As of April 15, India now recognizes transgender people as individuals that deserve full rights and recognition under the law. The momentous court ruling views transgender people as a third neutral gender, neither male nor female, and alters government documents to give the option of identifying as a third gender. Article 15 of India’s Constitution states antidiscrimination rights on the basis of caste, race, religion, and sex, but discrimination was still prevalent among the Hijras, which have a long history in India. When handing down the court’s ruling, Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan proclaimed, “Transgenders are citizens of this country … and recognition as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue.”
The Hijras had a long and storied history in India. There are stories about them in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They were normally devotees of the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata or Shiva, identifying with these gods’ gender ambiguity in their various incarnations. During British control over India, the British Raj tried to eliminate the Hijras, believing they were indecent and giving legal sanction to the discrimination that continues today. The over 3 million Hijras are easy targets for discrimination, as their culture promotes unusually bright colored attire and performing certain religious and cultural activities. Often these activities make them extremely visible in communities that contain hostile elements, leaving the Hijras vulnerable to abuse and violence.
Third gender people are recognized and a vital part of numerous cultures throughout the world. Outside the Indian subcontinent, Amerindian populations in North and South American recognize third genders, such as the Zuñi male-bodied Łamana, the Lakota male-bodied winkte and the Mohave male-bodied alyhaa and female-bodied hwamee. The Zapotec’s In Mexico include a third gender, the Muxe. With the court ruling, India joins several South Asian countries to give limited (but important none-the-less) recognition to a third gender, including Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. The first western nation to give limited recognition of third gender identity was Germany, when last year they allowed parents to mark “indeterminate” on birth certificates. The India court, by declaring that “transgender is generally described as an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to their biological sex,” has taken a small but vital step in the recognition of common human rights. Or as Anitha Shenoy, one lawyer who helped argue the case, more elegantly states it, “This is an extremely liberal and progressive decision that takes into consideration the ground realities for transgender people in India…The court says your identity will be based not on your biology but on what you choose to be.”
Ferraro, Gary and Andreatta, Susan. Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective (9th Ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012.
Limaye, Yogita. “India court recognizes transgender people as third gender.” BBC News, April 15, 2014.
Lalwani, Nikita. “India’s Supreme Court: Transgender is a Third Legal Gender.” The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2014.