People's Union for Civil Liberties

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Reflections on the PUCL Report by Lynn Conway

June, 2004
Lynn Conway
Law Section: 

Dear friends,

In September 2003, the Peoples� Union for Civil Liberties, Karnataka (PUCL-K) published a truly remarkable report on human rights violations against the transgender community in India.  In the spring of 2004, I was fortunate to obtain a hardcopy of the report, and I wish to alert you to it via this webpage.

The 117 page PUCL report begins by providing background on the social, cultural and political context of the Kothis and Hijras. It then documents violence and abuse against these peoples via testimonies of many who have been directly affected, and goes on to discuss the institutional basis of all this violence. The report then documents efforts by the Kothi and Hijra to organize and protest the violence and discrimination that they face. It also documents many useful recommendations on how to improve the plight of transgender people in India. The report concludes with many useful appendices of valuable information, including contact information for Kothi and Hijra support organizations.

The PUCL report provides valuable insights into Hijra life. Many of you may not realize that the Hijra traditions and community go back 4000 years in India. Hijra practices include a tradition innovated thousands of years ago for surgically intervening in cases of transsexualism so as to effect a "sex change" from male towards female.  You will learn in this report that the practice of a "one-year real-life test", which we think of as part of the "modern HBIGDA tradition", may itself have originated in ancient Hijra traditions. This time-test is practiced there to this day, in this case under Hijra gurus instead of psychiatric "gatekeepers". (For more background on the Hijra, see Lynn&;s pages on Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment Surgery, and links you&;ll find there).

There are roughly one million Hijra in India, representing approximately one in every 400 postpurbertal persons born male there. This very large prevalence (~1:400) of the Hijra in India, most of whom have undergone &;nirvan&; (a sex change by ancient surgical means), is strong evidence that the intense transgender condition is far more prevalent (by about two orders of magntitude) than traditional western psychiatrists and psychologists have ever been willing to admit.  These large numbers also speak of the countless tragedies occurring in the current climate of oppression, degradation and violence against transgender women, not only in India but in many other traditional societies all around the world.  

The PUCL Report reveals all too clearly the trap that transgender women often fall into in traditional societies:   They become outcasts, because they have no family to harbor them, and then - having no means of support - become labeled as a sex object and forced by circumstances into sex work in order to survive. When young and nubile, transgender women may take some degree of comfort in their acceptance as a women by the men who use them sexually, not realizing the long-term difficulties that they will face later in life as they ages in a society that offers no other kind of work for them to engage in (other than begging).

While reading this amazing report, you will be struck with how similar in many ways is the plight of the Hijra to that of young transgender women in many western countries, where so many are similarly forced onto the streets of our big cities.  Thrown away by their families, and unable to obtain proper documentation, education and employment, many kids must resort to sex work in violent environments in order to survive.  See, for example, the recent Southern Poverty Law Center investigative report "Disposable People: A wave of violence engulfs the transgendered, whose murder rate may outpace that of all other hate killings", about the plight of minority transgender youth in Washington, D.C.  

The life-long social entrapment of many transgender women into sex work in countries like India reinforces the stigmatization of their entire community as outcasts there, creating a veritable caste system of transgender sex workers.  The ongoing entrapment of one in every few hundred transgender kids into becoming willing sex objects for the local males thus works to the great advantage of the patriarchal society in which it occurs.  However, the women themselves are trapped into a lowly caste from which they cannot escape and which provides them few options for a full and normal life over the long term.  

This fate befalls them simply because they are transgender, and thus see becoming a Hijra as being far preferable to the worse fate (to them) of remaining male. Since prostitution is "illegal" in most traditional societies, the police become a state-supported mechanism for enforcing sex worker traditions:  The police do not protect the women from abuse, but instead victimize them if they don&;t keep in line or if they protest the system. As a result, the police are the source of many abuses against transgender women in India, as elsewhere.

After reflecting on these difficulties, the PUCL report has many positive things to offer - especially in its recommendations about how the situation of the Hijra and Kothi can be improved in the future. It also implicitly suggests how very large are the numbers of transgender people worldwide, and how similar are their problems in many other countries.  If we could find ways to band together in solidarity on a more global scale, we could press more firmly for changes within each separate country. This report provides much food for thought as we contemplate these possibilities.

Upon reading the PUCL report, I immediately contacted one of the principal authors, Arvind Narrain, to discuss how it might be made more widely available outside India. Only 1000 copies had been printed in each of the English and Kannada versions, and I wondered if there were a way to make it available in electronic form for distribution via the internet.  Arvind most kindly sent me the complete postscript form of the report, and I volunteered to host it for distribution via my website. You can retrieve the report - in a nicely formatted PDF version for reading and printing - at the links given above.

I highly recommend that you read and study this remarkable report.  Many thanks to Arvind Narrain (ALF), Shakun (Vimochana), Muddappa (DISC), Babaiah and Sreedhara (PDF), Famila (Sangama) and Ramdas Rao (PUCL-K) for their labor of love and compassion in producing it.


Lynn Conway


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