after suffering horrifying abuse — including beatings and even rape in some cases — at the hands of their own families. While they are usually taken in by older hijras who act as gurus and protectors, it is rare that they will return to a school environment in which they’ve been taunted and humiliated.

Bullied and often beaten by fellow students, these children rarely finish even a basic education, making them nearly unemployable, even without the stigma that prevents most workplaces from hiring them. Compounded by what are often low socioeconomic backgrounds, this means there are very few options available to hijras looking for work. “I did my education in English,” Chauhan explains (a fact for which I for one am grateful), “but you can count the number of us who did this on your fingers. For others, when they leave their family, the education is not there, and of course when you apply for a job, it’s not possible. They won’t even entertain you. So what happens is we are left with three things: giving blessings, begging on the streets, and the most common one, which is sex work.”

It is the last of these, of course, that exposes hijras to the most egregious danger and abuse, a reality that, according to Chauhan, is perversely part of its appeal. “It is survival but also self-torture,” she laments with unexpected frankness. “There is something inside where we don’t like ourselves — it’s either conscious or subconscious or unconscious. So we look for ways to harm or kill ourselves. Unsafe sex is one of these ways.”

HIV and AIDS, while less prevalent in India than many other developing countries (India’s HIV rates rank on par with European countries like Italy and Luxembourg, and below France and Switzerland) is of course a serious threat to anyone involved in sex work; the government of India estimates that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men is 4.43 percent, versus 0.27 percent for the general population. Among transgender people and hijras, it’s even higher, at 8.82 percent. Drug and alcohol abuse, Chauhan tells me, is also extremely common among many hijras.

On paper at least, all is not doom and gloom for India’s transgender citizens. Last April, the Supreme Court ruled to allow hijras and others who identify as neither male nor female to register as a third gender on their passports and voting cards, created quotas for certain jobs and educational opportunities to be set aside for them, and even mandated the creation of public transgender restrooms. Despite an extremely slow and rather illogical pattern of implementation, this has of course been reason for celebration, especially since India, along with Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, is among the very few countries to have taken these steps, far ahead of more traditionally liberal states in Europe and North America.

Nevertheless, the cultural prejudice against hijras runs deep, and thus far these legal changes have done little to overcome them. At the pristine Delhi offices of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance, staff from the Pehchan program work with gay, transgender, and hijra communities to improve HIV prevention. There I met Simran Shaikh, a tall, striking hijra with the presence and poise of a Hollywood star. A program officer managing Pehchan, Shaikh oversees funding and travels often to the United States and Europe to represent hijra and transgender causes.

“The state government says it is a central government issue, and the central government says there are still orders that need to be passed by the Supreme Court, so nothing is really moving on this,” she explains. Her confidence in the process is palpably low.

Chauhan puts the issue in starker and less bureaucratic terms and makes clear that hijras aren’t looking for handouts or false acceptance in the public view. “I don’t want forced love or affection from anyone, and I don’t want to work somewhere where everyone is looking at me like the government forced them to hire me. They are just afraid the government is going to sue them so they have to have one transgender and they don’t want to look at my face every morning. We don’t want that.”

Thus, along with the repeal of Section 377 — which could greatly reduce the arrests and harassment by police of victims or rape and sexual assault, not to mention dramatically improve the lot of India’s gay community — when it comes to integrating hijras into the mainstream, it is only grassroots activism and a movement towards large-scale cultural transformation that will have a real effect. And of course this kind of transformation takes money.

International LGBT rights organizations abound, and many of them provide grants and other support for precisely the kinds of programs that are needed to shift Indians’ views on hijras and gay, lesbian, and other transgender people. When asked about access to such support, however, Shaikh simply sighs. “Unfortunately, the Indian government, which is against homosexuality and LGBT rights, does not allow them [international donors] to provide direct support to advocacy groups. Nobody can enter India for funding without going through the government. And the government does not support this cause.”

Pehchan is one of the few programs that have moved forward in spite of these conditions, thanks to funding and support from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Even Pehchan is often limited in what it can do; according to Shaikh, funding only supports efforts to help community-based organizations increase their capacity to implement HIV programming. These organizations then must rely on the government for condoms, lubricants, and other supplies necessary to prevent the transmission of HIV. Supplies can be inconsistent, and staff must go to their state governments, an endeavor Shaikh describes as “maddening.”

Chauhan, for one, has focused on what she can do in her local community, sometimes with funding from Pehchan and other times on her own wits and whatever she can scrape together. Through the Delhi-based MITR Trust, she has created a safe space for hijras, gay, and transgender youth, many of who were hanging around and gossiping during my visit. “People come here for all kinds of stuff,” she tells me, nodding at one of her young disciples to come join the conversation.

“This is a place where they can dance, talk about themselves, and have some fun. There is nowhere else they can do that now, not at home, not with their family. So we try to give them the space they don’t have in the world,” she says. “I don’t think things will change very quickly, but at least here they can be themselves.”

Allison Joyce/Stringer/Getty Images

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm. Twitter: @whitneykassel

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