Updated: May 8, 2019
Across the globe there are several theories regarding the kinship structure of the trans families, their operational methods and their modes of income for livelihood. While many countries today have been open to accept such communities there are several others who are pretty conservative in accepting them in their society.
A detailed research conducted in January 2019 on a focused group of trans families in the state of West Bengal in India relays several insightful details that are as equally interesting as they are informative.
The community of trans families are titled as ‘Hijra’ in West Bengal, India.
A travel back to the past would state that history has witnessed the existence of same sex relationships and has felt the presence of Transgender persons since eternity. The Kamasutra mentions about the existence of homosexual relationships and provides thorough description of oral sex between men and considers such men to belong to the ‘third nature’. In the medieval period, the presence of the Transgender community was felt in the Muslim courts. In such courts, the practice of slavery grew and most of the slaves were eunuchs. The eunuchs had been given important responsibilities in the court. It was during the Muslim rule that the word ‘Hijra’ had been used for eunuchs. However, with the invasion of the British, the attitude of Indians towards the community also changed. The British dictated Indian sexuality by promoting only heterosexual-monogamous relationships and prohibiting any kind of homosexual expression (in reality and in myths). The Indians too imbibed their model and became victims of homophobia. Section 377, a part of the IPC, was enacted by the colonial government, in 1860 by Lord Macaulay, as a result of homophobia. A lot of developments have happened since.
The Guru- Chela Relationship
A relationship central to the ‘Hijra’ community is that of the hierarchical relationships of gurus (teachers) and chelas (disciples). The guru-chela relationship had actually been created to fill in the void of family which the Hijras had renounced to pursue their identity. Like a familial relationship, a guru-chela relationship is supposed to be mutually fulfilling, reciprocal and consists of various dimensions. The kinship relationship existing between a Guru and a Chela is found to be significant as it helps each of them to validate their own identity and existence. Having faced rejection from family and society, the acceptance of the Guru is pivotal to the Chela. The Guru, who has faced neglect and has been attributed to discriminatory attitudes, does not wish the same for the future generations. The experience of the courtesy stigma i.e. stigma by association experienced by the family indicates that the structures and processes of gender suppression in family space is very much connected to the macro structures and processes such as patriarchy, trans phobia, and genderism. Apart from that, there existed some other components to the Guru- Chela relationship. The chelas are supposed to pay a minimum amount to their gurus as fee (also known as dand) to be able to exercise their right to work under a specific guru.
There exist certain codes of conduct for every community. The Hijra community is no different. An elaborate event is organised to signify the admission of a new member in the group. The Guru is associated with the role of a friend, mother and father. The Guru is expected to take care of them, guide them, support them and when appropriate, admonish them. It is evident that in that relationship, there exists unequal power relations like in any parent- child relationship. Apart from people who are truly interested in the nature of the relationship, there also exists some who become a part of it for purely selfish reasons. The reasons for attachment might be different for each individual, however, the Guru- Chela relationship continues to be important for several reasons. Apart from personal support, the Guru also provides professional advice and support.
Modes of Livelihood
The traditional occupations of the community include Badhai, begging for alms and sex work. Badhai includes ritualised performances at the time of childbirth and marriage. The Hijras usually perform in a group of three to five or more persons. The performance might just include a short song and blessing or can include an elaborate performance. Both types are accompanied by someone playing the dholak. The dholak, considered significant and sacred to the Hijra community, is played by a Hijra (non-Hijra in the absence of one). Each of the areas in the country have a somewhat fixed payment for their performances. However, the revenues earned from this particular occupation has been declining due to increasing literacy rates and urbanisation. The monopoly of power existing among such relations have also led to reduced revenues. The dominance of social stigma is also another cause.
Another occupation attached to Hijras is asking for alms in cities, either from passersby or from shopkeepers. Here too, specific group of Hijras demarcate their regions and the activity is headed by a local guru. The areas are further divided according to the days of the week. To avoid abusive behaviour, some shopkeepers give them a fixed amount either on a weekly basis or a monthly basis. However, the Hijras consider asking for alms to be a tedious and tiring activity. To attain adequate amounts, one has to incessantly roam around the streets and also they become more vulnerable to the discriminatory and abusive attitude of the public.
Prostitution might be a major source of income for them, however, the practice is stigmatised within the community. A lot of people who engage in the profession are reluctant to express it. Prostitution enables them to earn much more than what they get through their traditional occupations. However, prostitution is a very demanding work, physically, mentally and emotionally, and probably that is the reason for many of them not living well instead of receiving a much higher pay. They work separately from other sex workers and in houses which accommodates only the Hijras. The Hijra prostitutes do not face any differential treatment from the rest community, whether it be in the big or small cities, and are invited to social functions, maintain relationship with their gurus and fictive kin.
Methodology of Study
The researcher used a phenomenological approach to conduct the research. The approach was found to be useful to provide a pathway to understand kinship bonding in transgender families i.e. guru-chela relationship.
Phenomenological concepts such spatiality, temporality and intentionality served as useful lenses to understand the subjective experiences. Ten research participants were recruited with the help of an organisation working with Hijra communities in West Bengal. An In-depth Interview Protocol was developed to elicit narratives about the kind of experience the research participants had from their family of origin and family of choice. The interviews were translated and transcribed. The interview transcripts were thematically analysed with the help of Atlas.ti.
The Guru- Chela relationship, as has been observed, plays a pivotal role in the lives of the Hijra community. The relationship mutually helps each person involved in the relationship assert their identities and gain acceptance from one another. The relationship not only helps in the personal growth of the individuals but also in the professional growth. It can be observed that the expectations which are attached to the kinship structures remain the same in spite of separate gender identities. Some of the members of the community feel obligated to look after their respective Gurus as well as their biological families. The trans kinship structure, which has mostly been associated with the enrichment of individuals, has, in some circumstances, been the cause of apprehension and grief among some members of the community.
About the Author
Sampurna Sarkar is a socio - economic researcher who passed out from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India in 2019. Her first hand study on the trans family structure in West Bengal included several days of spending her time on the ground with the communities and seeking their time to understand about them.
She underwent several challenges in the mode of study. One of them included gaining the consent of the research participants to conduct the research. The participants, as members of the Hijra community, had been subjected to various kinds of discriminatory attitudes and upon further interaction with the community, Sampurna discovered that the information taken from the participants had been misused on many occasions. The participants were afraid that the researchers would breach their walls again. As a researcher, she also faced difficulty deciding the extent to which she could ask questions about their life.
There existed chances that she could invade their privacy and through certain questions, could make them uncomfortable. Hence, it was important to ensure that the autonomy to participate in the research, at all times, remained with them. The experiences of hardships borne by members of the community often made it difficult to remain empathetic and not make the shift to sympathy.
Lastly, developing a rapport with the research participants, within a very short span of time, was extremely challenging as well.