Living in The Abyss As A Transgender In India

Kamya Gupta

The members of the ‘official’ trans community in India, known as hijras, are an interesting case. On one hand, they belong to the lowest socio-economic class. On the other, they are sought after during events such as weddings and childbirth because their unique biological status makes them revered to people who think hijras are closer to God. Kamya Gupta delves into their fashion scenario to see where they stand.

Illustration by/ Shubham Bose & Gauri Priya
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The Transgender community in India, also known as the ‘Hijra’, are probably the most well-known and popular third sex type in the modern world. The Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai-based community health organisation, estimates there are between 5 and 6 million hijras in India. In different areas they are known as Aravani or Aruvani or Jagappa. According to Gauri Sawant, a 37-year-old activist, “Most hijras are from the non-English-speaking lower-middle class”. Kinnar or hijras, whom the government now refers to as “the third gender”, have been regarded as close to the gods in Indian mythology. They are believed to have the power to bless or curse. They struggle every day to make a living by performing blessings, begging on trains and through sex work. Clothing and adorning themselves with jewellery and make-up have played a major role in this community in India where a long-standing tradition of Kinnars coming to weddings or a child's birth to offer blessings is prevalent. They dress up in their best saris, wear jewellery and makeup to mark celebration and happiness. They are given hefty amounts and a lot of ceremonial gifts because their stature is considered like God, and hence, their blessings are believed to be quite pure and effective.

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There are many items of clothing that announce to the world that their person is a woman. For some, it is the bra, for others, it is their first shoe with a heel. For many Indian women, sari, an expansive length of cloth that takes skill and knowledge to wear correctly, does the announcement. Girls learn to execute this multi-step process from their mothers, and "come out" for the first time in their own sari during Ritu Kala Samskara, a ceremony that marks a girl's transition into womanhood. To the hijra people, saris are a badge of honour, a symbol of self, and an armour against the world; it is their right.

In the hijra community, wearing a sari is common, a tradition which dates back 4,000 years but not rigidly enforced. Rather, it is a sign of respect: for tradition, for seniors, for their guru. It is also a signifier of position: When a girl starts wearing a sari, it marks her reaching a certain stage in life. “Sari is my culture, sari is my soul, sari is my religion,” as prominent transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi says. The hijra community is organised in a family-like clan structure, with a guru looking after and training disciples, or chelas, beneath her. When hijras officially become a ‘disciple’, they can dress in saris.

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However, as much as they are considered lucky, they also face a completely dark and opposite world where they have to be dressed in glittering saris, their faces heavily coated in cheap makeup, they sashay through crowded intersections knocking on car windows with the edge of a coin and offering blessings or work as prostitutes at night to make a living. Back in 1990s, when they were more marginalised than today, they were subjected more to sex trade and exploitation, cruel and dangerous castrations, being cast out and constantly humiliated and not much was being done about it. But it was not as if there were no upper-class transgender people in the ’90s, whose lifestyles were radically different from that of the common hijras.

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One such person was Aida Banaji, a transsexual model from Bombay (now Mumbai) in the ‘90s. “When my mother went out, I would wear her dress and raid her cosmetics, for which the servants would get blamed. I would look at myself in the mirror and fantasise about my life as a woman. I would keep up the masquerade as long as I could, taking it off when I heard her at the front door. Though, there was nothing womanly about my appearance.” Unlike the lower class trans community, Aida, as a transsexual model, wore fashionable clothes like pant suits, dresses, etc. which was unusual from the stereotypical way of dressing up as a hijra.

Today, the transgender community is more liberated but looking back at 1990s, there was hardly any social acceptance towards them and economically, they were struggling to survive. They had to create their own identity and community for which they did find ways with the help of clothing and decoration. Through these means they managed to keep themselves happy amidst the obstacles and unite within their community, building their own families.

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