Hijra communities in Mumbai
Project info

Hijra communities in Mumbai after the Indian Supreme Court reinstated Section 377

The term “hijra” is used in India to refer to individuals who consider themselves as transgender or transsexual male to female. India has an estimated one million hijras. The hijra communities in India have a recorded history that goes back more than 4,000 years. They have historically had a sanctioned place in Indian society and culture. Ancient myths bestow them with special powers to bring luck and fertility.

However since the Raj first classified the hijra as a “tribe” at the time the Raj outlawed all tribes, hijras have faced severe harassment and discrimination. Most hijras are uneducated and their lack of education and the discrimination they face makes it almost impossible for them to gain mainstream employment. Hijras earn their living singing and dancing at celebrations of births and weddings, and through begging and prostitution. Most hijras work in the sex trade.

On July 2, 2009 the Delhi High Court passed a landmark judgment where Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was overturned. Under Section 377, which dates back to 1861, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals are not accepted by Indian society. Only two genders are recognised and only heterosexual relationships are legal. After the 2009 judgment, sexual acts in private between consenting adults of the same sex were no longer criminalized. Although this had been the foremost long-standing demand of the LGBT movement in India, the Delhi High Court’s ruling that decriminalized homosexuality did little to end a long history of discrimination for the hijra communities.

In December 2013, the Indian Supreme Court reinstated Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. A date was set to review this verdict, but on January 28th, 2014 the Supreme Court declined to review its verdict reviving a Victorian, colonial era provision that declares consensual homosexual acts in private a criminal offence punishable with life imprisonment.

The reinstatement of this law could affect the government support and funding that is given to NGOs and charities that help the hijra communities and this in turn will have repercussions on the hijra communities’ safety, welfare and health.

Hijras, like other sexual minorities in India, are usually rejected by their families and communities once they reveal their sexual identity and they are almost always forced to leave the family home. Ostracised by family and friends and harassed constantly by the police, hijras form small groups for their protection. These groups are lead by a “guru” or mother figure. At their best, the groups can be supportive, nurturing and family-like. Out of a necessity to protect themselves, hijras developed their own language - a mixture of Hindi, Farsi, Urdu and a little Arabic.

Some hijras are castrated, but there is no pressure to undergo castration and the decision is left to each individual. Many opt for breast enlargements as soon as they have put enough money aside. The Humsafar Trust, a non-profit organisation that works with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in Mumbai, subsidizes the cost of hormone treatments for hijras.

HIV rates are very high among the hijra community. Statistics vary between 50 and 80 percent. The Humsafar Trust has community outreach programs that care for and support the hijra community. The trust’s employees and volunteers distribute thousands of free condoms each week even though they run the risk of being arrested for “encouraging sex”.

Despite the excellent work that The Humsafar Trust is doing, protecting hijras from the frequent abuse and violence they face at the hands of customers and the police is almost impossible.

Puja is an energetic and talkative hijra guru, who lives near King's Circle Station, in Mumbai. She told me that she is raped on average ten days out of every month. She says, that the police won’t help and she thinks the reinstatement of Section 377 will make the police more likely to treat hijra abusively.

Puja, like most of the hijra sex workers, charges 100 IRP ($1.60) for 15 minutes. She says she has between 6 and 10 clients a day. She was in a relationship with a man for two years, but he has since bowed to family pressure and married and started a family. Puja still loves him and he comes to spend time with her at least once a month. She says, “It’s better than nothing”.

Kajal, a quiet, sad-eyed 20-year-old hijra, also lives near King’s Circle Station. She says, “I have felt like a woman since my early childhood. When I became a hijra three years ago, my family forced me out of the family home in southern India.” She is still in contact with an aunt and uncle and she sends them money when she can, as is the custom in India. Kajal says she hopes one day to be able to afford to be castrated in a hospital. A drunken client slashed her two years ago and she has a long, raised scar across her back.

Husna is also a sex worker. She picks up clients at the train station and says, "I don’t think about the danger because I have to survive."

Shalu, is gay, but he has been adopted into Puja’s hijra family. He is gentle and shy. He has a boyfriend who he loves. Shalu is also a sex worker.

The graceful, Urmi, is a Transgender Representative with The Humsafar Trust. She works six days a week supporting the hijra in different communities spread throughout Mumbai.

Maduri is a guru who works for SPARC (The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres) in Laloobhai Compound in Mankurd, Mumbai. She resolves disputes within the community and she’s responsible for a community money lending scheme. Maduri was born with intersex anatomical sexual characteristics but she has always felt more female than male.

Ankita was a guru who died of an infection 15 days after being castrated in a hospital. Her portrait hangs in one of the community offices used by The Humsafar Trust.

These are just some of the many hijra I met in Mumbai. Their stories describe the positive work being done by organisations such as The Humsafar Trust, but also the emotionally and physically difficult and dangerous lives hijra are still forced to lead in contemporary India.

January and February 2014