A group of Hijra in Bangladesh

Hijra: The History of Transgenders and LGBTQ+ in India and Nepal

Being a part of the LGBTQ+ group in Asia can be quite dangerous. In many Asian countries, such as Pakistan and other Muslim countries, the consequences of being queer can lead to death. While Asian countries have this issue, the LGBTQ community has always been around. Not just in Asia, but all over the world. In India and Nepal, there is another name for people who are transgender. They are called Hijra, which translates to the eunuch, or hermaphrodite. The history of these people is an important part of what makes the country as interesting as it is. There are many things that are worth talking about.

The History of Hijra

Old image of Hijra singing and playing drums to make money
Image Source: brewminate.com

The term Hijra is quite a derogatory name to call transgender people in South Asian countries. The word linguistically relates to the Sanskrit language and, throughout the years, it has gone through a lot of changes among all the countries that use said language. In most South Asian countries, such as Iran, these people are targeted and killed just for being gay or part of the LGBTQ community (Silva). As of June 2021, there are still 71 countries that consider LBGTQ relationships as illegal. This is an interesting remark as homosexuality has been around for hundreds of years before it was even illegal.

 Cross-Dressing Throughout History

Cross-dressing and homosexuality have been around for so many years, back to Roman times. Men wear togas, which is a long piece of cloth that they wrap around their bodies. This is quite similar to the modern-day sari people wear in South Asian countries. This was also what the Roman and Greek gods wore. The same can be said for the Hindu gods, which I will be discussing.

Krishna would often dress up as a Gopi, one of the many women he kept near him. There is also Arjun, one of the warriors in the Mahabharata. When he and his brothers were in exile from their village, he would dress up as a girl and go to the nearby kingdom to teach the princesses how to dance and earn money.

Men and women would dress up as the opposite gender for a plethora of reasons. People such as Joan of Arc dressed up as a male so that she could fight with men during wartime. Royals were also the only ones who wore anything close to pants in India as well. Other men would wear a cloth called a dhoti that is similar to a skirt. Since women were not to be part of the theatre, women’s roles, men would cross-dress as women and act out in a comedic fashion. The most popular case of this is Shakespearean plays, where young boys would dress up as girls and act with their male co-workers. In that time, women were said to be incompetent and not smart enough to act and read, and so much more.

“Cross-dressing has been around for centuries. Whether it was for theatre, films, literature, mythology, or just social conditions” (Nath)

Hijra in the Present

Image of 5 HIjra posing for a photo
Image Source: thenewlearn.com

Cross-dressing and drag have been a huge part of our past. What we do not realize is that they are also just as relevant in our present. In America, the RuPaul Drag Show and other drags are quite popular and somewhat accepted. After much fighting, men who dress up in women’s clothing are able to express their true selves. Even though that is true, there is still a lot of change that needs to happen for the community here in America. So, how much worse is it for those who are in other Asian countries? In Hindu and Islamic countries, men who are found to have sexual intercourse or relationships with other men will be stoned or killed.

In 2018, the court in India made homosexuality legal, but it is still quite hard for the LGBTQ community to come out. People tend not to recognize them as people and assault them. The cases of rape are quite high for this group of people, especially transgender people. The police and many members of the government also tend not to take this member of their society as seriously as they do heterosexuals. They still have quite a hard time, but it is slowly becoming more acceptable. With more modern millennials growing up seeing this subject become normal, it has been easier for the LGBTQ community to express themselves.

The Effect on Mental Health

Statistics of LGBTQ community and mental health in America
Image Source: mhanational.org

Almost everyone in the queer community has a story of violence. People who are around LGBTQ+ people know just how hard it is for those who are part of that community. Thoughts of not fitting in and rejection from their society are something that constantly races through their heads. These isolating thoughts can quite quickly become very dangerous, as they change to suicidal tendencies. They are targets of bullying and harassment, and it has even gone so far as death. The mental health of the transgender community does not get enough acknowledgment.

Conservative families tend to humiliate their children or send them to conversion therapy to “save” their kids. They believe they are doing it from a place of love, but most times, if not all the time, it has the opposite effect. While gay rights are becoming better in North America, there is still a large population in other parts of the world who suffer for being who they are. In North America alone, over 39% of the LGBTQ population report having some mental illness. That is roughly 6 million people in just the United States alone that suffer from this horrible illness.

Rural South Asia

While there are rights for the LGBTQ community in India and Nepal, it is still a taboo topic when it comes time for people and their personal lives. Many South Asians still struggle to express their true selves to their families and society. Rural parts of the country do not accept this lifestyle and target those who are either Hijra or have a connection to the LGBTQ community. They are killed for the simple reason of being different. Many repress their feelings and some of them marry people they have no attraction to just to stay safe. This raises their risk of having horrible mental health issues in the long run (Berreteaga). Growing up not being able to love themselves can result in a decrease in their mental health.

The Religion of Hijra

The god, Bahuchara Mata, the goddess of fertility, has the power to change one’s gender. They are the main gods that transgender people believe in. While there are many religions in the two countries, Hijras follow Hinduism as their main religion. As such, they also follow Lord Shiva, one of the main gods of Hinduism. Although they are ostracized by the Hindu and Indian/ Nepali communities, they are also given some respect. People assume hijras to be a direct line to the Gods, as they are genderless. Many Gods change gender quite often when they come to Earth or in their reincarnation. That is why when a Hindu family has a child, they ask Hijras to come to the house to bless the child. They also come to Hindu weddings to bless the groom and bride for good luck and torture.

Hijra blessing a newborn baby surrounded by the baby's family
Image Source: sapiens.org

Gender fluidity is quite a normal topic for Hindus. Many of the Gods would go through incarnations as the opposite gender or even dress up as the opposite sex. Even in books like the Karmasutra, there are some depictions of the same gender in those positions. Mentions of same-sex relationships and gender-fluid people are also in other holy books. While the Hindu religion has never put a ban on the idea of gender-fluid people and homosexuality, the Indian and Nepali people can be quite tough when it comes to the topic. Most members of the government try to cover up this “unnatural thing” by banning the topic from production. This was the case for the movie, Fire, in 1996.

Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire, which depicts a romantic relationship between two Hindu women, was informally banned for ‘religious insensitivity’ after the screening of the movie was disrupted on the grounds that it denigrated Indian culture”¬†(Wikipedia)

Why Has There Been Little to No Change?

Trans and Hijra fight for their rights as a new bill passes in India against the Hijra community
Image Source: theprint.in

Being homosexual or part of the LGBTQ community is fine until it is your own family member who is part of it. That is the thought that many Indian and Nepali families have in their minds. In India and Nepal, one’s family status is very important. Being rich or smart is one of the best characteristics that a person can have. So, when a family member comes out to be a hijra or part of the LGBTQ community, it is seen as a huge disgrace to the family. Not only would the person who comes out get the heat for their actions, but also the family. Rumours of the family not teaching their kids well or being a stain on the community starts. One person’s action is the whole family’s problem, and not in a good way.

While this is not as common in main cities where people have social media and have seen western cultural influences, the same cannot be true for small villages. India and Nepal are not small countries. There are millions of people who live in both countries and not all of them have the ability to live in the main cities. Many small rural farms and villages still exist, and in those areas, phones and internet services are still not available. These places do not always know about the changes the rest of the country is going through. They keep the prejudice and thought patterns of those before them. In a country where dating is still such a rare thing to talk about, same-sex marriage and hijra are nowhere near normal for them.

How the Media Has Helped

Social media have many downsides but just as many plus sides as well. With the help of social media, so many people are able to express their true selves. Others are able to connect with other cultures and learn about new things with the tap of a finger. Some inspire and others aspire to new things. Social media are a great tool overall and they have also been helpful for the LGBTQ+ community.

With so many western countries reaching across the seas of gender fluidity and being part of the cross-dressing community, other countries are able to learn and grow to accept those back home who relate to the struggles of being homosexual. Shows such as RuPauls’ Drag Show emphasize the uniqueness and talent this community of people have. It shows that being different does not make you any less. Showing homosexual relationships in mainstream media, like Pose magazine, and TV shows like Modern Family help break down the stigma that Hijras face daily. The show RuPaul works to also breaks down cultural barriers left and right that we humans put up with what a “normal person” should be (Chabbra).

With the increase of such media seeping in from the western world to India and Nepal, there is also an increase in this type of medium in the two countries. Hijras are no longer in movies as comic relief characters, but as actual people with lives that are just as important as any of the other actors on screen.

Shabnam Mousi

Movie cover for the movie "Shabnam Mousi"
Image Source: imdb.com

Shabnam Mousi is a real-life Hijra who is an inspiration to the transgender community in India. They were the first transgender person to have a seat in the Indian government from 1998 to 2003. She was born to the Brahmin caste and was given away by her father to uphold his image in society. In her time, she worked to speak out against the stigma of transgender people being carriers of HIV and AIDS. She also taught the community about the safety and ways to prevent the spread of the disease in the transgender community. She would go on to inspire many Hijras to pursue work other than as a dancer or prostitute. A few years after her role in the parliament, a movie about her, Shabnam Mausi, came out.

Conclusion: Importance of Accepting Others

Image of Hijra pride flag
Image source: lgbta.wikia.org

There are still a lot of changes that need to happen in these countries that can better support the LGBTQ community. People who love others, no matter their pronouns, should not be cast aside. They should not have to sacrifice their right to love and be themselves because of someone else’s thoughts and opinions. Living in the 21st century and still not having the right to be one’s self is not okay. As people, we need to do better and be more accepting of others, no matter their differences. We can say that Hijras are God’s people, yet we do not truly act as if they are. People still ostracize them and leave them to do work that makes them seem less than them, and that is never OK.

While there is a lot of research done about this group of people, there is still no change in regards to making them feel part of the community. Hijras and the LGBTQ community are more than statistics. They are people, just like us.

One thought on “Hijra: The History of Transgenders and LGBTQ+ in India and Nepal

  1. Hi Raksha,
    This really a controversial topic in all parts of the world, I think that religion plays a big role when it comes to homosexuality, because most if not all have zero tolerance to it. Many people forget that homosexuality has been with us, for the longest of time. The narrative needs to change. I am shocked that to learn that India faces the same issues. It sounds silly but I never thought homosexuality was even something that existed. Thanks for the insight.

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