A Tribe in Peril: The Hijra in Mumbai

Alison McCauley's essay and photos show the forces that threaten daily living for the transgender hijra: AIDS, rape, and the Indian government.

BY Alison McCauley

March 06 2014 6:05 AM ET

The term “hijra,” in India, is used to refer to transgender women. The country has an estimated 1 million hijras, with communities recorded back more than 4,000 years. They've had a sanctioned place in Indian society and culture throughout time. But their visibility in history — with ancient myths bestowing them special powers to bring luck and fertility — hasn't protected the hijra.

Because the Raj first classified the hijra as a “tribe” at a time when the Raj also outlawed all tribes, hijras have faced severe harassment and discrimination. Hijras are usually rejected by their families and communities once they reveal their gender identity, and they are almost always forced to leave the family home.

Ostracized by loved ones and harassed constantly by police, hijras instead form small groups for their protection. These groups are led by a “guru” or mother figure. At their best, the groups can be supportive, nurturing and family-like. Out of a necessity to protect themselves, hijras even developed their own language — a mixture of Hindi, Farsi, Urdu and a little Arabic. Most hijras are uneducated and, combined with the discrimination they face, gaining mainstream employment is made almost impossible. Hijras work mostly in the sex trade, or beg, or earn their living singing and dancing at celebrations of births and weddings.

Seeking equality through the legal system is also a challenge, despite what had seemed to be landmark success several years ago. On July 2, 2009 the Delhi High Court overturned Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and sexual acts in private between consenting adults of the same sex were no longer criminalized. Under Section 377, which dates back to 1861, LGBT individuals were not accepted by Indian society. Only two genders were recognized and only heterosexual relationships considered legal. Still, the Delhi High Court’s ruling did little to end a long history of discrimination for the hijra communities. Then, even that advance was lost.

In December of last year, the Indian Supreme Court suddenly reinstated Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. A date had been set to review the decision, but on January 28 the Supreme Court declined the review, reviving the Victorian, colonial-era provision and its potential punishment with life imprisonment. The reinstatement of this law could affect the government support and funding normally given to NGOs and charities that help the hijra communities, and this in turn will have repercussions on the hijra communities’ safety, welfare and health.

For example, The Humsafar Trust, a non-profit organization that works with the LGBT communities in Mumbai, subsidizes the cost of hormone treatments for hijras. Plus, HIV rates are very high among the hijra community. Statistics vary between 50 and 80 percent. The Humsafar Trust has community outreach programs that care for and support the hijra community. The trust’s employees and volunteers distribute thousands of free condoms each week even though they run the risk of being arrested for “encouraging sex.”

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Tags: Transgender

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