Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Hijra - the Trans Community of India

Communities of transsexual women called Hijra have existed in India for centuries - they began as a holy group which could bless people and places and remove the Evil Eye. But as the British colonized India, the Hijra began to be shunned and stigmatized. These communities still exist in India today, but now the Hijra are generally beggars and prostitutes. They are often shunned by their families and by society in general. Those who were once great have fallen due to Western stigma. 

I will share my thoughts about two documentaries about the Hijra. The first is called Harsh Beauty, which was distributed by Frameline, a nonprofit LGBT media arts organization: 

This hour-long documentary is almost entirely in Hindi and Tamil, with English subtitles. It is interview style - focusing on several people. These people range from holy people who ask for alms in exchange for blessings to politicians to prostitutes. Unfortunately, it appears that the former (more "presentable") categories have very, very few people, whereas the majority of Hijra are beggars and prostitutes. 

In some ways, the trans communities in India are tighter than those in the US. In India, the Hijra live, work, and die together. They form very strong bonds. However, this also means that they do not have strong relationships with their birth families. They do not live with their families or marry (at east not conventionally, as I'll discuss later). In fact, many have been shunned by their families, or must visit them only discretely.  

Transsexuals in the US have to jump through an amazing amount of red tape for years in order to get their surgeries, but when they have the surgery it is in a safe, sterile, finely-tuned environment. A man->woman surgery can rearrange the nerve endings to form a clitoris. Although this is a major surgery in the US, and it takes much dedication to jump through all the hoops, it seems to me that the Hijra must be even more dedicated than American trans people to get their operation:.

In India, the surgery is much more "brutal" than it is here. There's no anesthesia (because this is a spiritual ritual). The boy stands naked in a temple looking up at his deities. Then, the guru cuts off his "manhood" (testicles and penis). There is no delicate reorganization of the nerves in this surgery. After the surgery, hot oil is poured on the wound for 41 days to help it heal. 

This procedure may make me shudder in its "brutality," but I doubt it seems brutal at all to the Hijra community. As I said, to them it's a spiritual experience. After the surgery, Hijra from all over the area will come to have a huge festival of celebration - because a new member of their community has been initiated. 

I would say this documentary was an excellent introduction to transsexual culture in non-Western cultures. However, because of its format (interviewees speaking in a foreign language, and very little other action), it wasn't the most dynamic of documentaries.
3.5 stars for good coverage of an excellent topic

The second documentary I watched was The Third Sex, which was episode 10, season 5 of National Geographic's Taboo series. 

This film had a fantastic description of a Hijra festival which takes place in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu. This festival celebrates the wedding of the god Aravan, who was destined to die in battle in one day. He prayed to be married before his death, but no woman would marry him and become a widow so quickly (widows do not have very good lives in India). So the male god Vishnu came in woman's form and married Aravan. Every year, Hijra from all around India flock to Koovagam to celebrate their own marriage to Aravan. It is a happy marriage festival with much celebration. Then, the next day, the Hijra cover their faces in turmeric, beat their chests, wail, dress in white, and morn the death of their husband. 

Watching this documentary was a much more enjoyable experience than watching Harsh Beauty. It was more dynamic and had beautiful filmography; however, it was also more sensationalized and less realistic and informative than Harsh Beauty. Of the two, I think Harsh Beauty was the better.   

3.5 stars for dynamic filmography and interesting topic


  1. These look so interesting.

    I had heard of transexual communities outside of the West but never knew much about them. Many tend to think that transexuals loving out in the open is a new phenomena. That is clearly not the case.

    1. No, it's not. It's sad that it's so new in Western Culture!