India’s Eunuchs Get Enfranchised

At 23, Pummy Sharma deserted his young wife, parents and siblings and ran away from his New Delhi home to a life of ill-repute.

Sharma was tired of leading a double life — working in his brother’s garment factory by day and performing female roles in traditional mythological plays at night.

“I couldn’t take it anymore,” he told in a telephone interview from New Delhi. “I wanted to be a part of the hijra family. I had an attraction to men. I wanted to celebrate my sexuality.”

But the life he ran to, was far from celebratory. Re-christened “Pooja,” Sharma joined a “house” of hijras, a group India’s English language press calls eunuchs but which includes males born with deformed genitalia, hermaphrodites, eunuchs and homosexual cross-dressers.

A highly secretive sub-culture, hijras have existed on the fringes of Indian society since ancient times, but there are varying estimates of the number of hijras in India. Unofficial figures range from 500,000 to 2 million.

Considering themselves neither men nor women, members of this so-called “third sex” generally adopt feminine names and dress and are traditionally referred to as “she.”

Faced with lives of isolation, poverty and public ridicule, hijras often resort to prostitution for economic survival.

But this week, history was made when the people of Gorakhpur, a town in northern India, elected a hijra to the post of mayor of the town.

Asha Devi, an independent candidate, won the election by a decisive majority — she polled 1,09,849 out of a total 2,31,240 votes — a blow to the major parties.

Devi’s election victory is not the first in the hijra community. Earlier this year, another independent candidate Shabnam Mausi — or “aunt” Shabnam — was elected to the legislative assembly in a neighboring state.

Many observers believe the new trend of electing civic-minded hijras into public office is the beginning of a new chapter of enfranchisement in the history of India’s eunuchs.

Exalted Past, Seedy Present

It wasn’t always this way. Hijra traditions, including highly secretive initiation rites, are ancient, but hardly exalted.

Early Hindu texts, including the Kama Sutra, contain references to the third sex and bear descriptions of impotent men who danced and cast spells.

In the past, hijras earned their keep in the royal courts, guarding harems and entertaining patrons. But with the dying of the old traditions, hijras have increasingly had to resort to petty extortion and the sex trade to make ends meet.

A common means of money-making these days is gate-crashing wedding and birth ceremonies and threatening not to leave until they are paid off.

With their garish jewelry, heavy makeup, gaudy sarees and a raucous penchant for raunchy songs, hijras are invariably, but reluctantly, paid off.

A common myth that a hijra’s curse can render you impotent only adds to society’s fear and revulsion.

Allegations of adolescent boys being forcibly sexually mutilated by hijras — a charge hijras and social workers working with them vehemently deny — adds nothing to their social standing.

While they enjoy a ceremonial status in Indian society, often the most basic amenities such as access to health care, education, jobs and housing are denied them.

A Brighter Future?

But the recent elections of hijras to public office offers hope for many.

Devi’s success did not come without a fight. Even the basics of bureaucracy posed challenges.

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