Arundhati Roy’s New Book Can Undo Decades Of Work Done By Intersex Activists

Posted by Gopi Shankar Madurai in Books, Culture-Vulture, LGBT+, Society
November 13, 2017

It was during my conversation with Dr Katrina Karkazis from Stanford University School of Medicine, best known for her book, “Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience”, that the topic of the acclaimed author Arundhati Roy’s latest book, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” came up. Like me, she too agreed that one of the book’s protagonists, Anjum, is a complete misrepresentation of the intersex community.

Renowned intersex activist Hida Viloria, the president of OII, USA states that,  “I noticed in an interview that she used “hermaphrodite” and then later used “trans” to describe the same characteristic. Very irresponsible of her as a writer to not research the character she is writing about enough to know what they are.”

Initially, Anjum is described as an intersex person and later on, she is said to be a Hijra. I am an LGBTQIA+ activist myself and I’m not averse to the Hijra community. However, being identified and misrepresented as what you are not and do not prefer to be identified with is absolutely wrong.

Imagine that you are female and you identify as being one. However, if people identify you as male, wouldn’t it upset you?

Sex is a seen as a ‘biological identity’ that is assigned at birth as ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘intersex’. Gender is a social role. There are innumerable gender identities and sexual orientations. Sexual orientation is what gender we are attracted to. But, in India, not many are aware of these differences.

Sangam literature uses the word ‘Pedi’ to refer to people born with the intersex condition, it also refers to antharlinga hijras and various Hijra. The Aravan cult in the Koovagam village of Tamil Nadu is a folk tradition of the trans women, where the members enact the legend during an annual three-day festival. This is completely different from the sakibeki cult of West Bengal, where trans women don’t have to undergo sex change surgery or shave off their facial hair. They dress in feminine clothes, still retaining their ‘masculine’ features and sing in praise of Lord Krishna.

Image Credit: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

In conservative and heteronormative Tamil society, trans women completely change themselves to fit a more cisnormative idea of ‘woman’. In the ancient times, even religion had its own way of accepting these fringe communities. The Nupi Manbis of northeastern India, the Bachura Devi worshipped in Gujarat and the Jogappa cult of Karnataka are other examples. There are even different kinds of dialects and languages that are spoken by these communities which differ from region to region. Like, ‘Hijra Farsi’ is the transgender community dialect, a mix of Urdu, Hindi and Persian spoken in the northern belt of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and ‘Kothi Baashai’ is spoken by the transgender community in Karnataka, Andhra, Orissa, and parts of Tamil Nadu.

They even have sign languages and typical mannerisms to communicate. The peculiar clap is one such, but they were very clear about intersex people and referred to them as Mabedi Usili and gave a distinct identity to denote them. Students from across the globe come to Srishti Madurai to know, learn about these diverse indigenous gender minority communities. And, when you see such an acclaimed author, who has an enormous base of readers worldwide, portraying the community in a wrong light, we are pushed back about 10 years. All our work towards spreading awareness about ourselves and that we are different from the Hijra or transgender community, goes in vain, just because one author doesn’t take into account the need to research her subject well.

Arundhati Roy cannot club these diverse communities into one and homogenise these varied communities.

Intersex people are known as Mabedi Usili, Antharlinga Hijra, Idailinga in native communities but Arundhati Roy simply misrepresented my community and sex identity. She needs a proper understanding of sex, gender and sexual orientation among native indigenous gender minority communities which has a huge diversity in Asia and its subcontinent.

Intersex people are not the same as trans people, but Roy failed to define and differentiate these differences.

She has all the right to frame a story, but, if one is writing about a certain community, they should research about it and get the facts right, at the least.

We have struggled so much, just to create visibility around the word ‘intersex’ and to establish our existence and identity. When progressive writers like Arundhati Roy misrepresent us, so many people will get a wrong understanding of our community.

I will give the basic differences between Hijra and Intersex so as to give our readers a better understanding of the terms.

Intersex is a sex identity whereas transgender is a gender identity. All Hijras come under the transgender umbrella but not all trans people are Hijras. Intersex people are born with ambiguous reproductive organs and/or may have several variations in sex characteristics, including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones. The Hijra community is one of the oldest gender identities in India and has their own language, traditions, rituals, and code of conduct. A few intersex people choose to identify as trans but that’s not the identity of our entire community.

Also, calling us ‘hermaphrodite’ is derogatory and we do not prefer people using this term for us. Why are you homogenizing our people?

The change or rectification the intersex community and activists seek from the author is that she can just add one extra page, address the differences between sex and gender identities, and clarify the differences between the intersex and the Hijra communities.

Tony Briffa, the world’s first intersex politician, former Mayor of Hobson’s Bay City, and member of OII, Australia states,“The conflation between intersex and trans is made by people who do not understand what intersex is. Intersex is about biology. Intersex is about being born with biological sex characteristics that are outside the medical norms for female and male. It is not about people who are born biologically one sex and have a gender identity that is not aligned with their biology. 

The misrepresentation by someone who proclaims to be an expert is a great concern. Of greater concern is her refusal to correct the misrepresentation when she is informed by reliable sources that her comments are wrong, offensive and damaging to a community.”

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