hijras and eunuchs of India and Pakistan
July 23, 2006 7:03 AM   Subscribe

Hijra, demi femmes du Pakistan, the Hijras of Pakistan, Eunuchs in Mumbai, and the stories of Neela and Laxmi: Various portraits of the third sex in the third world. (some NSFW) [more]
posted by madamjujujive (29 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

Wonderful post, thank you! I know this is a barbaric practice and there is a terrible sadness about some of those images, but that said there's an amazing cultural richness there that I almost feel envious of.
posted by fingerbang at 7:27 AM on July 23, 2006

Of which I almost feel envious even?
posted by fingerbang at 7:28 AM on July 23, 2006

great post, thanks!
posted by kolophon at 7:40 AM on July 23, 2006

Why do you say it's barbaric? just curious ... I don't believe this practice is forced in any way.
posted by adzuki at 8:31 AM on July 23, 2006

interesting their position in society - revered, yet shunned.
posted by suki at 8:32 AM on July 23, 2006

top notch, mjj- favorited and absorbed.
posted by moonbird at 8:32 AM on July 23, 2006

There's an excellent scene involving the hijra in the Merchant-Ivory film Heat and Dust in which the main character, an English woman, is treated to a performance by a large group of hijra, then a few beautiful close-ups of some of the individuals. The actors seem to be the real thing, and they're clearly enjoying the attention. I understand that a large part of the book on which the film is based is spent in the hijra community of Bombay.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:49 AM on July 23, 2006

two-spirited people in North American Indian nations were considered to be a third gender as well.

Well, till Christianity came in and convinced everyone that was a bad thing.
posted by gminks at 8:51 AM on July 23, 2006

Barbaric, I would say, because the false binary of male/female insists that these people are required to undergo surgery in order to become the other. This is less about a "third sex" and more about believing that if one does not conform to the exacting specifications of one, one must be surgically altered to become the other.

It might not be "forced", but this essential binary belief forces it. In the story of Neela, we are looking at someone who might be a gay man, possibly a bisexual man, or might be a straight man who happened to enjoy anal sex. This a person not the portrait of with gender dismorphia.

Enjoying sexual penetration is not the default definition of being female, but it's obviously the definition being employed in that case.

Great post, but it made me very sad. Losing erectile tissue shouldn't be the cost of having gender-shattering sexual preferences. This practice is particularly bemusing at a time when anal sex is the hot new thing for straight men in North America.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:02 AM on July 23, 2006

This a person not the portrait of with gender dismorphia.

Me speak english good.

This is NOT a portrait of a person with gender dismorphia. Is what I meant. O_o
posted by Hildegarde at 9:03 AM on July 23, 2006

adzuki : "Why do you say it's barbaric? just curious ... I don't believe this practice is forced in any way."

From the Wikipedia link: The culmination of this process is a religious ritual that includes castration. Although it is expected in the hijra subculture, not all hijras undergo castration, and the percentage of hijras which are eunuchs is unknown. The operation, referred to by hijras as a nirvan, or rebirth, involves the severing of the penis and testes with a knife cut performed without anesthesia by a dai (traditional midwife).

There was an in-depth article in an Indian magazine a few years back. The details elude me, but it described the castration ritual, and it wasn't pretty.
posted by Gyan at 9:06 AM on July 23, 2006

Gyan: I was wondering, because of the original comment referred to "the practice" as barbaric. While castration without anaestethics would be barbaric, I got the impression that it was the term was applied to the cultural practice itself. And I thought I must have been missing something because I can't see how the existance of a third sex could be called barbaric.
posted by adzuki at 9:23 AM on July 23, 2006

Hildegarde : "This is NOT a portrait of a person with gender dismorphia"

I see. If the only social role for gay men involves castrating them that would be barbaric.

Now, I'm not sure -- I don't know much about Indian culture -- so I don't know which is more acceptable, being Hijra or being gay. But obviously there must be gay men who are not Hijra. besides common sense, the population numbers given mean it must be so.
posted by adzuki at 9:35 AM on July 23, 2006

Excellent links, gminks - thank you. See also the berdache, "blessed by the gods" or in Lakota, the winkte. This two-spirited concept seems to be pervasive in North American native cultures, see this listing of names by tribes. As your link points out, "berdache" is now seen by many as a pejorative.

The last photo on this page is of a Zuni berdache

Here is an interesting paper on how the Berdache were seen by Spanish conquistadors with text and illustrations.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:39 AM on July 23, 2006 [2 favorites]

interesting their position in society - revered, yet shunned

I've heard the same thing about "witch doctors" in sub-Saharan Africa. People respect their powers but don't necessarily want to crack open a beer with them after work.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:41 AM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Bugis people of Indonesia have a similar tradition of transvestite/transgender priests. They're known as bisus.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:54 AM on July 23, 2006

madamjujujive, thanks for the link with the names for this third gendered person from the different Indian nations.

Very interesting how there aren't eastern tribes on that list...if this is something that had a word in all the western nations, and has words in other countries, why not in the eastern tribes? (pretty much a rhetorical question..)
posted by gminks at 10:23 AM on July 23, 2006

Thanks for the links Hildegarde.

I think the problem overall comes from humanity's inability to separate sex and gender, and the still common idea that sexual preference follows from gender.

Apparently, in traditional Indian culture, if you are a man attracted to men, that meant you had the spirit of a woman and were somewhere between the sexes. In Western culture, it means you're unnatural because you're obviously a man.

Forcing homosexuals to behave like the opposite gender and encouraging castration is about as backwards as stoning them, so I will give no points to either culture for their traditional treatment of gays.

However, through the lens of gender, I find the tradition of a third sex more progressive than in the West. The at least have the notion that gender follows from (or is evidenced by) behavior, and bevhavior is just a measure of who you are. That sure beats the western idea that gender, including gender roles and masculine/feminine behavior, follow from sex (or more specifically, from sex characteristics; which if you think about literally you ought to find bat-shit crazy).
posted by adzuki at 10:26 AM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I agree with you, adzuki: I think the concept of a third gender is great, but in practice it appears to mean people of one sex needing to become the other, and not succeeding. The third gender then becomes a location of failure to be either one, rather than an actual third option. It becomes a demonstration of the impossiblity to break out of those gender roles; you can lop off your erectile tissue and your gonads, you can dress up as a woman and behave as a woman, but you're still just a failed man, minus the penis. A "third gender", my ass.

The North American traditions (two-spirited, etc.) seem to be more complex in that sense; they seem to have managed to negotiate a legitimate third way, even if it's not a particularly embraced third way.

And I agree with you about no points to either culture. We link up gay men and femininity nearly as much as the folks in these links. (As well as lesbianism and masculinity, of course.) We just allow them to keep their erectile tissue.
posted by Hildegarde at 10:44 AM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Great post.

See also: Fa'afafines, Polynesian 'third gender' people, who are either boys raised as girls by their families for practical reasons, or boys/men who have chosen to be Fa'afafine. Here's a more scholarly article, and another one.
posted by jack_mo at 11:05 AM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

We just allow them to keep their erectile tissue

that's a choice that gay men can pass on in both cultures, at least that's the way I understand it. This link from the post claims that most hijra are not castrated.

You said that the concept of a third gender means that in pratice people of one sex needing to become the other. I think of it as the other way around, that these people are in practice already a third gender.

The hijra, or castration or surgery, may be a cruel demonstration of the harsh reality of our culture -- the gender ghetto, the man in a dress, these ideas may not exist if the "third gender" wasn't a concept. But it's not the concept that makes the people reach for it -- that's like saying that homosexuality only exists because people have gay sex.

The idea of a third gender should exist regardless ...
First, there are intersexed people who may identify with either gender or with neither. That itself ought to be enough to shatter the idea of binary gender. For everyone, I mean.

Second, in practice there are those that make the third gender apply to them. Even if they are outcasts there seem to be some who still have pride in who they are, and would rather choose being social outcasts than living in confusion. Seems like an option to me. Not too different from modern America either.
posted by adzuki at 11:48 AM on July 23, 2006

Does anyone know why are there no (biological) women in these links? If they don't self-identify as women are they just out of luck?
posted by small_ruminant at 12:19 PM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

In Thailand there are kathoey, or ladyboys. While the culture of kathoey people is markedly different from hijra culture, they are considered to be a third sex or a "second kind of woman" in Thailand.
posted by oflinkey at 12:41 PM on July 23, 2006

outstanding as always, mjjj
posted by matteo at 12:46 PM on July 23, 2006

madamjujujive, An exceptional post, (not unusual for you), so rich with information and spectacular images! Wow.

Also the follow-up posts are wonderfully informative and interesting. The articles about the Berdaches are fascinating. In Christopher Columbus' diaries he wrote that when he landed in what is now called America, he expected it to be literally the Garden of Eden. When he met with the locals he assumed they were devils and demons or heathen to be converted. I can only imagine the lack of comprehension when it came to Berdaches.

Bruno Morandi, who took the spectacular pictures in your first link has amazing, beautiful pictures all around. A true feast of color and culture. On his links page, there are connections to other wonderful images too of different parts of the world.

A short history of castration in different parts of the world, with a link to photographs for the brave at the bottom of the page.

The article I read years ago in the Indian equivalent of the New York Sunday Times magazine, the Hindustan Times mag, stated that boys might be given by their families to a Hijra group for any number of reasons and that castration was typical. Apparently, according to the Wikipedia essay, that isn't as true as I thought.

Other Words for the Other-Gendered. Parallels in the Gender Minority/Sexual Minority Histories of Africa and Asia. A hijra dancing at a wedding in Delhi. BBC did a documentary called India's Ladyboys. The blog of a Muslim transsexual, Leyla.

When I lived in India it was common to have occasional contact with 'hijas' (that's how I mispronounced the word, hijra, until corrected today). It might be on train rides (often lasting days), where there was always an extraordinary assortment of entertainers and fast food purveyors of every kind for the captive audience.

I mostly saw hijras in New Delhi, where, from what I saw, they were met with a mix of superstitious veneration and annoyed-fearful amusement. They are usually part of North Indian weddings, as a blessing for the fertility of the couple and are associated with magical powers. Their lifestyle is something like that of the gypsies of India.

Hijras typically show up as a group in a shop or bazaar to beg for money, poke fun of the shopkeeper/s and customers. Kind of like a flock of cackling crows descending and flying away in a flurry of ridiculing and being ridiculed. Most of the time the older hijras, the more masculine ones, sort of looked like Keith Richards in sari drag, with just that kind of leering dangerous twinkle, a bit scary but mesmerizing. They seem to enjoy being outrageous drag queens, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert style.

While studying about Buddhist monk's vows and the creation by Siddhartha Gautama of the first Buddhist monastery in Sravasti. and the Buddhist treatise on morality, the Vinaya, I learned that a monk might spontaneously become a female. Provisions were made in the Buddhist monk's vows for this transgender experience and the approx 250 monk's vows would then, automatically, become the approx 348 vows of a nun. It is said in the monk's vows that if there were any doubt the man was born male but then became a female, his/her mother could be asked to verify the truth.

"People of the third sex" are also discussed in the ancient, sacred Hindu religious texts known as the Vedas.
posted by nickyskye at 1:47 PM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

great pics--i really wonder whether all of them would still do it if they had grown up in a society with less restrictions. thanks, juju.
posted by amberglow at 6:05 PM on July 23, 2006

I know someone who is a fourth gender...genitals of a female but as an adult, pendulous breasts. The parents raised my friend as a female, but the sexual object of my friend was always male. The chromosomes were determined to be XX, but my friend couldn't stand the thought of any object...large or small...entering any orifice of my friends body. So my friend "married" a female and they have been together ever since. They live nextdoor to me and sometimes, late at night, I hear barking, but they don't own a dog.
posted by sluglicker at 12:18 PM on July 24, 2006

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