Transgender Muslims in the Subcontinent? Making Sense of Hijras

Changing one’s gender and behaving as the opposite gender are now understood as not only acceptable, but something to embrace and celebrate. Those who embrace this idea make a direct line between it and celebrating all of the many cultures and ethnic groups that exist in the world. In other words, to them, to not accept a transgender woman as a woman is akin to racism even if doing so goes against biological fact.

What once was called “gender identity disorder” is now “gender dysphoria” and “gender incongruence.” The World Health Organization no longer even considers this as a mental health disorder. Instead, they now categorize it as a “condition related to sexual health.”

Rather than it being considered a psychological condition that should be addressed with the objective to help the afflicted accept his or her actual gender, the goal now is to help that person accept his or her chosen gender through “gender-affirmative health care.”

We tend to understand the acceptance of a transgender lifestyle (not just having confused thoughts about one’s gender) as being a product of Western, secular ideas. This of course is a valid, reasonable understanding.

We can however, find something of an acceptance of this lifestyle in one ancient religion —Hinduism.

Hinduism understands there to be three genders, the third being neither man nor woman. These descriptions are present in some of the oldest Hindu texts. Hijras, i.e., men who dress and behave as women, are also present in ancient Hindu texts.

RELATED: Hinduism and the Killing of Female Infants

The concept of a third gender is treated as a condition that begins at conception. To get a sense of this, let’s look at one of the first known examples of this being addressed in Hinduism, in the Sushuruta Samhita, an ancient Hindu medical text:

“A child of no-sex…is the product when ovum and sperm are equal (in their quality and quantity)”[1]

“A …[pregnant woman] whose sides become raised and the forepart of whose abdomen is found to bulge out will give birth to a sex-less…child”[2]

There are also versions of the ancient Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabhrata that include Hijras and/or eunuchs.[3]

Ambiguous gender identity is not new to Hinduism, nor is it seen as something that needs to be or can be corrected. While Hijras’ sexual behavior may be punished, it is not explicitly prohibited. Here are some examples of the types of punishments that would be given the ancient Hindu legal text the Manusmriti:

“…there are no verses of Dharma Shastra that specifically prohibit sexual behavior among people of the third sex. Two versus admonish sexual intercourse among ordinary males…, but the atonement set is a mere ritual bathing and applies to only to brahmanas or those of the twice-born class:

A twice-born man who engages in intercourse with a male, or with a female in a cart drawn by oxen, in water, or in the daytime, shall bath dressed in his clothes (Manusmriti 11.175)’

Another verse states:

“Striking a brahmana, smelling obnoxious items such as liquor, cheating, and engaging in intercourse with a male are declared to cause the loss of caste (Manusmriti 11.68)’

“This loss of caste was not permanent since it could be atoned for, but it is generally accepted that unmarried brahmanas should practice celibacy”[4]

Third Gender vs. Transgender

Many argue that the concept of a third gender is not the same as being transgender, as explained here:

“There is simply no translation [for ‘hijra’ into English] at hand. In all English discourses in India and outside, the inadequate term ‘transgender’ is frequently used because it seems to be the closest equivalent…”[5]

The crux of the argument is that unlike Hijras, transgender people in the West clearly identify as one gender. That’s not always the case though.

There are transgender people in the West who like Hijras, claim that they are neither male nor female, instead using terms like “genderqueer” or “non-binary.”

Why get into these details? To demonstrate that there’s no reason that the concept of a “third gender” should convince Muslims to accept or tolerate the Hijra lifestyle. Even the concept is not so radically different from transgender, which is also not something Muslims can accept or tolerate.

RELATED: [WATCH] The SECRET Plan to Spread LGBT to the Muslim World

Hindu vs. Muslim Hijras

Although this is a concept that comes from Hinduism, there are Muslims who live their lives as Hijras in the subcontinent (also called khawaja sira in Pakistan). This is the primary reason why this topic is also a concern: We can find attempts in the West and East to normalize this behavior and to make it seem compatible with Islam.

While taking people’s gender confusion seriously may be an effective way to solve this problem, simply embracing the behavior as normal and denying its conflict with Islam is a serious misstep.

RELATED: Trans Rights vs. Common Sense: Rejecting the Blessings of Allah

While they maintain their identity as Muslims in ways such as not worshiping the Hindu goddess of Hijras, Bahuchara Mata, they still bless children and newlyweds, have sexual relations with Hijras and other men, and generally dress and act as women. And again, some have themselves castrated.

Here are some basic points that demonstrate why this lifestyle is problematic when it comes to Islam:

  1. Human castration (a practice of many Hijras) is forbidden.
  2. Dressing, acting like the opposite sex is also forbidden.
  3. Believing that people have special powers and can bless or curse us (as people believe about Hijras, which we’ll discuss) is a form of shirk.

Of course, Islam acknowledges the existence of intersex people (some Hijras may be intersex, i.e., born with both sets of genitalia or malformed genitalia, but it’s safe to say not the majority)—scholars have dealt with this matter—but a separate gender is not  allotted to them.

The Hijra Lifestyle

The vast majority of Hijras are males who later discover some tendency toward the female. At this point, they’re typically kicked out of their homes and then seek to live amongst other Hijras, who have their own community and way of life.

Along with dressing and behaving as women, some undergo various types of sex changes —castration, hormones to grow breasts, and even full removal of the testicles and/or penis.

Some castrated Hindu Hijras say that the gods came to them in a dream and invited them to be castrated. Some Muslim Hijras are reported to say that this is Allah’s will for them.[6]

As part of becoming a member in this community, Hijras participate in initiation ceremonies, typically linking them to a kind of patron or guru who guides the younger Hijra. But it’s not as simple as giving emotional support and welcoming them into their community.

Young Hijras owe a portion of their earnings to the guru. Thus, the relationship between Hijra and guru is not always a comfortable one. On top of that, their earnings typically come from a few different lines of work, usually surviving off of some combination of begging, dancing at events, providing blessings at weddings and baby showers, and prostitution.

There are superstitious beliefs that Hijras have some kind of special power; angering them is considered to bring bad luck. For example, in the context of blessings provided to newlyweds and newborns, not giving Hijras the money they ask for is believed to cause infertility.[7] So what we see here is embracing superstitions and putting power that belongs to Allah alone in peoples’ hands. ‘Audhubillah.

Sexual Relationships

When Hijras engage in sex, it is exclusively with each other and/or non-Hijra men. Because Hijras are considered a “third” sex, neither they nor their sexual partners consider themselves to be engaging in homosexual sex. In fact, some men even have Hijras as lovers while also having a wife.[8]

Along with playing into someone’s personal confusion about being male or female, what embracing the Hijra lifestyle does is destroy traditional values about sexual relations.

Here’s one Hijra’s take on “her” sexual relationships[9]:

“Mehvish was born male, but now identifies as female — and not as gay, which she considers a sin in Islam.[10]

‘I just have a boyfriend, I don’t have a girlfriend. So I’m not homosexual,’ she says.”

This is a dangerous complication of everyday life; adding confusion to what gender means and what is and is not permissible. But there is no need to over-complicate this matter. A man — even a eunuch — dressed and acting as a woman who is engaged in sexual acts with a man is engaging in homosexual behavior, which is one of the biggest and most shameful sins.

Gender Politics and Colonialism

While many Hindus today reject transgender behavior, seeing it as a Western import, others claim that intolerance towards transgenderism is what has actually been imported from the West.

Under British Colonial rule, sodomy was outlawed and it became a punishable offense under Section 377 of the Penal Code.

This law has to do with Hijras as well because the British understood Hijra sexual activity as homosexual. Here’s an explanation as to why:

“…authorities amended the Act in 1897 expressly to include ‘eunuchs’ as a notified group. A eunuch was ‘deemed to include all members of the male sex who admit themselves, or upon medical inspection clearly appear, to be impotent.’ In practice, this meant India’s hijras, presumed to be sexually immoral and guilty of ‘sodomy.’”

The British found Hijra behavior intolerable, just as they found similar behaviors intolerable in Britain.

So yes, the law against sodomy was a colonial-era law. That means by definition the law was a product of British colonialism. But is the fact that it was a colonial-era law enough to make it wrong?

Even some of the pro-LGBTQ activists in the subcontinent acknowledge that it doesn’t matter if 377 was a colonial-era law. Let’s hear it straight from the horse’s mouth:

“There is no point in blaming the British for this ridiculous legal intrusion into people’s personal affairs today. We have been independent long enough to take care of our own affairs and the British have long removed their equivalent from their statute books.”

Plus, it’s not as if this aversion to sodomy was entirely foreign to the subcontinent. Even during the Islamic Mughal reign (16th to 17th centuries), many Hindus remained against the practice.[11]

The law was repealed in India in September 2018, and the Transgender Persons Act was passed into law in 2019. Given that India is the second most populous country on earth, this was a big deal. Indeed, the LGBTQ community understood that.

Also in 2018, Pakistan passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which is meant to give ensure that Hijras are not discriminated against on the basis of being Hijra.

These laws had their roots at least a decade earlier. In 2009, Pakistan passed a law making it possible for “third gender” people to be labeled as such on national ID cards.

RELATED: Pakistan’s Domestic Violence Bill Is an Attack on Islam

Bangladesh passed a similar law in 2014, allowing for “other” to be a legal option for gender on official documents. This was updated in 2018, making “hijra” an option on national identity cards. India also ruled in 2014 in favor of a “third gender” identity being an option on all legal documents.

Interestingly, while Penal Code 377 was overturned in Hindu-majority India, it was not in Bangladesh and Pakistan. So, while Hijras have the right to official recognition, sodomy remains illegal.

Eunuchs in Islamic History: False Justifications for the Hijra Lifestyle

Along with pointing out that this was a colonial-era law, some activists also used the argument that because eunuchs have existed virtually throughout human history — including in South Asia — Hijras must be accepted (although again, not all Hijras are eunuchs).

This argument is pretty easy to smash. A lot of things have existed throughout human history — intoxicants, adultery, homosexual behavior —their existence alone does not justify them. In fact, this type of argument is the very one that has thrust this woke reality upon us. It’s the basis upon which academics and activists alike justify deviant behaviors.

The basic premise goes something like this: something exists, let’s understand it so that we can show how it is OK. This is the so-called neutral approach. We can see the same used by academics and some Muslim public figures to justify deviant behaviors and actions by Muslims and others.

Let’s look at a few examples in Islamic history to get a sense of the nature of eunuchs’ existence in Islamic history. There exists an Islamic view that eunuchs are able to see women to whom they are not maharim. Because of this, eunuchs have at times in Islamic history been used as authority figures in places where most men could not be.[12] Additionally, in many cases, they could see women to whom they were not maharim because they were slaves of those women.

So while we can find examples of the presence of eunuchs in courtly life in Islamic empires, they had typically undergone castration prior to becoming Muslim (if they even became Muslim). Some, for example, were former slaves from other parts of the world (e.g. West Africa) who later became freedmen and somehow made their way to Islamic lands.[13] 

Types of castration [either testicles, penis, or both], what implications this has on their societal position, and subsequently whether or not such people can see to whom they are not mahaarim has been discussed by scholars, such as the eight century Shafai’I scholar Taj a-Deen a-Subki. Their discussions, however, did not necessarily signify that castration was allowed, as explained here:

“The eunuch, after all, unlike the hermaphrodite, is made, not born. This ‘making,’ the act of castration, was and is forbidden under Islamic law. Slave traders, at least in theory, castrated young boys on the borders of the Islamic realm before importing them. This legal fiction, however, was still troubling to some pious scholars. Al-Subki ends his chapter with the statement that one can find in the books of the Hanafi legal school that its founder, Abu Hanifa, declared the taking of eunuchs into one’s service reprehensible (yukrah), not forbidden (yuhram), because making use of eunuchs was ‘an abetment of castration, which is [a] prohibited [act].’”[14]

In the context of Mamluk rule in Cairo in the fifteenth century:

“In the sultan’s household, as in any affluent home, eunuchs both supervised and acted as intermediaries for the royal harim and guarded other boundaries of moral etiquette.”[15]

Even if, theoretically, eunuchs became such after having become Muslim that does not magically justify the behavior.

Making Sense of It All

Transgender, hijra, genderqueer—all of these represent versions of the same type of behavior that simply is not accepted in Islam. While it’s not necessarily so bizarre for someone to have these feelings, what is is playing into someone’s confusion about who he or she is.

Embracing this confusion has been exacerbated by academics and now a large portion of the society, who are willing to take the position that somehow everything is OK. This position is one that even they cannot consistently adopt, because it means having no principles and contradicting oneself. Consider AOC, who speaks of people who menstruate in the same sentence that she says she must teach Governor Greg Abbott basic biology.

It’s really a joke at this point. Performative politics, mental gymnastics.

Speaking of—is it funny to anyone else that the same people who argue for human rights are also supportive of hijras and their lifestyle, a lifestyle which essentially incudes indentured servitude to a guru? The argument goes that more acceptance of hijras would help them have jobs other than things like dancing and prostitution. But would the connection to the guru be lost, especially given that it’s a pretty essential part of entering the hijra community?

Even if hijras are recognized as a third gender, they are by and large men dressing and acting as women. More than that, the concept comes from Hinduism. Even more than that, there are Muslims who believe that hijras have the power to curse or bless.

We must protect ourselves from these ideas and find ways to help people who are confused about their gender understand who they are. With the rise of wokeism, this problem will likely only get worse.

Notes

  1. Bhishagratna, Kaviraj Kunja Lal, An English translation of the Sushruta Samhita, Volume II, Calcutta: Published by Author, 1911, p. 135.https://archive.org/details/englishtranslati00susruoft/page/134/mode/2up?q=third+sex
  2. Ibid., p.142
  3. See also: Doniger, Wendy, On Hinduism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 355-6
  4. Das Wilhelm, Amara. Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex: Understanding Homosexuality, Transgender Identity, and Intersex Conditions through Hinduism, Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2017, pp.26-7. https://books.google.de/books?id=gRjGApZVwPIC&pg=PA27&lpg=PA27&dq=manu+smriti+11.175&source=bl&ots=-fQa9uE1Ao&sig=ACfU3U2DcOcaVc6z2KmAyjMZv4Ip7a9k5w&hl=de&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjs_or92_TzAhUhgP0HHbziD3MQ6AF6BAgOEAM#v=onepage&q=manu%20smriti%2011.175&f=false
  5. Syed, Renate, “Hijras. India’s Third Gender, or, Why Hijras Are Not Transgender, but Cisgender,” in Transexualität in Theologie und Neurowissenschaften: Ergebnisse, Kontroversen, Perspektiven [Transexuality in Theology and Neuroscience: Findings, Controversies, and Perspectives], ed. Gerhard Schreiber (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2016), 233-243, p.243.
  6. Syed, Renate. “Hijras: Nicht Mann, nicht Frau [Hijras: Not man, Not Woman],” Frauenbilder—Frauenkörper: Inszenierungen des Weiblichen in den Gesellschaften Süd- und Ostasiens [Images of Women—Bodies of Women: Staging the Feminine in South Asian and East Asian Societies], ed. Stephan Köhn und Heike Moser (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2013) pp.439-458, p.448-9. The author estimated in 2013 that about 10-15 percent of hijras are castrated.
  7. Ibid., p.450.
  8. Ibid., p.454-455.
  9. Even though they say they are “third,” Hindi and Urdu, unlike Sanskirt, do not have a neuter, only a masculine and a feminine. Ibid., p.454-455.
  10. Notice NPR’s wording about homosexuality, something that is in no way a point about which there is even scholarly discussion regarding permissibility; NPR writes that Mehvish “considers” homosexuality a sin in Islam.
  11. Eraly, Abraham, The Mughal Life: Life in India’s Last Golden Age, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2007, p.120 
  12. Marmon, Shaun. Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, p.6-8.
  13. Ibid., p.7.
  14. Ibid., p.63. The original refence by Al-Subki can be found here, pp. 37-8: https://archive.org/details/Mueed_Alneam_Wa_Mubeed_Alneqam/page/n35/mode/2up?q=%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AB%D8%A7%D9%84
  15. Ibid., p.10-11.
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