In the culture of South Asia, a hijra (Hindi: हिजड़ा, Urdu: ہِجڑا Bengali: হিজরা), is usually considered a member of "the third gender"—neither man nor woman. The word has its origin in Arabic, meaning "migration". Most are physically male or intersex, but some are physically female. Hijras usually refer to themselves linguistically as female and usually dress as women.
The Urdu and Hindi word hijra may alternately be romanised as hijira, hijda, hijada, hijara, hijrah and is pronounced [ˈhɪdʒɽaː]. This term is generally considered derogatory in Urdu and the word Khwaja Saraa is used instead. In India, an older name for hijras is kinnar, which is used by some hijra groups as a more respectable and formal term. Another such term is khasuaa (खसुआ) or khusaraa (खुसरा). In Bangla hijra is called হিজরা, hijra, hijla, hijre, hizra, or hizre.
A number of terms across the culturally and linguistically diverse Indian subcontinent represent similar sex or gender categories. While these are rough synonyms, they may be better understood as separate identities due to regional cultural differences. In Tamil Nadu the equivalent term is Thiru nangai (daughter of god), aravanni, aravani, or aruvani. In Punjabi, both in Pakistan and India, the term khusra is used. Other terms include jankha. In Gujarati they are called pavaiyaa (પાવૈયા). In Urdu another common term is khwaaja sira (خواجه سرا).
In North India Goddess Bahuchar is worshiped by Pavaiyaa (પાવૈયા). In South India, the goddess Renuka is believed to have the power to change one's sex. Male devotees in female clothing are known as Jogappa. They perform similar roles to hijra, such as dancing and singing at birth ceremonies and weddings.
The word kothi (or koti) is common across India, similar to the Kathoey of Thailand, although kothis are often distinguished from hijras. Kothis are regarded as feminine men or boys who take a feminine role in sex with men, but do not live in the kind of intentional communities that hijras usually live in. Local equivalents include durani (Kolkata), menaka (Cochin), meti (Nepal), and zenana (Pakistan).
These identities have no exact match in the modern Western taxonomy of gender and sexual orientation. Most are born apparently male, but some may be intersex (with ambiguous genitalia). They are often perceived as a third sex, and most see themselves as neither men nor women. However, some may see themselves (or be seen as) females, feminine males or androgynes. Some, especially those who speak English and are influenced by international discourses around sexual minorities may identify as transgender or transsexual women. Unlike some Western transsexual women, hijras generally do not attempt to pass as women. Reportedly, few have genital modifications, although some certainly do, and some consider nirwaan ("castrated") hijras to be the "true" hijras.
A male who takes a "receptive" or feminine role in sex with a man will often identify as a kothi (or the local equivalent term). While kothis are usually distinguished from hijras as a separate gender identity, they often dress as women and act in a feminine manner in public spaces, even using feminine language to refer to themselves and each other. The usual partners of hijras and kothis are masculine men, whose gender identity is as a "normal" male who penetrates. These male partners are often married, and any relationships or sex with 'kothis' or hijras are usually kept secret from the community at large. Some hijras may form relationships with men and even marry, although their marriage is not usually recognized by law or religion. Hijras and kothis often have a name for these masculine sexual or romantic partners; for example, panthi in Bangladesh, giriya in Delhi or sridhar in Cochin.
The process may culminate in a religious ritual that includes emasculation (total removal of the penis, testes and scrotum in men). Not all hijras undergo emasculation, and the percentage of hijras that are eunuchs is unknown. The operation—referred to by hijras as a nirvan ("rebirth") and carried out by a dai (traditional midwife)—involves removing the penis and scrotum with a knife without anesthesia. The cry and wail of the target is covered with loud trumpeting. In modern times, some hijras may undergo a vaginoplasty, allowing them to experience vaginal intercourse, but such cases are rare. The American transsexual activist Anne Ogborn became an initiated Hijra in 1993. She is thought to be the first Westerner to be a member of the Hijra community.
Most hijras live at the margins of society with very low status; the very word "hijra" is sometimes used in a derogatory manner. Few employment opportunities are available to hijras. Many get their income from performing at ceremonies, begging, or prostitution—an occupation of eunuchs also recorded in premodern times. Violence against hijras, especially hijra sex workers, is often brutal, and occurs in public spaces, police stations, prisons, and their homes. As with transgender people in most of the world, they face extreme discrimination in health, housing, education, employment, immigration, law, and any bureaucracy that is unable to place them into male or female gender categories.
Hijras are often encountered on streets, trains, and other public places demanding money from people. If refused, the hijra may attempt to embarrass the man into giving money, using obscene gestures, profane language, and even sexual advances. In India for example, threatening to open their private parts in front of the man if he does not donate something. Hijras also perform religious ceremonies at weddings and at the birth of male babies, involving music, singing, and sexually suggestive dancing. These are intended to bring good luck and fertility. Although the hijra are most often uninvited, the host usually pays the hijras a fee. Many fear the hijras' curse if they are not appeased, bringing bad luck or infertility, but for the fee they receive, they can bless goodwill and fortune on to the newly born. Hijras are said to be able to do this because, since they do not engage in sexual activities, they accumulate their sexual energy which they can use to either bestow a boon or a bane.
The hijra can also come as an invitee to one's home, and their wages can be very high for the services they perform. Supposedly, they can give insight into future events as well bestow blessings for health. Hijras that perform these services can make a very good living if they work for the upper classes.
The ancient Kama Sutra mentions the performance of fellatio by masculine and feminine people of a third sex (tritiya prakriti). This passage has been variously interpreted as referring to men who desired other men, so-called eunuchs ("those disguised as males, and those that are disguised as females"), male and female transvestites ("the male takes on the appearance of a female and the female takes on the appearance of the male"), or two kinds of biological males, one dressed as a woman, the other as a man.
During the era of the British Raj, authorities attempted to eradicate hijras, whom they saw as "a breach of public decency". Anti-hijra laws were repealed; but a law outlawing castration, a central part of the hijra community, was left intact, though rarely enforced. Also during British rule in India they were placed under Criminal Tribes Act 1871 and labelled a "criminal tribe", hence subjected to compulsory registration, strict monitoring and stigmatized for a long time, after independence however they were denotified in 1952, though the century old stigma continues.
In Tamil Nadu each year in April and May, hijras—or aravanis, as they are called there—celebrate an eighteen-day religious festival. The aravani temple is located in the village Koovagam in the Ulundurpet taluk in Villupuram district, and is devoted to the deity Koothandavar, who is identified with Aravan. During the festival, the aravanis reenact a story of the religious epic Mahabharata: the mythical wedding of Lord Krishna (who had assumed the form of a woman) and Lord Aravan, son of Arjuna, followed by Aravan's subsequent sacrifice. They then mourn Aravan's death through ritualistic dances and by breaking their bangles. An annual beauty pageant is also held, as well as various health and HIV or AIDS seminars. Hijras from all over the country travel to this festival. A personal experience of the hijras in this festival is shown in the documentary India's Ladyboys, by BBC Three and also on the television series "Taboo" on the National Geographic Channel.
Hijras have been on screen in Indian cinema since its inception, historically as comic relief. A notable turning point occurred in 1974 when real Hijras appeared in a song and dance sequence in Kunwaara Baap ("The Unmarried Father"). There are also Hijras in the Hindi movie Amar Akbar Anthony (1977). They accompany one of the heroes, Akbar (Rishi Kapoor), in a song entitled "Tayyab Ali Pyar Ka Dushman" ("Tayyab Ali, the Enemy of Love"). One of the first sympathetic portrayals was in Mani Ratnam's Bombay (1995). 1997's Tamanna starred male actor Paresh Rawal in a central role as Tiku, a hijra who raises a young orphan. Pooja Bhatt produced and also starred in the movie, with her father Mahesh Bhatt co-writing and directing. A Hijra (played by Raghubir Yadav), has taken to profession in introducing the widows of Varanasi, another group of down-trodden outcasts, to prostitution (the film resulted in high controversy). There is a brief appearance in the 2004 Gurinder Chadha film Bride & Prejudice, with hijras singing to a bride-to-be in the marketplace. There's also a loose reference in Deepha Mehta's Bollywood/Hollywood in the guise of Rocky or Rokini. Deepa Mehta's Water also features a hijra character by the name of Gulabi.
In the 2000 Tamil film, Appu directed by Vasanth, the antagonist is a hijra. The film features the hijra running a brothel and the role is played by Prakash Raj. This was a remake of the Hindi film "Sadak", in which the character of the brother owner was famously played by Sadashiv Amrapurkar, with the name (in the movie) "Maharani".
In 2005, a fiction feature film titled 'Shabnam Mausi' was made on the life of a eunuch politician of the same name (see Shabnam Mausi). It was directed by Yogesh Bharadwaj, and the title role was played by Ashutosh Rana.
In Anil Kapoor's Nayak, Johnny Lever, who plays the role of the hero's assistant, gets beaten up by hijras, when he is caught calling them hijra (he is in habit of calling almost everyone who bothers him by this pejorative and no one cares much, except this once ironically, as the addressees are literally what he is calling them.)
The 1992 film Immaculate Conception by Jamil Dehlavi is based upon the culture-clash between a western Jewish couple seeking fertility at a Karachi shrine known to be blessed by a sufi-fakir called Gulab Shah and the group of Pakistani eunuchs who guard it.
One of the main characters in Khushwant Singh's novel Delhi, Bhagmati is a hijra. She makes a living as a semi-prostitute, and is quite wanted in diplomatic circles of the city.
The novel "Bombay Ice" by Leslie Forbes features an important subplot involving the main character's investigation of the deaths of several hijra sex workers.
Vijay TV's "Ippadikku Rose", a Tamil show conducted by postgraduate educated transgender Rose is a very successfully running program that discusses various issues faced by youth in Tamil Nadu, where she also gives her own experiences.
In the 2009 Brazilian soap opera "Caminho das Índias" (Portuguese for "The way to India") hijras are shown in some occasions, especially at weddings and other ceremonies where they are paid for their blessing.