Hijra - Economy

Like every caste in India, hijras are primarily associated with a few traditional occupations, foremost among them being ritualized performances at childbirth and marriage. The hijras' performance consists of dancing and singing, accompanied by a two-sided drum, and the blessing of the child or the married couple in the name of the mother goddess. In return for these blessings the hijras receive badhai, traditional gifts in cash and goods, always including some sweets, cloth, and grains. Hijras also beg in the streets for alms from passersby and from shops; these activities are regulated on a daily rotational basis by the elders of the hijra community. Although prostitution is considered deviant within the hijra community, as it is in India generally, many hijras earn a living from it. Prostitution is carried out within a hijra household, under the supervision of a house manager or "madam," who will collect part or all of the prostitute's earnings in return for shelter, food, a small allowance, and protection from the police and rowdy customers. Although many young hijra prostitutes feel that they are exploited by their "madams," few live or work on their own. Because of their historical role as performers, hijras sometimes dance in nonritual roles, such as at stag parties, for college functions, or in films. A small number of hijras also serve the goddess Bahuchara at her major temple in Gujarat, blessing visitors to the temple and telling them the stories of the goddess in exchange for a few coins. Hijras can also be found as household servants and cooks, and in some cities in India they run public bathhouses. Hijras complain that in contemporary India their opportunity to earn a living by the respectable means of performing at marriages and births has declined, due to smaller families, less elaborate life-cycle ceremonies, and a general decline in the respect for traditional ritual specialists. Hijras have effectively maintained economic predominance, if not total monopoly, over their ritual role. Defined by the larger society as emasculated men, they have clearly seen that it is in their interest to preserve this definition of their role. They do this by making loud and public gestures to denounce the "frauds" and "fakes" who imitate them. They thus reinforce in the public mind their own sole right to their traditional occupations. When hijras find other female impersonators attempting to perform where it is their right to do so, they chase them away, using physical force if necessary. Hijra claims to exclusive entitlement to perform at life-cycle rituals, to collect alms in certain territories, and even to own land communally receive historical support in the edicts of some Indian states that officially granted them these rights.

Hijras have also been successful in controlling their audiences in their own economic interest. Hijras identify with renouncers ( sannyasis ) and, like them, hijras have abandoned their family and caste identities in order to join their religious community. Like sannyasis, then, hijras transcend networks of social obligation. They occupy the lowest end of the Indian social hierarchy and, having no ordinary social position to maintain within that hierarchy, hijras are freed from the restraints of ordinary behavior. They know that their shamelessness makes ordinary people reluctant to provoke them or to resist their demands for money and hence they trade on the fear and anxiety people have about them to coerce compliance. A culturally widespread belief in India is that hijras have the power to curse people with sterility and bad fortune, most dramatically by lifting their skirts and exposing their mutilated genitals. The fear and anxiety this belief provokes are sufficient to compel most people to give in to their demands or at least to negotiate with them.


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