Drag Queen & Hijra: Neither Man Nor Woman

Hijra, a trans woman or man is a term used in South Asian culture and the term ‘drag queen’ is a socially accepted term however much derogatory in Western divides.. Gender and sexuality debates, have centered upon drag or ‘hijras’ as two distinct cultural categories that unsettle our preconceived notions of the masculine and the feminine.

Drag queen and ‘hijras’ performances open up spaces where we as a larger society “can watch a small group and become aware” of ourselves and understand that all “performance is an illusion . . .and might be considered more ‘truthful,’ more ‘real’ than ordinary experience.

The hijra figure is not the Indian counterpart of, nor the Indian answer to, the drag queen. The cultural nuances involved in the hijra lifestyle, including its ritualistic and religious are similar BUT not exactly the same, in the concept of the drag queen.

Also hard to believe at first but the United Nations had actually included transgenders, India’s third gender, in the list of mental illnesses. The World Health Organisation (WHO), which is the public health agency of the United Nations (UN), is considering making the change in a revised categorization of mental and behavioural disorders to be released in 2018.

Where does the word Hijra originate from? The word “hijra” is an UrduHindustani word derived from the Arabic root hjr in its sense of “leaving one’s tribe,” and has been borrowed into Hindi. The Indian usage has traditionally been translated into English as “eunuch” or “hermaphrodite,” where “the irregularity of the male genitalia is central to the definition.” However, in general ‘hijras’ are born with typically male physiology, only a few having been born with intersex variations.

Studying the hijra alongside the drag queen will in no way mean fuse drive a fusion of the 2 categories. A comparative of the hijra versus the drag queen does not advocate critical meaningfulness of one over the understandings of gendered and sexed identities. Drag queens are individuals with an acknowledged penis whereas ‘hijras’ are framed as impotent and eunuchs.

The hijra community is an integrated and inseparable part of the Indian social fabric and is related to the variety and significance of alternative gender roles & transformations in Indian mythology, religion and traditional culture.


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The term more commonly advocated by social workers and transgender community members themselves is khwaaja sira (Urdu: خواجہ سرا‎) and can identify the individual as a transsexual person, transgender person (khusras), cross-dresser (zenanas) or eunuch (narnbans). In different areas of India, transgender people are also known as Aravani, Aruvani or Jagappa.

Identity formation and proclamation in a transgender community

‘Hijra’s‘ live in well-defined, organised all-hijra communities, led by a guru. These communities have sustained themselves over generations by “adopting” young boys who are rejected by, or flee, their family of origin. Many work as sex workers for survival.

The ‘hijra’ community due to its peculiar place in sub-continental society, which entailed marginalisation but royal privileges developed a secret language known as Hijra Farsi. The language has a sentence structure loosely based on Urdu and a unique vocabulary of at least a thousand words.

‘Hijras’ belong to the category of sexually “ambivalent” men–minus man–who dress up as women and enjoy religious and cultural legitimacy. The blessings of ‘hijras’ in Hindu marriage and birth ceremonies are part of a ritual obligation.

Transgender people have greater legal power than gays & lesbians. In Pakistan, India & Bangladesh, the hijra’s are officially recognized as third gender, being neither completely male nor female are protected by law but suffer social ostracism.

Bangladeshi ‘hijras’, are in most cases are not being allowed to seek healthcare at the private chambers of doctors, and experiencing abuse if they go to government hospitals. In Pakistan, a trans woman was denied treatment and died while medical staff argued as to which ward the individual belonged to, whether she should be placed in a female or male ward.

On 15 April 2014, the Supreme Court of India ruled that transgender people should be treated as a third category of gender and as a “backward” class entitled to proportional access and representation in education and jobs.

In India, ritual and religious respect is not given to them, they negotiate and command this respect in order to empower their marginal identities as a parallel society.

‘Hijras’ belong to a special caste and are usually devotees of the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata, Lord Shiva, or both. Some ‘hijras’ undergo an initiation rite into the hijra community called nirwaan, which refers to the removal of the penis, scrotum and testicles.

While a few ‘hijras’ are born intersexed (which is rare), most are men who undergo voluntary castration and penectomy while “possessed” by the Goddess Bahuchara. They consider themselves to be sexually impotent.

One of the forms of the Hindu God, Lord Shiva is a merging with the consort, Mother Parvati where together they are called ‘Ardhanari’, a god that is half Shiva and Half Parvati. Ardhanari has special significance as a patron of ‘hijras’, who identify with the gender ambiguity. For many ‘hijras’ the quality of being half man and half woman is a source of infinite strength that endows on them the divine power to give a shraap (curse).

shiva shakti

Hijras of the Ramayana 

In some versions of the Ramayana, when Rama returns to Ayodhya, he finds that the ‘hijras’, being neither men nor women, have not moved from the place where he gave his speech. Impressed with their devotion, Rama grants ‘hijras’ the boon to confer blessings on people during auspicious inaugural occasions like childbirth and weddings. This boon is the origin of badhaiin which ‘hijras’ sing, dance, and give blessings.

Drag queens, like Hijra performances, often make us think about the various ways in which gender is played out and “naturalized” in society.  In simple terms, drag relies heavily on the ability to shock and scandalize. The techniques for resisting pre-given identity limits used by drag queens mostly consist of an exaggeration and a deliberate overplay of the “feminine.”

This can certainly be read as an instrument of “male” power so that men can pose as, and seemingly be, “better” women than women themselves. Drag may tell us how gendered identity is constructed by cultural and social conditioning but it also paradoxically often re-legitimates gender as an essential category with its focus on exaggerated forms of the feminine.

Unlike many drag queens, many ‘hijras’ are visible manifestations of the fiction of gender in their person. Some of them do use the masculine attributes when talking of themselves or addressing each other.  While the drag queen typically performs in marginalized settings, ‘hijras’ have the right to perform in mainstream cultural ceremonies.

The drag queen and the hijra have different modus operandi but both appear to have the same goal of de-legitimizing polarized and normalizing gender stereotypes.


About Naufal Khan

Publisher & editor of Indian Spice.

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