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Where have Kerala’s Hijras gone?

K.P.M. Basheer

KOCHI: After a quarter century of tortured life as a woman trapped in a man’s body in a Kerala village, Geeta had fled to Chennai 16 years ago.

There, a small group of Hijras took her in. They sheltered her, burned her shirt and trousers, dressed her up in a sari and blouse and gave her the present name. Eventually, they nudged her into prostitution, at that time the easiest job available to a Hijra. She hated it initially, but found comfort in the identity as a Hijra (pronounced Hijda, meaning a transsexual person) and felt secure in sari-blouse and in the company of people of her own gender.

“Life in my village, near Thiruvananthapuram, was horrible,” Geeta recalls. “I was taunted, insulted and physically harassed at school, home and on the street, just because I talked and behaved like a woman.” Raised as a male and given a male name and male clothes, she yearned to be a woman though. She was more comfortable with cooking and housework at home than going out and doing the guy things.

“People in Kerala only accept males and females and not us, the trans-gendered people who are humans too,” she says in her Tamil-blended Malayalam. “It was my own family that insulted and harassed me the most, as they considered me as a curse.” Finally, when the family found a bride for her and the wedding date was fixed, Geeta tried to commit suicide, but ended up in hospital. One night, she left home and took a train to Chennai. Sixteen years on, Geeta is now an activist of a Chennai-based NGO that works for the welfare of trans-gendered people.

Speaking to The Hindu, Geeta, who was in Kerala recently, says: “My family never allowed me to visit them for fear of damage to the family honour. They did not even inform me of my father’s death.”

Geeta’s experience is typical of most transsexual people born in Kerala. (A transsexual person, according to Wikipedia, “identifies as, or desire to live and be accepted as, a member of the sex opposite to that assigned at birth.”) Because of the socio-cultural taboos, they migrate to Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad or up north where, in spite of a rough life, they are allowed an existence as transsexuals. “A number of `M2F’s (male-to-female transsexuals, or Hijras) living in the ‘Hamams’ in Bangalore and other parts of Karnataka are Malayalis who had fled from social persecution,” an activist of Sangama, a Bangalore-based NGO for minority sexual groups, says.

Worse in the State

Though transsexual people face harassment and ridicule everywhere in the country, in Kerala it is worse. Because of the stigmatisation, there are no Hijra communities in Kerala as in other States. “Most Keralites do not even recognise that there could be transsexual people in Kerala’s population like in any human population in any part of the world,” says Sunil Menon, founder of the Chennai-based NGO, Sahodaran.

“The State has a stiff upper lip when it comes to sexual minorities and it is a really stifling place for transsexuals.” As a result, he points out, transsexual people either migrated to other States where there are social spaces for them, or lived anonymously and invisibly in their personal hells in Kerala.

Asserting one’s sexual identity could be quite traumatic in Kerala. For instance, Nandini (name changed) of Alappuzha, who underwent an SRS (sex reassignment surgery) at a Kochi hospital 10 years ago, said she was thrown out of home after the surgery. “My family threatened to kill me if I ever dared to return home,” she says. However, following a media exposure of her woes, the panchayat recently assigned her three cents of land.

Fearing social ostracism, Saleem (name changed) has always tried to hide his (he wears shirt and trousers in public, though he considers himself a woman) M2F character in his village in Kozhikode district, though his parents are aware of it. Previously, he used to visit Kozhikode city in the evenings by putting on a ‘nightie’ bangles and anklets. “When I get off the bus at Kozhikode bus stand, I would transform into a woman,” he says. Back in his village, he would return to his male role. Despite his protests, his parents forced him into marriage a few years back and his wife has now learned to live with his M2F character. Saleem says he has a ‘husband’ in Kozhikode with whom he is deeply in love.

M. Shilujas of Kozhikode, a former anti-HIV campaigner, says since there was no space for M2Fs in Kerala, they are forced to migrate, mainly to Bangalore, where many of them got SRS done. Sunil Menon says the anti-AIDS campaign over the past 15 years had a positive impact on the lives of Hijras—it focussed public attention on their woes and led to the launch of several welfare measures for them. There were also more career options for them now. In Tamil Nadu, the government issued ration cards to transsexuals, mentioning their gender, and there was even a housing scheme for them.

“But in Kerala, society does not even recognise transsexuals’ existence,” he says.

Small wonder then, transsexuals are not visible in Kerala.

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