Hijras Of Muslim India & Pakistan

The enigmatic hijras, the male to female transgenders and intersexuals of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh - few is known about them in the west, most of it consists of prejudices and wrong images. "Westerners" who deal with the hijras, for whatever purpose, often tend to overstate their relationship to Hinduism and Hindu - culture. This is in no way strange, since in "the West" Hinduism tends to be identified with "tolerance, patience, non-violence" while Islam is connected with "terrorism, fanaticism etc.". So, it is easily understandable that Europeans and Americans automatically relate the issue of gender diversity to Hinduism and not to Islam. 
In fact, the hijra community is as much rooted in Indo - Pakistani Islam as it is in Hinduism; many hijras, if not most, are muslim - not only in Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh but also in hindu-secular India - and their old connection to the dynasties of Muslim rule in India are an issue of pride to all of them, including the Hindus. 
Hijra is only the most frequently used term to describe them. It is derived from Urdu, the poetical language of the Indian Subcontinent`s Islamic culture. Another widely used word for them is "khusra" which is from the Punjabi language (North-West India, North-East Pakistan). The Arab - Muslim term "mukhannath/muhannas" is also used in certain contexts and many hijras prefer that term. In English literature the word "eunuch" is most often employed to refer to them. This is correct as long as you relate it to the medieval muslim understanding of an eunuch (who was usually a mukhannath), but still it might conjure wrong pictures of "castrated men" in the minds of westerners. 
The hijras are a remarkable community. Some hijras claim that "their society was once known from India to Spain", which was the expansion of the medieval Muslim empire, and older hijras who did the Hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah) sometimes hint to a close connection between their society and the ancient society of "eunuchs" that guarded the grave of noble Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) and the sacred mosque in Makkah. 
In that way one might assume that today`s muslim hijra communities are the only intact survivors of medieval Muslim "mukhannath" society , while at the same time having local connections to ancient hindu traditions. 
On these pages I will explain some features of "hijra - culture" and their relationship to Indo- Pakistani Islam. Hopefully I might also dispel some prejudices and wrong myths. 
May God bless the hijra community in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, may he guard the hijras and may he guard their precious heritage! 

The hijras have been defined numerous times by outsiders: As " transvestites", "eunuchs", "hermaphrodites", "effeminate males", neither of the aforementioned, all of the aforementioned etc. but only newer ethnographic reports (Serena Nanda, Neither man nor woman) tried to find out how the hijras define themselves. If asked, a hijra will answer "a hijra (or khusra, mukhannath, whatever term she will use) is someone who is neither male nor female". There are two ways of being a hijra. The first is to be born as an intersexual or hermaphrodite, the second is to be born with a male body but with a feminine gender identity ("ruh" - a muslim term for soul). In both cases the person is "born as a hijra". You don`t become a hijra, you are a hijra "because Allah created you that way", as Muslim hijras might ad. However, to be officially respected as a hijra you have to be part of the hijra society. This means to become the follower of an older and experienced hijra whom the younger hijra regards as her mother and her guru. 
Most respected among the hijras are the hermaphrodites (who are only very few) and the nirvan. Nirvan (or nirban) means to have undergone a sacred castration ceremony that turns you into someone who is really neither male nor female. In the past being nirvan was a requirement for every non-hermaphrodite hijra to be able to work as servant and guard in the Muslim harems. Therefore, traditional hijras up to today see "the operation" as an important feature to legitimize one as a "true hijra". However, today some hijras - especially in Pakistan and big cities like Bombay, it seems- do not undergo the castration or prefer hormones and a modern "gender re-assignment chirurgy", but still regard themselves as part of the hijra community. 
The Hindu side of hijra culture is closely tied to the worship of God in the form of Bahuchara Mata, something that does not have any significance among khusras of today`s Pakistan. However, Muslim hijras in India carry out a certain inter-religious respect for the sacred places of Bahuchara Mata. Hindu hijras usually also celebrate muslim festivals, follow many muslim customs, often carry muslim female names and are - like muslims - buried (although hindus are ususally burned) after death. In this one can see that the hijra community has its historical roots both in Islam and in Hinduism. 
The social community itself was probably introduced to India in the 12th century (a.C.), when Muslim rule started in the north of the subcontinent. The Muslim rulers used to employ castrated mukhannathun, who wore a combination of male and female clothes, as servants and guards in the private realm of their women. In many cases those mukhannathun also rose to high positions in the Muslim principalities, forming a community of great influence. Those court mukhannathun were highly organized, being, like almost every trade in a traditional Muslim society, part of an own "guild", holding "decisive conventions" and following experienced elders. On the other hand, ancient Indian Hindu society knew a "third gender", too. Old scriptures tell of the existence of so called "kliba", female behaving male borns, who wore long hair, but were not castrated. During the long years of Muslim rule in India (the Moghul empire existed until the 18th century, partly independent muslim principalities exixted until the Indian independence in 1947) those "kliba" started to esteem the highly organized structures of the court mukhannathun, while on the other side the mukhannathun accepted the kliba into their community. In Urdu, the Persian influenced language of India`s muslim culture, both mukhannathun and klibas were related to the word "hich", which designated soemething without a proper place (in this case: in the scheme of two sexes; hich - gah means "nowhere"). The modern word "hijra" probably derived from "hich"! 
The prevalence of muslim influences in the hijras┬┤ social structures is still evident today. Interviewed hijras sometimes said that it is seen as an ideal that a hijra - guru should be muslim and not hindu. The most respected among the hijra-gurus are those who had undertaken the pilgrimage to Makkah and many hindu hijras formally convert to Islam out of respect for the strong connection between muslim court culture and the "third gender" in India. 
In Indian and Pakistani society the khusras are visible as female dressing transgenders and intersexuals who display a special way of behaviour. In general their idealized type of behaviour would be "ladylike" and, indeed, they usually behave in a very feminine way that they regard as an expression of their "ruh". On the other side they are also allowed to display certain ways of acting that are considered to be "unfitting" for women in traditional hindu and muslim societies. E.g. they might get very loud and aggressive when given offence. 
The social functions of the hijras are diverse and they will be outlined in following articles, but in court life they were mainly related to all those functions that were lined out for the mukhannatheen in early muslim society: 
Being intermediaries between men and women, guarding the sacred private realm of the women and being advicing servants with a crucial position in noble households. 

In today` s post-colonial world the status of the mukhannathun in the societies of India and Pakistan has an ambiguous character that depends on situations, geographical regions or simply on personal likes and dislikes. 
In general one can say that they are still respected in certain ways. However, they also may be ridiculed at in some circumstances. In general hijras claim that in northern India and in Pakistan they earn a lot more respect than in the deep south. The highest respect they still find in old cities with a rich muslim heritage, especially Lucknow which once was the seat of the Nawab of Oudh. 
Indians, since colonial times confronted with European values and Western exceptions, feel probably somehow unsure about their relationship to the hijras. No one would ever dare to ridicule them face to face, but still people may make fun of them behind their backs. Maybe the attitude that hijras have to face in India` s and Pakistan`s main entertainment industry, the movie business, shows this ambiguity in attitude towards them in the best way. In the past years there have been some serious Bollywood Movies in which hijras played the main role in a dramatic plot ( like in "Tamanna" and "Darmiyaan", describing the life of the mukhannath Tikku), but they are also frequently hired to play "comical fun parts" in mainstream productions, giving the reason for a "good laugh" in the audience. Actually, this reminds me a lot of how transgenders are treated in western film industry. 
During the British raj the colonials passed a law in which the hijras were described as "sodomites" and people who did "homosexual offenses". This was the first time ever that hijras were openly discriminated against in Indian history. The centuries of muslim rule had never seen such an accusation (although from time to time some rulers wanted to abolish the act of castration)! 
Although hijras were still hired as court eunuchs in places like Hyderabad and Lucknow, they couldn` t work their original jobs in places of the Indian Subcontinent that were more heavily controled by the British. Unfortunately, the British tries of abolishing the hijras and their society found some support among many wealthy Indians, muslims and hindus alike, who considered themselves "modern thinking" (which to them meant: to think western). Many hijras only had one opportunity to earn money and to survive: 
The noble Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) had given the mukhannathun a place in society so that they didn`t need to earn their money with erotical entertainment; now, because this place was taken away from them, some of them had to go back to "erotical entertainment" (prostitution). Actually - no wonder, since we are talking about a European governed area - this mirrored a lot the development that took place among transgenders in the West. In the past most western TGs also had no other opportunity to survive than selling their bodies. Many still have to, today. 
I don` t claim that there haven` t been hijra prostitutes before the British Raj. There have been, just like there have been male and female prostitutes. But during muslim rule it was never their main occupation, it was an exception! 
In today` s India and Pakistan hijras are still stigmatized as prostitutes, although there is only a certain part of them that really sells their bodies. One has to know that prostitution is in no way seen as an ideal among hijras. In houses of traditional living hijras prostitution is strictly forbidden and hijra elders severely distance themselves from those who prostitute themselves. One has also to know that prostitition is mainly an issue of big cities like Bombay and Karachi. It is only a minor issue in rural areas and this is equally true for male and female prostitutes as for hijras. 
The idea that hijras are in some way connected to prostitution per se is as wrong as the idea that western transgenders are. 
Traditional hijras, living together in a social network that stems from the times of the moghul empire, try to lead a pious life, doing good to fellow humans. Many see themselves as "abstaining ascetics", although this ideal may not be fully lived by all of them. Prostitution is frowned upon, but it exists, because of the intolerance of society! 
Another way of stigmatization stemming from colonial times is the ideas that "hijras kidnap children and force them to be castrated and become hijra". This is a parallel to the western legend that "transgenders could have a bad influence on our children". The Indian police has investigated acclaimed cases of "hijras kidnapping children" and has found none of them to be true. In fact, many mukhannathun in India and Pakistan care for children that have been left alone by their families with much love (Which forms the plot for the movie "Tamanna") 
To put up with the social stigma that they have to face, hijras usually relate themselves to their "glorious past as guards of sacred boundaries" in the years of muslim rule.To many of them the idea that they are much more respected in northern India than in the South is related to the fact that there are much more muslims in northern India and that northern Indian culture in general carries many muslim influences. If this s true might be open to dispute, however, it shows in what way hijras -muslim and hindu hijras alike - realte to Islam and it`s history on the subcontinent. 
Furthermore, many hijras believe that "political skills" belong to their heritage, since in the past they were so close to the ruling class. History mentions many hijras who rose to high positions in the moghul empire and in the muslim principalities. Many were of a significant influence and some even may have been the "true rulers" of the empire. In fact, hijra society itself carries on many political features of the moghul empire. 
Today hijras are very active in local politics. Especially in India, but also in Pakistan. 
And, besides having been stigmatized during colonial times, many have an impressive amount of voters. A new slogan arose: "There is one solution to useless politicians, give the mandate to eunuchs." 
In a town called Gorakhpur a hijra with the name Asha Devi became mayor, another called Kamala Jaan became mayor in Katni; nowadays there are many local hijra politicians on the indian subcontinent, all following in the footsteps of "auntie" Shabnam (or Shabnam Mausi, as it is in Hindi/Urdu), the first mukhannath member of the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly. In hindu-folk-lore there is an old legend according to which "in the end of time there will be an age in which the hijras will rule", because of a blessing from God. Many hijras believe this time has come! 

Although, like everyone who is "different", hijras have to face certain prejudices in India and Pakistan, they are still an important part of local spiritual folk culture. It is quite common that they show up at weddings or birth ceremonies to perform ritual songs; in the past noble families usually invited them, some still might do so as a general requirement for a "proper and traditional ceremony" nowadays. In North India and in Pakistan hindus and muslims alike believe in the powers of hijras to bless or curse others. To hindus and hindu hijras this is connected to the worship of Bahuchara Mata. Hindus believe that the powers of this feminine aspect of the divine flows in an almost shamanic way through the "eunuchs". In Pakistan and in traditional Indian muslim families the mukhannath┬┤ power to curse is called "bad du`a". This implies the faith that every supplicational prayer ("du`a") done by a faithful hijra will be fulfilled because she is specially blessed as a compensation for the fact that she is denied to have children and a "normal" family life as a born woman . This idea goes back to old ideas in Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition. According to the Jewish scriptures God revealed to prophet Isaiah (peace be upon him) (56: 4-5): "For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off." 
Similar ideas connected to transgenders and intersexuals are found in many muslim societies (see also my article about the "bissu" in Indonesian Bugis society)! 
Even Pakistanis and Indians who in other circumstances would make fun of the mukhannathun believe in these special powers and may at their performances at family festivals give a lot of money to them to turn away their curse. These performances of blessing songs belonged to the traditional occupation of the hijras and it is still the main occupation for many of them. 
The connection between music and spirituality in hijra culture and the idea that hijras may perform a blessing "du`a" for others place them, from a muslim point of view, near to the sufi and dervish orders of muslim mysticism who likewise are consulted to perform "du`a" for ordinary believers and who connect themselves to God through music and dance. In fact, there are many connections between hijra culture and Sufism. In India and Pakistan the muslim shrines at the graves of Sufi saints are usually the places where hijras use to frequent and to hijras the "urs" festivals, celebrating the "returning home" of prominent muslim saints, are also an occasion to hold meetings between mukhannathun from different parts of India. Especially the "urs" of Khwaja Chishti in Ajmer is known to be a festival which is attended by hundreds of hijras from India an Pakistan. 
Indian history also knows several persons revered under a male name as sufi saints (court mukhannathun obviously had to carry an official male name and title, although hijras usually refer to each other with female names) but who were at the same time members of the hijra community. Among them was a sufi and poet called Yatim Shah, a saint called Khalij Khan and a dervish called Musa Shah-i Suhag. 
Musa Shah-i Suhag is especially revered by a special order of muslim mystics, the Suhrawardiyya-Suhagiyya, whose "male born" members all live the lifes of hijras and see themselves as "brides of God". 
There have also been reported several members of the Malangiyya dervish order in Pakistan who were mukhannathun. Sometimes Pakistani hijras in general relate themselves to the dervish orders, claiming a shared view on life and sexuality (though this is surely not true for all hijras). 
Transgenders and Intersexuals on the Indian Subcontinent have a deep and inner connection to the sufi orders and the muslim saints. Certain medieval muslim missionaries in India are claimed to have been "especially kind towards hijras" and the hijras reply to this with affectionate love up to this day. This is one of the many reasons why the khusras can be found easily at muslim shrines! 
Older and experienced hijras are usually expected to be earnest followers of Islam (at least in Pakistan). Many hijras from both India and Pakistan perform the Hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to Makkah - having saved a lot of money only for this occasion - and those who did so are treated with a special respect in the community. In medieval times mukhannathun were sometimes employed to teach the recitation of the Holy Qur`an to young princes and princesses and even today some hijras are found who teach "Qira`at" (as it is called in Arabic). 
Tensions between hijra culture and Islam only arose during colonial times and in the beginning of the 20th century, when prominent muslim leaders had started to incorporate British - Western ideas of morality and gender and the Wahhabi-Salafi version of a "modernized Islam" (strongly anti-sufi, of course) was accepted by a large part of the educated muslims.

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