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Ashley Phillips  

Social Issues from Student Perspectives

Hijras, Colonialism, Psychology, and Western Notions of LGBTQ+

Ashley Phillips, William James College
Honorable Mention, 2021 Graduate Student Committee Essay Contest:
Decolonial Perspectives in Psychology

India was once a country deeply rooted in a cultural history based in religion and ancient texts. The hijra people, “generally male-born persons who describe themselves as emasculates or ‘eunuchs from birth’, wear feminine clothing, [and] usually adopt feminine names” (Hinchy, 2014, p. 274), are represented in those texts. However, when the British Raj arrived, they imposed their own ideas of gender upon Indian society and forced the hijras into isolated communities where they became vulnerable to disease, poverty, violence, discrimination, marginalization, and mental health challenges.

The first known understanding of a third gender in this region is mentioned in the Kamasutra (400 BCE - 200 CE) (Sweet & Zwilling, 1993). In the Hindu epic, Ramayana (200 BCE - 200 CE), hijras are rewarded for loyalty by Lord Rama (Singh & Kumar, 2020). And, in a Hindu creation story, Shiva castrates himself. “Paradoxically, as soon as Shiva’s phallus ceased to be a source of individual fertility, it became a source of universal fertility” (Nanda, 2003, p. 195). These representations gave hijras the social power to perform and bestow important blessings or curses of fertility upon families at weddings and birth ceremonies, giving them a source of income, and a place in society. In the 11th century CE, India saw the rise of Muslim rule which gave opportunity for hijras to experience an increase in social mobility because this ruling class believed “eunuchs” to have an ability to mediate barriers and therefore, save humankind from disorder (Marmon, 1995). This closeness to nobility gave them their highest status in history, some gaining high positions in administration and politics (Jaffrey, 1998).     

When the British Raj gained power over the Mughal empire in the 1850s, the status of hijra people took a detrimental turn. The colonists found hijras to be repulsive, offensive, and a threat to colonial values and public safety (Hinchy, 2014). Hijras were seen as a group needing to be kept out of public space for the fear of “moral infection” (Hinchy, 2014). Their performances were frowned upon because the colonists believed that it led to prostitution and that Indian men were too immoral, deviant, and unmanly to not engage in sodomy after seeing the hijra performances (Hinchy, 2014). This misguided belief that gender variance is innately connected to sexual deviance also led colonists to believe that hijras were involved in crimes of kidnapping, sodomy, and the forced castration of children (Hinchy, 2014). This ultimately led to their identification as a “criminal tribe” and their persecution under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 (CTA) which outlawed hijra traditions (Hinchy, 2014). This stripped hijras of their cultural identities, careers, social status, and ultimately, their civil rights.

The CTA forced most hijras into isolated communities where they were free to express themselves but were separated from their families and society. This separation left them highly vulnerable to many risk factors as access to resources and social support diminished. The CTA was repealed in 1952, but that did not mean instant freedom for the hijra people. The stigma and marginalization that was established against hijras by the British Raj still rendered the hijras “untouchable” in Indian society. By this point, the prevalence of traditional weddings and birth ceremonies had declined, so they had become social outcasts who mainly relied on begging, dancing, and sex-work to survive (Mokhtar, 2020). There has been some movement towards change, culminating in a landmark decision by the Indian Supreme Court in 2014, recognizing that only allowing citizens to identify as either male or female was a violation of their constitutional rights and that there would now be the option of “third gender” (Indian Supreme Court Recognises Right to Self-Identify as Third Gender, 2014). Those with this identification would have equal rights, freedom of expression, and protection against bias and discrimination. But one law does not undo an enduring pattern stigmatization.

The pattern of colonizers imposing a gender binary that erased traditional non-binary identities also affected Maori society (Tan et al., 2019), North American indigenous populations (Greensmith & Giwa, 2013), and numerous groups throughout the global south (Picq & Tikuna, 2019). Psychology’s role in this oppression was first one of complicity. Rooted in the same patriarchal structure as British imperialism, it took psychology until the 1950s to even begin to look at gender expression beyond the binary (American Psychological Association, 2015). This allowed societies to further oppress non-binary groups by maintaining their invisibility. More dangerous, however, is psychology’s promotion of itself as a natural science, meaning that research funding and political interests are placed on studies that promote scientific understandings of gender…not cultural understandings. This scientific formulation of gender does not have space for the expression of cultural gender identities. These identities were further pathologized through diagnostics, seen in the DSM-V which labels “gender dysphoria” as a mental disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

The Pehchan program (Shaikh et al., 2016) has found an effective approach that can begin to guide the necessary work needed to protect these vulnerable populations. The program aimed to improve access to many services such as HIV and STI services, condom distribution, and mental health services: the participants, “transgender”, including hijras (Shaikh et al., 2016). The researchers used a capacity-building approach to help strengthen community-based organizations in the areas needed to approach the targeted interventions based on the needs of “transgender” communities (Shaikh et al., 2016). Notably, the study used “transgender” as an “umbrella term that also includes hijra” (Shaikh et al., 2016, p. 2), depriving hijras of their own identity in a study aimed to improve their mental health. However, in order to truly decolonize psychology, non-western gender identities should be studied separately as they are not equatable to the western notions of LGBTQ+.

The challenge for psychology, when addressing the concerns of hijras and other traditional non-binary populations, is their complex, heterogeneous identity that doesn’t fit neatly into the western conceptualization of LGBTQ+. So, while on one hand, they are experiencing movement towards liberation with the rise of the LGBTQ+ movement in the west and globally; on the other hand, this western label further distances them from their traditional identities and imposes onto them the metacolonial idea of what it means to be transgender, disconnecting them from their culture and binding them to the colonizer.

Facing this challenge starts with educating society and practitioners using an emic approach to create an understanding informed by the populations themselves, not by western concepts, to reduce stigma and discriminatory practices. To address the mental health concerns created by longstanding colonial trauma, practitioners who can establish rapport with community leaders are essential to a capacity-building approach. This will enable providers to work with communities to utilize existing strengths, collaborate to meet community needs, and address the enduring impact of colonialism.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association.

American Psychological Association. (2015). Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People. American Psychologist, 70(9), 832–864.

Greensmith, C., & Giwa, S. (2013). Challenging Settler Colonialism in Contemporary Queer Politics: Settler Homonationalism, Pride Toronto, and Two-Spirit Subjectivities. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 37(2), 129–148.

Hinchy, J. (2014). Obscenity, Moral Contagion and Masculinity: Hijras in Public Space in Colonial North India. Asian Studies Review, 38(2), 274–294.

Indian Supreme Court Recognises Right to Self-Identify as Third Gender. (2014, April 22). Equal Rights Trust.

Jaffrey, Z. (1998). The invisibles a tale of the eunuchs of India. London Phoenix.

Marmon, S. (1995). Eunuchs and sacred boundaries in Islamic society. Oup.

Mokhtar, S. (2020). Mediating hijra in/visibility: the affective economy of value-coding marginality in South Asia. Feminist Media Studies, 1–14.

Nanda, S. (2003). Hijra and sadhin. In Constructing sexualities: readings in sexuality, gender, and culture (pp. 192–201).

Picq, M. L., & Tikuna, J. (2019, August 20). Indigenous Sexualities: Resisting Conquest and Translation. E-International Relations.

Shaikh, S., Mburu, G., Arumugam, V., Mattipalli, N., Aher, A., Mehta, S., & Robertson, J. (2016). Empowering communities and strengthening systems to improve transgender health: outcomes from the Pehchan programme in India. Journal of the International AIDS Society19, 20809. 

Singh, H., & Kumar, P. (2020). Hijra: An Understanding. Journal of Psychosocial Research, 15(1), 77–87.

Sweet, M. J., & Zwilling, L. (1993). The First Medicalization: The Taxonomy and Etiology of Queerness in Classical Indian Medicine. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 3(4), 590–607.

Tan, K. K. H., Schmidt, J. M., Ellis, S. J., & Veale, J. F. (2019). Mental Health of Trans and Gender Diverse People in Aotearoa/New Zealand: A Review of the Social Determinants of Inequities. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 48(2).

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