I didn’t understand half the cultural concepts mentioned when I first read this article: why there are roving bands of eunuchs in India at all, what a “male issue” is (an elaborate term for baby boy?), and why, exactly a group of eunuchs would forcibly chop off some poor kids’ private parts. To be honest, it sounded much like yet another element of the so-called “penis panics” that have from time to time erupted in some Asian cultures.
But from this news of the weird tidbit I stumbled onto yet another intriguing wrinkle in culture and sexuality I’d been completely ignorant of.
According to wikipedia, what’s going on here is an Indian cultural tradition wherein eunuchs (some castrated, some not: the true Indian term of “Hijra” is closer to transsexual than the way Westerners reserve it for more conventional Castrati) will come “uninvited at weddings, births, new shop openings and other major family events and sing until they are paid or given gifts to go away.” In fact, this tradition is apparently so ingrained that some local Indian governments even use it to collect taxes: sending Hijra door to door to ceremonially annoy people into paying up.
Where does this cultural power come from? Wikipedia again:
Many fear the hijras’ curse if they are not appeased, bringing bad luck or infertility, but for the fee they receive, they can bless goodwill and fortune on to the newly born. Hijras are said to be able to do this because, since they do not engage in sexual activities, they accumulate their sexual energy which they can use to either bestow a boon or a bane.
Ah, so this explains why I am so poor, and why my baby cursing powers are so decidedly lackluster!
On a more serious note though, Hijra sounds like yet another example of how alternative sexualities and genders (the Hijra are, in fact, often called a “third gender”), a simple reality in all known human societies, have found ways to adapt and survive within what are otherwise rigid cultural and religious doctrines on sex, marriage, and gender that sought to exclude them. And while the singing, dancing, and baby voodoo cursing sounds all delightful and amusing from afar, being Hijra in India means being something of a social outcast, including every imaginable form discrimination, high rates of sex work, and even brutal beatings and murders.
As with gay rights in the West, it has only been with the advent of modern politics and social reforms that serious progress has begun in fully integrating Hijra into political and legal life, if not the longer process of rethinking cultural attitudes.