Hijra existence against the lasting effects of British Colonial Rule
Lina Idrees touches upon the presence of hijras as important entities that challenge the legacy of coloniality as well as the conception that LGBTQIA+ acceptance is a mere Western trend
March 31 marked Transgender Day of Visibility. A day to celebrate transgender people and raise awareness of the discrimination faced by transgender communities worldwide. As a Pakistani, I am proud to say that my home country has one of the world’s most progressive transgender rights bills. Passed in 2018, it guarantees citizens the right to express their gender, that is defined as “a person’s innermost and individual sense of self as male, female or a blend of both, or neither; that can correspond or not to the sex assigned at birth”. In a conservative, Muslim-majority country where homosexuality is still criminalised, how has Pakistan legally extended the full protection of fundamental rights to its minority gender community? The answer lies in the history of pre-colonial Indias’ hijras.
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, ‘hijra’ and ‘transgender’ are not synonymous. This is because hijras occupy a space in the regions’ ancient traditions and history, one which is vastly different to the space they occupy today. Their identity is a unique blend of biological, gendered, and sexual identities underpinned by religion and bound by a strong social structure. This thriving community which once wielded enormous power and respect during the Mughal era were criminalised, deprived, and almost erased as a result of British colonial rule and legislation.
When reading about the British Raj, two things tend to stand out: the looting of India and the bloody legacy of the Partition. My grandparents lived through the India-Pakistan partition of 1947; the violent division of British India into two countries: Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. As Arundhati Roy eloquently and emotively frames this lived experience:
God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbours turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
However, when looking at the effects of colonial rule, one cannot simply point to the birth of Pakistan. It lingers in Indian-administered Kashmir and can be heard in Kashmiris’ haunting cries for azadi (freedom). In the same vein, the imperialist nature of the British Raj went beyond the East India Company’s efforts to exploit India’s economy. Social structures were governed and changed to make the most of an unfamiliar social and political situation – and of course to maximise their profits.
The late 19th century saw the spread of anti-homosexual criminal laws to British colonies. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), inspired by the 1533 Buggery Act which outlawed homosexuality in England, was introduced in 1860. This piece of legislation made ‘carnal intercourse against the other of nature’ an offence. This was otherwise understood as the prohibition of homosexual anal intercourse. Apart from criminalising homosexuality, it was also used to target gender minorities and transgendered persons, commonly known as hijras.
British colonisers viewed the existence of the hijra community as a multi-faceted threat to colonial authority. Their identity, which stood starkly at odds with British heteronormative norms and conceptions of gender, was considered ungovernable.Lina Idrees
British colonisers viewed the existence of the hijra community as a multi-faceted threat to colonial authority. Their identity, which stood starkly at odds with British heteronormative norms and conceptions of gender, was considered ungovernable. According to Jessica Hinchy, author of ‘Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra’, there was a British ‘moral panic’ about hijras in South Asia. Colonial officials said they were not only a danger to ‘public morals’ but also, a ‘threat to colonial political authority’. Since the community was regarded as deviant in the eyes of authorities, Section 377 of the IPC was weaponised to police and ultimately ostracise the hijra community (and other groups which didn’t fit the binary gender categories).
In his journal article ‘377 and the Unnatural Afterlife of British Colonialism in Asia’, Douglas E. Sanders explains that the main effect of 377 was to ‘support and confirm general patterns of non-recognition, discrimination, and marginalisation in Indian society’. As he continues, ‘the true impact of Section 377 on queer lives is felt outside the courtroom and must not be measured in terms of legal cases. Numerous studies, including both documented and anecdotal evidence, tell us that Section 377 is the basis for routine and continuous violence against sexual minorities by the police, the medical establishment, and the state. There are innumerable stories that can be cited – from the everyday violence faced by hijras [a distinct transgender category] and kothis [effeminate males] on the streets of Indian cities to the refusal of the National Human Rights Commission to hear the case of a young man who had been given electro-shock therapy for nearly two years.’
To make matters worse for the community, a law introduced in 1871 known as the Criminal Tribes Act specifically targeted ‘eunuchs’, a stigmatising colonial term for hijras which targeted caste groups considered to be hereditary criminals. The impunity police had under Section 377 was exacerbated under this law. In addition to increased surveillance, the police compiled registers of hijras with their personal details to ensure complete control over the community.
Hijras occupy a unique place in Indian society today, distinct from transgender and intersex identities in other countries. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India recognised transgenders as a third gender, finally giving hijras and other non-binary genders legal status and allowing them to identify as a third, neutral category – neither male nor female. Despite legal progress to protect this community, India’s hijra community continues to live on the margins of society – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. A majority of hijras are daily-wage workers whose livelihoods depend on begging and sex work, so lockdown was hard-hitting for the community.
Despite legal progress to protect this community, India’s hijra community continues to live on the margins of society – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.Lina Idrees
Section 377 remained in India long after the British left and decriminalised homosexuality themselves. Following decades of activism and protests, on September 6th, 2018 the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377 of the IPC, legalising homosexuality after over 150 years of its criminalisation. The landmark decision ruled discrimination based on sexual orientation as a fundamental violation of rights and has been hailed as a massive victory for India’s LGBTQ+ community. Section 377 is presently in force in all former British colonies in Asia except for Hong Kong and Singapore (with Singapore retaining an alternative prohibition). The section number 377 however, is repeated in the current laws in force in Singapore and other countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Brunei reflecting the exact copying of the 1860 code for other British colonies.
In the last decade, South Asian countries like Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh have made significant steps to protect members of their transgender community after years of their ostracisation. A year after the repeal of Section 377, India passed a transgender rights bill which prohibits discrimination against transgender persons. It was this year on International Women’s Day when Tashnuva Anan Shishir made history as Bangladesh’s first transgender news anchor. Last year, Nisha Rao, a Pakistani lawyer and activist became the first transgender law graduate in Pakistan.
A problem arises when we regard the existence of non-normative identities as a particularly Western, progressive phenomenon when such communities have existed for centuries across the globe.Lina Idrees
A problem arises when we regard the existence of non-normative identities as a particularly Western, progressive phenomenon when such communities have existed for centuries across the globe. We are living in a time where conversations surrounding the legacy of the British empire, imperialism, and white supremacy are making its way into our political discourse. As such, it is important to understand the scale of Eurocentric norms and its impact on former colonies, such as India. I hope we continue to celebrate transgender people and raise awareness of their discrimination in the years to come so we can work towards a future where they are always recognised, heard, and protected.
Some NGOs to check out:
https://www.facebook.com/Trans-Pride-Society-100918608383898/: Trans Pride Society is an NGO in Pakistan which aims to act as a platform that empowers transgenders in Pakistan through soft skills training and eventually economic independence. It is founded by Nisha Rao, Pakistan’s first transgender lawyer.
https://tweetindia.org/mission/: Transgender Welfare Equity & Empowerment Trust (TWEET) Foundation is led by seven trans activists and works for the welfare of trans persons in Mumbai.
https://pinkdot.sg/about-pink-dot-sg/: Pink Dot SG is a non-profit movement started by a group of individuals who care deeply about the place that LGTBQ+ Singaporeans call home.