Encountering Gender and Sexuality in India

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The existence of a third gender, popularly known as the hijra or eunuchs in India is a subject of major interest in gender and sexuality studies. According to Blackwood (38), the hijra constitutes an institutionalized third gender which is neither in the classification of male or female. Most theories about this gender category suggest that they are either impotent men, intersexes or men whose part or all genitals have been removed in a process termed as emasculation (Blackwood 38)). They usually dress in a feminine manner and mostly exhibit female behavioral characteristics. Although their societal roles are inclined to those of women, majority do not conform to this norm due to their exaggerations of  female behaviors  and dressing which does not meet the expectations of what is considered decent female dressing code in the Indian culture. Aggleton and Richard further noted that the uniqueness of the hijras’ behavior is derived from the notable incongruity compared to that of the traditional woman in the sense that they use course abusive speech and gestures which is in total contrast to the perceived female character (239).

The hijras cultural believes and   practices are rooted in their devotion to the Bahuchara Mata, one of the mother goddesses adored in India for whom the practice of emasculation is carried out (Blackwood 38). The traditional and historical cultural city of the hijras is believed to be Hyderabad though they are primarily found in other northern cities like Delhi and Lucknow which were historically ruled by Muslims (Reddy 8). They are said to have lived in Hyderabad for as long as the city existed and have lived together in residences which act as physical as well as social units characterizing the affiliation to their lineage (Reddy 9). According to Aggleton and Richard (237), the hijra’s means of livelihood is by way of collecting alms and payments received for performances in functions like weddings and birth among other festivals. They have earned a special position in the Indian society with a proclaimed power to curse or confer blessings to male children; which is derived from their close identification with the mother goddess (Aggleton and Richard 237). The cities in the Northern India form the epicenter of their practices though they are also found in small numbers in other cities around the country. Aggleton and Richard adds that the hijras live in small local groups of about 5 to 15 members under the leadership of a head referred as guru though there is usually no distinction between their communities on the basis of origin or religion except in a few areas like Gujarat where those of muslin and Hindu origin live separately (237).

According to Reddy (17), the hijras are represented as a personification of a third sex that cannot be classified as either male or female. Their absence of female reproductive organs coupled with their acknowledged belief that they are born as women precludes them from been classified asfemale while been impotent and hence their inability to reproduce exempts them from the male classification (Aggleton and Richard 239). They are characterized by their long hair, their practice of plucking facial hair as opposed to shaving, adopting female names and behaviors, and using a specialized female vocabulary as well as the use of kinship terminology characteristic of female kinship (Aggleton and Richard 239). The Indian culture and the claims of the Hijras attributes their impotence to  mere psychological hermaphroditism citing reasons that they were naturally born as neither male nor female as justification to subscribe to the hijra community. In reality only a small percentage of the hijras are born intersexes and hence unable to procreate which indicates the central role they occupy as members of the community. This finding makes explicit the belief that hijras are not males by the mere absence of the male genitalia since most of them undergo emasculation and hence they are only converts and were originally able to reproduce (Aggleton and Richard 239). Reddy notes that the hijras identity is configured to that of Sannyassi, literally referring to their complicated lineage, and often emphasize on their ways of asserting and maintaining their izzat which means respect or honor owing to their stigmatization in the society (17-18).

Ancient studies about gender and sexuality suggest that the existence of third sex and transposed genders as well as procreation among members of the same sex has a long history in India. According to Reddy (19), three distinct views to which an individual could be assigned to any of the three genders namely: purusa, stri and napum saka emerged. In the first view, gender was characterized by the presence or absence of certain primary or secondary characteristics a position held by the Brahmanism (Reddy 19). The second position held by Buddhists as well as Brahmanical defined gender on the basis of procreation ability in which impotence constituting the third gender; napum saka (Reddy 19). The third position was held by the Jains and was in total disagreement with the first two positions terming them as insufficient means of defining gender. They were the first to differentiate the the biological sex; dravyalinga from the psychological gender; Bhavalinga referring to the psychological constitution of an individual (Reddy 20). The Jains also disagreed with the procreation ability classification owing to the fact that women who have exceeded menopause as well those in pre puberty stage would not fit in the category of women. According to their view, the most significant distinguishing feature was the sexual behavior or whether penetrative or receptive role is played during intercourse (Reddy 20). The Jains also suggested a fourth sex around the 5th century CE which classified the napum saka as either the masculine also termed as purusanapumsaka distinguishing the masculine and feminine napum saka ( pandaka or kliba), by theirr sexual practice besides their similar physical characteristics; whether receptive during intercourse or both penetrative and receptive (Reddy 20). In this characterization, the penetrative role was a symbol of masculinity.

In most western cultures, gender is culturally defined as either male or female and is viewed as been both malleable and mutable, which depends on the social context (Coggeshall and Freze 81). In this context, gender is viewed as dichotomous though there are obvious deviations to this classification. Further, this dichotomy enhances the gender identity of each individual since the contrastive elements are mutually exclusive with the two genders existing in binary opposition each defining and been defined by the other (Coggeshall and Freze 81). Coggeshall and Freze (82) further explains that in the  American culture, the dualistic contrast of their gender identities is reflected in their roles with the masculine gender associated with success status,  dominance, toughness, independence as well as aggressiveness. On the contrary, characters such as dependency, submissiveness, as well as compliance are attributed to the feminine gender and males exhibiting these characteristics are no longer termed as males. In this binary opposition existence of gender, homosexuals usually assume the roles of their genetically opposite sex (Coggeshall and Freze 81). This situation differs from one culture to another and hence the male homosexual is not a replica of the female counterpart owing to the different expectations and roles placed on the heterosexual genders in the respective societies (Coggeshall and freze (82). Coggeshall and Freze (82) further notes that gender identity and sexual behavior are both complex and different phenomena and individuals may be classified as homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual adopting the gender roles of masculine feminine, both or neither.

According to Mcllvenny (38), the relevance of gender and sexuality can also be identified in terms of social interactions based on speech styles attributed to male or female. Gender in this case has been perceived to be a variable existing in correlation to various linguistic behaviors with identification of specific languages like ‘gay men’s English’ and ‘lesbian women’s speech’ (Mcllvenny 38). According to Stein and Williams (61) individual’s sexuality and gender identity are inseparable and their sense of who they are sexually is to a great extend connected; though in complicated and varied ways, with the understanding of their masculinity and femininity. However, most dominantly, sexuality is viewed in binary terms; either male versus female, heterosexual versus homosexual with deviations from this also been sexualized giving rise to the effeminate gay men and the masculine lesbian (Stein and Williams 61). According to Blackwood (42) the hijra role in India is believed to have emerged as a form of institutionalized homosexuality developed in response to practices inclined to latent homosexuality in the India’s national character.

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