Style Out There: The Indian Hijras-
“Subcultures bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity.”
- Dick Hebdige
Hijras, Coimbatore, India - The Third Gender
In April 2014, India passed a law that recognized a Third Gender. This means, that people could no longer just fall into the Male or Female classification but now identify themselves as Transgender. However, a seemingly opposing law had been passed a few months earlier in December 2013 which recriminalized homosexuality.
This new legal terminology officially recognizing a “Third Gender” portrays India to be quite progressive. Has the transgender Hijra community finally been accepted into Indian society?
A Hijra is a term given to transgender men, who wish to live their lives as women. The Hijra community are a self sustained group, who are closely tied together with a tight bond. To be a Hijra is considered to shameful and morally wrong. They face crushing harassment and discrimination from every direction, by society and in many cases their own family. If your son identifies himself as a Hijra, he is thought to have been cursed. So full of misfortune that it scrambled his gender, and he is consequently thrown out of his home. Forced to live in the fringes of society, the Hijra community rapidly becomes the only community where they are safe and accepted, which offers shelter and financial support.
However, this wasn't always the case, as Dhana Lakshmi, one of the Hijras in the Coimbatore community explained to me. On the day I arrived i was fortunate enough to witness a “re birth” ceremony. This was an event held to celebrate one mans transformation into a women after having surgery.
Dhana described how the Hijras were a group that could trace its roots back to antiquity. They had a recorded history of 4000 years, and once had been thought to be auspicious and greatly revered by members of their community. Hijras were invited to bestow blessings at births, on new homes and dance at weddings. It was only until a colonial era law established in 1860, that still stands today, which restricts “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” that stigma towards the Hijras grew.
The ceremony was electric! Every one was dressed in saris from a rich color palette and energetically danced to exotic indian beats. I was given such a warm welcome from the Hijra community, and despite the language barrier, the ladies showed me how to dance and seemed to take great amusement in my attempts. Dhana explained that these ceremonies happened infrequently, and that it was an opportunity for everyone to come together, some traveling from quite far. There are rules to feminization according to the Hijras. You are not allowed to wear women's clothes at all, until after you have had your sex change surgery. Even then, recovery takes a few weeks. Its customary then at around the 45 day period after surgery that this event is held and you will be able to see yourself in female attire for the first time ever! Blessing are made and traditional food is prepared as this event is viewed as your rebirth as a woman.
Coming away from this, looking at it from the surface, these are just a group of fun, happy women. I was lifted up by their energy and shared much laughter with them whilst we danced. Its extraordinary to think how much hardship they have all individually endured. There is no easy life for a Hijra, kicked out of their homes, refused jobs, beaten, humiliated and even sexually assaulted, and yet it was hard not to recognize the love present in that room.
Anjali is a remarkable women, she has almost single handedly worked to help change the stigma that surrounds the Hijras in Coimbatore. She even confessed to me that when she first helped them with just a charitable donation she had no desire to actually meet them. She was scared and it was considered taboo. All it took, she explains, was just one meeting and she realized how special these individuals are, and that they desperately needed somebody to fight for them. The idea of the new law recognizing the Third Gender, is to treat the Hijra community as any other minority, which would allow them social economic status. The Government would set aside jobs and education for the Hijras, as well as welfare framing schemes. This would ensure they earned a decent livelihood, respectable income, and could be part of the national census. Anjali explained to me that this all looks good on paper, but action was rarely seen. In India the population of Hijras is estimated between 50,000 and 2 million, but there is a huge discrepancy in numbers as the populations census only defines space for male and females. These potentially 2 million people, on declaring themselves transgender were stripped of their rights. Anjali described how a dog on the street had more rights than a Hijra. They had no identity and most are uneducated. The only way they can earn money is to beg, or from prostitution. She told me that despite the new law, nothing would change until local superstition did. These women are seemed to be cursed. Anjali works hard to change the opinions on a more person to person level. She feels that all the Hijras want is the acceptance of their families. However, whilst the stigma remains, families are shamed into turning their backs on their own children.
Anjali works on a personal level with many Hijras, trying to get them placed jobs in the Coimbatore community in order to integrate them into every day life.
I got to witness Dhana’s first day at her new job at a high end beauty salon. Dhana’s face would be the first that clients saw when entering the premises.
Her story is unique. She knew that she would not be allowed education if she identified herself as transgender. Instead she lied, and kept quiet until after she finished her schooling. At which point she was thrown out of her home, but because of the skills she learnt she is now more than capable in her new employment.
I had some time to talk to Dhana alone, she shared with me more intimate stories about her own struggle. Now married with a husband, a home and a good job her story is one of the more fortunate. The actual procedure of changing sex is physically and psychologically traumatic. Body altering hormone treatments and breast augmentations are costly, and many Hijras start saving from a very young age.
Castration is illegal in India, so often surgeries are performed by quacks and there is a high fatality rate. Dhana insisted she would rather have taken the risk with death than lived the rest of her life in a body that was not hers.
Today for me was a stand out day of the entire film production. I’ve searched hard to exactly understand and explain why this day was so moving and incredibly special for me. I can only conclude that it was a culmination of things. Being accepted by the Hijra community who treated us to a home cooked meal and a ceremony of several dances was heart warming. These women are so mistreated by society and yet you never see any streak of malice in their behavior. They are warm, welcoming and loving.
I am half Indian, and i discovered whilst we were filming that my dads father was actually born in Coimbatore. I instantly felt a connection with the area, but also immediately saddened that it was technically my relatives that held this ridiculous mentality and were ostracizing the Hijras.
My dad left India over 40 years ago, and i was raised in a very western household, but i believe in and am very respectful of folk law and local customs. Hijras were once regarded as magical, and greatly admired. I was deeply touched when the guru/ mentor of the Hijra community blessed me. Even more so when Anjali explained that this was a very rare occurrence.
Fashion allows each of us to communicate and make statements about our identities, to visually express who we are. For the Hijra community something as simple as women's attire makes such a bold and life altering proclamation.
They can chose to live their lives as men, and have all the resources and opportunities available to them. Or, they can chose to live their lives as women and lose everything.
Hearing each story about how they personally made it to Coimbatore was heart breaking. One lady, had to take a train to escape her home, but she wasn't allowed on the train, so she stowed away in the bathroom for 6 hours hoping no one would find her.
Anjali shared with me another story of a woman who was gang raped and then as she was held down, ash was pushed into her eyes which left her permanently blind at just 19 years old. Hijras are forced to perform sex acts as their only means to earn money and as a consequence are raped on average 10 times a month.
These are courageous women. Its thats courage that i find remarkable. Its that courage that moves me. To want something so much and know that to be true to yourself that you would then face a life of difficulty. To have the determination to honor your true identity despite adversity.
In western fashion, clothing is androgynous, I could easily wear a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt. An outfit that wouldn't look out of place on a man. In India there is a clear distinction between male and female fashion. Your clothes define you, they are your social code as to how you'd like to be perceived. The Hijras have to wait for weeks after their castration, until they are finally allowed to wear women's fashion.
Choosing to wear any particular garment is something we take for granted everyday. Here, for the Hijras, the significance and importance of a sari defines who they are on the inside. I can only imagine their great joy and relief when they are final able to reveal themselves and dress in a manner that matches their true identity.