‘Hijra’ is a term most frequently used in the South Asia context to denote individuals who do not neatly fit the male-female binary. Historically, Hijras held places of honour in the royal courts of erstwhile kingdoms in the subcontinent. In her autobiography, ‘The Truth About Me’, A. Revathy talks about how revered the community was in Indian mythology, blessed with powers by Lord Ram himself. Even today, Hijras who still work as entertainers are invited to bless newlyweds and new-born children, but none of this can effectively counter the fear and stigma that has been attached to them as a social group.
Cake caught up with Urmi Jadhav, a Mumbai-based activist who works with Hamsafar Trust, to talk about the questions people ask her when they single out her identity as a Hijra.
“People tend to think that transgender people and Hijras are exclusively beggars or sex workers,” says Jadhav, “because they have no other work, or that they’re not capable enough to do any other work, but this is not true.”
Because of socio-economic factors, and the long-held prejudice against them, many in the community are left with very few options. But that does not mean begging and sex work is characteristic of being trans in India. To prove it, the state of West Bengal welcomed its first trans principal, Manabi Bandhyopadhyay this year.
“People are always curious to know what our childhoods were like,” Jadhav says. “They want to know how we became Hijras.”
Jadhav explains the most common belief or reasoning people give for this: “Generation after generation has been told Hijras abduct children, and the idea has solidified. I often get asked if Hijras only give ‘badua’ (a curse) to people. Just like we tell our kids to stay away from neighbours or other children we see as bad influences, people are told from childhood to fear Hijras.”
But even for those who overcome constructed fears, well-meaning questions can quickly become uncomfortable.
“There is a lot of curiosity about our private parts, and how we have sex. People trying to learn about Hijras and our lives can ask some very invasive questions. If I was to interview you about your private parts and your sex life, how would you feel? I feel awful when people ask these sort of questions.”
Questions about marriage and relationships are somewhat safer. “We have relationships with our boyfriends or girlfriends based on our choices and comfort,” says Jadhav. Pretty much the way any of us does relationships!
“People are unable to understand what a Hijra is,” she explains. “The questions they ask reflect their mindset, and the limitations of their knowledge.”
She picks up also on the problems of visibility, saying “It’s necessary to show Hijra and transgenders in popular films and TV,” because this is where many people get their information from. “But these have to be realistic representations that don’t deride our identities and our community. So far, trans characters are used as comedic props. They are not treated as individuals with real lives and real emotions.”
In this climate of stereotypes, fear-mongering and misrepresentation, Jadhav finds that often people forget to be respectful. “While it is necessary to give information to anyone wanting to learn about sexuality and sexual health, we cannot answer every single question people ask us,” she says. “Many questions can be extremely personal and uncomfortable, and, like experiences, the answers vary from person to person.”
So should we keep our questions to ourselves, then? Jadhav doesn’t think so. “Most people don’t have any knowledge about Hijras – if they seek information, it is our responsibility to correctly educate them. When they hear it from us, they can further increase the knowledge of say four of their friends, who will in turn tell their friends, and so on and so forth. There is no use in becoming angry and antagonistic when people ask these questions, because we should help increase their knowledge about us.”