The Third Gender: Hijras In India

In most societies, people believe that there are only two sexes, male and female. However, the division is not so clear cut sometimes. There are places on other parts of the world whereby gender pluralism is found, which led to anthropologists distinguishing gender from sex. Sex refers to biological differences (chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs) while gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine1.

In India, the hijras are a group of people who belong to the ‘third gender’. They are not seen as man or woman, but rather a mixture of both due to their biological condition (impotence) or personal choice transgenderism). Hijras are not transsexuals as they do not see themselves as women trapped in men’s bodies. The emasculation operation does not transform them from men to women, but from men to hijras2. Thus, a hijra see himself/herself as an in-between who belongs to the third gender.

Once individuals identifies themselves as hijras, they will be forced to leave the family home as they are considered as a shame to the family. In the eyes of the society, they are considered to be abnormal and inferior. Hijras are denied voting rights, property ownership rights, marriage rights and the right to claim formal identity. However, as of 2009, Indian election authorities granted what they called an independent identity to intersex and transsexuals in the country’s voter list, which gives hijras the choice to tick “O” (others) in voter forms3.

People in India believe that Hijras have the ability to bless or curse a family with regards to fertility due to their special identity. They are often invited to perform at weddings or during celebrations when a baby boy has been born, in which they will receive some gifts or money in return. However, they also have the perceived power to curse a family with infertility should they choose to do so. Therefore, even though they are often mocked by others due to their gender and identity, people are afraid of them too because of this ability.

Since 2006, the Indian government has been hiring hijras as tax collectors, which utilises their special “persuading skills”. They will sing loudly about the debt outside the homes of the defaulters until they are shamed into paying up. However, for most them, their way of making ends is prostitution, which led to an increase in the number of hijras who are tested HIV positive.

In conclusion, from the example of Hijras in India, we see how society constructs certain notions of gender which affects the way people from different gender categories interact with one another socially. The definition and concept of gender can vary in different societies and can yield different results.

1. Nobelius, A. (n.d.). What is the difference between sex and gender?. Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. Retrieved October 12, 2012, from

2. Altaf, K. (n.d.). The Hijras of India. Chay Magazine. Retrieved October 12, 2012, from

3. Harvey, N. (n.d.). New Statesman - India's transgendered - the Hijras. New Statesman - Britain's Current Affairs & Politics Magazine. Retrieved October 12, 2012, from

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