Hijras – Part III – Decolonization

Continued from two earlier posts: Hijras and Hijras: Colonization.

Under the pressures of legal, categorical, social and colonial oppression, Hijras became marginalized very rapidly in the British raj. They became subject to legal and social policing, and suffered many economic, material and symbolic hardships. The label of the Hijra as a prostitute became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In order to survive day to day, many Hijras had to resort to or were forced into prostitution by the economic and symbolic order around them. Within the cultural and semiological order the role of Hijras became reversed from auspicious in-between liminal figure to frightening transgressor of the symbolic order. Significantly, the force of their symbolic power changed little. Practically, what this meant was (again, generalizing) that Hijras no longer blessed, they cursed–with the same amount of power. They became inauspicious.

After decolonization this marginalization of Hijras continued–it became the internalized cultural model of the newly reconstructed Indian traditional authenticity as propagated by the elites during colonization. This sets the stage for the last 70 years of contemporary Hijra history that can be accessed by ethnography. There are a number of interesting theoretical insights that can be made in particular about the Hijras, but also extrapolated as general theory.

For instance, in a significant Foucauldian twist, the Hijras now use their marginal status as inauspicious to eke out a living. Where they previously were (and still sometimes are–this is not a total reversal, but a contested one) considered auspicious (weddings, births), they now use their inauspiciousness to threaten pollution unless given economic incentive to “go away” and thus take the pollution with them. In reality, many ethnographies show that these two historical trajectories of the inauspicious and auspicious Hijra often play out simultaneously in contested ways. Unfortunately, many of the ethonographies I have seen seem to miss the import of the historical geneological history that shapes this. They tend towards an ahistorical essentialism.

Another source of agency for Hijras is that since their identity is so contested, they allow themselves a certain freedom to reconstruct their histories and sense of self. Many Hijra self-constructions are a bricolage of Hindu, Muslim and European mythologizing. They reconstruct empowering myths of themselves to create local collective identities that resist the post-colonial marginalization they face. Regardless, it points to the fundamental Nietzschean point that history has always been about a reconstruction of the past to enable the present. It is a very honest re-evaluation, from this perspective–and related to the reimagining of Indian history by the oppressive class of elites.

The final post-colonial point I’d like to make is that since the 90s, European categories of gay, straight, bi, trans, lesbian etc. have entered urban bourgeois settings, like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.  Collective identity is becoming reshaped in these settings to tap into the global Eurocentric categories that, as we have seen, were constructed in the 19th century (partly due to the European conception of the other–including Hijras). So in an interesting irony, Hijras are now aligning with trans-identified people, are now self-identifying as ‘trans-‘, a category that only exists partly due to the British re-imagination of sexuality that was reacting to the Hijra itself. Nonetheless, this is an interesting political move, and seems to be gaining much cultural capital in the bourgeois sphere. The collective identity taken up globally, now most commonly signified by LGBT(QII) or a variant, that has helped to create such practical gains (and at the same time categorical shackles and in-group policing) is likely to significantly reshape the Hijras place in South Asia yet again.

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2 Responses to “Hijras – Part III – Decolonization”

  1. Hijras – Part II – Colonization « fuzzytheory Says:

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

  2. Fuzzytheory Roundup « fuzzytheory Says:

    […] My series of posts on the Hijras is some of my favorite posts on this blog, and somewhat popular. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. […]

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