Demanding their rights,
a new generation of hijras is aware and independent, writes M Radhika
is in her 20s, speaks excellent English, and dresses well. Famila is aware
of her legal rights and is a clear thinker. She represents the new generation
of eunuchs, popularly known as hijras. They have a singular demand: "Call
us women. Give us that status." Their appeal is justifiable. They
are as vulnerable to violence and exploitation as women, but are seen
as members of a 'third gender', which means belonging to an obscure sexual
minority. But now, their demand is slowly and steadily gaining momentum.
Famila talks easily about her occupation: 'voluntary sex work' (as she
and her friends call it). "It is our choice. We are not trafficked
or forced into it,'' they say. Unlike many of her peers who are confined
to hamams or bathhouses and live in groups, she and her friends live independently.
Famila used to work with an NGO for the welfare of sexual minorities,
Sangama. "I had joined it as I thought it was a space for me to grow
as an individual, with a lot of security,'' she says. She continued as
a sex worker while she was employed by the NGO. "There was constant
police harassment. Sangama did not like our (hijras) dressing up there
in the evening to go out for sex work. They were afraid of the police,''
she says. "I was made to resign as I refused to give up sex work.''
A frustrated Famila attempted suicide in late December, 2003. She slit
her wrist and had to be forced to seek medical help. She had a long-time
affair with an unemployed married man who "was lazy, not willing
to work. I had to support him. He did not like my paying attention to
other men," she explains.
thread links Famila and hundreds of women who attempt suicide every year.
While many women go through depression because they are suffering, here
it gets compounded because people like Famila 'choose' to be women. It
is their in-built desire. What society forgets is that while social acceptability
of hijras is dismal, they are as vulnerable to violence as women, be it
rape, torture in police custody, gang rapes on streets that go unreported
and even harassment within families.
"Their depression is related to social stigma and sadism by males,
or by wives of men who are attracted to them. These wives could make their
life miserable,'' says the head of the Department of Psychiatry at St
Martha's Hospital, Dr Ajit Bhide, who has counselled hijras. "Hijras
are a variation of bisexuality. It is a disorder of sexual disorientation.
Some of them are hermaphrodites with physical characteristics of women.
But we need to destigmatise it,'' says Dr Bhide, comparing it to 'disability'.
"If you do not have a hand you are disabled. But that does not mean
you should be discriminated against,'' he says.
Arvind Narrain, of the Alternative Law Forum, an NGO that contests cases
for sexual minorities, echoes Bhide's opinion. "Medical curricula
in medical colleges should be reformed to move beyond seeing transgenderism
as a disease and a deviance,'' he says, adding that sex reassignment surgeries
should be made available in government hospitals.
Thanks to the ambiguity of gender, hijras are denied basic citizens' rights
like a ration card, a driving license and passport by the government.
In terms of employment, jobs are nil, as organisations do not employ them.
"We have just four options-begging, sex work, cooking or being a
fortune teller in a temple,'' says Famila. Most hijras prefer sex work
as it does not require any special skill, she says. Hijra in Arabic means
holy, and could have been derived from the Urdu word ezra meaning a wanderer
or nomad, says a study conducted by The People's Union for Civil Liberties.
Hijras claim a sacred place due to their third gender status. Most hijras
in India live in groups that are organised into seven gharanas or houses
in Pune, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
"We have nayaks who appoint the spiritual gurus. The system is matriarchal.
For example, Sneha is my daughter,'' says Famila, pointing towards Sneha.
Sneha had to go to Hyderabad to take permission from the spiritual leaders,
to accept Famila as her 'mother'. "The structure is flexible and
if some day she does not want to be my daughter, she can opt out,'' she
says. Famila is also Sneha's 'husband' symbolically, since no outsider
would marry her. Sneha wears the black-bead chain, a symbol of 'matrimony'.
Hijras go through
a castration ceremony for acceptance into the community (bisexual hijras
or kothis do not get castrated). Most hijras are born males, but a few
are born hermaphrodites or inter-sexed. Taking that giant step towards
castration is like moving a mountain for hijras. Famila says the sex reassignment
surgery (SRS) is a pain. "I went to a place in Tamil Nadu. It is
an open secret that some doctors do it. But while the surgical instruments
were clean enough, I was made to sleep on benches in unhygienic conditions
after that and bled in pain constantly. I suffered there for 20 days and
was sent to Bangalore. Doctors refused to treat me here,'' she remembers.
Famila then went to her family who got her hospitalised.
Few lawyers take up hijras' cases. Giving hijras the status of women instead
of talking about rights for the 'third gender' would help them in many
ways, says Arvind Narrain. "The judiciary is not educated on this
issue. It does not understand the deep psychological roots. Even women's
movements have not taken note of it,'' he says. "It will be difficult
to include that 'third gender', to amend every law. It is easier instead
to call them women and say hijras in brackets through an amendment Act,''
Famila's friend Kajol explains how this would make their lives easier.
"At present, we have reservation of seats for women in buses. If
we were to demand reservation, it would become difficult for everyone,"
she says. "But if we are given the status of women with 'hijra' referred
to in brackets, it would help.''
Photographer K Venkatesh, who covered the Koovagam festival in Tamil Nadu
and held an exhibition over a year ago, feels their demand is justified.
"At that annual festival, there is a fashion show and then a religious
ceremony for their 'marriage' to Lord Koothandavar. I have seen models
at other fashion shows. But here, their involvement in spending on clothes,
walking the ramp and the time for dressing up is so immense!'' he says.
"They are as professional as other models. You can hardly make out
the difference,'' says Venkatesh. His book of photographs on the festival
is testimony to this.
Famila and her friends organised the Hijra Habba last year, through Vividha,
their collective forum. "We did not have the money. We had to start
from scratch by manki, our tradition of begging,'' she says. The Hijra
Habba 2003 (Festival of Eunuchs) brought its share of attention to the
problems of eunuchs. "But after all the hard work, my own friends
started accusing us organisers of 'eating up the money' and demanded explanations,''
Some hijras in north India have entered politics, contested elections
and become mayors of cities. But this is still a dream for their southern
counterparts. Violence on sexual minorities has come down in recent years
in Bangalore because of extensive work by NGOs and their awareness programmes.
Though the violence still continues, there is hope. Famila found solace
from her depression at the World Social Forum in Mumbai last month, where
she met people like her. Today, she's raring to raise awareness for her
THE LEGAL WEAPONS
"If I am into sex work, I only have to walk on the road and I will
be charged with being a public nuisance."
The Criminal Tribes Act 1871 used by the
British was one of the first steps towards violence against hijras
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalises
any 'carnal intercourse against the order of nature'
Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1986
is most often used against hijras though they say they are neither traffickers,
nor are trafficked
Civil laws that deprive them of several rights
such as the right to own property, right to marry, right to identity through
passport, ration card, driver's license, education, employment and health