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Hijra in Goa, India

In the culture of the Indian subcontinent, a hijra (Hindi: हिजड़ा, Urdu: حجڑا) is usually considered a member of "the third sex" — neither man nor woman. Most are physically male or intersex, but some are female. Hijras usually refer to themselves linguistically as female, and usually dress as women.

Although they are usually referred to in English as "eunuchs", relatively few have any genital modifications.[1]


The Hindi word "hijra" may alternately be romanised as hijira, hijda, hijada, hijara, hijrah and is pronounced [hidʒɽaː], between "heejra" and "heejda". An older name for hijras is kinnar, which is used by some hijra groups as a more respectable and formal term. An abusive slang for hijra in Hindi is chhakka.

In Bangla "hijra" is called hijra, hijla, hijre.

A number of terms across the culturally and linguistically diverse Indian subcontinent represent similar sex/gender categories. While these are rough synonyms, they may be better understood as separate identities due to regional cultural differences. In Tamil Nadu the equivalent term is aravanni, aravani, or aruvani. In Urdu and Punjabi, both in Pakistan and India, the term khusra is used. Other terms include jankha. In Gujarati they are called Pavaiyaa (પાવૈયા).

In South India, the goddess Yellamma is believed to have the power to change one's sex. Male devotees in female clothing are known as Jogappa. They perform similar roles to hijra, such as dancing and singing at birth ceremonies and weddings.[2]

The word kothi (or koti) is common across India, although kothis are often distinguished from hijras. Kothis are regarded as feminine men or boys who take a feminine role in sex with men, but do not live in the kind of intentional communities that hijras usually live in. Local equivalents include durani (Kolkata), menaka (Cochin),[3] meti (Nepal), and zenana (Pakistan).

Hijras are widely referred to in English with the term "eunuch", although LGBT historians or human rights activists might label them as being transgender.

Gender and sexuality[]

These identities have no exact match in the modern Western taxonomy of gender and sexual orientation. Most are born apparently male, but some may be intersex (with ambiguous genitalia). They are often perceived as a third sex, and most see themselves as neither men nor women. However, some may see themselves (or be seen as) females,[4] feminine males or androgynes. Some, especially those who speak English and are influenced by international discourses around sexual minorities may identify as transgender or transsexual women. Unlike some Western transsexual women, hijras generally do not attempt to pass as women. Reportedly, few have genital modifications, although some certainly do, and some consider nirwaan ("castrated") hijras to be the "true" hijras.

A male who takes a "receptive" or feminine role in sex with a man will often identify as a kothi (or the local equivalent term). While kothis are usually distinguished from hijras as a separate gender identity, they often dress as women and act in a feminine manner in public spaces, even using feminine language to refer to themselves and each other. The usual partners of hijras and kothis are masculine men, whose gender identity is as a "normal" male who penetrates.[5] These male partners are often married, and any relationships or sex with 'kothis' or hijras are usually kept secret from the community at large. Some hijras may form relationships with men and even marry,[6] although their marriage is not usually recognized by law or religion. Hijras and kothis often have a name for these masculine sexual or romantic partners; for example, panthi in Bangladesh, giriya in Delhi or sridhar in Cochin.[3]

Becoming a hijra[]

Template:Refimprove-section Becoming a hijra is a process of socialization into a "hijra family" through a relationship characterised as chela "student" to guru "teacher", leading to a gradual assumption of femininity. Typically each guru lives with at least five chelas; her chelas assume her surname and are considered part of her lineage. Chelas are expected to give their income to their guru, who manages the household. Hijra families are close knit communities, which often have their own houses.

This process may culminate in a religious ritual that includes emasculation (total removal of the penis, testes and scrotum in men). Not all hijras undergo emasculation, and the percentage of hijras that are eunuchs is unknown. The operation—referred to by hijras as a nirvan ("rebirth") and carried out by a dai (traditional midwife)—involves removing the penis and scrotum with a knife without anesthesia. The cry and wail of the target is covered with loud trumpeting. In modern times, some hijras may undergo a vaginoplasty, allowing them sexual fulfillment through vaginal intercourse, but such cases are rare. The American transsexual activist Anne Ogborn became an initiated Hijra in 1993. She is the first westerner to be a member of the Hijra community.[7]

Social status and making a living[]

Most hijras live at the margins of society with very low status; the very word "hijra" is sometimes used in a derogatory manner. Few employment opportunities are available to hijras. Many get their income from performing at ceremonies, begging, or prostitution — an occupation of eunuchs also recorded in premodern times. Violence against hijras, especially hijra sex workers, is often brutal, and occurs in public spaces, police stations, prisons, and their homes.[8] As with transgender people in most of the world, they face extreme discrimination in health, housing, education, employment, immigration, law, and any bureaucracy that is unable to place them into male or female gender categories.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Hijras have earned an income from the Indian government for collecting taxes from the villages and cities, the most effective method ever employed by the India government in collecting taxes still used in some cities.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Hijras are often encountered on streets, trains, and other public places demanding money from young men. If refused, the hijra may attempt to embarrass the man into giving money, using obscene gestures, profane language, and even sexual advances. Hijras also perform religious ceremonies at weddings and at the birth of male babies, involving music, singing, and sexually suggestive dancing. These are intended to bring good luck and fertility. Although the hijra are most often uninvited, the host usually pays the hijras a fee. Many fear the hijras' curse if they are not appeased, bringing bad luck or infertility, but for the fee they receive, they can bless goodwill and fortune on to the newly born. Hijras are said to be able to do this because, since they do not engage in sexual activities, they accumulate their sexual energy which they can use to either bestow a boon or a bane.

Politics and activism[]

Many modern hijras, faced with health concerns and discrimination, have become politically active. For example, the All-India Eunuchs’ Welfare Association was formed in 1993-94, as well as HIV/AIDS awareness groups to combat health problems within their communities. One such group is the Dai Welfare Society, a mutual aid society formed in 1999 in Mumbai by and for hijras. The group estimate that half of hijras living in Mumbai have HIV.[9] Another group is the Hijra Kalyan Sabha.

Other hijras have been elected to high political positions; Shabnam Mausi became India's first hijra MLA in 1999 (as an independent), only 5 years since hijras have been able to vote.[10] Another hijra, Kamla Jaan, was elected as mayor of Katni, while another, Meenabai, became the president of the Sehora town municipality, the oldest civic body in the state of Madhya Pradesh.[11] In 2005, 24-year-old hijra Sonia Ajmeri ran for state assembly on an independent ticket to represent the estimated 40,000 eunuchs in Gujarat. The wave of hijras entering politics has not been without controversy. In November 2000, Asha Devi was elected mayor of Gorakhpur, a post reserved for a woman. The city had a population of approximately 500,000 as of 1991. She was unseated when a court decreed that she was a man,[12] but was later reinstated.

In Bangladesh, some NGOs have already started their welfare works for hijra & other sexual minorities. Bangladesh Association for Gays(BAG) or Gay-Bangla is the first Internet based organization which supports hijra, kothi, panthi & other sexual minorities. Recently Queer-Bangla has started to support hijra community. In Khulna city, hijra community has started some social works like HIV/AIDS awareness.

Commonly Hijra-rights groups also support gay rights issues in the Indian subcontinent, but this is a newly-emerging situation.

During the era of the British raj, authorities attempted to eradicate hijras, whom they saw as "a breach of public decency".[13] Anti-hijra laws were repealed; but a law outlawing castration, a central part of the hijra community, was left intact, though rarely enforced.

Hijras and religion[]

In Hindu contexts, hijras belong to a special caste. They are usually devotees of the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata, and/or Shiva.

In Tamil Nadu each year in April/May, hijras — or aravanis, as they are called there — celebrate an 18-day religious festival. The aravani temple is located in the village Koovagam in the Ulundurpet taluk in Villupuram district, and is devoted to the deity Koothandavar. During the festival, the aravanis reenact a story of the religious epic Mahabharata: the mythical wedding of Lord Krishna (who had assumed the form of a woman) and Lord Aravaan, son of Arjuna, followed by Aravaan's subsequent sacrifice. They then mourn Aravaan's death through ritualistic dances and by breaking their bangles. An annual beauty pageant is also held, as well as various health and HIV/AIDS seminars. Hijras from all over the country travel to this festival. A personal experience of the hijras in this festival is shown in the documentary India's Ladyboys, by BBC Three.

It is also believed in India that the hijras rush to celebrate the birth not just for their financial benefit only but also to check whether the new born child is intersexed. If it is intersexed, which is extremely rare, then they would go to any length to recruit him/her in their group.


  • Jareena, Portrait of a Hijda (1990) [1]
  • Bombay Eunuch (2001) [2]
  • The Hijras: India's Third Gender (2001) [3]
  • India's Ladyboys (2003) [4]
  • Between the Lines: India's Third Gender (2005) [5]
  • Middle sexes HBO documentary includes segment on modern Hijda (2005) [6]
  • The Hijras of India BBC radio documentary [7]

See also[]


  1. Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India by Serena Nanda. Wadsworth Publishing, 1998. (ISBN 0-534-50903-7)
  2. Lovemaps, p. 106, by John Money. Irvington Publishers, Inc., 1988. (ISBN 0-87975-456-7)
  3. Myself Mona Ahmed. by Dayanita Singh (Photographer) and Mona Ahmed. Scalo Publishers (September 15, 2001). ISBN 3-908247-46-2
  4. The Third sex and Human Rights, by Rajesh Talwar. Gyan Publishing House, 1999. ISBN 81-212-0266-3
  5. Gendered Bodies: The Case of the ‘Third Gender’ in India, by Anuja Agrawal, in 'Contributions to Indian Sociology', n.s., 31 (1997): 273–97
  6. Hijras: Who We Are, by Meena Balaji and other Eunuchs as told to Ruth Lor Malloy. Toronto, Think Asia Publisher. 1997.


  1. According Mumbai health organisation The Humsafar Trust, only 8% of hijras visiting their clinic are nirwaan (castrated).
  2. Bradford, Nicholas J. 1983. "Transgenderism and the Cult of Yellamma: Heat, Sex, and Sickness in South Indian Ritual." Journal of Anthropological Research 39 (3): 307-22.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Naz Foundation International, Briefing Paper 3: Developing community-based sexual health services for males who have sex with males in South Asia. August 1999. Paper online (Microsoft Word file).
  4. "Don't call us eunuchs or Hijras or by other 'names'. We like ourselves to be called as females....Yes we are transgendered females," says Aasha Bharathi, president of Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Association. Reported in Aravanis get a raw deal, by M. Bhaskar Sai, The News Today, November 27, 2005.
  5. See, for example, In Their Own Words: The Formulation of Sexual and Reproductive Health Behaviour Among Young Men in Bangladesh, Shivananda Khan, Sharful Islam Khan and Paula E. Hollerbach, for the Catalyst Consortium.
  6. See, for example, various reports of Sonia Ajmeri's marriage. e.g. 'Our relationship is sacred',
  7. Saheli! Transsexual News Telegraph #2, Summer 1994
  8. Ravaging the Vulnerable: Abuses Against Persons at High Risk of HIV Infection in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch, August 2003. Report online.
    See also: Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (Karnataka) Report on Human Rights Violations Against the Transgender Community, released in September 2003. Reported in Being a Eunuch, By Siddarth Narrain, for Frontline, 14 October, 2003.
  9. The Dying of The Evening Stars VI, by Sonia Faleiro. Published in Tehelka, October 28, 2005.
  10. (2001). Shabnam Mausi. The Body. URL accessed on June 5, 2006.
  11. Shabnam Mausi. Malika's Indian Transgender Palace. URL accessed on June 5, 2006.
  12. Court unseats eunuch mayor of Gorakhpur
  13. Preston, Laurence W. 1987. A Right to Exist: Eunuchs and the State in Nineteenth-Century India. Modern Asian Studies 21 (2): 371-87

External links[]

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