Contradictions Between Hijra Idealism and Reality

Anthropologists often use the hijra, or third gender that exists in India and Pakistan, to explain how gender and gender representations have fluid identities cross culturally. Western scholars have desperately tried to connect the hijra society to eunuchs, hermaphrodites, “male or boy prostitutes”, and passive homosexuals, but none of these identities accurately describe the hijra gender (Bakshi 213). Hijras, who most typically define themselves a distinct third gender, sometimes compare themselves to eunuchs or hermaphrodites, but they are linguistically, culturally, and legally separated from homosexual identities. Foreigners might see a hijras as men in drag, but hijras are not the same as a Western transvestite. As Renate Syed explains, “Most Western transvestites prefer women as sexual partners… Hijras, on the other hand, function in society only as women, and their partners are other men or Hijras” (45). Renate Syed incorrectly describes hijras as functioning in society as women (they actually perform quite differently than women), but the author brings up interesting differences between gender and sexuality. Throughout this node, I will describe what the hijra are not, discuss the contradictions between hijra idealism and hijra reality, and conclude with what the hijra can teach us about binary male/female identities.

Joseph T. Bockrath offers a widely accepted definition of hijra when he writes, “a born hermaphrodite who dresses as a female or, more commonly, a born male who undergoes, or plans to undergo, surgical emasculation, and who dons female garb” (83). Serena Nanda simplifies and simultaneously complicates this definition by calling hijras neither men nor women; they are a third sex with varying qualities that legitimate their hijra identities. Nanda states that the most important qualities are those that distinguish hijras as not men, as evidenced by how “the word hijra primarily implies a physical defect impairing the male function” (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman” 543). On the same page of Nanda’s article, she cites 19th-century accounts of hijra initiates having to “sleep four nights with a prostitute” in order to prove their impotence; “Only after impotence was established would the newcomer be permitted to undergo the emasculation operation and become a full member of the community.”

Although impotence is no longer tested as rigorously, it continues to be at the heart of the hijra identity. Hijra can either be “physiologically incapable of engendering offspring” or can choose “to withdraw from worldly activities and thus refuse to procreate” (Bakshi 215). A third, but less recognized, type of hijra can be born as a female who never menstruates (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman” 546). Hijra communities sometimes seek after the first kind of hijra, who are considered to be more authentic because of their ambiguous of dysfunctional genitalia. Salima, an “authentic” hijra who Serena Nanda interviewed, described how she was born with a “[male] organ [that] was very small” and never grew (“Life on the Margins” 160). From then on, Salima’s parents came to terms with the fact that she was a hijra and would never marry a bride or gain a dowry; later, she was recruited into the hijra society.

The hijras who are born with obviously male genitalia, which is often removed, still define themselves as not men. Some identify with hijras instead of men because their male organs do not work properly, or they lack desires for marriage and families (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman” 544). Some hijras admit that even though they do not have masculine desires, they do have sexual desires for men. One hijra explains, “[W]e are all men, born as men, but when we look at women, we don’t have any desire for them. We see men, we like them, we feel shy, we feel some excitement. We want to live and die as women” (“Hijra as Neither Man Now Woman 545).

This explanation of hijra sexuality is noteworthy for two reasons; it contradicts the hijra ideal of being asexual (Bockrath 83; “Neither Man Nor Woman” 544), and the speaker clearly defines herself as currently a woman, even though hijras are ideally neither man nor woman. With such contradictions, it becomes clear that hijras do not fit into a tidy identity with universal gender cues. They are not men in drag, men who become women, or passive homosexuals. They are not men, but even a “want to live and die” as a woman does not make them women either.

The term hijra does not permit them to be real women. As Nanda explains, “hijra itself is a masculine noun suggesting… a man that is less than a perfect man” (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman” 544). Furthermore, in India a woman’s identity depends on her ability to give birth. For this reason those who are born as female but never menstruate become hijra because “[t]hey do not have female reproductive organs, and because they cannot have children they are not considered to be real women” (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman 546). Meera, a hijra who Serena Nanda spoke to, told a story of a hijra who prayed for a child but neglected to ask for the child to be removed from her womb. After ten months and a great deal of pain, she prayed again, but her fate could not be reversed. Finally, “she found a sword at the darga [Muslim shrine] and slit herself open. She removed the child and placed it on the ground. The child died and the hijra also died.” Nanda reiterates the point of the myth when she reveals that Meera “expressed [to Nanda] her wish for a child,” but Meera also knew that it was her fate to be an incomplete woman (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman 547).

Unfortunately, Nanda does not clarify whether Meera was born with ambiguous, male, or female genitalia, but Nanda makes it evident that hijras are definitely not women because hijras are unable to have children. The hijras also separate themselves from “real” women while in the public sphere. Nanda describes their public behaviors when she writes, “Their female dress and mannerisms are often exaggerations, almost to the point of caricature, and they act in sexually suggestive ways that would be considered inappropriate… for ordinary women [i.e. daughters, wives, and mothers].” In addition to their blatant sexuality, Nanda mentions hijras who smoke hookah pipes in Gujarat and cigarettes in Panjab; smoking is “ordinarily only done by men” in both areas (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman” 546).

Now that I have firmly established that hijras identify themselves as and are seen in public as a third gender, I will briefly describe how they live in and are legitimated by Indian society. Born hijras, similar to Salima, and those who want to become members of a hijra community go through similar processes of initiation. All hijras have to find a guru [mentor] to sponsor them by paying their dand [fine] before they are accepted into the community (Bakshi 213). The initiation fine is comparable to a dowry because the dand, which is slowly paid off by the hijras, is meant to ensure safety and stability with the new community or family. Bockrath explains the system when he writes, “[A hijra] must turn over her earnings [usually from begging or being paid to bless a marriage] to the guru, who then distributes an allowance” (91). There is a hierarchy between chelas [hijra initiates] and gurus, but their relationship is not necessarily seen as a negative relationship. Initiates are in charge of cleaning, sweeping, cooking, and general upkeep in the hijra house, but Salima explains that in exchange for her work, they looked after and protected her (Nanda, “Life on the Margins” 162).

As Nanda’s article about Salima implies, hijras live “on the Margins”, but Nanda also claims that “Hinduism not only accommodates such ambiguities [as hijras], but also views them as meaningful and even powerful” (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman 547). In this statement, Nanda promotes a Hindu idealism and ignores many acts of discrimination that hijras endure, but she is not wrong either. Hindu texts are often used to legitimate hijras, and the most commonly used example is from the Ramayana, which is sometimes translated to state:

The whole city followed him because they loved him so. As Ram came to the banks of the river at the edge of the forest, he turned to the people and said, “Ladies and gents, please wipe away your tears and go away.” But those people who were not men and women did not know what to do. So they stayed there because Ram did not ask them to go…And so they were blessed by Ram (Bockrath 86).
The story of Ram and the gender that was neither man nor woman is often used to claim a hijra origin and gives the community a guaranteed place in society.

Aside from the Ramayana, hijras also identify with various androgynous Hindu gods. Shiva is a good example of such a god because he sometimes appears as a man, woman, or half-man/half-woman; Nanda describes, “Shiva is an ascetic—one who renounces sex—and yet he appears in many erotic and procreative roles… Hijras say that worshipers of Shiva give them special respect because of this close identification” (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman” 548). Thus, hijras have a lot in common with Shiva; they have a combination of male and female qualities, and they participate in sexual intercourse, even though they are ideally asexual.

As Hinduism includes gods and deities who can change from one gender to another, and Indian culture accepts hijras as a legitimate third gender, it is not surprising that some researchers look at India as a gender utopia. For example, Serena Nanda concludes:

It is this characteristically Indian ability to tolerate, even embrace, contradictions and variation at the social, cultural, and personality levels that provides the context in which the hijras cannot only be accommodated, but even granted a measure of power (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman” 550).
However, it must be noted that hijras do not have an ideal place in society, and their rights are very limited.

As an everyday limitation, hijras often struggle economically. Renate Syed, a writer who arguably assumes too much about the hijras, states that the hijras have three jobs. Syed explains, “In the afternoon they collect ‘gifts’ in the local bazaar, in the evening they bless bridegrooms or newly born sons, and at night they engage in prostitution” (45). Syed paints a fairly bleak picture of hijra life. Typically, hijras do not earn money in all of these ways each day of their life, as Syed implies, but some hijras do earn their money in these ways. Salima, for example, only began to earn money as a prostitute after she was thrown out of the hijra community and was left with no other option (“Life on the Margins” 165). Before, she only begged from vendors on the streets and preformed at weddings, which both “made good money” (162).

Hijra performances, or “blessings”, at ceremonies involve a unique mix of cultural acceptability and prejudice. Professor Lars Fogelin has described the representations of hijras at wedding ceremonies as somewhat derogatory. In fact, according to Fogelin, some hijras are paid to interrupt marriage ceremonies only to be kicked out by family members for good luck. Likewise, Patricia J. Ould was a witness to a similar event. She writes, “I was stunned when three people that I thought were drag queens arrived and began to disrupt the wedding… The other guests appeared disgruntled by the three.” Later, Ould asked a friend about the incident, and the friend explained, “[t]hey were demanding to be paid before performing… People were disgruntled not because the hijras had appeared, but because they were not dressed well enough” (28).

Ould believes and accepts this explanation, but it is possible that the wedding guests would feign anger and kick the hijras out no matter how they were dressed. It is also quite possible that authors have used the terms “blessings” and “performance” very loosely. Nanda, Backrath, and Syed each mention hijras who somehow earn money at weddings, but none of the authors explain how hijras perform or how they are treated during the ceremonies. Sandeep Bakshi uses the term “intervention” but does not mention that hijras are sometimes kicked out of weddings. Bakshi explains:

Almost all Hindu marriages and birth rituals have ceremonies calling for at least one hijra intervention if not more. Sometimes if the hijras are absent from such ceremonies many newlyweds seek the blessings by going to places where they can find the hijra community (216).
Bakshi clearly demonstrates that hijras are sought after, and “intervention” implies that the hijra act like they are unwanted. He describes that “patriarchal figures of the household” are responsible for negotiating prices for the hijra performances and what the hijras are allowed to do during the ceremony. For example, men who organize the ceremony “can sometimes refuse that the hijras lift up their ghagras (long skirts) or saris” (217).

Depending on one’s perspective the participation of hijras in wedding ceremonies can be seen as respecting or objectifying the hijras. On one hand, specifically inviting them and finding value in their existence legitimates their identity, and the ceremonies support the hijra society economically. On the other hand, such performances can be seen as ridiculing hijras. It is also hard to ignore the fact that outside of wedding ceremonies, hijras are often rejected by society. Syed writes, “In India and Pakistan, one often hears derogatory remarks about Hijras who allegedly steal boys and forcibly castrate them. These are simply efforts to criminalize Hijras and legitimate their marginalzation” (46). Likewise, Bockrath claims that hijras are “the most marginalized group in [India]” (94). He supports this claim by stating how “their poverty and cultural ostracism force some of them [into] homosexual prostitution, [even though] the hijra ideal rejects all sexual activity [sic]” (84).

Although I agree that hijras are a marginalized group, Bockrath’s statement is problematic for two reasons. First, hijra prostitution is not the same as homosexual prostitution. Nanda explains that as a third gender, hijras are both culturally and linguistically removed from homosexuality; homosexuals “are referred to as zenana”, and they “think of themselves in the male gender” (“Hijras as Neither Man Nor Woman” 543). It is also important to note that zenana are passive homosexuals, and men who hire and have sex with hijras are not considered homosexual at all. As a second point, Bockrath’s statement neglects to mention that hijras sometimes go against their asexual ideals by having sexual desires for men, as mentioned earlier.

Both Serena Nanda and Joseph T. Bockrath clearly expose how hijras do not always conform to asexual ideas. Sometimes sex is voluntary, and sometimes prostitution is necessary for survival. In both cases, sexuality is simplified, or often ignored, by those who have studied hijras. As Stephen O. Murray has accurately critiqued, anthropologists have ignored men who desire hijras over females (4). Are there hijra chasers? Do men legitimate their desires for other men and anal intercourse by marrying hijras or hiring hijra prostitutes? As of yet, it does not appear that any anthropologists have researched these questions. These questions also leave me to wonder how hijras who marry other hijras view their sexuality. And what about hijras who are born female but never menstruate; do they engage in vaginal or anal intercourse? Perhaps the logistics of what happens during sex is not considered important. I do not wish to argue that hijra sexuality should be forced to fit into homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual identities, but it would be helpful to understand hijra sexuality, especially since hijra gender has been researched so thoroughly.

Unfortunately, the limited amount of sources concerning hijra sexuality keeps me from exploring the topic further. However, the studies of hijra gender identity are very useful, and they help break down the seemingly strict identities of men and women in India. Bockrath mentions that some hijra have recently been elected to office in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana, and some hijra have organized a hijra political party (84). This description of hijras in politics implies a separatist movement, but Ould reveals that politically active hijras are required to play by or directly challenge the “normal” male/female gender binary. Ould mentions a hijra who ran for legislature as a woman, which caused “a lot of controversy and press coverage … and challenges to the hijra’s right to run as a women.” Consequently, “[a] recent court decision… declared all hijra to be males for the purpose of political office” (28).

In short, hijra may be a legitimate third gender, but Indian society is politically structured as having only two genders. The hijra gender is thus subjugated as inferior, but hijras have been elected to political offices; once again culturally expectations expose contradictions. Hijra’s are declared to be men for the purpose of politics, most likely because women are guaranteed thirty percent of the legislative seats, but hijra are not considered to be men when it comes to sexual politics, as evidenced by legal codes that restrict homosexuality (Ould 28). As hijra groups continue to fight for political representation and legal rights, assuming that they do, India will undoubtedly be forced to reexamine the qualifiers of male, female, and hijra identities. It is quite possible that hijra (political) men who have sex with other men could be used to legitimate homosexuality. If both are “men”, why should the sexuality of zenanas be considered illegal? I predict that debates over gender definitions and acceptability of sexualities will increase in the coming years, but only time will tell whether debates will bring more genders and sexualities into the realm of acceptability or if there will be significant political backlashes.


Bakshi, Sandeep. “A Comparative Analysis of Hijras and Drag Queens: The Subversive Possibilities and Limits of Parading Effeminacy and Negotiating Masculity”. Journal of Homosexuality 46.3/4 (2004): 211-223.

Bockrath, Joseph T. “Bhartia Hijro Ka Dharma: The Code of India’s Hijra”. Legal Studies Forum 27.1 (2003): 83-95.

Murray, Stephen O. “Explaining Away Same-Sex Sexualities: When They Obtrude on Anthropologists’ Notice at All”. Anthropology Today 13.3 (1997): 2-5.

Nanda, Serena. “Hijras as Neither Man nor Woman”. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (1993): 542-552.

Nanda, Serena. “Life on the Margins: A Hijra’s Story”. Everyday Life in South Asia. Eds. Diane P. Mines and Sarah Lamb. Bloomington: Indiana Universtiy Press, 2002: 159-166.

Ould, Patricia J. “Passing in India”. Gay and Lesbian Review 10.3 (2003): 27-28.

Syed, Ranate. “Feminine Soul, Masculine Body”. World Press Review 50.1 (2003): 45-46.