TransIndia, a documentary about the transgender community, known as Hijras, Kinnar and Masiba, in India is currently playing the festival circuit to rave reviews and has recently won the Award of Merit at the Best Shorts Competition.
The documentary takes a look at several Hijras in Ahmedabad, India and how their lives forever changed when they join the Trans community. Ostracization and overall rejection from society is the norm in India for the Hijras, but progress is being made in India in the last few years and the once sacred Hijra is once again finding its place in Indian society.
Prior to British Colonialism, the Hijras were considered Mother Goddesses Avatar, but in 1871, the India’s Criminal Tribes Act set forth a law by the British Empire that classified transgender [Hijras] as both immoral and corrupt. The Act was amended in 1897 and was subtitled “An Act for the Registration of Criminal Tribes and Eunuchs” Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code states that “any eunuch so registered who appeared “dressed or ornamented like a woman in a public street….or who dances or plays music or takes part in any public exhibition, in a public street…. [Could] be arrested without warrant and punished with imprisonment of up to two years or with a fine or both.” Thus criminalizing being transgender and categorizing them alongside of murderers and thieves.
Although The Act was repealed in 1952, mistrust of the community remained when in April of 2014 the India Supreme Court recognized people who are transgender as a ‘Third Gender.’ Supreme Court Justice KS Radhakrishnan said, “Recognition of transgenders[sic] as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue.”
Fast forward a hundred and seventeen years and Hijras are still trying to gain acceptance; Director Meera Darji was able to gain access to this reclusive community and allow the viewer to get to know Palak, Sania, Bipin, their mothers and gurus to give us an inside look at how they live and are treated in society.
Meera Darji told PlanetTransgender how she was able to gain their trust, “As I built a rapport with my subjects, in this case Palak [AKA Vanita] Masi, the one in a purple saree, I was able to gain their trust and explain how I genuinely wanted to show the truth, therefore she offered us archive of home videos which were all of the ceremony. I think the whole aspect of trust was key, as Palak kind of became friends with us, which was a huge part of gaining access.”
In the film, Palak, an intelligent, beautiful and confident Hijra said, “Since I was young, I’ve always like to hang out with girls, talk to girls, sit with girls in class. But soon I started to get fed up of this life; they would say “you’re a boy and you should just act like one.”
Palak went on to explain about the teasing and bullying she received from dressing like a girl and how she started to resent society. The constant name calling and teasing made her resent and society. Palak explains that she is in the Rabari caste, where her family does not believe in Mother Goddess. To join the Hijra community, one must seek out a Guru and then given the permission to join.
Palak’s Gurus, after hearing her story, allowed her to join the Hijra community and if she liked it, she could stay. Palak kept it from her family and would tell her family that she was going to work, but in reality, went to her guru’s house where she could change her clothes and they would hit the streets to beg. Her family eventually found out and against her parents’ wishes, she decided to stay in the Hijra community.
There is a ceremony to become a Hijra, similar to Hindu marriage which is a celebration of their new lives, but happiness is hard to come by as some Hijras are abused by their gurus and after the castration ceremony, some feel that they are no longer male or female.
Sania talks about her mom being unable to work and how she had to find odd jobs around the city including prostitution. When she turned 10, she stated that she looked like a man, but felt like a girl on the inside and decided to live her life as a woman.
When her mother found out around 12 years of age she was asked to leave the house. She sought the help of her guru around 15 and from there she joined the Hijra community and had her castration ceremony. The castration process is done with a hot metal rod and requires a month and a half of recovery.
Sania however, is considered one of the lucky ones who found a job at the HIV NGO, unfortunately, in a recent phone call to Director Meera Darji , she “has not received income for 4 months due to the government backlogging on funds. The process is slow. It’s all positive being said, yet these issues are still unresolved.”
The common denominator running throughout the film is how afraid these women were/are of societies reactions to their transitions. Families won’t visit, they often resort to begging and the neighbors look down on them in shame, forcing them to live separate from society. “Begging is part of our avatar that God has gifted to us” says one guru, “so why shouldn’t we like it?”
Society’s stigma aside, Hijras are valued in blessings for weddings and births. Hijras will often visit weddings to spread Mother Goddess’ blessings to the bride and groom.
Through a translator, Palak told PlanetTransgender in a Facebook conversation, “It’s a tradition which is ongoing. We’re known for providing blessings and there’s still a stigma that if we don’t help we’ll curse the people or give them back luck. But that’s untrue. Marriage ceremonies have become a routine for us, it’s become a ritual we provide. But I think people mostly now call us for entertainment. We dance and sing, they enjoy it.”
Respect comes in small increments for the Hijra community and as Bipin, a Hijra, explained, “From Gods era [Indralok] we’ve existed since pre-colonial times, our presence exists in old scriptures and hymns, their place with god and in that time we were valued but sins in this world increased and how could god reach all of these places, so god sent us [Hijras] to earth to ridden all the sins.”
The question remains, will the Hijras ever gain the respect they had in the old scriptures? Palak told PlanetTransgender, “No, I don’t think it can go back to the way it was. We lost all of our respect at that time. We’re trying to get it back, but it is still so difficult in gaining acceptance, getting our high status back is out of the question. The British have left a stamp on our community, unfortunately that stamp feels permanent.”
Like in the U.S., acceptance within the families was slow, but what we saw was that their mothers eventually accepted their transitions despite what society thought. Widespread poverty issues, unemployment and underemployment, marginalization and a constant need to prove your existence to others appears to be a global issue for people who are transgender.
Unlike the U.S. however, Bipin, said, “I have no one” whose dream it is to “live the rest of our lives in peace here.” Hijra are restricted from restaurants and most public spaces, relegated only to the Hijra community.
“It’s difficult for us to go out in the world on our own.” Palak said to PlanetTransgender when asked why Hijra join a community instead of blending into the general population, “It’s not as easy when you’re like us. It’s safer and convenient for us to join our community, where we have each other.”
Joy, heartbreak, sadness, personal triumph and a sense of community and family are what keep the Hijra moving forward towards equal rights and it all comes down to perception and misconception. “To first accept Hijras,” Director Merra Darji stated, “society needs to understand, thus TransIndia aims to take them on that journey of discovery through a structure of birth, marriage, and death.” but as the Indian media and soap operas inaccurately portray Hijras as “men in dresses” or caricatures of women, one elderly guru stated in the documentary, “A Kinnars life is nothing.”