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India's Third Gender Are Still Second-Class Citizens, And We Need More Than Laws To Change That

02/08/2016 1:51 PM IST | Updated 04/08/2016 8:47 AM IST
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I saw her walk across the road, swaying her hips. She was dressed in a black sari that seemed to shimmer in the morning sun. As she approached my car, I pulled down my window and for a brief moment, my eyes met hers. And at that very moment, amidst the constant honking on the roads, her eyes spoke volumes...

On a busy working day, I sat in my vehicle waiting for the signal to turn green. It would be a long wait -- the timing system at the signal indicated 90 seconds. I was on one of Delhi's busiest roads near Tihar Jail, a mere 12km away from the seat of power, the Indian Parliament house, when I spotted her across the road. There was a group of them in fact. As the traffic came to a halt at the signal, they swarmed around vehicles, tapping on windows, clapping their hands to be heard.

"Why don't you find yourself a job?" I asked her. Instantly she shot back, "Would you employ me? No one wants to give our kind a job."

A generous couple in a swanky car pushed a ₹10 note out of the window and quickly rolled it up, lest they make any contact with their kind. A few others, whose windows were rolled down, pulled them up hurriedly, and turned their faces away as though they were lost in deeper thoughts. The ones who seemed to be the most harassed were those on two-wheelers and auto rickshaws. It was difficult to brush the group away, until you had parted with a currency note or two.

She tapped at my window, and I rolled it down when our eyes met. I found her pleasant to look at, despite the thick coating of face powder and the extra dark red lipstick she had on. A strong whiff of perfume caught my nose, and I briefly felt dizzy. I dug into my bag to pull out a ₹10 note. As I handed it over to her, she placed her hands on my head, blessing me with happiness in abundance. It was a brief moment of joy, for me as well as for her.

"Why don't you find yourself a job?" I asked her. "You are young and seem capable."

Instantly she shot back, "Would you employ me? No one wants to give our kind a job."

I stared at her, stunned. I had no answer. The signal turned to green and as I drove ahead, I saw her walk away to the other side of the road to those of "her kind".

The word "transgender" is a sort of an umbrella term that encompasses anyone whose gender identity does not fully match their assigned birth sex. This broad category includes transsexuals and cross -dressers too. But for centuries in India, all these terms with their subtle distinctions, have been brought under one broad category -- called "hijra". The community is often treated as criminals, subject to discrimination and abuse. You will often find them in poverty too. Not often do people want to see them or have anything to do with them.

Historically, the community has enjoyed reasonable dignity in mainstream society. If you look at the medieval ages, you have references where transgender people have been queens. Go back a thousand odd years, and the great epics such as the Mahabharata have references to the community. There are mythological tales of how gods would change their gender. The Vedas and Puranas, too, speak of third gender characters. They were considered to bring good luck. However, things slowly changed and attitudes took on their present-day distorted form, starting from around the British colonial period.

Until we begin to accept them as part of our society, no law is enough to give them the dignity they need so much.

But the winds of change seem to be blowing again. On 15 April, 2014, the Supreme Court of India handed down a landmark ruling, recognizing them as the third gender of the country. This decision granted India's transgender community the right to self-identity.

Though this was a big step, there is still a long way to go in restoring the dignity of the "third gender". They are still stigmatized by mainstream society and are often denied the basic rights of education and employment. There is even a certain element of hesitance to rent a home out to a transgender person.

Until we begin to accept them as part of our society, no law is enough to give them the dignity they need so much. They'll just be people you spot outside your car, clapping their hands, demanding your attention, as the windows roll up.

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