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  • Writer's pictureMultilogue Collective

Making Sense of the Self - Beyond the Binary-I

(Gender ke baare mein toh iss tarah se sikhaya jaata hai...pehenna orhna, dress male wala kar rahe hai toh male hai, kyunki humaare ma baap humein batate hai ki tum ladka ho toh ye nahi pehenoge, yehi pehenoge. Toh isse humein mind mein lagta hai ki hum male hai. Bataya jata hai, sikhaya jata hai gender, lekin khudse nahi pata chalne diya jata...Isliye maine socha tha ki mein male hee hu, mujhe pata nahi chala tha ki mein alag hu ya female hu)

…This is how gender is taught. If one dresses like a male, his gender is considered to be male and this is because our parents tell us that we are a boy, so therefore, we should wear certain things or not wear certain things. This is how we feel we are males when we are young. Our gender is told to us, taught to us, but we are not allowed to discover it for ourselves. This is why even I considered my gender to be male; I hadn't realized then that I was 'different' or actually a female…

This is a personal account of a transgender individual who highlighted an interesting aspect about the ways in which we are conditioned to understand gender in its binary form. The recognition and subsequent expression of gender is not allowed to be ‘discovered’ by the individual, but is rather socially imposed. This article explores transgender narratives that reveal the socially constructed nature of gender identities.

In societies, whether one is welcomed, represented, or provided for by the mainstream, whether one is ostracized, ignored, or bemired, is the outcome of a collection of social practices. Heteronormativity refers to one such cultural and social practice that coerces men and women into believing and behaving as if heterosexuality were the only conceivable sexuality. It also implies the positioning of heterosexuality as the only way of being ‘normal’ and as a key source of social reward. Mainstream society fails to accept those who venture beyond the male-female gender norm and therefore, those who choose to live beyond this continuum. This non-acceptance further leads to a life without dignity for the hijras, whereby their deprivations are rooted in the non-recognition as a 'differently gendered' human being beyond the binary.

The respondents of my research (from which excerpts have been used for this article), much like the respondents of the various researches that have been conducted in the past, claim that mainstream society does not understand their culture, identity and sexuality, and subsequently fail to recognize their aspirations, hopes and dreams. The community of hijras, which remains isolated from the society at large, act to protect and defend themselves against the injustices, oppression and intolerance inflicted upon them by 'superior' actors in our hierarchical society. This in turn, is used by society as a way to legitimize the community's exclusion due to their perception of being a 'gated community', unwilling to accomodate 'others', thereby creating a cultural space structured by exclusion. Exclusionary experiences, like any other experience informs one’s self-concept and identity. These experiences may include negligence, humiliation and abusive incidents. Experiences of humiliation impacts the individual's sense of self as they are made to feel embarrassed of their own identity. Humiliation makes them realize that their sexual identity is of deep significance in their expression of their identity. These individuals’ behavior is read as an overt expression of their sexuality, despite there being no such intent of overtly displaying their sexual identity.

When talking about sexuality, it is infused with certain norms that link sexual attraction and expression with the formation of gender identities, in a way that sexuality equals heterosexuality. Asexuality, castration, religion, the bodies of Hijras as sex workers and their performance of gender, function together to construct the gender as well as sexual identity of a Hijra.

Historically, the corporeal act of emasculation is considered to be at the centre of the hijra identity. The hijra identity can be traced back to the Mughal era by focusing on the link between sexuality, economic gain, livelihood and political power. This link was being used by kings as a power enhancement mechanism.

For instance, emasculated men (hijras) were commoditized and exchanged as slaves, known to remain loyal to their masters and protect harems since they did not threaten the masculinity of the kings and ensured the exclusivity of the women towards the kings. Hijras were also given other high administrative positions owing to their loyalty towards the king resulting from the abandonment from any other community or familial life. Apparently, these positions were of privilege, but if seen with a critical lens, such positions can be seen as given with an objective to serve the interests of those in power. However, there are numerous stories that narrate how hijras exercised their agency by taking refuge in religion to escape the criminalization of hijras that took place after the end of the Islamic traditions, by the colonial rulers. They deployed their position through religion creatively, to reconstruct their identities and demand their rightful place in society.

In contemporary times, in addition to blessing auspicious occasions, the hijras are engaged in sex work and begging. The former, however, serves to maintain historical continuity and is also used as a mechanism of alignment with the traditional Indian society. In the changing socio-political contexts, hijras have taken recourse to mythology and religion to validate and give meaning to their identities. Mythological and literary narratives play a significant role in explaining and legitimizing behavioral patterns, ritual practices, and anatomical forms that are specific to hijras, and alleviating some of the stigma surrounding this identity. However, this fusion of their castration, the means to attain economic security, their subjugated status as well as the lack of rights is what perpetuates their exclusion and shapes their identity, which further deprives them from positioning themselves in society as humans with agency, potential and security.


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