TransIndia, a documentary about the transgender community, known as Hijras, Kinnar and Masiba, in India is currently playing the festival circuit to rave reviews and has recently won the Award of Merit at the Best Shorts Competition.
This incredibly powerful film is set in Ahmedabad, India, and the documentary focuses on the Hijra community and how they are outcasts in a society that once valued them as Mother Goddesses. Although progress is being made for the Trans community in India, ostracization and rejection from their families and the general public keeps Hijras from gainful employment and on the streets begging.
There are currently 79 countries in the world where being on the LGBTQ+ spectrum is against the law and India is on that list. Knowing that being considered transgender in this part of the world does, however, take a little look into their history to understand why.
As a point of reference, prior to British Colonialism, the Hijras were considered Mother Goddesses Avatar, but in 1871, the India’s Criminal Tribes Act set forth a law by the British Empire that classified transgender [Hijras] as both immoral and corrupt. The Act was amended in 1897 and was subtitled “An Act for the Registration of Criminal Tribes and Eunuchs” Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code states that “any eunuch so registered who appeared “dressed or ornamented like a woman in a public street….or who dances or plays music or takes part in any public exhibition, in a public street…. [Could] be arrested without warrant and punished with imprisonment of up to two years or with a fine or both.” Thus criminalizing being transgender and categorizing them alongside of murderers and thieves.
Although The Act was repealed in 1952, mistrust of the community remained when in April of 2014 the India Supreme Court recognized people who are transgender as a ‘Third Gender.’ Supreme Court Justice KS Radhakrishnan said, “Recognition of transgenders[sic] as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue.”
The Hijra community is reclusive, but through trust and understanding, Director Meera Darji was given access to the community and the viewer is introduced to Palak, Sania, Bipia, their mothers and their gurus which give us an inside look at how Hijras live and their role in society.
Meera Darji explains how she built her trust with the community, “As I built a rapport with my subjects, in this case Palak [AKA Vanita] Masi, the one in a purple saree, I was able to gain their trust and explain how I genuinely wanted to show the truth, therefore she offered us archive of home videos which were all of the ceremony. I think the whole aspect of trust was key, as Palak kind of became friends with us, which was a huge part of gaining access.”
First we meet, Vanita, a beautiful, intelligent and confident Hijra that begins to talk about her earliest memories, “Since I was young, I’ve always like to hang out with girls, talk to girls, sit with girls in class. But soon I started to get fed up of this life; they would say “you’re a boy and you should just act like one.”
Vanita story highlights the teasing and bullying she received from dressing like a girl and how she began to resent society. Vanita explains that she is in the Rabari caste, where her family does not believe in Mother Goddess, therefor she began to feel isolated and began to seek out a Guru. To join the Hijra community, one must seek out a Guru and then given permission to join the community.
After hearing her story, Vanita’s Gurus, allowed her to join the Hijra community and if she liked it, she could stay. Vanita kept it from her family as long as she could and would tell her family that she was going to work; but in reality, she would got to her guru’s house where she could change her clothes and they would hit the streets to beg. Neighbors began to talk and her family eventually found out about being a Hijra. Against her parents’ wishes, Vanita decided to stay in the Hijra community.
There is a ceremony to become a Hijra, similar to Hindu marriage which is a celebration of their new lives, but happiness is hard to come by as some Hijras are abused by their gurus and after the castration ceremony, some feel that they are no longer male or female. The castration process is done with a hot metal rod to sear off the genital and requires more than a month and a half of recovery.
Across the world, being transgender is the equivalent to being homosexual and it is dealt differently depending on the country. In Iran, homosexuality is “cured” by a government forced “sex-change” operation, in India complete castration is required and in Uganda, being on the LGBTQ+ spectrum will bring you 14 years hard labor, so strangely, castration by hot metal rod begins to look like an quick, yet tortuous sentence.
Unlike in the United States, being transgender no longer requires Gender Confirmation Surgery [GCS], but in most states, it is still a requirement for having ones gender marker on a birth certificate changed. I’m lucky enough to live in a state that does not require surgery to have my name and marker changed, but as we can see, experiences around the world, although not as cruel state-side, have a common denominator being the overall lack of acceptance for our community.
Like the U.S. however, unemployment and underemployment are an issues as we see with all of the Hijra. Rajendra Singh, now Sania, talks about her mother becoming disabled and unable to work. Sania took odd jobs around the city including prostitution and begging. When she turned 10, she stated that she looked like a man, but felt like a girl on the inside and decided to live her life as a woman.
Sania was asked to leave the house when her mother found out around the age of 12 and she sought the help of her guru around 15. She then joined the Hijra community and had her castration ceremony performed within months of joining.
Considered one of the lucky ones, Sania has found work at the HIV/NGO, unfortunately, in a phone call to the Director Darji, she “has not received income for 4 months due to the government backlogging on funds. The process is slow. It’s all positive being said, yet these issues are still unresolved.”
The common theme throughout the film is how afraid these women are of societies reactions to their transitions. Families won’t visit, they often resort to begging and the neighbors look down on them in shame, forcing them to live separate from society. “Begging is part of our avatar that God has gifted to us” says one guru, “so why shouldn’t we like it?”
Society’s stigma aside, Hijras are valued in blessings for weddings and births. Hijras will often visit weddings to spread Mother Goddess’ blessings to the bride and groom.
Through a translator, Vanita told me in a Facebook conversation, “It’s a tradition which is ongoing. We’re known for providing blessings and there’s still a stigma that if we don’t help we’ll curse the people or give them back luck. But that’s untrue. Marriage ceremonies have become a routine for us, it’s become a ritual we provide. But I think people mostly now call us for entertainment. We dance and sing, they enjoy it.”
Like in the U.S., acceptance within the families was slow, and watching this unfold in front of me was triggering in the way that most of us will lose family members when we decided to transition; but what we saw in TransIndia was that their mothers eventually accepted their transitions despite what society thought. Widespread poverty issues, unemployment and underemployment, marginalization and a constant need to prove your existence to others appears to be a global issue for people who are transgender.
Difficult to watch at times because of the shared human experiences yet joyful to watch when you see the participants become their authentic selves, TransIndia is a must see film for those who want to understand the global struggles of being transgender, but more importantly, a film that should be shown as an educational piece at Gender conferences around the world, primarily in the U.S., to provide a better understanding of the global transgender society and the help that they need in order to simply survive.
Joy, heartbreak, sadness, personal triumph and a sense of community and family are what keep the Hijra moving forward towards equal rights. “To first accept Hijras,” Director Merra Darji stated, “society needs to understand, thus TransIndia aims to take them on that journey of discovery through a structure of birth, marriage, death.” but as the Indian media and soap operas inaccurately portray Hijras as “men in dresses” or caricatures of women; as one elderly guru stated in the documentary, “A Kinnars life is nothing.”
TransIndia gave me a new understanding of the global LGBTQ+ struggle and made me realize that as far as we have come in the last five years in the states to LGBTQ+ equality, global human rights can still be more than one hundred years behind us and highlighting this through films like TransIndia will only speed up the process of equal rights.