Book review:
Neither Man Nor Woman: the Hijras of India
by Serena Nanda

Newsgroups: rec.arts.books,soc.culture.india,,
From: (Prentiss Riddle)
Subject: "Neither Man Nor Woman: the Hijras of India" by Serena Nanda
Message-ID: <>
Date: Thu, 19 Dec 1991 16:07:57 GMT
I just finished reading a fascinating book called Neither Man Nor Woman: the Hijras of India by Serena Nanda (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing 1990, ISBN 0-534-12204-3).

For those of you who may not have heard of them, the hijras are a group of people in India who constitute a third gender category, considered by themselves and by others to be neither men nor women. The term "hijra" is often translated as "eunuch" and the archetypal hijra is raised as a man and undergoes ritual removal of the genitals to become a hijra. However, as Nanda shows, many hijras come from other sexually ambiguous backgrounds: they may be born intersexed, be born male or female and fail to develop fully at puberty, or be males who choose to live as hijras without ever undergoing the castration procedure. The cultural category "hijra" appears to be a magnet for a variety of sexual and gender conditions: ambiguous sexual anatomy, impotence, infertility, homosexuality, and others which may not have an analogue in Western cultures.

The traditional role of hijras in Indian society is to sing and dance at weddings and ceremonies surrounding the birth of a boy. They dress as women and their performances include comic parodies of the manners and body language of women. They are believed to have special powers to ward off or expose impotence and infertility. Hijras constitute a sect within Hinduism, worshipping Bahuchara, an aspect of the Hindu mother goddess, but many hijras come from Muslim backgrounds and/or consider themselves Muslims. Their status in Hindu society is ambivalent: although they are revered for their special powers, they are also feared, in part because they may use extortion-like methods the exercise their right to perform and earn their fees. The typical threat is to cause a scandal at a public function by exposing their altered genitals. They have the reputation of recruiting new hijras by kidnapping and emasculating boys, although Nanda found no evidence that this is true.

Not all hijras also earn their living as performers. Other common hijra occupations include begging and prostitution. The sexuality of hijras is another area of seeming paradox: hijras claim the religious status of sannyasis or ascetics, having taken the extreme step of removing their genitalia. Nevertheless many hijras work as prostitutes, many have non-hijra men as husbands, and many seem to be attracted to hijra life after becoming homosexually active in adolescence.

Nanda's book is a very readable anthropological monograph. After background chapters on the culture, religion and biological status of hijras, she treats us to four separate portraits of individual hijras. Then she sums up with an intercultural comparison of hijras with other alternative gender roles including the berdache of native North America and the transsexuals of modern Western societies. One intriguing point is that although many societies accept the ambiguity of gender by institutionalizing a third gender role, Western society seems quite fixated on the concept that every human being is either male or female. Even homosexuals and transsexuals in Western society are considered to be firmly of one gender or the other, transsexuals in particular being required to assert their complete identification with their non-birth gender before being considered for surgery. The idea that individuals could have mixed or alternative gender identities, although common in many cultures, is quite foreign to the West.

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in sexuality, anthropology or India.

-- Prentiss Riddle ("aprendiz de todo, maestro de nada")
-- Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.