India’s Third Gender And the Construction of Body and Sex
Renate Syed, February 2011. München
In contrast to Western cultures India acknowledges a “third gender” called tritiiyaa prakrti in Sanskrit. Already Vedic texts mention, as I have shown, people who are “neither men nor women”, na pumaan na strii”, named napumsakas, kliibas or shandhas. These persons, obviously anatomical men, rejected male duties, roles and lifestyles, refused to marry, had no offspring and were therefore excluded from families, inheritance, rituals, and reciprocity; the Dharmashastras prohibited social intercourse as well as exchange of food and presents with napumsakas.
By analogy with the Sanskrit grammar, which recognizes three genders, i.e. male (pums), female (strii) and neuter (napumsaka), people being “not man, not woman” were considered to represent the “neuter sex” among humans, the “third gender”, named trtiiyaa prakrti, and na-pumsaka. The patriarchal system of ancient India with strict roles, rules, tasks and limits for males and females, excluded napumsakas from the space of men as well from the sphere of women. Considered ritually impure, neglectful and obnoxious, they had to enter a “third space”, a room of their own.
The Western “two-sex-model” or, “two-gender-model”, which offers no third category or space, forces transgenders and transsexuals, legally as well as socially and mentally, to enter the “opposite” sex: The West allows only Male-to-Female-Transgenders and Female-to-Male-Transgenders, but not, as India does, “Thirdgenders”.
For sixty years, the Constitution of India recognized, in accordance with British law, only two sexes, male and female. Only recently, in July 2009, The High Court of India (as well as the High Court of Pakistan) enacted by law a third sex category: so far forced to mark “male” in official papers, India’s “thirdgenders”, called “Hijras” (or, “Khusras”) can now opt for the sex-category “other(s)”. By granting a legal third identity to her Hijras, India returned to her “Three-gender-tradition”.
Today, in India live more than one million Hijras, in Pakistan some hundred thousand. To foreigners, who know only of two sexes, they look like transvestites, like men who dress up and act “like women”. But in contrast to western transvestites who want to appear “as women”, Hijras want to look like Hijras. A successful transvestite is a man being mistaken for a woman, a successful Hijra is a person revealed as Hijra: the masquerade is the unveiling. And: The dressing up with female clothes, ornaments, long hair and make-up is not a personal predilection of the individual Hijra, but part of the Hijra tradition and their code or sign, or even stigma, by which they are identified in public: The society wants to recognize Hijras to be able to deal with them. Being Hijra in India or Pakistan is not a matter of hiding, but of confession, there is something as a “Hijra-pride”.
Hijras are, according to their own definitions, not representing an intermediate state between man and woman or the state of being of both or androgynes, but claim to be “neither men nor women”, na mard, na aurat, and therefore the “third sex”, tiisrii jins. They are displaying, to speak in Indian terms, “hijra-ing” or “thirdgendering”, and not “male femaling” as western male transgenders (are forced to) do.
In their long history Hijras have developed their own culture and traditions, called aadat. They live together in houses (the “third space”) governed by a Hijra-guru and earn their living by collecting money in bazaars, by blessing newborns and bridegrooms, by cursing and by prostitution, their customers being males. They constructed not only a third lifestyle but concepts of third body and third sexuality, differing from male and female bodies and sexualities. The “Hijra body” is not male, not female and ideally castrated (a body without sexual organs at all), “Hijra sexuality” is, according to their definition, not pro-creative but re-creative. So Hijras having sex with Hijras may be coined as “homo-sexuals”, while Hijras having sex with men are “hetero-sexual” and, without having sex with women (Hijras and women hardly ever meet), Hijras can be “bi-sexual” by having sex with Hijras and men. Men having sex with Hijras are not homo-sexuals.
Hijras are difficult to understand, as they differ in shape and mind (most of them are by birth anatomical “males” (Western perspective), some are Intersexuals, some are Androphiles (Western perspectives), many are something else); in fact, the community accepts all kinds of otherness, uniting them under one roof, being shelter and ghetto, and one tradition. There no such thing as an “essence” of being Hijra, “Hijra” is rather an “umbrella term” for a great variety of phenomena, bodily, mentally, sexually. Every Hijra is different, as all thirdness is not alike.
Western “Two-sex-model” or “Two-gender-model”:
Four gender variants:
♂ male: cisgender: acceptance of personal gender identity with assigned gender
♀ female: cisgender: acceptance of personal gender identity with assigned gender
♂ becomes ♀: male-to-female-transgender (MTF; “Transfrau”, opposite: “Biofrau”)
♀ becomes ♂: female-to-male-transgender (FTM; “Transmann”, opp.: “Biomann”)
Indian “Three-sex-model” or “Three-gender-model”:
Three gender varieties:
male: cisgender: acceptance of personal gender identity with assigned gender
female: cisgender: acceptance of personal gender identity with assigned gender
hijra: cisgender: acceptance of personal gender identity with assigned gender
after rejecting the wrong gender assignment by parents
(“male”) and becoming what they are: hijras.
All three sexes, male, female and hijra (third gender, trtiiyaa prakrti/tiisrii jins) are considered to be biological and acquired by conception. Strictly separated,
males can not become females or hijras
females can not become males or hijras
hijras can not become males or females
Seen from the Indian perspective, Hijras are not transgenders, but cisgenders.
 Renate Syed: Tritiiyaa prakrti: Das „Dritte Geschlecht“ im Alten Indien. In: Asiatische Studien/Études Asiatiques LVII,1,2003. Bern u.a. S.63-120.
 See, for example, Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs, Passport Application Form (No.1) updated with three gender options: Under 3. Sex: Male, Female, Others.
 Only a third or a fourth of the Hijras is castrated.
 The Indian „three-sex-model“ encompasses sexuality as well, so a man having sex with men, women and Hijra would be, according to our terms, “tri-sexual”.