In the Indian Society, their face is considered as a sign of fortune. They are often seen dressed in ill-fitting blouses and colourful sarees, as they roam around the busy marketplaces in groups, terrorizing pedestrians and hustling for a ten or two. They are just not the average beggars we come across in urban pavements. With male voices shouting expletives accompanied by their trademark clap, we often meet them in the daily local trains or mostly at a busy signal. These people constitute the transgender community of India. More commonly known as Hijras, the term includes transsexuals, transvestites, intersexed people, and just about anybody else who do not conform to the traditional model of sex/gender and present themselves in ways which breaks or blurs culturally prevalent stereotypical gender roles (Sinha 2016). These are the people whom we across everyday but despite their prevalence, we very conveniently turn a blind eye to the oppression they are subjected to on a day-to-day basis.
Transgenders have been a part of Indian society for centuries. There has been historical evidence for this in the writings of ancient India. The concept of “tritiyaprakriti” or “napumsaka” had been an integral part of Hindu mythology. Some of the early texts extensively dealt with issues of sexuality and the idea of third gender. During the Mughal age, Hijras played an important role in the royal courts of the Islamic world. They rose to well-known positions as political advisors, administrators, generals as well as guardians of the harems. They also occupied high positions in the Islamic religious institutions. During the beginning of the British rule in India, the Hijras used to accept protection and benefits from some Indian states. These benefits incorporated the provision of land, food and money.
However, through the onset of colonial rule from the 18th century onwards, the situation changed drastically. The British colonial administration took away the land as it was not inherited through blood relations and they vigorously sought to criminalize the Hijra community and to deny them civil rights. They were considered to be a separate caste/tribe and according to the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, all Hijras who were concerned in kidnapping and castrating children and dressing like a women to dance in public places, were imprisoned for a term of two years and a fine. Though this Act was repealed in 1952, its legacy continues and many local laws reflect the prejudicial attitude towards the Hijra community in this contemporary world (Michelraj 2015).
Oppressive elements against transgenders
Before progressing any further, it is important to define the difference between discrimination and oppression. Discrimination is the externalization of prejudice. It is a manifestation of our internal biases being acted upon in the real world and it I done by ordinary people. Oppression, on the other hand, is cultural or systemic. It is based on power and is justified or legitimised through the proclaimed superiority of the oppressor over the oppressed. Although the injustice against the transgenders mostly comes under discrimination, I would like to classify it under oppression because the people who usually discriminate are cis-gendered and heteronormative, who assert that the only acceptable genders are male and female and the only way you can express yourself, is according to the socially constructed gender norms. They assume the position of the oppressors who consider themselves superior to anyone who does not fit into their mainstream world-view. It is also important to note that these are the same people who create policies and laws for a community they are prejudiced against. The discrimination and exclusion faced by the transgender community spreads across various fields including socio-cultural, economic and political.
- a) Exclusion from socio-cultural participation: Despite Indian society’s general acceptance and respect for a wide range of differences in cultures, religions, languages and customs, there appears to be limited public knowledge and understanding of the transgender community. The discrimination begins at home, when parents refuse to accept the child if they start behaving in ways that are considered inappropriate to the expected gender role. Most of these children end up running away from home and find their way to Hijra community. Some members of the society also ridicule these gender variant people for being ‘different’ and may even outright be hostile or violent to them. If they seek protection from the police, there too they face physical and verbal abuse, forced sex, extortion of money and materials and arrests on false allegations. They also face unique barriers when accessing public or private health services that includes intentional misgendering, barriers in accessing HIV testing and treatment, and sexual health services (Delliswararao and Hangsing 2018).
- b) Exclusion from political and economic participation: Legal recognition of gender identity as a woman or transgender woman is a complicated process. Lack of legal recognition has important consequences in getting ration card, passport and bank account. On the political front, Hijras had contested elections in the past however, it had been documented that the victory of a transgender person who contested in an election was overturned since that person contested as a 'female', which was thus considered a fraud and illegal. Although this situation has slightly changed now, there’s still a long way to go.
Hijras face a variety of social security issues. Since most of them run away their homes, they do not expect support from their biological family in the long run. Subsequently, they face a lot of challenges especially when they are not in a position to earn. Lack of livelihood options most employers deny employment for even qualified and skilled transgender people. This is the key reason for a significant proportion of transgender people to choose or continue to be in sex work - with its associated HIV and health-related risks (Delliswararao and Hangsing 2018).
A path to Liberation or a new route to Oppression?
In India, Tamil Nadu was the first state to introduced Transgender welfare policy. According to this policy Transgender people can access free Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) in all Government Hospital, free housing program, admission in government colleges with full scholarship for higher studies,etc. Tamil Nadu was also the first state to form a Transgender Welfare Board with representatives from the transgender community. Besides Tamil Nadu, Kerala government also drafted a policy known as ‘Transgender policy in 2015’ maintaining equal opportunities and special reservation in all the areas.
Apart from this, the central government passed The Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016. It aims to protect the social, economic and educational rights of the transgender community.