In an attempt to destigmatise notions of the transgender community, a campaign by LGBT-resource website Transgender India chose to take what activists have called a very problematic stance. The “I am not a Hijra” campaign showcased 18 transgender men and women holding placards in a bid to separate their gender identity from that of the Hijras. Here’s one of the placards.
Transgender India's "I am not a Hijra" campaign.
A section of transgender and even Hijra activists came in support of the campaign. Visibility, however, was the chief contention of others. Transgender persons felt it was important to demarcate the two terms because hijra activists were “wrongly” portrayed as the cream of the trans movement.
Neysara from Transgender India said it was merely an attempt to make clear that the two identities were separate. “We get calls on our helpline from parents of children who come out as transgender, and they ask us if our child is going to be a Hijra. We felt that it was about time to clear the air through this campaign,” she said, adding, “We should have, in retrospect, asked Hijras to participate in this campaign as well.”
After the campaign gained traction, many websites featured it as a campaign for the upliftment of the transgender community. But it sparked a heated discourse across social media on the loaded message the post carried.
Transgender activist Kalki Subramaniam feels it was well-intentioned but poorly executed. “It was to differentiate a transgender person from the culture of the Hijra community, I feel there was no intention to shame or hurt. The creators of the campaign were enthusiastic transgender people who were misguided and ill-informed,” she says.
What’s the distinction between Hijras and Transgender?
‘Transgender’ is an umbrella term that includes those who identify with culturally conventional gender roles and categories of male or female; having changed gender identity from male to female or female to male, or identifying with elements of both, or having some other gender identity.
Hijras, also known as Aravani, Aruvani or Jagappa, make up an entire South Asian community that spans India and Pakistan. They are born with either male physiological or intersex organs, and choose to dress as women. “With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India”, a seminal work on the Hijra community by Gayatri Reddy, describes a Hijra as follows: “Hijras are individuals who occupy a unique, liminal space between male and female.”
Hijras may or may not identify themselves as transgender, but many activists have clumped them under the same. Many Hijras identify themselves as the third gender (different from transgender). They are a marginalized community, and largely belong to the lower strata of society.
Activist Ani Dutta called out the campaign in his Facebook post, only to see backlash that predominated on the interchangeability of the terms “Hijra” and “Transgender” in common parlance. Dutta’s Facebook post critiqued the campaign as an "Indian version of transgender-respectability politics."
“The most objectionable tone in the article arose from the implication of superiority of trans women and men over Hijras,” Ani Dutta said in his comment following the post. Hijra became the obverse term to "surgeon", "six-figure income", "mother", "wife", "daughter", "tax-payer", "corporate employee".
Why can’t both communities enjoy visibility without one bringing down the other? Because in the campaign, exclusion became the premise, as no individuals from the Hijra community were consulted in the process of the campaign, activists said.
Speaking to TNM, Hijra activist Vyjayanthi Mogli said the placards were highly reductionist and called for a more inclusive understanding of the community without vilification.
Mogli explains where the campaign goes wrong by choosing to focusing only on practices of extortion that the general public have defined the Hijra community by. “The community has faced physical, verbal and sexual violence for years, and there has been a vacuum over decades and centuries. This vacuum has been filled by taking to begging and sex work, yes. But one must understand, we do not come from a line jurisprudence that criminalises either begging or sex work. And the campaign contrasts a transgender person’s merits with the structural violence faced by an entire community.”
Mogli sums it up – “For those who do not identify as Hijra, it’s fine to have one’s own identity, but not at the expense of another’s identity. Let people stand on their own merit and not call themselves better off than the other.”