The National Hijra Habba (festival) held recently in Delhi brought out in the open the deep anguish and silent suffering of the transgender/hijra /kinnar population across the country. Although this issue is centuries old, yet the tolerance level of common people towards this community is very low. It is just one of the many paradoxes of our complex Indian culture that while on one hand it is considered auspicious to have the hijras bless our newborns and newlyweds for fertility, they are otherwise shunned and looked down upon by society.
The community participants at the meet had horrendous tales of stigma and neglect to share which they themselves had experienced. Given that all of them were educated and better placed in society than their fellow community members, one shudders to even imagine the plight of the hijras whom we encounter on the streets, in trains/buses, brothels and turn our lofty noses away as if their mere presence will contaminate us.
Madhu, a hijra from Kolkata, has done her Masters in Social Work from IGNOU, but finds her and others in a hopeless situation. For her dissertation she had interviewed 55 hijras who had quit school, unable to face the constant jeering and taunts of class mates. According to her, “Education is linked with employment. I know of many hijras who are graduates/post graduates and yet they earn their livelihood by singing badhais (ceremonial songs) as nobody is ready to give them a job. So they start thinking that there is no point of getting education if it cannot give us any job. In my area begging is prohibited; if hijras go to any home to sing badhais, people inform the police and they are shooed away. The police harass us all the time. So what will we eat if we cannot earn. We are doomed and ill fated—phooti kismet, nalayak zindagi.”
However Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a well-known Hijra activist and the President of Asia Pacific Transgender Network feels that, “Lack of access to education is a big impediment for this community due to which they are left with very limited livelihood options such as singing ‘badhai’ (blessings), asking for alms or sex work. Providing proper education and vocational opportunities for young transgenders and Hijras will go a long way in helping them live a life of dignity. Their integration into the mainstream population will help reduce stigma and discrimination the community faces at different levels.”
Laxmi believes that advocacy on transgender and Hijra issues should be rooted in rights based approach and the media has a major role in taking their issues forward and influencing public opinion. Due to her positive portrayal in the TV show Big Boss, parents, who would have earlier avoided any contact with her, brought their children to speak with her in public places. This is a positive outcome.
Zeenat Pasha, a prominent Hijra guru from Mumbai who works with HIV+ people in the Kamathipura (red light) area, highlighted the violence and other discriminatory practices they face from the police, local muscle men and negative coverage in the media. She agrees that,” If hijras receive proper education without stigma or discrimination, then only will they be able to do different tasks in the society. When a transgender/hijra has no other way to make her two ends meet, she is cornered to sell her body on the street corner.”
According to Raveena, the firebrand tribal kinnar activist from Chattisgarh, “There are four basic needs of the community: sustainability, employment, livelihood and education. The multi level stigma and discrimination which they suffer in society, is brewing anger and frustration within the young community members. In the absence of any means of livelihood, they are often forced to sell their body to make both ends meet.” She wants representation of the community in the Parliament; hostels for young hijras for educating and coaching them to prepare for different career opportunities; and special identity cards for the community members to access rations from any public distribution system across the country.
Not only does stigma related to these sexual minorities runs high in the broader society, but stigma and discrimination within the community is also there. Many hijras suffer from self-stigma and have a low self esteem. At times a member is told that she is not a transgender but a Hijra, or vice versa, denying her the right to identify herself as she believes. Problems between Guru (master) and Chela (follower) in various Hijra gharanas (groups), as well as between different groups, are not uncommon.
Veena, a transsexual woman from Bangalore insists that, “Infighting within our community is only making our struggle more difficult. We must resolve differences and problems within the community and treat each other with mutual respect, for a united response to the problems the community is facing. As we continue the fight for our rights and life of dignity in society, we will also have to end discrimination within the community.”
So while society needs to be more informed about the presence of a biological third gender and be more receptive and sensitive towards their needs, the transgenders will also have to change their behavioural pattern in order to command respect in society. The community will have to create an enabling atmosphere to join the mainstream of society, so that others do not feel uncomfortable in their presence. This is not just a social issue but a psychological issue as well. As some of the members remarked-- it is the duty of the community leaders to bring about revolutionary changes in the existing system and negative traditions of the community which are detrimental to its growth.
Ernest Noronha from UNDP India wonders, “Why even after so many years of progress these people still do not fit within the definition of the most marginalized community. Why do they continue to be trafficked, continue to live in poverty and continue to engage in sex work?”
He strongly feels that, “It is sensitization and mainstreaming of transgenders which will improve their condition. The bias and stigma of people is also because of fear of this community—they curse you, they give you a bad name, they will bring harm to you. When levels of fear will come down, and when there will be more acceptance things will improve. The community also should interact more with the law makers and the administration. There have to be thoughtful approaches to politically represent hijras. This cannot be done in exclusion. They will have to align with the other existing mainstream movements involving marginalized sections and/or the women.”
Winds of change have started blowing across the country. For the first time in February 2012, Justice Vikramjit of Karnataka High Court gave the job of a clerk to Anusi--a transgender person. Justice Altamas Kabir of the Supreme Court termed this as the ‘high point’ and said that this neglected sexual minority group needs to be recognised in different spheres of life and should be provided jobs in various government departments. This is an excellent example of the judiciary helping transgenders in coming to the mainstream. Bangalore University too has reserved one seat for sexual minorities in 52 disciplines of post-graduation courses.
Of course, these examples are too few and require quick replication. All three genders need to join hands and walk together the path of life. Parents will have to be counselled to accept their transgender/hijra child and not abandon her. We should not forget that a hijra is also born of a mother and is as much a part of the society as anybody else. She has a right to live life with dignity and a right to be what she truly believes she is.
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also authored a book on childhood TB (2012), co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" and a report on Hepatitis C and HIV treatment access issues in 2011. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)
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