10 May 2013

Hijras: From Scorn To Running For Office

The first thing I read--a long time ago--about hijras made it seem as if they were accepted, or at least tolerated, in their native South Asian cultures until said cultures were "corrupted" by Western/Christian influence.

I wish I could find that book just so I could quote it more accurately and learn more about who wrote it.  I think he or she was a cultural anthropologist who somehow was warped by one of those gender theorists who said things like "gender is performative".  Or, perhaps, he or she was one of those gender theorists but was trying to pass him or her self off as a cultural antrhopologist.

Whatever the case, I thought it was suspect then.  Now I realize my instincts were right.  For one thing, Indians and Pakistanis I've met have told me otherwise.  Their stories have been confirmed by other readings I've done on the subject.

"Hijra" has been translated as "transgender."  Until recently, people used "transgender" as a  catch-all term  to include post-operative transsexuals, hermaphrodites, people who were born male but live as female and  cross-dressers.  That is more or less the way "hijra" has been used, which is probably the reason why it was so translated.

In India and Pakistan, they have long faced scorn, ridicule and even violence.  They live apart from the rest of society, as non-citizens, and have traditionally worked as circus performers, sex workers, dancers and beggars.  Sometimes they are paid to perform at wedding ceremonies, bless babies (In India, their prayers were considered especially powerful.) or simply to stay away from "respectable" communities.  But it has been rare to find any employed in the same ways as other members of society.  

Standing for elected office was out of the question--until now.  Last year, the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled that hijras could obtain identity cards that identified them as neither male nor female.  In essence, a "third gender" was created under law, and people could register to vote, work--and run for office--under it.

Now, a handful of hijra candidates are running for local and national offices in elections that will be held tomorrow.  "Before, no one cared about us.  There was no benefit for politicians in paying us any attention," says Naina Lal, one of the candidates.  "But now they are calling me, asking what we want and how they can help."  

It's heartening to see that Lal actually has support in a conservative Muslim country like Pakistan.  It's even more of a sign of change that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, one of the most conservative elements in Lal's hometown of Lahore, are courting Lal and other hijra candidates.

But somehow it's not surprising.  After all, Lal and other hijras are campaigning on issues like the high rate of HIV infection, skyrocketing food costs and frequent power outages: things about which hijras care just as much as everyone else.

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