Portraits depict the 'quiet dignity' of India's third gender hijra community

Transgender, transsexual, third gender — for centuries in India, the many subtle distinctions of the trans community have fallen into one category: the hijra.

A hijra can be an individual born with dual or ambiguous genitalia, a eunuch, someone who has undergone gender-related surgery or a cross-dresser. Hijras are often featured in Bollywood movies, as well as A.R. Rahman and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Bombay Dreams.

In a poignant portrait series, “Nirvan, the Third Gender of India,” photographer Jill Peters interviewed Indian hijras. Peters noticed on a visit to India that hijras face constant discrimination and difficulty, even though they have been a visible part of India’s culture for centuries. Her project’s goal is to reverse the stigma.

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“Hijras are culturally seen as having the combined powers of men and women,” Peters told Refinery29. “Because they can’t have children, they are believed to have the power to bestow or deny good fortune and fertility.

“This is why they are paid generously to dance at weddings: to ensure future offspring. To incur the wrath of a hijra means to invoke a curse upon oneself of impotence and infertility.”

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The Big Bang Theory‘s Kunal Nayyar married in a traditional Indian ceremony, and as soon as he arrived in New Delhi for the festivities he and his future wife were blessed by local hijras. Nayyar recalls the experience in his book:

In New Delhi, every neighborhood has a group of eunuchs called hijras, who, according to tradition, show up before the wedding to bless the bride and groom. Except this “blessing” isn’t exactly free; you have to pay them to go away, and if you refuse to give them cash, you not only don’t get a blessing, they will plague your wedding with a curse. We had known this particular band of hijras for years. They’re friendly neighbors. It was a custom to get their blessing.

Hijras are often found living together in communities that function like a caste.

“They live in communal households, sharing chores and responsibilities, headed by a central mother figure, or guru,” Peters said. “A guru is an older hijra who they are usually indebted to. They must earn money and bring it back to the guru to pay their debt. Unlike in the West, their communities are built around religion.”

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“It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a person of the third gender to find employment,” Peters said. “Protections from sexual harassment on the job do not exist. A hijra is particularly vulnerable to these abuses because often she can’t go to the police, complaints are often met with further abuse by the police themselves.”

“Overall they hope for real change,” she added. “They hope one day they will have equal access to education, employment and healthcare.”

The full slideshow of portraits is available on Peters’ website.

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