Hot Off the Press: With Respect to Sex - Mario D' Penha

With Respect to Sex : Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India
by Gayatri Reddy
Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press

Mario D’Penha

Gayatri Reddy’s With Respect to Sex is the most recent addition to the anthropological study of hijras in India. Coming over a decade-anda-half after Serena Nanda’s seminal work Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India, it significantly broadens the frameworks within which conversations around hijras have taken place, besides making a valuable contribution to the theoretical debates around ‘transgender’ communities across the world. Reddy’s ethnography is constructed as a result of sustained interactions with communities of hijras, also known as kojjas in the southern Indian twin-cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, whom she describes continually as her ‘friends’. Her close intimacy with her subjects makes her narrative warmly compassionate, but it is at the same time fervently nuanced and sophisticated in its understanding of how hijras negotiate their identity within their larger communities. 

Reddy’s primary task in this study is to render problematic the overpowering emphasis on hijras as the archetypal ‘third sex’ which she claims is a disservice to the sheer complexity of their lives and their entrenchment within their social milieux. This is not to suggest that hijras do not occupy a ‘third sex’ space within Indian society, but that space has also been overwhelmingly reified by Euro-American theorists who seek and discover in thehijras of India, the kathoeys of Thailand, the xaniths of Oman and the berdaches of native North America an alternative to their own two-gender systems. In this respect her work is a move away from the methodology of Nandaa, whose pioneering work located hijra identity firmly within this thirdness. Similar assessments have also been made by many transgender academics situated within the Euro-American context whose interventions have critiqued the romanticisation of the ‘generic transgender native’ and the reduction of the complexity of their livesb

Reddy suggests that hijra identity is shaped not only through the axes of gender and sexuality, but that hijras also negotiate their identities as part of other axes, for instance religion, kinship, class and hierarchies of respect. Her work is also different for another reason. She is extremely reluctant to impose an artificial consistency onto hijra identity. She suggests that hijra identities are extremely fluid and erasing these contradictions will expunge imperative techniques through which hijra identity is negotiated.

Reddy’s narrative of hijras locates them firmly within broader sex/ gender kinship networks of the region, emphasising their ties with other communities of people who also undermine the binary conception of gender. She suggests that to the hijra mind, the gender system consists of pantis, or ‘real men’, kotis or ‘nonmen’ and narans or ‘all women’. hijras are part of what she terms as the ‘koti family’, which include a range of communities in the region who might identify as ‘non-men’. These includekada-catla kotis, described by one hijra wittily as ‘kings by day and queens by night’. Literally kotis who do not wear catla or women’s clothes, these are feminine men who desire to be penetrated by pantis, even as some of them may be married to women. Reddy also counts zenanas or feminine singers and dancers who do not necessarily wear catla or castrate themselves, and jogins, men who are ritually married to the goddess Yellamma and usually wear women’s clothes, as part of these cartographies. hijras themselves are distinguished askandra hijras, who engage in sex work, and badhai hijras who ostensibly earn their livelihoods through bestowing fertility on newlyweds and newlyborn babies. The boundaries between these groups are porous however and many hijra lives are testament to the fluidity of these identities.

This is however where one begins to regret the lack of historicism that unfortunately plagues parts of this book. While Reddy does offer some background to the history of hijras in India, not enough of a background to the emergence of the ‘koti family’ is provided. Reddy seems to have used the expression ‘koti family’ partly to justifiably avoid the political and theoretical problems associated with referring to larger kinship networks with whichhijras interact as transgender. Historically, the presence of hijras,zenanas, and jogins can be traced to at least the nineteenth century. However kotis are not part of this history and a recent anthropological inquiry by Lawrence Cohen attests to the growth of the koti concept nationally in confluence with the growth and spread of specific groups of anti-AIDS NGOs within the South Asian regionc. Unfortunately, the historicity of the ‘koti family’ remains uninterrogated in this study, especially as it seems that the hijras’  perception of themselves as part of this family is not universal. 

In arguing in favour of fluidity and hybridity, Reddy also makes some significant departures from the understanding of the gay and koti identities as being mutually exclusive. She disagrees with Dennis Altman who has suggested extensively that ‘Western style homosexuality’ emerged in the non-Western regions of the world accompanied by the creation of identities around sexuality and that the gay identity supplanted localised ways of understanding gender and sexualityd. She suggests that the archetypal models of the gay and koti identities are not consistently adopted and that they are not mutually exclusive either by looking at the lives of people who traverse both seemingly hostile worlds.

Reddy suggests that hijras construct sophisticated kinship ties with each other in their local communities which themselves are connected to nationwide networks of hijras. They form lifelongguru-chela or master-disciple relationships, by putting rits or markers of kinship in one of the seven hijra houses in India and by creating ‘milk’ ties of motherhood and sisterhood among themselves through rituals of nursing. hijras in Hyderabad and Secunderabad tend to identify as Muslims, especially in terms of what are widely associated as ‘Muslim’ practices such as sayingsalam aleikum, wearing green on special occasions, not wearingbindis, eating halal meat, performing namaz, undergoing ritual circumcision before castration and sometimes going on hajj. However at the same time they unproblematically worship a Hindu goddess Bedhraj Mata, otherwise known as Bahuchara Mata and draw on Hindu mythology to construct their histories.hijra lives are therefore a testament to the rich and complex processes through which many Indians reconcile seemingly irreconcilable religious beliefs and practices in their lives.

a Serena Nanda, Neither Man Nor Woman: The hijras of India, 2nd edition, New York, Wadsworth, 1999. 

b Evan B Towle & Lynn M Morgan, ‘Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the ‘Third Gender’ Concept’, GLQ, 8:4, 2002. 

c Lawrence Cohen, ‘The Kothi Wars: AIDS Cosmopolitanism and the Morality of Classification’ in Vincanne Adams & Stacy Leigh Pigg (Eds.), Sex in Development: Science, Sexuality and Morality in Global Perspective, Durham & London, Duke University Press, 2005.

d Dennis Altman, Global Sex, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Mario D’Penha is a queer feminist historian and activist. He was educated at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is currently pursuing his PhD in History at Rutgers University, New Jersey. He is also part of Nigah, a queer collective in New Delhi.