Archive for the ‘Hijras’ Category

Hijras – Part III – Decolonization

March 20, 2010

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.


Hijras – Part II – Colonization

June 17, 2009

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.


Hijras – Part I

June 6, 2009

While it is still fresh in my head from teaching this year, I want to write a series of post about Hijras. Before I even get into it, I want to delineate what kind of posts these will be. I will not be doing anything anthropological or ethnographic. If you want some of that, I suggest checking out the work of Serena Nanda. Most of what I will be talking about is historical and theoretical. My main focus will be on how colonialism has and still does impact the lives of Hijras. In some ways my examination will be a case study of the post-colonial condition or the post-colonial predicament based on the Hijras. Once this has been examined to my satisfaction, I want to then look at what impact the category of Hijra has on our own understandings of sexuality and gender. To my mind, if we choose to understand Hijras in a certain way, it can shake up the very foundations of how know ourselves as sexual, sexed, and gendered beings.

For this first post, my focus will be on bringing to light our assumptions and the pre-understanding we carry with us coming into any examination of cross-cultural examinations of “other” modes of sexuality and gender.

We are not neutral subjects. In the last 30 years of intellectual and experiential inquiry, this has assuredly been shown to be not only a truism, but an ethico-political position. The assumption of neutrality is a privileged position; it is a position that is politically motivated in its very assumption that there can be such a thing as a neutral subject. We will see throughout this series of posts how this assumption of neutrality has in practice led to the privileging of certain parochial and finite understandings as if they were natural and universal. The assumption of neutrality is a clever and powerful tool to assert the political ascendency of only a certain kind of knowledge. In short, the “God’s eye view” is a power-play.