Hijra communities in Mumbai

Gomzi, a 28 year old hijra who works in the sex trade in Mumbai
two hijras during Mumbai's gay pride march
A hijra walks past a bus load of curious on-lookers during Mumbai's gay pride march.
Muskan arrives at Thane station in Mumbai in a rickshaw.  She will find customers there and take them to a nearby hotel that charges by the hour.
Kamal attracts customers at Thane station in Mumbai.  She will find customers there and take them to a nearby hotel that charges by the hour.
These drawings are taped to the walls in one of The Humsafar Trust's community offices.  Many of the hijras who work in the community offices are illiterate so the staff have drawn illustrated maps to help the hijra when they distribute condoms.
a hijra outside one of The Humsafar Trust's community offices
Husna and Gomzi play affectionately with each other.  They are both part of the same hijra
Urmi arrives in a neighbourhood in central Mumbai where she works to ensure the well-being of the local hijra community.
Urmi gets ready for her day of visiting the various hijra communities that she helps to train and advise.  Urmi is a Transgender Representative with The Humsafar Trust.
boxes of condoms that are ready to be distributed among the sex workers in the Wadala area of central Mumbai
Kamal attracts her first customer of the evening at Thane station in Mumbai.
When Kajal became a hijra three years ago, her family forced her out of the family home in southern India.  She told me,
A drunken client slashed Kajal with a knife two years ago.  Most Hijra sex workers work out in the open and they are at constant risk of being attacked.
The portrait of Ankita hangs in one of the community offices used by The Humsafar Trust. Ankita was a guru who died of an infection 15 days after being castrated in a hospital.
Puja packs for a two day training session organized by The Humsafar Trust.  The training session will be held in a hotel a two hour train journey from Mumbai.
a group of hijras that live in Thane, Mumbai outside their home
a hijra who lives and works near King's Circle station in Mumbai
a hijra who lives and works in Thane, Mumbai walks up to the rooms she shares with her hijra group
during Mumbai's gay pride march - the woman in yellow is a hijra.  On her back, in red paint, someone has written,
some of India's key LGBT activists before the start of Mumbai's gay pride march this year - in blue is transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Triathi
Husna, Manisha and Gomzi in the home they share near King's Circle Station in Mumbai
Despite the fact that there are over a million hijras in India, they still attract attention wherever they go.
Urmi makes a call outside one of The Humsafar Trust's community offices.
These illustrated maps help the hijra who can't read to understand where they need to distribute condoms.  The small red figures represent transgender sex workers.
These wooden phalli are used by the trainers, who work for The Humsafar Trust, to demonstrate the correct way to put on a condom .
Muskan tries to attract customers near Thane Station in Mumbai
Urmi and another hijra hail a cab to get to their next appointment.
Urmi takes a cab to travel to one of the communities of hijras that she looks after.
Maduri was born with intersex anatomical sexual characteristics but she has always felt more female than male.
Many urban hijra opt for the simplicity of androgynous western clothes and grooming on the days they don't need to
a group of hijras that live in Thane, Mumbai relaxing and fooling around at home - Most hijra have a very vivacious, playful relationship with the members of their group.
a hijra who lives and works in Thane, Mumbai
Puja 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.
Puja 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”.

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 organisations 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


PS: In April 2014, the Indian Supreme Court created the "third gender" status for hijras or transgenders. The apex court said that transgenders will be allowed admission in educational institutions and given employment on the basis that they belonged to the third gender category. The SC said that an absence of a law recognising hijras as third gender could not be continued as a ground to discriminate them in availing equal opportunities in education and employment. The apex court also said that social welfare schemes need to be devised for the third gender community and that a public awareness campaign needs to be run to erase social stigma.

© Alison McCauley