AS CHILDREN, we were scared of them. At traffic signals or on local trains, they would stroll up, their gait nonchalant, voices raised. Above all, different. (What is it about us that fears difference so much?) Last month, while on a project visit to slums in Chennai, I felt a twinge of discomfort when I stepped into Mallika’s house in Saidapet. It was not the old fear but something else. I was there to ask uncomfortable questions. I had nothing to give her in return. And I was burdened by the weight of belonging to societies that had rejected her. For Mallika is not quite accepted as a woman even though she considers herself one. In India, the gender gods can be very strict.
The ‘eunuch’ or transgender community is at such an extreme end of the rights spectrum in India, that they’re practically off it. In a society that recognizes only two genders, they are often rendered invisible, ridiculous, horrific or disgusting. They are laughed at, shunned, rejected by their families, denied jobs, ration cards and passports, and exploited by others in the professions they are allowed into (beggary and sex work) and by the police.
In 2004, PUCL released a report on the human rights violations against sexual minorities in India in which they have a section on the transgender community (full report available here). From American computer scientist and transsexual activist Lynn Conway’s reflections on it:
There are roughly one million Hijra in India, representing approximately one in every 400 postpurbertal persons born male there. This very large prevalence (~1:400) of the Hijra in India, most of whom have undergone ‘nirvan’ (a sex change by ancient surgical means), is strong evidence that the intense transgender condition is far more prevalent (by about two orders of magntitude) than traditional western psychiatrists and psychologists have ever been willing to admit. These large numbers also speak of the countless tragedies occurring in the current climate of oppression, degradation and violence against transgender women, not only in India but in many other traditional societies all around the world.
Lynn Conway’s story is quite remarkable as well and it’s available here.
One of the most interesting voices in transgender politics is writer and hijra activist A. Revathi. Because I Have a Voice, a compilation of essays on queer politics in India, has an autobiographical essay by her and she is currently working on her autobiography according to this interview with her on Sonia Faleiro’s blog.
In other, lesser-known and more hidden voices, there’s this blogger, also coincidentally called Malika, who captures the Indian transgender scenario on her blog. She is clearly aware of her gender and sexual identity but trapped into secrecy. From one of her early posts:
Here we in india were in Tabooland. None of them could talk about this to anybody around them. They would be banished from family and social life, forced to join the Hijras and ike out a living begging on the streets. So the internet had become the freedom space, it offered a vast library of information.
The USian and Western European transgender person had come out in the open or at least on the internet. There were thousands of sites offering information on this state of being. Some gave half baked information, others referred to ideas that had been thought up by old Foggies with beards called psychiatrists (they who had even preached that these ‘sexual deviations and aberrations’ could be cured through treatment like electric shocks, I had been offered this treatment long ago) T-girls offered their “piccies”, dressed up in various feminine costumes to delight and excite the voyeuristic and frustrated TGI. Some gave information that we so wanted to understand our state.
In India, we live with a level of gender denial that defies all sense of common decency and humanism — and don’t even notice it most of the time. Our society consistently rejects and violates an entire group of people on the basis of their gender. The horror of this never seems to strike people as they roll up car windows or carefully look away with a grimace when approached by a hijra. Discussions about this seldom find their way into the drawing rooms of ‘liberals’.
As for my conversation with Mallika, it lasted an hour and left me feeling many things. Unlike activists in the community, Mallika is just an ordinary woman trying to get by. She seemed more resigned than angry. She was less aware of the political implications of things she said. What she did know were the realities of her life — her bonds with her mother and daughter (in the hijra community, each hijra is adopted by a ‘mother’), her aching bones now that she’s growing old, her faith that she is God’s child if nobody else’s, the memory of her real parents beating her up, and the fact that people laugh at her. Everywhere.