The term transgender is generally used to describe those who fall beyond social gender norms. Third gender or third sex is a concept in which individuals are categorized, either by themselves or by society, as neither man nor woman. Transgender is often used as an umbrella term to signify individuals who defy rigid, binary gender constructions and who express or present a breaking and blurring of culturally prevalent stereotypically gender roles.
In the Indian subcontinent, the Hindi word ‘Hijra’ has traditionally been translated into English as ‘Eunuch’. They are also known as Aravani, Aruvani, Jogappa, Thiru nangai in Tamil Nadu, Durani in Kolkata, Menaka in Cochin, or derogatorily, Chakka and Laanch in Kashmir. The Hijra community in India prefer to call themselves Kinnar, referring to the mythological beings that excel at song and dance. In Pakistan they are called Khwaja Sara, the equivalent of transgender in the Urdu language.
The eunuchs or hijras have been an integral part of society since time immemorial. The hijra community in India has existed with a recorded history of more than 4,000 years. Hundreds of years ago, under traditional Hindu culture, hijras enjoyed a certain degree of respect. They were prized as guards of harems, and as companions, by kings and emperors. But the British thrust their ideologies of sex-gender binaries and heteronormative sexuality perspectives. The hijra body was a problem because it wasn’t the abled procreative-heterosexual body. They were criminalized under the criminal Tribes Act, 1871, which deemed the entire community of hijras as innately ‘criminal’.
We now use the acronym LGBTQ to describe the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer community. The Q can also sometimes mean questioning. As per the census of 2011, the total population of transgender in India is 4.88 lakh, represented largely by hijras (biological males but reject masculine identity), kothis (represent themselves as male) and Aravanis (woman wrapped in male body). In the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir the number of transgender as per census of 2011 is 4,137.
As far back as the 16th century, transgender enjoyed a special respect in Jammu and Kashmir (Dabla). They were considered caretakers, trusted messengers and skilled entertainers during the Mughal period. Transgender people in present times are called “Laanch” in Kashmir which in itself is stigmatization and a ground for discrimination. They face unfairness in every aspect of life be it employment, legal recognition, access to social resources including decent life standard and education.
Their low academic qualification makes them ineligible for white-collar jobs. For all of them the struggle usually starts from an early phase. Families reject transgender for fear of being shunned by society, and society scorns them because their families have turned them away. They don’t have the confidence to take part in the social and political decision making. The nature of their harassment include verbal abuse, assault, bullying, sexual violence etc. According to psychiatrist Dr Arshad Hussain, “Mental health is a serious concern in Kashmir. The transgender community succumbs to a variety of psychological issues like panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorders, depression, suicidal tendencies.” They are also exposed to health related issues like STI (Sexually Transmitted infections) and HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) due to poor sanitation and lack of education.
In Kashmir when a hijra joins the transgender family, she goes through ‘dupteh traawun’, a traditional ceremony one must be a part of to be accepted as a benih (sister). Sether thaawun is another ritual one has to be initiated as a koor (daughter or chela) to the naien (grandmother or guru).
Transgender community in Kashmir usually make a living by matchmaking (Manzimyoer) and performing at weddings. Earlier people used to call them to dance and sing at marriage and they used to get good money as well. Eventually they got replaced by DJs. So, they have to resort to other means to make both ends meet. But the situation deteriorated after the abrogation of Article 370 and those are drying up because of ongoing pandemic. Some of the famous transgenders of Kashmir who have earned huge fame and recognition are singers like Reshma and Shaboo.
It can be concluded that there is an immense need to intervene at the individual, community and policy level to safeguard the rights of transgender. Considering the sizeable number of hijras, it is not possible to close our eyes to them and ignore their existence. Hijras require understanding and support of the government, health-care professionals, general public as well as their family members. We need to understand and accept that humans are diverse. People have the right to be what they are and what they want to be. For hijra people, the same holds true.