What India's 'Third Gender' Ruling Means

May 6, 2014
Originally published on May 6, 2014 3:48 pm

In a ruling last month, the Indian Supreme Court gave Indians the right to choose their gender and created a “third gender” category for those who don’t identify as either male or female.

Activists say there are at least 2 million people who qualify for that third category in India. They are either transgender, transsexual or cross-dressers. The word used in India for this group is hijira.

What does this ruling mean, and what is it about the region’s culture and politics that three nations in South Asia now have an official third gender category?

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks to two experts: Philip Lutgendorf, professor of Hindi and modern Indian studies at the University of Iowa, and Aniruddha Dutta, assistant professor in the Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies and Asian and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Iowa.


  • Philip Lutgendorf, professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa. He also writes a blog on Hindi films.
  • Aniruddha Dutta, assistant professor in the Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies and Asian and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Iowa.
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It's HERE AND NOW. In a ruling earlier last month in India, the Supreme Court gave Indians the right to choose their gender, creating a third gender category for those who didn't identify with being either male or female. Activists say there are at least two million people who qualify for the third category in India. They are either transgender, they identify with another gender; transsexual, they've changed their genders; or cross-dressers.

And there's a word in India for them: hijira. Let's bring in two experts to help us understand this ruling and explain the cultural context. Philip Lutgendorf is professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa. And Aniruddha Dutta, is assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Women's and Sexuality Studies and Asian and Slavic Languages and Literatures also at the University of Iowa. Both join us from the studios of Iowa Public Radio.

And Ani, let's start with you, born male, and we'll talk more about how you identify, but you've written that this is a complex and contradictory ruling. We'll get to that, as well. But first give us context. What was happening before the court ruling?

ANIRUDDHA DUTTA: Trans people, and they are all variety, you know, generally, whether they are kind of, you know, trans-women or trans-men or third gender or however they identity, generally experience extremely high levels of social discrimination and stigma, often exclusion from mainstream occupations.

Like, I am really lucky. I'm an exception because I was in a very supportive family setting, and I'm also, you know, in a relatively middle-class setup, and I went into academics, where it is not that much of a problem. But in many - lots of kind of mainstream occupations, it's a real problem. You know, there are dress codes, there are behavioral codes.

So a lot of trans people, and especially working-class poor or trans-women and hijiras are very much marginalized from mainstream occupations.

YOUNG: And we were - we also understand that, for instance, hospitals might - had the right before to just turn someone away if they were - yeah.

DUTTA: Yes, absolutely, absolutely, so if they were confused regarding which ward to put them in, in a male ward or a female ward. There have been cases where - I have known friends of mine who have been turned away, you know, from hospitals because they couldn't be categorized neatly, yeah.

YOUNG: So what are your friends saying now in India? What's - how's this been received there?

DUTTA: It's - there's a mixture of response because the judgment is actually quite unclear on certain points. So people are generally happy that at least it tries to give some self-determination of gender, as I said, that one can determine one's own gender identity, irrespective of the sex that has been assigned to them at birth.

However, the judgment is kind of conflicted regarding what procedures one might have to go through. So does one, for instance, need surgery, need to undergo surgery in order to identify as the quote-unquote opposite gender? It's very unclear. At one point it says no; at one point it says yes. So people are really concerned about what will this look like at the ground level.

YOUNG: But if you were in India, would this be something - you know, this is your field that you've studied. This is also your life in some ways. And is this a category that you would choose?

DUTTA: Yes, I would - well, depending on what the stipulations. So obviously right now I have male identification documents. Depending on how the procedures are, like if I have to prove my gender in front of a committee, I do not know how far I would want to go through that. But if possible I would definitely go for an identity card, which is other than other male or female personally.

YOUNG: Professor Lutgendorf, we've just heard the current cultural context, but give us some historical context. This has not always been an issue in India.

PHILIP LUTGENDORF: True. It's been handled in different ways. And one of the things that I study is storytelling traditions, especially the great epic traditions of ancient India, the "Mahabharata" and the "Ramayana." We find in them some instances of kind of gender transformation, sort of the slipperiness of gender, the relativity of gender.

Famous examples in the great epic "Mahabharata," for example, the hero Arjuna, who is a kind of hyper-masculine warrior character, at one point goes into disguise for a year as a woman, as a transvestite, but he actually becomes a eunuch through a divine boon. He's able to literally become a transgendered person, and he becomes a dancing instructor to a princess in drag.

And this is something that has always been enjoyed in popular performance traditions, the spectacle of this warrior transforming himself quite successfully into a feminine role. In the same epic, there is another character who goes from female to male, a princess who transforms herself into a male warrior in order to take revenge on another character, which is her destiny to do, and undergoes an actual gender transformation, what we would call today gender reassignment.

And that's a very pivotal and dramatic incident in the epic and again very popular in performance and storytelling traditions. There's also - I'd like to mention the pre-modern devotional traditions of poetry, in which there's the notion of God as male and souls as female. And so poets often take the female voice in order to express their emotions of love in a loving relationship, imagined as a heterosexual, loving relationship between God and the human soul.

YOUNG: We also understand, you've told us that in medieval times, there were religious figures that actually cross-dressed, and they were religious leaders.

LUTGENDORF: Yes, there were some, and in fact it continues into modern times. There were spiritual seekers, male seekers, who were transvestite and assumed feminine behavior as part of this broader religious perspective of devotion, usually to Krishna, the god Krishna. The most perfect way to express devotion toward him was as a woman, as a loving female companion. And so men took on this role of companions to Krishna and sometimes acted it out.

YOUNG: Fast forward to the colonial era, the British. How did they change this view?

LUTGENDORF: To put it somewhat simplistically, but I think there's a lot of truth to this, you know, British colonial regime launched a very massive critique of Hindu culture on many levels. Part of this critique was a gendered critique, where British culture was seen as masculine and assertive and scientific and rational, and Indian culture and especially Hindu culture, was viewed as effeminate and weak and corrupt and primitive.

Men in India were viewed as effeminized in many ways, and of course this created a tremendous response from Indian elites and from educated Indians, people who absorbed colonial instruction in colleges and English schools, and they became very, very defensive about this and very assertive of masculinity, and so it became - a lot of these older traditions where gender was a more fluid category became an embarrassment, you can say, in the 19th century, especially to middle-class, educated Indians.

YOUNG: Well, it sounds like more than an embarrassment. The British characterized the entire spectrum of the transgender community criminal. So...

LUTGENDORF: Well that's also true, yes.

YOUNG: That would set it back. But Aniruddha, as you say, you have reservations. But what are your positive thoughts about this? I mean, we're reading that the judge ordered that people can have separate facilities in hospitals, separate toilets in public. This has to be an advance.

DUTTA: Right, it is, and again, but it is also - I can't help having a mixed reaction to that, as well, because really ideally there should be element of self-determination there, as well. If a trans-woman feels comfortable in a female ward, that's where she should be and conversely for trans-men, you know. And also the practical feasibility of that. Will every hospital be able to actually build a separate ward. Until then, what happens?

YOUNG: So I'm hearing that this is a story that isn't completely written yet.

DUTTA: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

YOUNG: That's Aniruddha Dutta, assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Women's and Sexuality Studies and Asian and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Iowa. That's quite a bit of studies.


YOUNG: We've also been speaking with Philip Lutgendorf, professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa, as well. Thank you both.

DUTTA: Thank you.

LUTGENDORF: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.