Photo essay: Third gender finding its place in Indian society

The hajjra third-gender community in India is the subject of a photo essay by French photographer Yannick Cormier in Foreign Policy magazine, focusing on a respected mentor and matriarch in the city of Chennai. Below are excerpts from the text and one of the photos.  For more information, see the full photo essay, “In Transition: How a third-gender community -— both stigmatized and revered -— is finding its place in Indian society” in Foreign Policy.

Portrait of Malaika at Hindu ceremony honoring Shiva. (Yannick Cormier photo courtesy of Foreign Policy)
Portrait of Malaika at Hindu ceremony honoring Shiva. (Yannick Cormier photo courtesy of Foreign Policy)

In Transition

Malaika has always considered herself a woman. And eight years ago, at age 22—after some 12 plastic surgeries and a series
 of hormone treatments—her body finally matched her identity. Today she’s among the hundreds of thousands in India who identify as hijra, comprising a community of eunuchs, cross-dressers, and transgender people.

Revered for centuries in South Asian culture, the hijra population was criminalized under colonial rule. Since then, hijras have been targets of police violence and discrimination, but they’ve also managed to maintain certain esteemed social roles. Last year, the Indian Supreme Court recognized hijras’
 right to identify as a third gender.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this charged history has created tight networks among hijras. In the city of Chennai, Malaika—known widely by only her first name—is more than just a “respected member of a united community,” says French photographer Yannick Cormier. She serves as both a mentor and matriarch within it. …

While close-knit, the hijra community is also very hierarchical. Malaika is a “queen”—others are “gurus,” older members who often supervise queens, or “apprentices,” younger people who have yet to undergo sex-reassignment procedures—a distinction that commands respect even outside her hijra network. …  She is often asked to mediate local disputes. [In one photo] Malaika arbitrates a family fight after the daughter  accuses her father of molestation. Malaika gives him an ultimatum: If he sexually abuses the girl again, Malaika will inform the police. …

Diadana is one of Malaika’s protégés. Both Diadana and Malaika make a living in sex work, a profession that attracts many hijras, who often face employment discrimination in mainstream sectors….

As part of her duties as a queen, Malaika acts as an informal guardian for younger hijras. …  She offers them personal and professional guidance and may even help raise money for cosmetic surgery and other treatments required for transitioning. … Syncretism is common in India. Malaika converted from Hinduism to Christianity about a year ago, but she continues to perform certain rituals of her old religion.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor / publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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