In South Asia, and in Pakistan and India more specifically, there lives a group of individuals that has managed to make money clapping (amongst other things) for over 2,000 years. This group, known as the “hijra”, consists entirely of physiological males with feminine gender identity who therefore adopt female clothing and roles; essentially, the hijra are the South Asian version of the American gay and transgender population, though much more extreme in many ways due to the area’s poverty and strong religious dependence.
Hijras live together in small, tight-knit clusters on the outskirts of their societies with very low status. The clusters typically consist of one “guru”, or hijra teacher, and 5+ “chela”, or hijra students, that are viewed as part of the guru’s lineage and thus take on her last name. The average student is a younger male who, after rejection from his own family for being attracted to other males, was “adopted” into the hijra cluster upon reaching out to them for sustenance, protection, and acceptance. Although this is certainly the standard situation for an average hijra, there are also stories in the area of hijras stealing infant baby boys. Depending on geographic location, some hijra may be required to or may choose to have their sex organs castrated as an initiation rite and in order to be more feminine or physically half man, half woman like some of the various Hindu or Muslim gods that they worship. (To the hijra, this is called “nirwaan”, meaning “removal of the penis, balls, and scrotum.)
The hijra have very few rights ascribed to them; for instance, they cannot vote, marry, own property or claim formal identity through official documentation. Given such a scenario, which is exacerbated by severe social stigmatism, they also have a very difficult time accessing healthcare, education, and ultimately employment opportunities. The hijras’ sources of income, therefore, are colorful to the say the least, as most survive from a mix of “begging”, sex work, or “dancing” and “performing” uninvited at such events as a baby’s (especially a boy’s) birth, a wedding, or a new business’ opening. Partially stemming from people’s revulsion and fear of them and partially rooted in religious history, the hijra are believed to hold the mysterious power to bestow luck and good fortune – or the total opposite – on whoever they so choose. Playing on this tradition of fear, the hijra “beg” by publicly embarrassing random but usually male pedestrians into giving them “rupees”. To earn such a “donation”, the hijra individuals will begin by making obscene gestures, using profane language, and making sexual advances toward someone; if unrewarded, many hijra will escalate the situation by lifting up or taking off their garments to reveal their privates (or lack thereof) while continuing to make a scene. Some accounts have even cited hijras as forcibly removing money from victims’ pockets. The hijras can make even more money capitalizing on their tradition of fear at special ceremonies such as births and weddings, where they will show up uninvited and perform dramatic dances bestowing fertility and favor if properly paid. If not, the hijras will begin their standard routine of acting perversely until money is rewarded. The “hijra handclap” is the hijras’ warning sign; once a hijra begins powerfully clapping its hands together, it is letting its victim know that some type of curse is only moments away. The hijras are so skilled at demanding money that several local governments began engaging them to collect unpaid taxes, rewarding them with a 4% commission. They are reported to sing loudly about the debt outside of a debtor’s home until he or she is shamed into paying. And, although it is illegal due to remnants of a law passed by the British in the 19th century, many more hijras still make money performing sex work in the passive role with other men.
Hijras are deeply rooted in the histories of both countries in which they predominantly find themselves – India and Pakistan. The hijra in India are there because of their religious significance to Hindu gods that manifested themselves as a woman or as 1/2 man, 1/2 woman. They have been allowed to live on the outskirts of cities because they are thought of for their religious symbolism and because there is an erroneous assumption in many of the local people’s minds that they do not have sex due to their duality of a “male physique and a female spirit” and that they are somehow sacred. With the vast majority of the population just turning a blind eye when not otherwise staring, the Indian hijra have existed as they are today for over two millennia and are cited in the Kama Sutra, where there is an entire chapter on how to “receive pleasure from a eunuch” (or castrated male). In Pakistan, the Muslim hijras exist partly because of their ties to religious history as well, but also because they are the living remnants of a previous time when the former Mughal government leaders would have their estates and their harems protected by hijras or eunuchs to ensure that no one else was doing any diddling to their women on the side.
Looking at the Indian and Pakistani hijra situation through western lenses, it appears as though they are like gay or trans-gender males from other countries, but rather they’re born in an area that affords such a human being virtually zero opportunity for a “normal” life. Although I’d imagine things are not great for the gay and trans-gender populations here in the United States and in other areas, things have to be better than they are for the individuals in India and Pakistan. In these two countries, the opportunities for gays and trans-genders are so bleak that one has to resort to fellatio, dancing, and clapping as one’s main sources of income.
Check out a 5 minute video on hijras below.
OK. So hopefully you’ve read the entry above. And hopefully you watched the video too. Now watch the video and guess – male or female?