Renate Syed: Hijras: India's Third Gender and 2500 Years of Discrimination and Exclusion


India’s Third Gender and 2500 years of discrimination and exclusion

Handout of the lecture presented at the Indo-German International Conference

“Gender and Violence”, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi,

September 22-24, 2015

by Renate Syed, Munich, Germany 


►A, Introduction. India, in contrast to Western cultures, acknowledged a “third gender“, tŗitīyā prakŗti in (Vedic) Sanskrit. Thirdgender persons, called keśava-s, are mentioned since the later Vedic time; in Atharvaveda 8.16 (1000 B.C.) and Śatapathabrāhmaņa (800 B.C.) they are defined as: na vā eşa strī na pumān yat keśava, “neither man nor woman, (is) the long-haired one“. By analogy with the Vedic and Sanskrit languages which recognized three grammatical genders, male (puňs), female (strī) and neuter (napuňsaka), people being “not man, not woman” were considered the “neuter gender” or the “third gender” among humans, na-puňsakas-s.  

Ancient Indian texts, Dharmaśāstras (legal treatises/canons, 500 B.C.) as well as the medical works of Caraka and Suśruta, the Kāmasūtra and the Mahābhārata (1st or 2nd cent. A.D.), mention keśava-s, napuňsakas-s, also called klība-s or şaņđha-s, as thirdgender persons. Considered “neither man nor woman” they could live neither among men nor among women and had to leave their families; Indian culture was strictly patriarchal with strictly set identities and separated spheres of living for males and females. Considered a biological sex which was acquired at the moment of conception and therefore unchangeable, thirdgender persons were believed to be created by nature and therefore innocent of their biological state. They still suffered discrimination; society treated them highly ambivalent, feared, pitied, shunned and ridiculed them. Texts like the Manusmrŗti (2nd cent. B. C.) defined thirdgender persons to be impure and excluded them from rituals and rites, inheritance and cultural participation. According to religious texts like the Purāņas (500 A.D.) thirdgender persons suffered a righteous fate of marginalization and exclusion, being subject to their bad karman (actions and their “fruits”) acquired in former life. In mediaeval times, thirdgenders called themselves “Hijŗās”, a word of unknown descent. The British colonial Law in India discriminated the Hijŗās as well, labeled them as “criminals” like “Thugs” and thieves and persecuted them. Today, in India and in Pakistan, Hijŗās are avoided, sometimes dreaded and despised, mocked or laughed at. They are feared because they can bless and curse, as they are, so Hijŗās themselves and others believe, granted magical power by their goddesses, esp. “Bāhucāra Mātā”, or, in the case of Muslims, by “Allah”.

►B. Discrimination; multiple and many-fold:    

1.      Biological discrimination: Acc. to Carakasańhitā (2nd cent. A.D.), Manusmŗti and other scriptures, the third gender was biological determined and constituted at conception; different mixtures of male and female semen constituted the biological sex: the dominance of father`s semen/generative fluid in quantity and quality creates a male child (=male body, male soul). The dominance of the female creation fluid in quantity and quality produces a female child (=female body, female soul). The equality in quantity and quality of father`s and mother` fluids produced an ambiguous, is, thirdgender child, a child with a male body and a female soul or with a female body and a male soul. Today`s Hijŗās, in India as well as in Pakistan, still declare themselves in Hindi/Urdu as: badan mard, rūh aurat, “the body is male, the soul female”. Hijŗās, therefore, display a contradiction and tension between body and soul, which is biological but dangerous for them and others.

2.      Psychological discrimination: In the ancient Indian patriarchal concept and gender-hierarchy, man naturally and “god-given” dominates woman; he is superior in body, brain and heart: the male svabhāva (inherent nature/genetic code) is superior to the female svabhāva. Man also dominates thirdgenders, as their svabhāva is defined as inferior as the female or even worse. In the hierarchical order of genders the male occupies inside and top, the female occupies inside and bottom; the thirdgender person occupies margin and middle, which is not stable, but oscillating or fluctuating. Marginalization was their fate, but there was hidden intercourse (socially as sexually), kept secret, between men and third genders, as the Kāmasūtra and other texts proof. The mentioned tension or contradiction which was said to be inherent in thirdgenders was believed to be transferred into family, society and culture. Therefore, thirdgenders were kept on distance.

3.      Social discrimination/exclusion: Some men had contact/sex with thirdgenders;  women have/had no contact with thirdgenders; thirdgenders have contact/live with thirdgenders. Ancient Indian culture preferred sons over daugthers: kŗpaņam vai duhitā, says the ancient Aitareyabrāhmaņa, so thirdgender children, when the “outing” came, were a disappointment, because when born, they were understood as boys because of their anatomy. Ancient Indian society was focused on marriage, fertility and male offspring; thirdgenders had no offspring, did not continue gotra (family) and vaňśa (clan) and did not fulfill their duties towards deva-s (gods), pitŗ-s (ancestors), parents and family. Therefore they were treated with ambivalenc and fear, they were frowned upon or even despised, see Mahābhārata 8.30.70: „The dirt of the humankind are the barbarians (not-Indians), the cheats are the dirt of the barbarians, the dirt of the cheats are the thirdgenders (şaņđhas), and those, who employ kşatriyas as priests are utmost dirt (by distorting caste order).“

4.      Sexual discrimination: Thirdgenders are mentioned as sex-workers in Kāmasūtra 2.9: They offered special sexual services, esp. the so-called auparişţaka, oral sex. Kāmasūtra says that some of them dress, act and perform as women, others are said to appear in male attire and display male body-language and male behavior; thirdgenders are spoken of as females, „she“, , and carried female names. They were believed to have sex not for procreation but for recreation, sex for fun. Because some of them worked as prostitutes for male customers, they were considered unclean and slutty.

5.      Ethical discrimination: Thirdgenders possess, acc. to ancient Indian theory, no moral, as (the ever-cheating) women, criminals, gamblers etc. They lie and are unreliable and therefore are not allowed to stand up as a witness. Thirdgenders were said to possess no power or braveness; among many other texts, see Mahāsubhāşita-sańgraha 9326; Pańcatantra 1.158. Klaibya literally means impotence, weakness, cowardice, so in the Bhagavadgītā, Kŗşņa tells Arjuna to give up klaibya, “unmanliness”. Thirdgender-persons were and are excluded from social life and discourses, they are made “silent” (as women). Whatever we read about them in classical Indian literature is written by critics. They possess an oral, not written tradition of their culture.

6.      Ritual exclusion: Thirdgender persons were, due to their alleged impurity, excluded from sacrifices, rites and rituals, ceremonies and the cult of the ancestors, pitŗ-worship. The „Impure“ belonging neither to heaven nor to earth, is the klība; so the ritual text Paňcavińśabrāhmaņa 8.1. They could not participate in the culture of heritage, inheritance and rememberance: They were not named, not mentioned and therefore forgotten, Yājňvalkyasmŗti 1.223. Manusmŗiti 3.239: „A cāņđāla (an outcast), a boar, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman and a third-gender person (şaņđha) should not look at eating twiceborn persons, i.e. Brahmins“. (Their look alone was said to contaminate objects, persons and surroundings.) The mentioned animals and persons are considered aśuddha and aśubha, as unclean and inauspicious, and nobody accepted food from them and ate with them.

7.      Financial discrimination: Thirdgenders were excluded from the stream of money and cash flow that circulated in kula, family, gotra, extended family, and jāti, caste; they could not participate in the constant circle of giving and receiving, reciprocity. They were excluded from maintenance, allowances and inheritance and only given alms which consolidated their inferior state. Thou shalt not take food, presents, money or alms out of the impure hands of a thirdgender-person”: Vasişţhadharmaśāstra 14.2 and 19; Yājňavalkyasmŗti 1.212. Manusmŗti 4.205. Therefore thirdgenders they created their own network of life, work, income, sharing and caring.

8.      Metaphysical discrimination: The conviction was that thirdgenders suffered righteously as result of their bad karman, as they had sinned and done wrong in former lives. Lord Śiva Himself explains to the Goddess Umā, that mentally and physical handicapped people as well as thirdgender persons were only victims of their sins and atrocities in a former existence, Mahābhārata 13.133 and 145.

9.      Spiritual discrimination: Thirdgenders could not, acc. to common believe, gain knowledge, jňānā and liberation, mokşa; Brahmins, Buddhists and Jainas denied them metaphysical aspirations or development (as women, so the Digambara-Jainas). They were excluded from monasteries, universities and schools; as women they were excluded from philosophical and religious discourses and were not allowed to learn Sanskrit and hear or read sacred scriptures.  

10.  Every-day-discrimination: As thirdgenders had only limited access to the public sphere, public events and general public life, they were discriminated in consideration of space, movement and appearance, they were physically excluded as well as ideologically. They were ignored personally and as community, made invisible and were therefore not culturally represented. Thirdgenders could not participate. Thirdgender persons experienced manifold hostility but, as far as we know, no organized violence and systematic persecution as minorities in Europe did. Hijŗās suffered from discursive and institutional violence; there are not sources or reports telling of physical or sexual violence.

11.  Educational Discrimination: Thirdgender people were not given the chance to gain education and knowledge, they were denied access to schools, universities and circles of teachers and intellectuals.

12.  Foreign discrimination:

12.1. In Indian Islamic society thirdgenders were accepted by the rulers and employed as servants in courts and harems, see Saletore (bibliography)

12.2. Hijŗās were counted among „criminal tribes“ by British Law in India; Act. No. XXVII (…) for the Registration of Criminal Tribes and Eunuchs Passsed by the Governor General of India in Council, 1871; their houses and properties were confiscated, their communities willfully dispersed; they were criminalised, demonized, depicted as goons, thieves and thugs and driven into poverty and prostitution; see Preston (Bibliography).

12.3. Hijŗās and Hijŗā-culture are sexualized, scandalized, criminalized and ridiculed by Indian and Foreign Media and even by some Indian scientists. Hijŗās are seen as strange, sexual, as exotic beings and even as freaks, as “others”.

12.4. Western scientists/Gender theorists define India`s thirdgenders along their own theories and concepts; see why this is a misunderstanding in C.


►C. Western “Two-sex-model” versus Indian “Three-sex-model” or: Why Hijras are, acc. to ancient Indian concepts, not Transgenders


The Western „Two-sex-model“ today acknowledges four gender-options, two „bio“= cisgender, two „trans“= transgender:

Definition „cis-gender“: A person who accepts the given gender; definition „trans-gender“: A person disagrees with given gender and wishes to „trans“

™ 1. cis-gender is male; acquired at conception/birth= „bio“

™ 2. cisgender is female; acquired at conception/birth= bio“

™ 3. male-to-female-transgender; chosen by „transing“=„trans“

™ 4. female-to-male-transgender; chosen by „transing“= „trans“


The Traditional Indian „Three-sex-model“ accepts since ancient times three gender-options, all acquired by conception/birth, there is no possibility of choice or „transing“

™ 1. Man cannot become woman or Hijŗā

™ 2. Woman cannot become man or Hijŗā

™ 3. Hijŗā cannot become man or woman

™ There is no “Trans-ing” at all. Hijŗās are displaying, to speak in Indian terms, “hijra-ing” or “thirdgendering”, and not “male femaling”.


Hijŗās consider themselves as neither man nor woman, na mard, na aurat, since ancient times, and as the „third gender“, tīsrī jins. These are the data of field observations and interviews in India and Pakistan and of reading and interpreting ancient Indian texts.

™ Men and women in India and Pakistan generally see Hijŗās as different from themselves: they are not “us”, but “them” (“othering”).

™ Acc. to Western definition there are – in the Indian model - three „cis-genders“, man, woman, Hijŗā, because all three are, seen from the Indian perspective, in their resp. “right body”; so Hijŗās are not transgenders, but cisgenders. According to their own definitions, they are not representing an intermediate state between man and woman or the state of being of both, neither being androgynes.

™ So, if Western scientists and activists define Hijŗās according to their own (Western) „Two-sex-model“ as transgenders, transsexuals, transvestites, homosexuals, eunuchs, and so on, this can be seen as a form of outlandish/foreign discrimination („we know better/best“), as Eurocentrism, or even Mental Neocolonialism/Cultural Imperialism.   


►D. Third-gender-culture: Thirdgender persons in Indian History, as they had to leave their families, created a „third world“ to live in. They succeeded in creating an everlasting side-culture (a better formulation than “sub-culture”); they formulated a code of conduct, a codex of rules, a value system, religion, rites and regulations, created constructions of body and sexuality and found a niche of survival in a mostly neglecting if not hostile environment.

™ In a certain way, their suppression was not as harsh and strict as women`s discrimination, as thirdgenders had their own space and houses and were not under constant surveillance of men.

™ They organized themselves in khandans, families, and ghārānas, clans, with a guru at top of the hierarchical family-order and cared for each other from generation to generation; guru-s and chela-s support each other mutually.

™ Being excluded from family of origin, homes and surrounding society, they opened their space for all kinds of „others“, as well as intersexuals or homosexuals.

™ They were tolerant and included all religious communities and ethnic groups and neglected the caste-order, as thirdgenders came from all religions (Hindus and Muslims mainly) and all castes; lower castes are highly represented among Hijŗās. 

™ Thirdgenders created their own space, a third world, as one Hijŗā said: ham tīsrī dunyā meň rahtī haiň.



►E. Legalizing the third gender

™ In contrast to other discriminated groups (Dalits, women), Hijŗās had no lobby, so in India, some decades back, they started to fight for their rights, founded interest-groups led by Hijŗā-activists and social workers.

™ In Pakistan they have hardly any possibility to fight for their interests – the society accepts them as long as they keep quiet in their place, respect (Sunnite) Islam and behave as Muslims. Their culture is tolerated, sometimes respected, their state being seen as “god-given”.

™ 2009: India and Pakistan introduced a legal „third gender option“, next to „m“ for male and „f“ for female, there is the third gender option „o“ for other, i.e. for persons who consider themselves neither male nor female. For sixty years, the Constitution of India recognized, in accordance with British law, only two sexes, male and female. By granting a legal third identity to her Hijŗās, India returned to her ancient “Three-sex-three-gender-tradition”, which was shunned by British and therefore by Indian constitutional Law in postcolonial India which leaning on Western concepts.

™ The new third category failed in the 2011-Census; Hijŗās were not counted separately, so their number is still uncertain.

™ 2014: The Supreme Court of India defines the Hijŗā community as OBC, „Other backward class“, granting the benefits of affirmative action, privileges and quotas.

™ 2015: The Indian government provides „gender-transition-services: Neovagina creation, penectomy orchedectomy, clitoroplasty, breast augmentation and other surgicals treatments are now legalized.


F for “Future”:  

™ Laws and juridical measures are not sufficient. 

™ Important is a paradigmatic turn in society.

™ By interacting with Hijŗās on a personal level, myths, legends and prejudices will be cleared, borders dismantled, “othering” has to be made conscious, analyzed and deconstructed.  

™ Understanding the 2500-year long history and tradition of thirdgenders can help to understand today`s Hijŗās.

™ Listening to Hijŗās, as theirs is a counter-narrative to the Non-Hijŗā-discourses on Hijŗās, South-Asian as well as Western.

™ Only then, the culturally constructed alienation of Hijŗās will come to an end.



G for Gender Identity Trouble: Cultural Identity versus Sexual-Gender-Identity

™ Hijŗās as a cultural community possess an own history, an own socio-cultural-sexual identity and definitions of their own. Imposing foreign definitions means denying self-determination and bodily autonomy.

™ The Times of India, February 9, 2015, published an article of Frank Kirshner titled “Transgender vs. Hijra debate hots up”. Kirshner cites transgender activist Reshma Prasad, saying, “The Hijras are hogging all the space and are trying their utmost to run the board”, that is, the Transgender Welfare Board in Bihar. Reshma says, wrongly: “Hijras are a type of transgender, but the vast majority of transgender people are not Hijras … I am not a Hijra”. (Emphasis R.S.) While the last statement is right, the first and the second are not; she should rather have said: “Hijras are not transgenders and transgender people are per definitionem not Hijras.”

™ Transgender activists try to “in-corporate” Hijŗās: “Transgender also includes people who do not identify themselves as transgenders, but who are perceived as such by others and thus are subject to the same social oppression and physical violence.” (Kirshner, Emphasis mine) Well meant, but not well said or done!

™ The initial mistake was created by some Indian authorities who did not understand that Hijŗās are not transgenders. So there should be two Boards at least, one for “Transgenders” and one for “Hijŗās”, who, by no means, can be put under the “umbrella (term)” of transgenders.

™ To do so, means to deny Hijŗās the right and might to define themselves as “third gender” as well as “not man, not woman”; Hijŗās form a cultural community, they are not just sexual deviants.




Selected Bibliography


Renate Syed: Hijras. Das dritte Geschlecht in Indien und Pakistan. 265 pages, 2015, e-book. ISBN: 978-3-8450-1605-4

Renate Syed: Tritiya Prakrti. Das „dritte Geschlecht“ im alten Indien. In: Asiatische Studien/Études Asiatiques, Zeitschrift der Schweizerischen Asiengesellschaft, LVII, 1.2003. S. 63-120

Renate Syed: Eigenartige Begebenheiten der dritten Art. Indien und Pakistan erkennen juristisch ein „drittes Geschlecht“ an. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 24. August 2010, S. 49

Renate Syed: Nicht Mann, nicht Frau. Hijras: Indiens „drittes Geschlecht“. In: Innsbrucker Gender Lectures I, Herausgegeben von Doris G. Eibl et al. Universität Innsbruck 2012, S. 77-94

Renate Syed: Hijras. Nicht Mann, nicht Frau – Indiens und Pakistans drittes Geschlecht und seine Inszenierung von Körper, Geschlecht und Sexualität. In: Frauenbilder – Frauenkörper. Inszenierungen des Weiblichen in den Gesellschaften Süd- und Ostasiens. Herausgegeben von Stephan Köhn und Heike Moser, Wiesbaden 2013, S. 439-458

Lawrence W. Preston: A Right to Exist: Eunuchs and then State in Nineteenth-Century India. In: Modern Asian Studies 21, 2. 1987. 371-387

R.N. Saletore: Sex Life under Indian Rulers. New Delhi 1974.



















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