Decolonising gender: Transgender rights in South Asia
Illustration: Manvir Dobb

Transgender and non-binary communities across the globe are one of the most vulnerable and persecuted demographics. Their rights and freedoms are putty in the hands of Western governments, with Trump recently rescinding legislation that gave transgender people the right to healthcare protection and in the UK, the government backtracking on ‘self-identifying’ legislation.

However, global dynamics surrounding the issue of gender identity, gender-fludity and transgender rights have been warped and twisted into a narrative where those in the global south appear to need their rights protected by social activists in the West. The road of transgender rights in the Indian subcontinent has been moulded by colonial legacy, religious beliefs and cultural practices. 

Decolonising our understanding of gender is the first step to reforming the rights of transgender and non-binary people in the Indian subcontinent and giving valuable lessons to the West about progress. For the rest of this article I invite you to disconnect from the binary conception of sex and gender, and whilst terminology such as ‘transgender’ may be used, it is not necessarily of a Western understanding. 

Colonial History

A Hijra is defined as a member of the Hijra community, usually a person assigned male at birth with a feminine gender identity; often a performer and collector of badhai at births, weddings and other occasions. The culturally sensitive term in Pakistan is ‘Khwaja Sira’. Unlike in the West where labels are necessary to understand every form of gender and sexual identity, these communities aren’t confined to how they present themselves, a notable departure from gender constriction. 

Between 1850 and 1900, as Britain monopolised the world, their social norms were imported to their colonies resulting in a harmful reduction of the already vulnerable Hijra community. In the North-Western Provinces first through cultural integration and eventually through legislation, such as the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, Hijra’s were called beggars, ‘habitual sodomites’, kidnappers and castrators, and deemed to be a scourge on society.

In what is still a familiar scene for the transgender community in the West today, their humanity and safety was constantly threatened and seen to be an assault on the binary understanding of sex in the West. Jessica Hinchy, author of ‘governing gender and sexuality in Colonial India’, spoke about how the injustices against the Hijra community have been historically ignored or grossly under researched, meaning understanding the consequences to the modern day is still an area that requires academic attention.

The present day

Coming to the modern day, the political and social rights for these communities in India and Pakistan are  complex  to navigate.  In the past decade there have been a number of landmark rulings that have granted acknowledgment and rights to the Hijra and Khwaja Sira communities. Although the Pakistani constitution itself makes no reference to LGBTQ+ rights, in 2018 Pakistan’s parliament passed the transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which allowed self-identification and prohibited discrimination in institutions. In 2017,  Pakistan also announced ‘transgender’ would be an option included in their census.  Similarly, in India, in 2014 the Supreme court recognised transgender people as a ‘third gender’

Despite praise from the transgender community in reponse to these decisions, the implementation has been a more worrying picture. Prior to 2017, there were no official figures for transgender people in Pakistan but the organisation Trans Action estimated there could be up to 500,000. However, when the census results returned the official figure came back as 10,418, with activists and allies across the country decrying the system and believing social stigma had harmed progress.

In India, although historically and culturally the Hijra community has been a central part of community festivals and practices, they have been excluded and marginalised.  There has also been criticism that the bills outlining protections for transgender people are not good enough, lacking measurements or consequence for those who violate their rights. 

As well as this, there is still legislation alive today that has its roots in colonial-era practices; for example, in Karnataka, legislation was amended that gave police rights to ‘regulate eunuchs’. As Jessica Hinchy urges, understanding the nuances of colonial impact, especially within a post-colonial world is vital. Many of the institutions, built by the West, are made to exclude the transgender community and unless this is acknolwedged beyond parliamentary rulings, it will be difficult to create effective change. These political intricacies only scrape the top of the iceberg, with issues surrounding sex work, medical barriers and mental and physical health all interlocking into the web of the transgender movement. 

Media and representation

Moving away from the political aspect of this conversation, the representation of these communities in South Asian media has also fuelled discrimination. Although there have been regular appearances of Hijra and Khwaja sira people in TV and film, it is rarely positive. These characters are portrayed in stereotypical and caricaturist ways, as the antagonist or butt of the joke. However, as one article discussed, Bollywood films have also represented the Hijra community in positive ways, years before the West considered it; for example, the 1997 film ‘Tamana’ portrayed the life of a transgender woman in a complex and nuanced way. As proven by the 2019 film, ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’, Bollywood are making active steps to have better representation of the LGBT+ community, with the hope that this will extend to all members. 

Outside of Bollywood, in 2018, Marvia Malik became the first openly transgender newsreader. She has been an advocate for transgender rights in Pakistan for a long time. In an interview she said ‘Our society treats transgender people shamefully, degrading them, denying them jobs, laughing at them and taunting them, I want to change that.’ Interestingly, Malik does not believe in the term ‘third gender’, showing the divergence in terminology even between India and Pakistan. 

Reflection

The concept of ‘binary’ in the West is deeply entrenched, with emphasis often placed upon the medical aspect of identifying as transgender. Placing Western standards of gender onto the complex, rich, ever evolving place of the transgender and non-binary communities in the Indian subcontinent reduces their existence and doesn’t acknowledge the specific action needed in these countries in order to ensure their rights are protected. 

Organisations such as Trans Action based in Pakistan and Sahodari Foundation based in India have comprehensive guides and action plans that highlight voices within the community and campaign for their rights. 

Further reading

Hinchy, J. (2019) Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra, c.1850–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tabassum, Shahla & Jamil, Sadia. (2014). Plight of Marginalized: Educational Issues of transgender Community in Pakistan. Review of Arts and Humanities, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 107-119 

Azhar, S. (2018). Sex Work, Hijra and Neocolonialism in South Asia. 

Khan, F. A, (2014),  Khwaja Sira: Culture, Identity Politics, and “transgender” Activism in Pakistan 

Documentaries:

Pakistan’s transgenders: Hidden Lives (LGBTQ+ Documentary) | Real Stories

India’s Third Gender Movement | The Zainab Salbi Project