The Hijra Community and Decolonizing Gender

Updated: Sep 8

If you are from South Asia, you almost certainly have some knowledge of the hijra community. If you are a reader from here in Minnesota, or anywhere else in the West, hijra may be a new word to you. A historically important community, hijra today face prejudice, discrimination, and violence. But it wasn’t always this way.

Hijra, the third gender of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal, have long been the subject of colonially imposed bigotry. However, for far longer, hijra were an extremely important and respected segment of society. While some of that cultural reverence remains, the status of the hijra community has long been eroded. Today, a grueling fight for acceptance rages across South Asia.

Who Are the Hijra?

Hijra refers to the third gender of several South Asian nations. For a long time, hijra was India’s third gender. But just as India was fractured by colonization, so too was the hijra community.

Hijra may be a difficult concept for Western readers to understand without cultural context. Some may find the closest equivalent in a Western lexicon to be transgender. However, that would not be an accurate descriptor as hijra and transgender are not the same, nor do they occupy the same space in South Asia. It would be a disservice to both communities to use Western LGBTQ+ terminology to explain as it simply does not have the appropriate words.

Hijra is a third gender, neither man nor woman. Transgender is therefore an inaccurate equivalence because hijra is its own. Transgender is transgender, and hijra is hijra. Hijra are individuals who identify outside the normal gender binary, but typically present as female. This includes, but is not limited to, people who are intersex, or people who were assigned male or female at birth but self-identify as hijra.

Historical Background of the Hijra Community

Long before colonization, before modern states like India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, hijra were a respected community that crossed cultural boundaries. In the Muslim Mughal Empire, which ruled modern-day India and Pakistan from the 16th to 19th centuries, rulers were often generous patrons of the hijra community.

However, the history of the hijra community stretches back to ancient times. There are important genderfluid characters in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata, sacred Hindu texts written nearly 2,400 years ago. Even Shiva, one of the most important figures in the Hindu pantheon, has a transgender form named Ardhanarishvara. Click here to read an Indian study on transsexualism in Hindu mythology.

Many scholars agree that the first explicit mention of a third gender came from the Kama Sutra period, which ended over 2,200 years ago. There are accounts from European travelers in the 1650s that tell of “men and boys dressed like women” in Thatta, modern-day Pakistan.

Throughout the history of South Asia, the hijra community has been a constant.

Mainstream discomfort with homosexuality, transgender people, and hijras is a relatively recent development.

When the British Empire took control of the Indian subcontinent, they passed laws that imposed their own intolerance on the public. The 1871 Criminal Tribes Act included hijras as a group that was inherently “immoral and corrupt.”

Though the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed when India gained independence in 1947, the damage of 200 years of legally enforced stigmatization was already done. A Bangladeshi hijra activist, Joya Sikder, lamented that the people who created this law, often known as section 377, have now changed the law in their own country while hijras continue to suffer because of it.

Hijra Culture

The Semitic Arabic root of “hijra” is hjr, whose meaning is akin to “leaving one’s tribe.” The meaning is an accurate one, as the reality for many hijras is leaving home and joining the hijra community. This is not figurative; hijras in South Asia predominantly live in defined, organized all-hijra communities led by gurus.

Communities “adopt” young boys who have been forced from their homes or fled their family of origin. Trans and gender-nonconforming people across the world can certainly empathize with finding their adoptive family when rejected by their birth family.

Historically and culturally, many believe hijras have power to bless and to curse. Because of this, hijra people are often present at weddings and births to perform blessings. However, this also means many are superstitious of the hijra community.