Hijras – Part II – Colonization

Continuing from my earlier post: Hijras.

An understanding of Hijras throughout pre-colonial history suffers the same problem of lack of evidence that much of historiography about India suffers. Most of what we can glean about Hijras come from textual sources, and the corpus we have is not only biased in many various ways, but also incomplete. While contemporary ethnographies are useful, there is no justifiable way to connect present day Hijra experience with those of pre-colonial Hijras. Not only does this assume an ahistorical essence to the experience of Hijras, thus rendering them static and denying their historical agency, but it also doesn’t account for how colonialism has dramatically impacted the lives of Hijras and their place in cultural context.

The category itself, from textual evidence, seems to have undergone a number of shifts before the colonial period. The earliest record of the term has it including barren women, impotent men, eunuchs, and  hermaphrodites/intersex. This shifted, however, until in the later writings before the colonial period, Hijras were more associated with eunuchs and hermaphrodites by heteronormative Indian chroniclers. Barren women and impotent men seem to have been forgotten in the categorization. We have to remember that this categorization too should be taken in regards to the taxonomical interests of those involved. Another pre-colonial history of the Hijras could include their place within the cultural and religious structures of the day. This history is necessarily a generalization. Hijras were considered a third-sex, or third-gender. Serena Nanda points this out in the title of her book, Neither Man nor Women. So, while it might be convenient to say that Hijras were/are biological men who perform/ed a third gender, this may be imputing a sex/gender on them that denies this third gender self-understanding. This is not even to get into the problems of biological essentialism that discounts intersex and hermaphrodites, and so forth.

All that being said, it seems, broadly speaking, that Hijras had an auspicious place in the religious and cultural life of India. Their liminal stature within the semiological landscape of pre-colonial India afforded them an auspicious place in the in-between. Much of South Asian religiosity has felt a power there, ranging from the story of Narasimha to the complex symbolic system that we call Tantra. Hijras, it seems, were afforded a somewhat privileged place as auspicious corporeal divinities who could confer the blessings of fertility on the birth of sons and at weddings. As such, Hijras were afforded a place outside the structures of the heteronormative structures of the dharmasastric (orthodox social) order. They were not required to be married, nor hold to the social-sexual order of the ideal wife or husband. Nonetheless, they seemed to have a place within the symbolic and lived order that has always been more than the dharmasastras tell us. Accordingly, much like the Devadasis—a group to which many of the structures that I will speak about regarding the effects of colonialism on Hijras hold—Hijras were able to have a kind of autonomous sexual life, for example. This, as we shall see, became a focus of the British and Indian elite imagination as they attempted to order a new hybrid world under colonial rule.

In the 19th century, as the British were attempting to colonize the globe, with various success. They operated under the assumption that their scientific knowledge, their parochial knowledge, was a universal knowledge. To their credit, they had some good reason to believe this. The innovations in certain modes of scientific inquiry and technical know-how were breathtaking for their day—and to a limited degree were rightly insistent on a universal assumption of mathematical, chemical and physical laws. I don’t really have the space to parse through my analysis of the limitations of their assumptions (and our continuing similar assumptions today) here. Nonetheless, the assumption that this universality could carry forward into other spheres of inquiry shaped colonial forms of knowing, and thus the impact of the British in India.

Much of the justification for British rule was based on many kinds of scientific inquiry. As Edward Said has pointed out, academic inquiry and colonialism went hand in hand. In the case of Hijras, the British came to India at the same time as they were working out the formulation of their bourgeois sexuality that I explicated in the last post. It may come as no surprise that the British presence in India implemented institutions, discourses and laws to help constrain Indian norms to those that the British were creating at the time. Homosexuality, or to be more precise, sodomy, was becoming a constrained category (in the past it has undergone 2000 years or more of being a fluid category: at various times adultery, pre-marital sex, and many other practices had been placed under this category) and one policed by the newly expanding power of colonial and scientific knowledge. Prostitution was on the one hand similarly policed, while at the same time given a kind of privileged order. In India, under the auspices of Orientalist assumptions of a civilizing call, Hijras were considered a prime indication of the implicit deviance of the Oriental essence. Hijras were labeled prostitutes. And yet, while it may be the case that at this time some were prostitutes, it is more likely that this label was affixed to Hijras because their sexuality was beyond the pale of marriage. Hijras, like Devadasi (temple dancers), were religiously justified in having autonomous sexual choices. This indulgence did not accord with the strict policing of sexuality that was being constructed at the time. So called deviant sexuality was another focal point for colonial distaste for Hijras, who were both transgressing gender boundaries by their gender performance, but also transgressing sexual boundaries by 1) having sex with men, and 2) having sex outside of the bourgeois family structure. All in all, Hijras became criminalized under many of the civil laws that the British instituted in India.

This is not to say that this construction of knowledge and its policing are to be only laid at the feet of the British colonizers. Indigenous elites played a integral role in a mutual collaboration between the British and Indian elites to order India. For the Indian elites, this had many practical benefits, but also conceptual ones. The construction of what we now think of as world religions was beginning in this time period through the auspices of Orientalists who were attempting to codify the vast, complex and ancient traditions of the globe into a workable ordering of knowledge. Hinduism was being constructed as an object of knowledge, and the tools for this process were blunt—they followed the model of the European understanding of Christianity. This construction, along with the construction of the various other sciences, like sexology, played into the material positioning of Indian elites who took this as an opportunity to privilege their understandings of Hinduism, India, Islam over an above the other various understandings that existed in simultaneity. These elites also saw an opportunity in adopting many of the forms and power of Western knowledge and the trope of modernization. The effect of this was (to over-generalize) a collaborative effort in ordering the world to fit a normative structure of progress.

Under all of these discursive, institutional, and practical strategies, the Hijras became a symbol of the decadence, barbarity, and savagery of India as a backwards land. The British used the Hijras (along with countless other examples) to justify their intervention. The Indian elites scapegoated Hijras (along with countless other examples) as relics of the past to controlled and discarded on the way to progress. Hijras, under the scientific categories of the newly emerging sexology became deviants of a most problematic kind, often because of their very otherness as Oriental. They also became criminalized, not only under the category of sodomites, then homosexuals, but as prostitutes. Their sexual agency in the old symbolic order became a symbol of uncontrolled sexuality that necessitated a criminality. It needed to be rooted out to fit the order of the bourgeois ordering of sexuality according to the nuclear family—or later on, under a more anthropologically tolerant analysis of the particularities of India, the “joint-family”.

From the gaze of a newly and increasingly colonized India Hijras transformed into deviants, criminals, prostitutes (and more). As we will see in the next post this colonized attitude has only shifted slightly since decolonization, and becomes one model among others of what is called the post-colonial predicament.

I continue my analysis in the next post Hijras: Decolonization.


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6 Responses to “Hijras – Part II – Colonization”

  1. Abhirup Says:

    It is a fact that gender-identity and sexual-orientation are two totally separate independent aspects.
    If even today you go to any transgender website, you will be surprised to know that several transgenders are actually attracted to women and even marry and have children. I know several transsexuals of the west who change sex from male to female and become “lesbians”,
    On the other hand, there is a substantial but unknown percentage of totally masculine men who may be exclusively attracted to men and may not have any sexual desire for women!
    Which means, the stereotyping of hijras (transgenders) under the category of “sodomites” or “male-prostitutes” by the British and Indian elites were half-baked at best. Because, even if a few Hijras might fit into it if they are “homosexual” as well, there are several who don’t as they aren’t into men. On the other hand, there would be many otherwise normal regular masculine men who would be sodomites.
    I would like to know whether Asian medieval cultures or European regimes have been guilty of carrying forward this kind of misreprentation.

  2. Hijras – Part I « fuzzytheory Says:

    […] Hijras – Part II – Colonization « fuzzytheory Says: October 23, 2012 at 12:12 am | Reply […]

  3. Hijras – Part III – Decolonization « fuzzytheory Says:

    […] Hijras – Part II – Colonization « fuzzytheory Says: October 23, 2012 at 12:15 am | Reply […]

  4. Fuzzytheory Roundup « fuzzytheory Says:

    […] of posts on the Hijras is some of my favorite posts on this blog, and somewhat popular. Part 1, Part 2 and Part […]

  5. nevs111 Says:

    I’m writing a paper at the moment on hijras and devadasis as well for college. These posts were very insightful. I’ll have to check out your latest stuff.

  6. Georgina Says:

    Hi there, I would really like to reference this article in my dissertation as I found it very insightful and helpful for one of my arguments, I was just wondering if there was any way that I could cite this and where you gathered your information from. Thanks so much.

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