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South Asia Has a New Gender

And it’s not Ray Hanania.

So, while we’re still trying to figure out the physical and epistemic ontology of our genitals here in North America, India and Pakistan have decided to give legal recognition to those without any.

It is important to understand that the concept of the Hijra is not transferable to our Western understanding of gender and sex, even with the 27th Wave post-gender Feminism. The BBC articles linked above define Hijras as Eunuchs – individuals who have been born as men but were castrated at an early age for “medical or social reasons.” This is such an oversimplification that my face hurts.

Hijras are an inclusive  -not exclusive- group of “male-born” sexually ambiguous but female identifying individuals. Their sexual characteristics vary from castration to underdeveloped male genitalia (and these two are often linked) to biological males who just happen identify with being female (this latter being a more modern phenomenon). They have long been a part of South Asian culture and society. For centuries, hijras held a rather elite role, regulated to the private realm, as a source of either court entertainment as dancers or assistance to the women of the house (since they were seen as essentially asexual and unable to cause penetrative harm!).  Today, hijras are still a source of entertainment (at weddings, birthdays, etc) however one which comes with much tokenization and discrimination.  

It should be interesting to see the response this receives from the public. In India, the recognition has gone so far as that hijras can specify themselves as an “other” sex when voting while in Pakistan, there has been a legal recognition to guarantee inheritance rights.

And this is all pretty significant, especially in a country like Pakistani which has a very varied flavour of Islam, which, interestingly enough, has it own arguable recognition of a third gender (in some respects). It doesn’t mean that we’re going to see the eventual breakdown of the gender parity, and same-sex marriage will overtake South Asia and everyone will become genderless and thus free love will prosper. No. Calm down, you liberal pinkos. That’s not what this entails. If anything, these legal moves are just part of a long tradition in which the hijras have played a significant role, that was diminished in the colonial and post-colonial contexts. For all the rigidity that exists regarding sex and gender relations in South Asia, there’s some freakiness up in there too that was in full fledge before imperialist patriarchy came in and took a big ol’ crap. In fact, this sort of weird symbiosis between sexual discipline and sexual exhibitionism has existed throughout the Eastern lands to varying degrees.

To continue on my tangent, Iran is another prime example of the aforementioned relationship and its evolution, as illustrated in Afsaneh Najmabadi’s provocative Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. I didn’t really read it all, but my anthropology seminar professor provided an excellent summary. Something about a third gender, influence of western patriarchal ideals, and the subsequent disciplining of the male and female sexes for purposes of nation-building and modernizing. Or something to that effect. Sounded solid. (I’ll be revisiting this particular topic of sexuality soon in the future.)

Back to Pakistan – my guess is that there most likely will not be any sort of major backlash from the population other than from a few select religious conservative groups. At least, I hope that’s the case. Pakistanis probably should be more preoccupied with the complete instability and steady loss of their country than with the gender construction debate.

Just saying.

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Discussion

38 Responses to “South Asia Has a New Gender”

  1. The third gender debate…

    Bring it! =P

    Posted by Arayus | December 27, 2009, 3:55 am
  2. I've always understood them as transgendered people. I know that in the Muslim theological schools of South Asia, they've adjusted Islamic Law to take into account this third gender. They are shunned to the fringes of society but have existed as a third gender for a very long time.

    Posted by Shafiq | December 27, 2009, 12:21 pm
    • Shafiq, this "third gender" has existed in Islam since the beginning so I'm not sure what is being "taken into account". Sexually non-functional males are mentioned in the Quran many times, most importantly when it comes to what role they are permitted to play in regards to women. For this reason, castration of male slaves used to be common practice. The only thing that seems new is for these males to be self-identifying as female (societal role only? Or sexual role as well?)… at least that's the impression I get from the photo and the gist of Sana's post.

      It is important to understand that the concept of the Hijra is not transferable to our Western understanding of gender and sex, even with the 27th Wave post-gender Feminism.

      Are you self-identifying as western, Sana? :)

      Personally, I don't think anything is transferable between cultures when it comes to gender roles and sexuality. Mexico is entirely different from the US, for instance, and it's right next door.

      Posted by programmer craig | December 27, 2009, 3:22 pm
      • oh, okay. didn't know that

        Posted by Shafiq | December 27, 2009, 3:54 pm
      • It's not about it existing in Islam – its about it existing within specific cultures. Islam in many ways recognized the existence of the role of this third gender and established some rules for its practice. It's not an Islamic concept. And hijras always been self-identifying as female – wearing female clothing, acting as women, doing 'womanly' things, considered by society more female than anything else.

        To also expand on my Iran example: the third gender was referred to as the amrad, and was usually a young male who wasn't considered a male until he essentially hit maturity. These were young men with soft features (feminine), soft bodies etc. They were biologically male but, again, were not considered as such. They were the object of sexual desire over women (as seen with paintings, poetry, etc). And they were not subject to castration or anything of that sort. They would just grow out of it. You still have remnants of this in Iranian culture today, even though much of it has been repressed post-Qajar.

        And, interestingly enough, this is something you find also in Italy (specifically, say, the period following up to and during the Renaissance from what I've studied). In Italy there used to be a strong patron-client sexual relationship. When a man was a young boy he was expected to latch onto an older, more influential man for purposes of securing a future status and career. These man-boy relationships were more than often sexual and in the highly conservative and religious Italian society, it wasn't something that was looked down upon – rather, encouraged. It wasn't seen as homosexual, just a natural part of a man's social life. This period for a man was his adolescence and could go into his like late 20s. There was, however, a point at which it went from acceptable to condemnable. Even if a man had such relationships throughout his life, he had to establish a family. That was his primary duty. If he failed to do so, he was condemned as a homosexual; underdeveloped as a male. To become a full man he had to marry a woman and produce children.
        Obviously different from the hijra I briefly discussed, but just to show the interesting gender relations and ideas (especially the fluidity allowed for male sexuality) that exist in several cultures..

        Posted by SanaKF | December 27, 2009, 7:18 pm
        • Your last paragraph relates to pedastry, very common in Ancient Greece. Not exactly related to a third gender, rather it was seen as an acceptable form of homosexuality. It was also practised in the Universities of Princeton and Oxford (between older and younger students) as a means of emulating the likes of Plato and Socrates.

          Posted by Shafiq | December 27, 2009, 8:23 pm
          • It was also practised in the Universities of Princeton and Oxford (between older and younger students) as a means of emulating the likes of Plato and Socrates.

            Shafiq, I don't agree with you there. The British seem to have unusually high rates of male homosexuality, and I think that's the issue you are raising there. Routine homosexuality.

            Posted by programmer craig | December 27, 2009, 9:36 pm
          • I don't think Britain has an unusually high rate of homosexuality, it's just that the secular nature of British society means that it's just accepted. We're even having major sports stars 'come-out' and being given standing ovations for doing so.

            The practise that I mentioned, was common even before the acceptance of homosexuality. They din't practise full on male sex, but instead the non-penetrative type common in Germany, which was seen as more 'acceptable'

            Posted by Shafiq | December 27, 2009, 9:42 pm
          • I don't think Britain has an unusually high rate of homosexuality…

            We disagree on that then!

            …it's just that the secular nature of British society means that it's just accepted.

            And do you think the UK is more "secular" than other countries in Western Europe where homosexuality is much less common?

            The practise that I mentioned, was common before the acceptance of homosexuality.

            Which is why I said it was just routine homosexuality, hidden under a more socially acceptable disguise.

            Posted by programmer craig | December 27, 2009, 10:13 pm
          • When I say secular, I mean areligious – Most Brits simply don't care much about religion.

            I checked the statistics on homosexuality – it seems 6% (2005) of Brits confess to be gay compared with 4% (1992) of French people. Taking into account the dates the surveys were taken and the studies that suggest France is slightly more homophobic than Britain, I don't think the difference is that significant.

            I don't think the Oxford system was routine homosexuality seeing as it was quite prevalent, and was similar to what went on in places like Princeton

            Posted by Shafiq | December 27, 2009, 10:29 pm
          • When I say secular, I mean areligious – Most Brits simply don't care much about religion.

            You kinda implied otherwise when you mention Christian-Muslim relations in the other thread! Glad to see you corrected that, here. Anyway, so you think on the continent people are more religious than in the UK?

            I checked the statistics on homosexuality – it seems 6% (2005) of Brits confess to be gay compared with 4% (1992) of French people. Taking into account the dates the surveys were taken and the studies that suggest France is slightly more homophobic than Britain, I don't think the difference is that significant.

            A 50% increase in prevalence is "not significant" in your view? lol. I hope you aren't a scientist! And you are comparing to France, probably the most sexually liberal country on earth!

            I don't think the Oxford system was routine homosexuality seeing as it was quite prevalent, and was similar to what went on in places like Princeton

            I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is then I'd say it was routine homosexuality at Princeton as well.

            Posted by programmer craig | December 27, 2009, 10:38 pm
          • You kinda implied otherwise when you mention Christian-Muslim relations in the other thread!

            Not really. Amongst those that are religious (and those that aren't), there is little animosity between them and Muslims. I do think continental Europeans are more religious than Brits, especially the further south you go. Scandinavia, not so much, but southern Germany, France, Spain – definitely.

            A 50% increase in prevalence is "not significant" in your view? lol. I hope you aren't a scientist! And you are comparing to France, probably the most sexually liberal country on earth!
            I'm an economist – As someone who understands the nature of social statistics and I know how flawed they are. If you take into account the time difference (and the trend of homosexuality rates increasing over time), the difference in rates can easily be explained.

            In 2003, 12% of Norwegians had homosexual sex. In 1988, that percentage was 3.5%.

            I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is then I'd say it was routine homosexuality at Princeton as well.
            It could be, but researchers seem to think that it isn't just routine homosexuality, but pedastry.

            Posted by Shafiq | December 27, 2009, 11:05 pm
          • From what I hear, the practice is still raging over at Oxford (but females now too can get in on passionate discussions of Milton..)

            Posted by SanaKF | December 27, 2009, 10:47 pm
          • What the fuck is a "normal rate" of homosexuality any way?

            Posted by yaman | December 28, 2009, 6:07 am
        • Obviously different from the hijra I briefly discussed, but just to show the interesting gender relations and ideas (especially the fluidity allowed for male sexuality) that exist in several cultures.

          I think it's interesting that this seems most common in cultures that are notoriously "macho". It seems that at least sometimes in such cultures it is acceptable for a male to voluntarily opt-out of the whole proving-your-manhood thing, and nobody thinks the less of him. Whereas in a culture like we have in the US people – both male and female – would very much tend to think the less of him. Even though we aren't near as fixated on the whole stereotypical male role. I find that confusing! But I admit I don't spend much time thinking about it.

          Posted by programmer craig | December 27, 2009, 9:34 pm
          • Well, who's defining "macho" ? And how is it being defined?
            Sexuality is no where near the rigid boundaries we've created in our minds – and I use the general our here, not the Western, Eastern, etc.

            I'm not sure I agree with your assessment regarding ho win other cultures men can opt out of the proving your manhood thing – not really. They just have different ways of going about it. Just as women have different ways of going about it. While FGM, for instance, is something we're completely ugh'd about (shudder) and it is an unfortunate practice which is forced, it is also seen as a way of coming into womanhood in a lot of the cultures that practice it. So a lot of older women will enforce it on young girls because for the older women it is a sign of womanhood. I can't remember where ..I think Denmark …there's a town on the coast where young men go and killed hundreds of endangered dolphins in order to assert their transition from teenage to adulthood.
            And to think I thought maturity had to do with unwanted hair growth and monthly uterine line shedding…

            We're pretty fixated on the stereotypical male role here, PC. We've moved a bit on from the nuclear family story of male stereotype, but we still promote certain career, body image, material, relationship and sexual ideals amongst several others. I don't think there's enough emphasis on the unfortunate state of masculinity in our society.

            Posted by SanaKF | December 27, 2009, 10:45 pm
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