Victory for eunuchs in India

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MARCO WERMAN: It's not every day that we hear a news story about eunuchs, but we did today. India's Election Commission has granted a political victory to the country's eunuchs and transgender individuals. It will now allow them to describe themselves as "other" instead of having to choose between male or female when filling out official documents. Eunuchs, or hijras as they're known, have long suffered from persecution and ridicule in India. Today's news is a big victory for them, according to The BBC's Rupa Jha in Delhi.

RUPA JHA: They have been trying to put forward this demand for long enough and as you just mentioned, that that part of the community were really ridiculed, and they didn't want to be called a male or a female, because they say that they are different. So I think they have really won a political and legal victory for themselves.

WERMAN: And Rupa, before we go on, help us understand. Give us a clear definition of what eunuch means in the Indian context, because in the west, it means a male that's been castrated. Who are these eunuchs or hijras?

JHA: See, in India, it's really a bit confusing term, but broadly speaking, these are those castrated men, but also those men who want to express themselves as women. You know, they dress like women, they feel like women. They're not necessarily castrated, but this community includes both, castrated and non castrated. And I think the broader term which they want to use for themselves is transgender and hijra in Hindi, as you've just said. It's a very old traditional thing. Hijras were always part of the emperors and the big kings in their palaces, so they have been there in Indian society for really long, long years.

WERMAN: So they will now be classified as "other" on these election ballots. It seems to formalize, or at least semi-formalize, the hijra's place in India's society, but will it actually change the way they are viewed, which typically has been on the margins of life there

JHA: It might not change things quite a lot, but at least this is a beginning, and I know this might help them in their long battle to earn a kind of respectability in the society.

WERMAN: Does it signal a change or a tilt toward a more liberal or open society, at least from the government's perspective?

JHA: Certainly, certainly, that's very true. It does signal that government and otherwise the policymakers are taking a stand and are actually recognizing that they are a different kind of minority community which have to be addressed in the way they want to be addressed.

WERMAN: How many hijras are we talking about in India today? Is there any kind of good estimate on their population?

JHA: There's not certainly any government census on hijras, but more or less it's said there are around 1 million people in India who can be under this category, 1 million.

WERMAN: I'm just wondering, I've read that a lot of people in India think the hijras possess supernatural powers. Does that mean a lot of people are simply scared of them, maybe the way that witches once projected that same idea here in the States?

JHA: Yeah, absolutely. General masses would not be interacting with hijras. They would think, "Oh my god, they have some supernatural powers," and it's really considered a bad omen if you get some bad words from a hijra. And that's the thing why they tend to give money, whenever the hijras approach general public. They just take out money and give them. There's also a traditional thing about hijras coming to your places when there's a newborn baby, to bless the baby. So it's a love and hate relationship with the community. General public would not like to interact with them, but at the same time, they think it's quite auspicious if they come and bless you when you are married or when you have a new child, so that is how the main society has been dealing with this community. It's love and hate.

WERMAN: Rupa Jha, BBC correspondent in Delhi, thank you very much for speaking with us.

JHA: Thank you very much.

WERMAN: This is PRI.