The Mahabharatha, one of India’s most ancient texts, tells tales of gods and demons, of kings and queens, and of common men and women. The epic story takes place over hundreds of years and serves as the foundation for Hinduism. The most popular stories are of Lord Vishnu or Arjun, passed on in Indian households from generation to generation in songs or bedtime stories. But the less talked about characters are Mohini and Brihannala – who are versions of Lord Vishnu and Arjun in female form.
Stories idolizing transgender characters are not uncommon in Hindu mythology, nor were transgender people uncommon in ancient Indian society. Eunuchs, transgender people and cross-dressers were referred to as Hijra – an Urdu-Hindustani word adopted into modern Hindi. They were hired regularly to guard queen’s chambers or assist priests in temples, both highly respected positions.
Today’s transgender community live in a very different reality.
Hundreds of years of imperialist British rule have left imprints of colonial-era puritanical values within, what was, a vastly accepting society. Traditional Indian culture was seen as primitive and soft in contrast to the rational and masculine tradition of the western world. Educated Indians began distancing themselves from customs perceived as effeminate or traditional, so as to assimilate with the British elite. This is when the Hijra first became marginalized and ostracized from the rest of Indian society.
Furthermore, the British imposed an anti-sodomy law in 1861 which outlawed all acts of “unnatural intercourse,” thus criminalizing the Hijra community entirely. Today, the Hijra community find themselves on the margins of society, often living in precarious circumstances and vulnerable to abuse.
A very different reality
"The amount of discrimination you face because of your gender and sexuality and because of your caste and class… that’s the matter," says Akkai Padmashali, a Hijra born in Bangalore. "We're fighting against this attitude with society every day."
Despite being born into an educated, middle class family, Akkai found that her family reacted with anger and revulsion to her decision to identify as a girl, having been born biologically male. At the age of sixteen she ran away with two of her friends and joined a community of Hijras. Barred from most other professions, the Hijras often earn money from sex work. Akkai was one of them.
"I didn't want to do sex work. It was pressure. I had to earn money so I did it," says Akkai. "Men. Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, they all came to us for sex work. They don't do these things with their wives or their partners so they come to us."
The Bangalore police picked up Akkai and several of her Hijra sisters while they were participating in sex work. "We were taken to the police station. The whole station wanted to know how we had sex, what sort of sexual acts we indulged in. They kept us for the whole day and made fun of us… the whole station."
In joining the Hijra community, Akkai had lost her value from mainstream society - becoming, in effect, a non-person. If clients were abusive, there was no one to help. Even the police were against her.
BT Venkatesh is the senior legal advocate for Sangama, a human rights organization for sexual minorities. "Most Hijras do sex work because there is no other work for them," he says. "They are pushed into that by society and society should accept them."
"In some areas, the Hijras are arrested, beaten, raped, kept illegally in the police station and no one is willing to be a surety for bail. It is a very bad scene. But in Bangalore, Sangama will come to the police station and prosecute them for unconstitutional behavior," she says.
"If the police is [sic] beating me, I will take the beatings," says Akkai. "I will not turn around and beat him. Then go according to the law, if you die, you die. But we follow the constitutional laws."
On April 15th, 2014, the Indian Supreme Court passed a landmark judgment, which now permits transgender people to legally identify themselves under a “third gender” option. In India there are an estimated two million transgender people who, until now, have been unable to obtain official government documents due to exclusion from the legal system. In the past, a hospital could turn away a Hijra due to confusion over which ward to place them in.
Under this ruling, transgender individuals may legally register for health care, bank accounts and passports. In addition, they now fall under a protected group called the OBCs, or Other Backwards Castes, who are extended a 37% reservation for government positions.
Barathi K is a Hijra from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She says that the ruling is the first step towards acceptance from society. “The first problem that we are facing is that the family is not accepting us. That will automatically be eradicated after we get job opportunities, economically some growth will come, slowly acceptance will come.
Society will also start to respect us once we get opportunities for employment… so that will happen once we mingle with our family. And that will happen because of the Supreme Court judgment. So really, really we are happy.”
After four years of sex work, Akkai decided it was time to rejoin her family. With the help of her younger brother, Akkai was able to negotiate a way back. "I fought in a very positive sort of fight," she says. "I am this. I just want to be what I am. Just to have my own feelings. That kind of debate was taking place for eight years."
For higher caste families, Akkai imagines the struggle is even more difficult as those castes can often be more conservative. "Just imagine if you're [the highest caste] and become homosexual and you come out, how does your caste treat you? The community will put you out of your caste. Same with transgenderism. People don't [compromise] with that, they'll always judge you."
BT Venkatesh has been going door to door and working with families by encouraging them to accept family members who are part of the hijra community. He says he also wants to see law enforcement to provide more protection for hijras.
"We have to start with the police. They are the ones who should enforce the protective laws to help sexual minorities...A police officer we were prosecuting got angry with me and shouted 'Are you a Hijra?' and I said, 'Of course I am!' Because I feel their struggles, their issues, their pain." In all of Venkatesh's time working with Sangama, he has never lost a case.
"Things are changing very slowly. But they are changing. Now in Bangalore, the police think twice before arresting a Hijra. They know that Sangama will come after them," says Venkatesh.
Meanwhile, the day-to-day struggles continue for Akkai and the transgender community. Despite growing awareness and small signs of acceptance, there are many challenges yet to be addressed.
"I think behind the happiness there is a huge amount of sadness," says Akkai. A huge amount lack of space. You can't wear a sari outside, you can't behave feminine in the outside society. If you do, you're done, you're killed. You're targeted and you can't express what you are."
It's only been four months since the Supreme Court ruling so changes on the ground are slow. Still, many members of the hijra community feel like the recognition of their human rights by the government and society at-large are an important step toward rejoining the mainstream.
Siri Bulusu is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore,India. You can follow her on twitter @siri_notsiri