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Genderqueer South Asia: The Hijras and Reflections on South Asian Notions of Gender

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

Written by Anonymous

Graphic by Anonymous

For many genderqueer South Asian Americans, it’s hard to find ourselves represented: the construct of gender seems incongruent with the ideals of our upbringings. The cultural diversity in South Asia and the openness characteristic to religions spanning South Asian Hinduism and Sikhism to Islam and Christianity makes gender-freedom a no-brainer, right?

While the idea of a free concept of gender would be nice, many South Asian American communities are socially conservative: defining gender in relatively strict confines. So where in the realm of shared South Asian culture can we look for ourselves? How did the diaspora become this way?

The Hijra community, one of many non-binary gender communities, has existed on the South Asian subcontinent for centuries. Historically, the Hijra played an important role in the Hindu community as highly-regarded religious figures, but with the introduction of British colonialism and the Western gender binary, the Hijra and Hijra practices became criminalized under the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act. Hijra are often referred to as the “Third Gender,” but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Hijra constitute a third alternate gender, but rather a community of non-binary and trans people. Additionally, Hijra have historically been tolerant of religious diversity within the community, having both Hindu and religiously syncretic beliefs.

The idea of “moral panic” enraptured British rulers and still pervades the social treatment of Hijras today, predictive of the treatment of gender nonconforming children within the American South Asian diaspora.

The roots of discrimination and alienation of non-binary gender identities is a result of both imperialism and colonization by the British in addition to casteist ideas which continue to exist in Desi communities in South Asia and abroad.

Today, the Hijra are still fighting for their lives in South Asia: the status of genderqueer individuals at large is unprotected. While some nations such as India and Bangladesh have taken steps toward protecting gender minorities, mechanisms of the state have been overall insufficient to undo years of both imperialist power dynamics and the conservative forces.

Reflecting on the Hijras of India, I’m drawn to think about the greater South Asian diaspora, specifically the South Asians of the Western world. In my experience, gender expression (or rejection) is tightly kept: deviation from the norm is undesired. In the beauty of the tolerance of South Asian culture and the amalgamation and redefinition of South-Asian culture over centuries, it seems inconceivable that gender should evade the grasp of this supposed tolerance.

The same British notion of “moral panic” is embodied within the response to genderqueer people in the Western world: the idea has carried over into the minds of South Asian immigrant communities as well. we’ve forgotten the totality of our culture.

Within the Western South-Asian diasporic community, casteism and religious tension still exist both as remnants of colonial rule and partition and as a method of concentrating power in those at the upper echelons of South Asian prosperity. Gender and gender expression by extension are kept tightly controlled by the conservative forces of this community to prevent the unravelling of the social hierarchy which has been allowed to be created. But reinterpreting the cultural landmarks of South Asia, non-dualism is fundamental to our shared experience. The idea that we are not one but many is a fundamentally South Asian concept: a motif that is repeated within our religions, foods, and social dynamics.


Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India by Jessica Hinchy

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Thank you for writing this <3 the concept of existing completely outside of the gender binary has existed in our cultures and traditions for so long. So much of our art and aesthetics has been brought into our traditions by the hijra community- wish we had greater access to their wisdom and mentorship as we navigate our own identities.

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