With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India

With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India

by Gayatri Reddy
With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India


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With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India by Gayatri Reddy

With Respect to Sex is an intimate ethnography that offers a provocative account of sexual and social difference in India. The subjects of this study are hijras or the "third sex" of India, individuals who occupy a unique, liminal space between male and female, sacred and profane. Hijras are men who sacrifice their genitalia to a goddess in return for the power to confer fertility on newlyweds and newborn children, a ritual role they are respected for, at the same time as they are stigmatized for their ambiguous sexuality. By focusing on the hijra community, Reddy sheds new light on Indian society and the intricate negotiations of identity across various domains of everyday life. Further, by reframing hijra identity through the local economy of respect, this ethnography highlights the complex relationships between local and global, sexual and moral, economies.
This book will be regarded as the definitive work on hijras, one that will be of enormous interest to anthropologists, students of South Asian culture, and specialists in gender, queer, and sexuality studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226707556
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/15/2005
Series: Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, and Culture Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Gayatri Reddy is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

With Respect to Sex

By Gayatri Reddy The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-70755-6

Chapter One The Ethnographic Setting

It wasn't until a few weeks after I began fieldwork among hijras in the South Indian twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad that I had my first inkling of their perceptions of me. I was sitting on a mat, chatting with Munira, who later became one of my closest hijra friends. She was telling me proudly about her last visit to Mumbai when she had been approached by a journalist for her story, and how she had rebuffed him. Munira then turned to me and said, somewhat apologetically, "I hope you don't mind my saying this. But you know, Gayatri, when I first saw you, I thought, 'She has the body and face of a woman, she is wearing female clothing, but she has such short hair. Maybe she is a young boy of thirteen or fourteen.' That is the reason I spoke to you initially, you know. I thought maybe, maybe you were one of us at first." Then, laughing aloud, she added, "Frankly, I don't know how I thought that you might be. You are, you know, different-looking, so that is what I thought then."

I begin with this incident to highlight two issues of access and representation: First, of course, was hijras' perception of my appearance-as a young Indian, somewhat "different-looking" from them, with uncommonly short hair for a woman. Second, as I gradually learned over the course of my fieldwork, they attributed this difference not to my sexuality or sexual orientation, but to my upper-middle-class status. My short hair, my "ethnically chic" Fab India salwar-kurta, my educational background, my status as an unmarried woman, especially given my age, and my engagement in this academic project with hijras-factors that lead to a presumption about my sexual identity here in the United States-were, for hijras, signs of my class identification.

Quite apart from privileging a particular theory, history, and politics of representation, I raise this issue to underscore a fairly simple point: the notion that sexual difference is not the only lens through which hijras perceive the world and expect in turn to be perceived. In other words, as I maintain throughout this ethnography, hijras are not just a sexual or gendered category, as is commonly contended in the literature (e.g., Vyas and Shingala 1987; Sharma 1989; Nanda 1990). Like the members of any other community in India, their identities are shaped by a range of other axes. Though sex/gender is perhaps the most important of these axes, hijra identity cannot be reduced to this frame of analysis. Through a description of hijras' lives, this book explores the domain of sexuality as well as its articulation with broader contexts of everyday life in South Asia, including aspects of kinship, religion, class, and hierarchies of respect. Before exploring issues of representation and hijras' historical and geographic representation in particular, however, I provide a brief introductory note about hijras for those unfamiliar with these metonymic figures of Indian sexual difference.


For the most part, hijras are phenotypic men who wear female clothing and, ideally, renounce sexual desire and practice by undergoing a sacrificial emasculation-that is, an excision of the penis and testicles-dedicated to the goddess Bedhraj Mata. Subsequently they are believed to be endowed with the power to confer fertility on newlyweds or newborn children. They see this as their "traditional" ritual role, although at least half of the current hijra population (at least in Hyderabad) engages in prostitution, which hierarchically senior "ritual specialists" greatly disparage. In recent years, hijras have emerged as perhaps the most frequently encountered figures in the narrative linking of India with sexual difference. As the quintessential "third sex" of India, they have captured the Western scholarly imagination as an ideal case in the transnational system of "alternative" gender/sexuality. In such analyses, the hijra (or Thai kathoey or Omani xanith, among others) becomes, as Rosalind Morris notes, either an "interstitial gender occupying the liminal space between male and female," or "a 'drag queen' who [is] a hero(ine) in a global sexual resistance" (1994, 16). With this specularization has come an intense gaze directed at hijras by both scholars and the press.

By their own accounts, hijras in most major cities-including the South Indian city of Hyderabad, where I did my research-have been driven crazy by foreigners or, to translate the more colorful Hindi phrase, have had their "minds eaten by foreign [firangi] people" desperate to capture a story for their audience. In the last decade or so, there have been at least four documentaries or news features (Kalliat 1990; Prasad and Yorke 1991; Cooper 1999; Shiva, MacDonald, and Gucovsky 2000), four ethnographies or book-length monographs (Nanda 1990; Jaffrey 1996; Balaji and Malloy 1997; Ahmed and Singh 2002), three books of fiction (Mann 1992; Sinha 1993; Forbes 1998), at least two dissertations (Hall 1995; Reddy 2000), and several undergraduate honors theses that focus explicitly on hijras. More recently, hijras have also been "mainstreamed" into the Indian world of popular films. In some ways, this is in marked contrast to the earlier ambivalent yet arguably tolerant attitude of most Indians toward them. For many Indians-both upper- and middle-class-hijras exist (and to some extent have always existed) at the periphery of their imaginaries, making themselves visible only on certain circumscribed ritual occasions. Given this history of near invisibility, the recent attention focused on hijras has been unsettling for both hijras and non-hijras.

In response to this seemingly boundless interest, hijras have become more wary of scholars and journalists alike, and this attention has also heightened scrutiny by local disciplinary regimes, including the police. Just before I arrived in Hyderabad for my fieldwork, a case was registered against the senior hijras in the old city by a family that claimed their son had been abducted by the hijra community. Even though the case was later dismissed, hijras told me they felt overly scrutinized for the first time in hundreds of years. Partly in response to this heightened sensitivity on the part of the hijra community, but also, I suspect, out of a patriarchal concern that this was not a "proper" topic for an Indian woman to be researching (see Jaffrey 1996), I was explicitly advised by anthropologists, several relatives, and even strangers to steer clear of hijras in Hyderabad. Needless to say, the atmosphere within the hijra community, especially with regard to interactions with non-hijras, was somewhat tense when I began my research in the fall of 1995.

For all these reasons, I was well aware that by undertaking this project I might, however unwittingly, increase hijras' visibility within disciplinary regimes in India, resulting in greater scrutiny of their lives. In recent years, with the increasing visibility of hijras in global compendia of sexuality/ gender and the growth of the gay movement in India, hijras, self-identified gay men, and men cruising for sex with other men in public spaces have become increasingly visible to the police, the media, and ruffians, or goondas. Just in the last few years, there have been at least two dramatic disruptions and arrests of volunteers in nongovernmental organizations that work on issues relating to sexual health-and more specifically, the health of MSM, or men who have sex with men-quite apart from the innumerable incidents of everyday harassment and surveillance. Despite this greater vigilance and my anxiety on this account, however, many hijras I encountered in Hyderabad explicitly reiterated their desire to get the real story of their lives down on paper, as much in response to this scrutiny as to vindicate their life choices. Although aware of the irony of their positions and the potential for even greater vilification on account of the publicity, hijras with whom I worked most closely were eager to "tell [their] stories" so that "everyone [would] know about [their] lives."

In undertaking this project, I am also concerned that my focusing on hijras within the current frame of academic inquiry that explicitly emphasizes their sexual difference-even if my intention is expressly to refocus this gaze-inevitably privileges this mode of discourse. I grew up in India well aware of the existence of hijras, and even though I was not immersed in their lives, I have to question why my intellectual curiosity was not sufficiently piqued until I came to the United States for graduate studies. Or maybe the question should not be when and why did I remember, but when and why did I forget? What sorts of erasures-of class, caste, gender, or sexuality-were encoded in my previous silence and ongoing refraction of the hijra "category" (see Patel 1997)? More specifically, what kinds of occlusions of class and sexual privilege do these conceal/reveal in both (upper-middle-class) India and the U.S. academe? In other words, perhaps we need to be aware of the history and politics of particular discursive and theoretical lenses-the marked categories/discourses that might appear salient in one arena but less so in another (see Uberoi 1996; Thapan 1997; John and Nair 1998). This is not to imply that sex and sexuality are not important or even central to hijras' lives. It merely emphasizes the need to contextualize our analytic and personal agendas in any representational endeavor. Hence, viewing hijras solely within the framework of sex/gender difference-as the quintessential "third sex" or "neither men nor women"-ultimately might be a disservice to the complexity of their lives and their embeddedness within the social fabric of India.

Further, although this project explicitly attempts to subvert the reification or commodification of a third category-making hijras' lives count as much as it addresses various "categories" of sexual thirdness-to the extent that it multiplies rather than dismantles third genders/categories, I am somewhat uneasy that it might reaffirm as much as it subverts, nominalizing, numericalizing, and naturalizing embodied difference in its wake. There is, after all, as Kath Weston notes, "a relationship of longstanding [sic] between counting and commodification" that one must be aware of when embarking on such a project as this (2002, 41).

Finally, my ambivalence in undertaking this research also relates to the exclusions sustained (or produced) by such a project. To what extent does the focus on hijras as male-to-hijra subject-positions contribute, even unintentionally, to the continuing discursive and systemic violence against women? As Lawrence Cohen (1995b) observes, highlighting shifts from male (rather than female) to a third-gender identity erases the political differences between male and female experiences and, ultimately, works within a two-gendered system-male and third-in which the female position has been virtually erased. In a somewhat similar vein, speaking for the Thai context, Rosalind Morris (1994) points out that patriarchal narratives seem to have "effaced [if it ever existed] any expression of female sexual identity that could not be subsumed under a reproductive mandate" (1994, 26). In this ideology, femaleness is thoroughly naturalized as reproductive capacity. Only in the recent past, with the emergence of sexualities defined in terms of object choice, has the category of woman been differentiated into hetero- and homosexual identities. Perhaps the important historical and empirical question (as Morris asks with respect to the kathoeys of Thailand) is "[H]ow have sex/gender systems [in both Thailand and India, apparently] organized the somatic economy in such a way as to render both 'female' and 'male' bodies as media of masculine subjectivities?" (1994, 25). While this is not the question I explore in this book, I argue that it is an important one to keep in mind-along with the other issues of ambivalence and (inadvertent) silencing noted above-as one explores issues of sexual difference and the place of hijras within that context.


On the flight from Frankfurt to Delhi on my way to begin fieldwork, I was sitting next to a British art historian who was a frequent traveler to India. In the course of conversation, he asked me what I did for a living and whether Delhi was my final destination in India. "I'm an anthropologist and I'm going to [the South Indian city of] Hyderabad to do an ethnographic study of this one community-hijras-now fairly well-known as the 'third sex' of India," I replied, expecting to expand on this theme. Instead, he appeared far more curious about the city of Hyderabad, having heard it was "different" from other Indian cities on account of its Muslim influence. By way of an initial response to his questions about the city, I told him the classic tale of the founder of the city, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, and his love for his wife, Hyder Begum, after whom the city was named, a story that in many ways captures the issues central to Hyderabadi hijra identity-love or desire, religious pluralism, and the history of Muslim influence in the city.

As the popular legend goes, before his ascension to the throne, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, an excellent equestrian, often exercised his horse in the area surrounding the fort of Golconda. One day, on one of his extended rides, he stopped at the village of Chichlam for a drink of water. Passing by at that moment on her way to the temple was Bhagmati, the daughter of Lingayya, a relatively poor Hindu resident of Chichlam village. Muhammad Quli was immediately taken by her beauty and grace, and began to visit the spot frequently, incognito, to catch a glimpse of Bhagmati and win her affections. When Muhammad Quli ascended the throne as the ruler of Golconda a few years later, he sent for Bhagmati's father and asked for her hand in marriage. Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah and Bhagmati were married in 1596 CE and, as the legend goes, lived happily together until Muhammad Quli's untimely death in 1612.

During his reign, Muhammad Quli founded a new city ten miles east of Golconda on the southern bank of the Musi River in order to ease the congestion and shortage of water in the crowded city of Golconda and, as folk wisdom has it, to commemorate his love for his wife. The city was initially called Bhagnagar for Bhagmati, but its name was later changed to Hyderabad following Bhagmati's conversion to Islam and adoption of the title Hyder Begum. Hyderabad quickly became an important and bustling city. After the fall of Golconda to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1687 and the subsequent dissolution of the Mughal Empire, the first Nizam (as subsequent rulers of Hyderabad were known), Asaf Jah I, chose this city rather than the walled fort of Golconda for his capital, with Charminar serving as the heart of the city. Charminar, which literally means "four minarets," continues to symbolize and function as the center of what is known as the "old city" of Hyderabad.


Excerpted from With Respect to Sex by Gayatri Reddy Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments....................ix
Note on Transliteration....................xiii
1 The Ethnographic Setting....................1
2 Hijras, Individuality, and Izzat....................17
3 Cartographies of Sex/Gender....................44
4 Sacred Legitimization, Corporeal Practice: Hindu Iconography and Hijra Renunciation....................78
5 "We Are All Musalmans Now": Religious Practice, Positionality, and Hijra/Muslim Identification....................99
6 (Per)Formative Selves: The Production of Gender....................121
7 "Our People": Kinship, Marriage, and the Family....................142
8 Shifting Contexts, Fluid Identities....................186
9 Crossing "Lines" of Subjectivity: Transnational Movements and Gay Identifications....................211
10 Conclusion....................223

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