Laverne Cox. Leelah Alcorn. Carmen Carrera. These women have been essential to the recent transgender rights movement in the West. And the stories of and so many like her are bringing to the forefront the violence, depression, and harassment that so many transitioning youth and adults face. As we continue to advocate for LGBTQIA rights in the West, movements with similar goals but different challenges are forming around the world.
In South Asia, there is the plight of the transgender community as it attempts to gain acceptance. Meera Darji, a budding filmmaker whom I had the pleasure to interview, is determined to capture the stories of hijras, or female to male transgenders, in Ahmedabad, India in a documentary called Transindia.
As a media studies student at Coventry University in England, Meera began researching topics of interest for her senior film project and discovered the rich stories of hijras in India. She immersed herself in research and discovered the tumultuous history of the group that can be traced from the Mughal Empire through the British Imperial State to modern day. She told me of some of this history:
“Before the British colonized India, in Mughal times, the hijras were very much accepted. They lived where the Raj used to live and used to go into the palace. They also were in ancient Hindu scriptures. So the Mahabharat and other traditional scriptures. Even the goddesses, they were implemented within that. They were, in fact, appreciated.”
Indeed, during the Mughal Empire (1526-1857), hijras, typically called eunuchs, were employed to manage the palace harems. They were seen as ideal candidates for the job because of the their inability to sexually assault the harem’s inhabitants. Hijras during the era were active in court-life often acting as advisors and confidantes to their masters, holding ritualistic status as granters of fertility, and owning land. However British Colonialism quickly dismantled the favorable status of hijras in South Asia. The Victorian Era culture that dominated British society at the time largely altered the future of hijras in India. The British Raj (1858-1947) attempted to remove hijras from society deeming them a public indecency. Under Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, hijras were forced to register with the government and their movements were strictly monitored. Despite the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act in 1952 and the recognition of hijras as a “third gender” by the Indian Supreme Court in 2014, the stigmatization of hijras during the British Raj has lasting effects.
Despite this difficult history, Meera also found an uncommon joy and optimism in hijras and was hooked. Through family in India was able to get in contact with hijras in Ahmedabad. She described the early stages of her contact to me:
“My granddad goes to the temple [everyday] and there’s a group of hijras nearby. I told him about the film and asked for his help. He went there the next day and said to them, ‘My granddaughter is making this documentary, would you be interested?’ And I get a call at like 5 AM and he gives them the phone and I’m speaking to her on the phone and she’s telling me her life story in like five minutes. I’m like ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’ This is definitely what I want to do.”
Soon a vision was formed with the goal of capturing the stories and lives of these women.
Today, hijras live in tight-knit communities throughout India. They survive by begging and working as performers and sex workers. They are unable to attain other work due to prejudice against trans individuals, despite often being highly trained and well-educated.
In recent years, the transgender community in India has gradually gained visibility. Hijras are seen in roles in popular television shows such as Jodha Akbar. The morning talk show Satyamev Jayate dedicated an episode to discussing the acceptance of alternative gender identities winning widespread attention and support. And most recently, Madhu Bai Kinnar, a transgender woman was elected mayor of Raigarh in Chattisgarh, India.
These changes are promising, but the majority of hijras continue to face disproportionate violence that is not only brutal, but also inescapable occurring in public settings, police stations, prisons, and even their own homes. Though hijras are ostracized, they persevere in their optimism and solidarity as a community.
Meera hopes to bring to light the stories, happiness and strong communities of the women she films. But she faces many challenges as a British filmmaker attempting to tell the stories of Indian women. She knows that she may be met with some animosity:
“I was thinking about how they would react and I don’t know how to answer. They may be like, ‘how can you come over here and you’re British!’”
So often, Western filmmakers enter foreign settings with well-intentioned, but misguided ideas about the stories they are hoping to tell. But Meera’s understanding of her unique position as a foreigner, despite her ethnically Indian identity, has guided her to approach the film with a hands-off approach. She shared:
“The documentary is going to be observational with some interviews. The main goal is to film them during their daily routines and actually seeing their lives as they are. We’ll see how they survive in the house. I know some of them live 20 or 30 together. So that’ll be interesting to see how they live and how they survive. They also said to me that they have a function when a hijra is transitioning. They do this big ceremonial event where they’re presented a sari and they said they’ll organize one when we’re there. They go to marriage and birth ceremonies so we’ll see them there singing and dancing.”
Meera intends to tell a story of the Indian transgender community and the role of a rich culture and lack of acceptance in their lives. As India and the rest of the world continue to make progress towards acceptance of all gender identities the stories of men and women from all corners of the world must be told in order to breed compassion.
Upon completion, the documentary will be entered in film festivals around the world and the filmmaker hopes to administer screenings in the Indian villages where animosity towards hijras is often at the highest. Meera continues in her campaign to raise funds for the film and to assist its subjects.
The ultimate goal: to give the transgender women of India domestic and global visibility in an organic, enlightening way. And we can’t wait to see the result.