The Hijra – the Trans Community of India

Communities of transsexual women called Hijra have existed in India for centuries – they began as a holy group which could bless people and places and remove the Evil Eye. But as the British colonized India, the Hijra began to be shunned and stigmatized. These communities still exist in India today, but now the Hijra are generally beggars and prostitutes. They are often shunned by their families and by society in general. Those who were once great have fallen due to Western stigma. 

I will share my thoughts about two documentaries about the Hijra. The first is called Harsh Beauty, which was distributed by Frameline, a nonprofit LGBT media arts organization: 

This hour-long documentary is almost entirely in Hindi and Tamil, with English subtitles. It is interview style – focusing on several people. These people range from holy people who ask for alms in exchange for blessings to politicians to prostitutes. Unfortunately, it appears that the former (more “presentable”) categories have very, very few people, whereas the majority of Hijra are beggars and prostitutes. 

In some ways, the trans communities in India are tighter than those in the US. In India, the Hijra live, work, and die together. They form very strong bonds. However, this also means that they do not have strong relationships with their birth families. They do not live with their families or marry (at east not conventionally, as I’ll discuss later). In fact, many have been shunned by their families, or must visit them only discretely.  

Transsexuals in the US have to jump through an amazing amount of red tape for years in order to get their surgeries, but when they have the surgery it is in a safe, sterile, finely-tuned environment. A man->woman surgery can rearrange the nerve endings to form a clitoris. Although this is a major surgery in the US, and it takes much dedication to jump through all the hoops, it seems to me that the Hijra must be even more dedicated than American trans people to get their operation:.

In India, the surgery is much more “brutal” than it is here. There’s no anesthesia (because this is a spiritual ritual). The boy stands naked in a temple looking up at his deities. Then, the guru cuts off his “manhood” (testicles and penis). There is no delicate reorganization of the nerves in this surgery. After the surgery, hot oil is poured on the wound for 41 days to help it heal. 

This procedure may make me shudder in its “brutality,” but I doubt it seems brutal at all to the Hijra community. As I said, to them it’s a spiritual experience. After the surgery, Hijra from all over the area will come to have a huge festival of celebration – because a new member of their community has been initiated. 

I would say this documentary was an excellent introduction to transsexual culture in non-Western cultures. However, because of its format (interviewees speaking in a foreign language, and very little other action), it wasn’t the most dynamic of documentaries.
3.5 stars for good coverage of an excellent topic

The second documentary I watched was The Third Sex, which was episode 10, season 5 of National Geographic’s Taboo series. 

This film had a fantastic description of a Hijra festival which takes place in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu. This festival celebrates the wedding of the god Aravan, who was destined to die in battle in one day. He prayed to be married before his death, but no woman would marry him and become a widow so quickly (widows do not have very good lives in India). So the male god Vishnu came in woman’s form and married Aravan. Every year, Hijra from all around India flock to Koovagam to celebrate their own marriage to Aravan. It is a happy marriage festival with much celebration. Then, the next day, the Hijra cover their faces in turmeric, beat their chests, wail, dress in white, and morn the death of their husband. 

Watching this documentary was a much more enjoyable experience than watching Harsh Beauty. It was more dynamic and had beautiful filmography; however, it was also more sensationalized and less realistic and informative than Harsh Beauty. Of the two, I think Harsh Beauty was the better.   

3.5 stars for dynamic filmography and interesting topic

Guns, Germs, and Steel

I have been watching the National Geographic Documentary “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” based on the best-selling book by Jared Diamond. This was excellently filmed and very interesting. I recommend it to anyone interested in anthropology or history. The main question addressed is—“Why do white men have more cargo?” In other words, why were Europeans successful in conquering and colonizing most of the world? For risk of simplification, I will summarize Diamond’s idea:

The Fertile Crescent in the Middle East was the geographically lucky origin of not only wheat and barley (VERY important staple crops) but also of most of the domesticated animals. This herding and farming culture provided enough agricultural excess to support non-herders and non-farmers, who were able to develop technology and skills (like writing). Their closeness to animals also exposed these people to germs, which over hundreds of years they developed a genetic immunity to. The ideas, animals, and crops easily spread along an East-West axis (where people were attracted to similar climates and lengths of days) into Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa. So in the end, Europeans had guns, germs, and steel on their side.

The Americas, unlike Eurasia, are narrowly shaped along the East-West axis and broadly shaped along the North-South axis. Therefore, although there were some crops, one domesticated animal (the llama), and one written language (that of the Mayans in Central America), technology and food was not easily interchanged in the Americas. When Europeans came with their guns, germs, and steel, the native population was decimated.

Although I find this idea very fascinating and fairly convincing, I have a few qualms. First of all, I understand that the area around Panama is very narrowly shaped along the East-West axis, making exchange of ideas and goods difficult. However, North America, at least, is not too VERY long and narrow. Not narrow enough for this to be the main factor which slowed the progress of civilization. The documentary also does not address the reason why the Europeans apparently won this war. After all, if it is merely geographical closeness along an East-West axis to the Fertile Crescent, then wouldn’t Asia be just as likely to succeed as Europe? And, in fact, the moors were quite successful for quite a long while. So why didn’t they colonize the Americas, India, Africa, and Australia?

My answer to that is “just wait.” The war isn’t over yet.