India's shunned transgenders struggle to survive

Published May 17, 2012 06:43am

Seema, 33, dances inside a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) office, which supports sexual minorities, in New Delhi.—Reuters Photo
Seema, 33, dances inside a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) office, which supports sexual minorities, in New Delhi.—Reuters Photo

NEW DELHI: Seema, a husband and father of two, gets ready for another night of work on the streets of the Indian capital, placing two halves of a yellow sponge ball into empty bra cups.

The 33-year-old then plucks out the stubble on his chin, applies foundation from a pink heart-shaped make-up box and combs his chin-length black hair in front of a large mirror.

Seema is transgender, one of hundreds of thousands in India who are ostracised, often abused and forced into prostitution due to no legal recognition, even as the world marks International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia on May 17.

“It's necessary for me to do sex work because I have to look after my family,” Seema said, adjusting a deep red scarf.

“Nobody does it of their own wish. We have sex because we have no other choice.”

Male-to-female transgenders, also known as “hijras”, have a long history in South Asia, experts say. The Sanskrit texts of the Kama Sutra, written between 300 and 400 BC, refers to a “third sex”.

During the Mughal empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, castrated hijras—or eunuchs—were respected and considered close confidants of emperors, often being employed as royal servants and bodyguards.

These jobs were so coveted that historians say some parents actually castrated their sons in order to attain favour with the Mughal kings and secure employment for their children.

But despite acceptance centuries ago, hijras today live on the fringes of Indian society and face discrimination in jobs and services such as health and education.

Seema, 33, displays his picture in which he's dressed as a woman at his residence in New Delhi.—Reuters Photo
Seema, 33, displays his picture in which he's dressed as a woman at his residence in New Delhi.—Reuters Photo

“I think things are different today because of the kind of laws that were introduced to India when the British came. The whole concept of unnatural and natural was defined in our law,” said gay rights activist Anjali Gopalan.

Many hijras are now sex workers or move around in organised groups begging or demanding money from families who are celebrating the birth of a child or a marriage.

They threaten to curse the happy new couple or the newborn if they do not pay up.

Seema (C) 33, feeds his daughter as his wife eats her lunch at their residence in New Delhi.—Reuters Photo
Seema (C) 33, feeds his daughter as his wife eats her lunch at their residence in New Delhi.—Reuters Photo

Many Indians fear a hijra's curse, which is said to bring infertility or bad luck.

But transgenders are the biggest victims, say activists.

Hate crimes against the community are common yet few are reported, partly due to a lack of sensitivity by authorities such as the police.

Last week, an activist fighting for transgender rights had his throat slashed in the southern state of Kerala. The previous month, in neighbouring Tamil Nadu state, a 42-year-old transgender was strangled to death with a rope.

Her real self

By day, in a cramped one-room home in west Delhi, Seema is known by her male birth name Hardeep and is a loving father of a one and six-year-old who call her “daddy”.

Seema, 33, gets ready for work on the streets, inside a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) office, which supports sexual minorities, in New Delhi.—Reuters Photo
Seema, 33, gets ready for work on the streets, inside a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) office, which supports sexual minorities, in New Delhi.—Reuters Photo

As night falls, she goes to a local charity to paint her face and transform into Seema, who sells herself on the street under a busy city flyover.

Within 15 minutes, a black car pulls up and she is whisked away before returning to serve another client.

The job comes with many risks.

In 2009, Seema was raped by a policeman inside a roadside booth, and she is now HIV positive.

Seema, 33, waits for customers on a street in New Delhi.—Reuters Photo
Seema, 33, waits for customers on a street in New Delhi.—Reuters Photo

“First and foremost, they are vulnerable to HIV/Aids. Due to their job, they get beaten up left, right and centre almost everyday,” said Abhina Aher from the India HIV/Aids Alliance.

According to the India's National Aids Control Organisation (Naco), HIV prevalence amongst transgenders is 20 times higher than the general population.

Activists say some progress is being made in lifting discrimination. Three years ago, the British-era law banning gay sex was overturned. In Tamil Nadu, pensions, free sex “re-assignment” surgery and university scholarships are now offered.

But hijras like Seema believe more needs to be done.

“If the government wants to help, they should do some sensitisation with people so that they don't discriminate,” said Seema.

“We are also human beings. It's not my choice God made me this way. I can't help it.”


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Comments (17) (Closed)


raj
May 17, 2012 03:03pm
I like Pakistani news sites, im sick of fake hyped indian media and most of the time i don't believe in what the indian media says becasue they lie too much and most of the time they publish useless news and leave news which needs to be publish like news about corruption,poverty etc. Good job dawn team.
Imran
May 17, 2012 02:05pm
Hi Gaurav, These people are facing lot of problems even in Pakistan. Lately there has been lot of attention in media, even some major TV stations had programs about these problems. http://dawn.com/2011/10/13/way-opens-for-eunuchs-...
romasa
May 18, 2012 04:45pm
In pakistan it has not emerged the way it has emerged in india, that mean indian transgenders need quite hefty amount of help and however in pakistan.. here this problem is still down as compare to india !!:)
Darshan
May 17, 2012 06:59am
Very well written article, at least a Pakistani newspaper has pointed out some facts that we Indians like to sweep under the rug!..But I think there are also transgenders in pakistan who also needs help even they should be served equally.
anil
May 17, 2012 07:10am
These people should contribute to society , be it education or trade or social service . We are overloaded with more than 1 billion,face enormous inside and outside problem and even capable people are going unnoticed . I have sympathy for them and we consider them as Normal as they are selected by Nature . But they should come up with their strengths and prove themselves .
Gaurav
May 17, 2012 11:15am
why cannot DAWN find and help such ppl in Pakistan ... why do they come to India for this kind of News .... At least in India trans gendrs can live .... but what is Pakistan doing about their transgenders
Jay
May 17, 2012 12:28pm
My Freind Dawn has done articles of Transgender in Paskistan also . Media has no boundries , i think you should appreciate that some one is briinging thie to light .
Noor khan
May 18, 2012 10:24am
correct .. DAWN is the only paper that is unbiased and goes beyond india pakistan rivalry ... transgenders are humiliated in Pak.too even though Supreme court has ordered to give them an identity and there National identity cards are being issued but still its not good enough ... unless the attitude of society changes nothing will change !!!
G.A.
May 17, 2012 01:08pm
@Gaurav: Here we go again. Attack Dawn and Pakistan for a story from Reuters. Dawn has covered Pakistani transgenders in the past and covers negative aspects of Pakistan on a daily basis. India maybe shining but it's not exactly all glitter and gold. So, I suggest you take your head out of the sand and look at your country objectively.
Pradeep
May 18, 2012 08:46am
Open your eyes Gaurav. The article is syndicated via Reuters. Focus on the problem not on who reports the problem
Nindu
May 18, 2012 04:21pm
Transgenders are victimized by society because they are considered guilty of playing with nature by changing their gender. Actually it is not like that they are suffering from "Gender Identity disorder (GID)". People suffering from this disorder are discontent with their sex they are assigned at birth. In civilized countries sex and religion are considered personal matters so society as a whole is not annoyed when people make their decisions about these. Our society is not matured yet and we should not hope betterment in this area soon. However we should try our best to educate people and let them live the way they want to live.
ahmed
May 17, 2012 07:12pm
I agree with you, indian sites are propaganda machines and full of masala news. However, Pakistani papers are sissy and can never write openly about issues that really matter. Look at the "comments' on this page, you must need to get approval first. :)
bangads
May 17, 2012 08:02pm
Transgenders are there in every society and are a deprived class. I wonder, why are Pakistanis are blind to the transgenders of Pakistan. Had they brought up this issue on Pakistan, it would have made some sense.
sara khan
May 17, 2012 09:34pm
Amir khan's new show is so nice, famous people in Pakistan should also do shows like Amir is doing....
Ayesha
May 17, 2012 09:46pm
It's great that we all feel so strongly for our fellow human beings but for many of these unfortunate souls, their respect has become a chain of jokes...degrading humiliation. Fighting for their rights, be it anywhere in the world must be implemented by changing our views and understanding and harbouring the ability to respect another without the guidlines carved out by society.
Seedoo
May 18, 2012 12:23am
Gaurav, A news item is a news item. For your information, Dawn has in the past published articles on transgenders in Pakistan also. This is not a propaganda against India, by Pakistanis. Please stop Indian lens to read everything here. Learn to take healthy criticism. This is not India vs. Pakistan issue.
manish
May 18, 2012 02:42pm
YES, THERE IS A GREATER NEED TO LINK TRANSGENDERS TO THE SOCIETY. THAT WAY THE PREJUDICES AGAINST MAY DISAPPEAR SLOWLY, AND WE MAY FORGE A MORE EQUITABLE SOCIETY.