Hijra - Orientation

Identification. Hijras are a social group, part religious cult and part caste, who live mainly in north India. They are culturally defined either as "neither men nor women" or as men who become women by adopting women's dress and behavior. Hijras are devotees of Buhuchara Mata, a version of the Indian mother goddess. Through their identification with the goddess, ratified by an emasculation ritual, hijras are believed to be vehicles of the goddess's power. Although culturally defined as celibate, hijras do engage in widespread prostitution in which their sexual-erotic role is as women with men. Their traditional way of earning a living is by collecting alms, receiving payments for blessing newborn males, and serving at the temple of their goddess. Hijras are generally called eunuchs, and sexual impotence is central to the definition of a hijra and a major criterion for initiation into the group.

Location. Most hijras live in the cities of north India, where they have more opportunities to engage in their traditional occupations. Hijras are also found in rural areas in the north, as well as cities in south India where they work mainly as prostitutes.

Demography. The census of India does not list hijras separately; they are usually counted as men, but upon request they may be counted as women. It is thus impossible to say with certainty how many hijras there are in India. Large cities like Bombay or Delhi may have 5,000 hijras living in twenty or thirty localities; the national estimate may be as high as 50,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Hijras speak the language of the regions of India in which they were born and lived before joining the community. There is no separate hijra language, although there is a feminized intonation and use of slang that characterizes their talk. Hijras come from all over India and those from south India who move to the north learn Hindi as well as the regional languages.

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