Caste and Religion Create Barriers Within the Hijra Community

On paper, hijras might appear to be a homogeneous group, but there are rising inequities within the community.

In 2014, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, expanded affirmative action to apply to hijras, by collectively adding them to the other backward class (OBC) category. With this move, a superseding OBC identity was given to all the hijras irrespective to their official religion, caste and class. Yet, four years later, this has led to a series of complex issues within the community.

Prior to the hijras becoming OBC on paper, there was a popular assumption in academia that hijras are a casteless group. This was because the hijras become an ostracised caste in themselves, with their own performative rituals in private spaces. Moreover, within the community, when a hijra is initiated through a reet or ritualistic ceremony, there is also a renunciation of caste lineage, along with the gender assigned at birth.

Most hijras also drop their surnames, to hide their religion and caste identity. This protects them from identity-based discrimination. Other hijras, who are from privileged castes and religions, often don’t let go of their surnames.

After hijras were given legal recognition as a ‘third gender’ and quota as part of the OBC in 2014, there was greater visibility of the community in public spaces. One of the results of this increased access to public space was the establishment of the Kinnar Akhada for practicing inclusive faith and religion.

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi – the head of Kinnar Akhada, and also the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific in the UN in 2008 – grew up Brahmin, and has openly claimed that there is no caste or religion in the hijra community. Contrary to such claims, Living Smile Vidya, the Dalit transgender feminist writer and theatre artist, expresses concerns, saying that “savarna transgenders who have NGO funding” claim to falsely represent the community and direct all the benefits towards themselves.

Such inequity within the hijra community was also pointed out by Sharmili*, a 24-year-old hijra from Dakshinipuri, who confided in me that she belongs to the Valmiki community. Despite her musical talent and dancing skills, Sharmili’s hijra guru does not allow her to accompany them on their hijra toli for collecting ritual blessings. Sharmili believes this is because of an inherent caste bias within some sections of the hijra community, as collecting ritual blessings is often seen as a prerogative of hijras who are savarna by birth.

Furthermore, claiming that there is no religion in the hijra community is both controversial and contradictory. There are many inter-religious hijra festivals and holidays that are legitimised by different hijra gharanas, which are celebrated together in the community. Despite multi-religious piety being a common practice in the community, a group of hijras told me that it was difficult to do the ‘new’ paperwork and documentation required to claim the ‘third gender’ identity officially as it would separate some hijras from their choice of religion.

I understood this more intricately while working with the hijra communities living in urban slums of New Delhi, where I was told that every Friday they would go to the Jama Masjid to offer their namaz in kurtapyjamas. They told me that they would sit in the last queue and read their namaz but be careful of not casting their shadows over fellow namazis. I found out that the Muslim hijras I interacted with believed that they had sinned by castrating themselves and were trying to protect others from the darkness of their own shadows.

There were also those hijras who had been successful in completing their pilgrimage to Hajj. The hajji hijras had been successful in their pilgrimage to Mecca because they had a passport issued to them in their gender assigned at birth, which was ‘male’. This was before Saudi Arabia banned people identifying as transgender on paper from entering their country to perform Hajj and Umrah, without giving any reasons for the same. While preparing for their pilgrimage, the unspoken rule for hijras is to chop their hair short and try and sprout facial hair – often by stopping hormone intake – to pass off as a ‘man’. In this politics of paper, I understood that it is not any religion that discriminates against hijras; it is transphobia.

Therefore, on paper, the hijras might appear to be a homogeneous group but there are rising inequities between different groups of hijras belonging to different socio-religious backgrounds that need to be addressed. There are growing marginal voices in the hijra community in matters related to religious and caste-based identitarianism. Such unheard hijra voices bring out the complex experiences of exclusion from within the hijra community.

To put it in the words Paulo Freire from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the oppressed tend themselves to become their oppressors by resembling them and this culture of silence needs to be cracked open.

*Name changed

Ina Goel is a freelance writer and founder of The Hijra Project. She may be contacted at [email protected]