A Gender Journey

 by Matt Wade, New Delhi January 8, 2011

SUMAN is proud of her boob job. It cost about $2500, a small fortune for most Indians, but comes with a ''lifetime guarantee'' and the promise of higher earnings. Like many Indian transsexuals, known as hijras, Suman boosts her income with sex work. Breast enhancement operations, now easily available in big city hospitals, are increasingly popular among the naturally flat-chested hijras. Suman's investment is paying handsome dividends.

''I'm getting more clients now and I can charge more than before,'' she says. <!--break-->

For thousands of years, transsexuals such as Suman have been part of the subcontinent's complex civilisation. But her implants and her prostitution are indicators of the pressure placed on this community by rapid social and economic change in India.  var erA = document.createElement('iframe'); erA.setAttribute("id", "dcAd-1-4"); erA.setAttribute("src", "http://ad-apac.doubleclick.net/adi/onl.smh.news/world;cat=world;ctype=article;pos=3;" + document.dcAdsCParams +"sz=300x250;tile=4;ord=" + dcOrd + "?"); erA.setAttribute("width", "300"); erA.setAttribute("height", "250"); erA.setAttribute("scrolling", "no"); erA.setAttribute("marginheight", "0"); erA.setAttribute("marginwidth", "0"); erA.setAttribute("allowtransparency", "true"); erA.setAttribute("frameborder", "0"); erA.frameBorder = 0; document.dcdAdsE.push(erA); document.dcdAdsEH.push("adspot-300x250-pos-3"); document.dcdAdsEC.push("ad adCentred"); document.dcdAdsR.push("dcAd-1-4");

There is no official count but it is thought there could be 750,000 hijras. They are often referred to as India's ''third gender'', and the name implies a journey between genders. ''It comes from the Arabic word, 'hij', meaning a journey that has begun but not ended,'' says Rahul Singh, a community worker and activist who has been involved with hijra communities for more than a decade. ''They have taken up a journey to leave the masculine form and become a woman but this cannot be completed because biologically they can never become a woman.''

Castration has always been a feature of the community. Those preparing for it are called akwa hijras; those who have been castrated are called nirvan hijras, meaning they have been released from their male gender. But the operation is not imperative: ''Some of them opt for castration but some don't; it depends on the individual's choice,'' Singh says.

Ashok Row Kavi, an expert on India's sexual minorities, says hijras can fall into at least four ''clinical'' categories. ''There are transvestites who cross-dress as a fetish, transsexuals who feel they are in the wrong body, intersexed males and cross-dressing gay males,'' he says. ''If a person from any one of these joins a hijra group then they are called one.''

India's two biggest religions, Hinduism and Islam, have helped create a variety of rich hijra cultures and identities.

In the north, the tendency to Muslim characteristics is attributed to the prominent role eunuchs played in the Mogul dynasty that ruled much of the subcontinent in the 17th and 18th centuries. ''Hijras had great power in that Muslim administration,'' Rahul Singh says. ''Most of the hijras in north India embrace Islam, or their mannerisms are very Islamic. They tend to take up a Muslim identity.'' Many hijras take on Muslim names even if they were born into Hindu families.

Many transsexuals in north India now reject the term hijra and insist on being called kinnar, a description they say is more respectful. Further south, in the state of Tamil Nadu, the predominantly Hindu transgender community call themselves ''Aravanis'' and follow Aravan, a character in the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, who died a heroic death in battle. At a special festival each year in the town of Koovagam, Aravanis ritually marry Aravan and then mourn his death.

Tamil Nadu has officially recognised its transgender community and issues ration cards with a special ''third gender'' category. Targeted social services including education and counselling are also available.

Eunuchs are referred to in the earliest Hindu texts, the Vedas, written in the second millennium BC. Hindu mythology includes well-known transgender roles, of which perhaps the most prominent is Shikhandi who, like Aravan, is a character in The Mahabharata. The child of King Drupad, Shikhandi had the body of a man but the soul of a woman and was a respected and celebrated warrior.

Hijras in India also identify with Shiva, one of Hinduism's highest gods. A popular form of Shiva is Ardhanarishvara, who is half-man, half-woman. But transsexuals are not always portrayed positively in Hindu scriptures. One of The Mahabharata's heroes, the warrior Arjuna, was cursed to live a year as a eunuch after committing sin. Kavi says many Indians still fear that if they touch or interact with a hijra they might become impotent, and Hindus consider it a bad omen if a hijra exposes herself in front of them.

Hijras have traditionally survived by demanding money from families in return for blessing a newborn child or newly married couple. Their blessings - or curses - are considered unusually potent because of their transgender nature. They also dance and sing and tell bawdy jokes at weddings and festivals.

Collection tactics can be aggressive, including threats to reveal themselves, or strip, unless they are paid to leave. Many families give them money because they fear being cursed.

''But with changing times it has become more and more difficult for hijras to earn their livelihood through this source of income,'' Singh says. In big cities, where hijras tend to live, the advent of high-rise flats and gated neighbourhoods has reduced their opportunities to collect money. ''People's attitudes have also been changing; they have become much more indifferent to them,'' Singh says. ''All this has really hurt the community and they are opting for sex work and sometimes begging as well.''

Activists say prejudice towards hijras makes it difficult for them to get mainstream jobs and many feel sex work is their only option.

HIV has become a threat. Local studies in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai have found HIV rates above 40 per cent among hijras. The nirvan hijras, who have been castrated, are at extreme risk; studies show infection rates of up to 70 per cent in the group.

Such figures are not enough to deter Suman from sex work. ''My clients are high-society businessmen, those with white-collar jobs,'' she says. ''All night with me costs 5000 rupees [$A110], two hours 2000.''

It is common for hijra households to refuse entry to strangers: despite their frequent public appearances, their tight-knit communities have a ''highly feudal and secretive structure'', Kavi says. But after a chance meeting on the streets, Suman invites The Age to visit the house where she lives with nine other young hijras. They rent space in a gloomy concrete building on the north-east fringe of the capital, Delhi. A small factory producing lipstick cases operates from a room on the roof.

Suman, 24, is wearing a super-short black dress. Thick make-up covers acne scars on her face. Her housemates are adorned with cosmetics, jewellery and brightly coloured women's clothing. One of them, Sonia Rai, has blush caked on her face but her upper lip sprouts a substantial moustache.

The hijra community is known for its highly structured networks of ''gurus'' (leaders) and ''chelas'' (followers). Kavi says communities normally resemble a traditional Indian joint family. Suman is the undisputed leader of her household: members address her by the respectful title ''guruji'' and follow her instructions. In turn, Suman has an older hijra guru who lives elsewhere.

''This group is like my family now,'' Suman says. ''And I am their mother. They share their problems with me and I sort them out.''

Suman was born in a poor village near Kolkata in eastern India. She says her family cast her out at the age of 10 because of her effeminate behaviour and she joined a hijra group.

''From the time I was born my family suspected I was transsexual,'' she says. ''One day my mother asked me to leave the family, so I fled. I felt very bad and I cried all the time. Even now I'm very sad that my family pushed me away.''

Superstitions and prejudices about hijras are still strong in rural India. ''I feel more comfortable in Delhi than in my village,'' says Suman. ''There is a strong social stigma for transsexuals back there.'' She visits her family once a year but is angry about the way they treated her.

''They should have stood with me rather than following what society tells them.''

All members of her household have stories of rejection, vulnerability and isolation.

Prejudice had particularly tragic consequences for Koyal Mollick, a 25-year-old hijra who lives with Suman. ''My family got rid of me very early in life but people in my village came to know I was a transsexual,'' she says.

''My sister was unable to find a husband because of this stigma and she recently committed suicide.''

Everyone in the group claims to have been born without a penis or testicles. Koyal even lifts her dress to prove she has no genitalia. A small hole in her lower abdomen allows her to urinate. ''No one here has any sexual organs,'' says Suman.

On a typical day, Suman's group dress up and roam neighbourhoods in Delhi to request money from households that have a newborn or are about to host a wedding. Hijras call this ''tolly''. ''It is our due, we are entitled to it and it is our dignity,'' she says. ''If we do not get our due we are not being respected.''

Suman would like to stop her own sex work in about six years, then ''train and handle'' her girls. She even has hopes for a wedding of her own. ''Sometimes clients fall in love with people like me and they get married. I hope that happens,'' she says. ''I'd like to fall in love with a man and get married.''

The nine hijras in a household in the Delhi neighbourhood of Shastri Park, not far from Suman's home, have already given up dancing at weddings and collecting money at births, and rely exclusively on sex work. They have also abandoned the traditional hijra guru and follower household and instead have a female guardian and landlady they call ''mommy''. The home - effectively a brothel - has a series of gloomy rooms for entertaining clients. The group, all in their early 20s, trawls for clients outside the house and at a nearby road well known for prostitution. They charge as little as 200 rupees for sexual services.

But the growing number of hijras involved in sex work in itself threatens to further undermine the community's traditional sources of income. ''The aura that hijras have comes from a belief in society that they don't have sex,'' says one expert on the community. ''That's why people believe they have special powers to bless and curse and why society seeks their blessing and gives them money. If it becomes very public that they have sex, it will hurt their livelihoods.''

Ashok Row Kavi says hijra customs are vanishing. ''Low and middle-class families can't pay them much,'' he says. ''They are getting less because, whether they like it or not, they are not begging in front of Mogul monarchs. As India changes, they will have to change, otherwise they are finished.''