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SEPTEMBER 18, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 11

In From the Outside
India's long mistreated eunuchs are teaming up to demand equal rights and better health care

When zeenat showed up at a Bombay hospital, the doctors faced an odd quandary—whether to put her with the male patients or the female ones. Zeenat is one of the transsexuals in India known as hijras, or eunuchs, who are generally treated as objects of great entertainment. "First, everyone at the hospital laughed, as they always do when they see a eunuch," remembers Zeenat. "Then they worried about hiv. Then they argued over which ward to put me in. I was nearly delirious with fever. I shouted, 'Just dig a hole in the middle and bury me there.'"

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CHINA: Cloak and Dagger
Missionary 007s are converting more and more Christians

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Philip Bowring praises efforts to lift the birth rate

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Doomed to lives of isolation and public ridicule, transsexuals can be forgiven if they occasionally long for a quiet burial. But India's hijras are finally beginning to speak up. Zeenat quickly realized that her experience at the hospital had larger implications: the back-alley doctors frequented by hijras, many of whom have had to enter the sex trade to earn a living, do not have the facilities to treat hiv infection; in hospitals, the issue of male and female wards would only crop up again and again. So, a year ago Zeenat and several other eunuchs in Bombay formed the Dai Welfare Society, a transsexual mutual-aid organization. Last month the group sponsored the first ever "Eunuchs Conference," where more than 100 hijras gathered to demand recognition as a group deserving equal opportunities for education, jobs and housing. "All we want is to be treated as human beings," says Shabeena Joseph, the group's president. "We want to open bank accounts, possess a passport and find jobs."

Transsexuals in India inhabit a gray area—accepted as long as they keep to the edges of mainstream society—and they have never really sought assimilation. Historically, hijras were paid by kings to guard harems (which is why they are still called eunuchs) or supported by people who hired them to dance at weddings or to celebrate the birth of a son. Those traditions have died away, and without any other source of income, most now have to beg or become sex workers in order to survive. That puts them at high risk for aids. Although hijras have not been tested as a group, in Bombay's red light district more than 60% of sex workers are hiv positive. "This is such a closed group, they were always left out of our campaign," says Pramod Nigudkar, deputy director of Mumbai Districts aids Control Society. "Now that they are seeing their colleagues dying, the eunuchs are willing to do something about it themselves."

That urgency has broadened the hijras' demands. Zeenat and her friends initially approached some activists working with prostitutes in Bombay, who told them to meet Nigudkar. He trained them to be "peer educators." But when they went back to their community to spread the word about safe sex, no one was willing to listen. "We realized that until we offered other kinds of support, hiv education would not work," says Shabeena Joseph. The aids Control Society suggested that the eunuchs set up a voluntary group for welfare projects and helped them to write a proposal that won them an initial $13,000 to run a program on aids awareness. "Our job is to deal with hiv," explains the society's director Alka Gogate. "But this is such a vulnerable and marginalized group, we are encouraging them to come forward and deal with other issues as well."

The hijras certainly have many to choose from. When hijras try to apply for jobs, watchmen often refuse to let them enter offices. Every application form asks whether they are male or female. When they walk along the streets, people snigger. If they try to strike up a conversation, people shrink away in horror. Even if a eunuch has money, she cannot eat at a good restaurant, visit the theater or enter a boutique. "We believe we are women, and we hate to be laughed at when we are only trying to look beautiful," says Priya, the general secretary of Dai Welfare Society. "Now we say, 'If you don't want to recognize us as girls, treat us as a separate category and give us quotas for jobs and colleges.'

If society needs to change its perspective on eunuchs, the hijra community also has problems within its own highly structured hierarchy. Young boys suffering from gender-identity crises must find a guru, the hijra who will introduce them into the insular community and help them through the castration ritual. Each guru, in turn, has her own teacher. At the top of the hierarchy is a powerful leader, called Nayak. The Dai Welfare Society says it is crucial that the seven main Nayaks in Bombay agree that eunuchs should enter the mainstream. They made a start at the conference last month when three of the bigwigs turned up. Now they have larger plans: providing fellow eunuchs with a lending agency, psychological counseling and help starting businesses. Shabeena Joseph frets about finding money to start these projects. "We need guidance and information," she says. India's long-suffering eunuchs have, however, made an impressive start on their own.

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