Indian outcasts challenge 'third sex' stigma to run for office

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2007, 12:00am

Dressed in an ivory salwar kameez - a traditional Indian dress - a matching shawl arranged elegantly around her shoulders and a subtle slick of pink gloss on her lips, Seema is a vision of graceful femininity amid the noisy men who crowd her campaign office.

With only days to go before the council elections - in which Seema is a candidate - everyone wants her attention. She speaks softly and slowly as she fields questions, moving one hand languidly through the air to make her point, while the other holds her stylish red handbag on her lap.

Seema is standing for the socialist Indian Justice Party in Zakir Nagar, one of 134 wards in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), one of the biggest municipal councils in the world.

She is also a hijra, one of between 500,000 and 1 million in India; no one gets to a closer number than this because census forms do not accommodate India's so-called 'third sex'. Whether they're castrated men - as many are thought to be - or transvestites, or hermaphrodites (born with ambiguous sexual characteristics), hijras are a fairly common - but nonetheless striking - sight in India's cities, dressed in colourful women's clothes and gaudy jewellery, however tall, broad or hairy they happen to be. Almost all are known by women's names and refer to themselves and one another using female pronouns.

Generally, most Indians only encounter hijras when they're trying to embarrass or scare them into giving money. They're a common sight asking for money at traffic lights, but with more front than most beggars: tapping their manicured hands on car windows and embarrassing drivers with their exaggeratedly sexy dance moves.

Money lenders have been known to send them around to collect unpaid debts; they turn up on the borrower's doorstep dancing, singing, beating drums and threatening to expose their genitals. Last year, authorities in Patna, the capital of Bihar, started employing eunuchs as tax collectors. They also appear at weddings and following births, muttering blessings or curses, depending on their unwilling hosts' generosity.

Hijras once held a special place in India's Mughal court as attendants of nobles and their ladies and harem guards. Because they could not start their own dynasties, some were placed in positions of great trust and power. But with the decay of the court, hijras lost their sway and their imperial function. Today, their capacity to shock and scare is the only power most possess. They're even lower in the social pecking order than dalits, formerly known as untouchables, and many have turned to prostitution to earn a living.

In recent years, however, hijras have become increasingly less willing to put up with their pariah status. Some have started calling for a number of government jobs and school places to be reserved for them, as they are for members of lower castes, arguing that hijras are even more disadvantaged and impoverished than dalits.

Like members of lower castes, too, a small but growing number of hijras are standing for political office. Three towns in the central state of Madhya Pradesh have elected eunuchs as councillors in the past few years and eunuch candidates are beginning to emerge in other states: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar - and now Delhi.

'This is my first campaign, but it's going very well,' said Seema, as she smoothed back her glossy black hair and adjusted her diamante earrings. 'Everyone seems to agree with what I say.'

Although low-caste politicians and political parties tend to mobilise voters by promising advantages to the particular group to which they belong, hijra politicians are different. Their identity is important - and made much of - but they tend to use it to make a wider appeal beyond any one group. Hijra candidates almost always run on a strong anti-corruption platform.

'I am different,' said Seema, echoing what her cultural forebears must have said to earn their place in the Mughal court hundreds of years ago. 'I don't have children of my own or anyone to look after, so I won't grab all the money, like other politicians. I'll spend it on the people.'

She waves to the lane outside her office located in a densely populated, working-class neighbourhood in south Delhi. Although there are few cars on the road, it's heavily congested with bicycle rickshaws, motorbikes and pedestrians. Like most poor areas of the capital there is rubbish everywhere, and overflowing drains, and flies that hover around the slabs of meat hanging in a halal butcher's shop. 'There are power cuts every day and there's not enough water,' she said. 'The roads need repairing and we need new buildings. This is what I see and this is what I hear when I speak to the people.'

Currently, Zakir Nagir has a Congress councillor. 'Congress hasn't done any of the things it promised to develop the area,' said Muhammed Kureshi, a fruit and vegetable seller. 'So, I'm going to vote for Seema.'

'People will vote because of the work of the candidate, not because they're a man or a woman,' said Aisha Idrees, a housewife. 'If she improves things here, no one will mind what she is.'

Others are less comfortable with the idea of a hijra representative. 'I agree with everything Seema says, but she doesn't have a gender,' said Muhammed Siddiqui, who runs one of Zakir Nagar's numerous tiny grocery shops.

Even if she does overcome prejudice, Seema is unlikely to win the elections this time round. With limited funds, her election is conducted with little of the usual fuss and noise of elections in India: there are few posters, no loudspeakers, and no car to drive her from area to area.

'I walk from house to house, talking to people,' she said. 'That, anyway, is the best way to reach them.'

And if she doesn't win this time, will she stand again? 'I will do whatever people want me to do,' she said.