Onni Gust

Nineteenth-century British travel writers and colonial officials rarely passed on the opportunity to prefix some derogatory hyperbole to the word ‘eunuch.’  Frequently they offered extensive defamation, referring to eunuchs as “the vilest and most polluted beings” and commenting on the “revolting” practices that they imagined, but could rarely prove, eunuchs carried out.  Mrs Postan, who published Cutch, Or Random Sketches in 1838, was no different.  Her access to the wives of Prince Rao Deshalji II, the Rao of Cutch was demarcated by the presence of two guards, “the most hideous eunuchs, who sit cross-legged in a sort of basket chair place on each side of the portal.”

Gurmah, Khunsa, or Hijra, reputed hermaphrodite, Eastern Bengal. © British Library Board (Photo 124 (38))

The ‘eunuchs’ to which Mrs Postan referred are often also called hijra, a name that defines them as a traditional community of people usually assigned male at birth who may or may not undergo castration and live as women or as a third gender. The hijra are distinct from the more modern, Western understanding of transsexual women.  Their identities and status, changeable across time, have a considerably longer heritage, which is grounded in religious practice and spiritual belief.  Hijras often live as part of a hierarchical kinship structure and today frequently earn money through sex work or begging, threatening the families of newly-weds with the curse of infertility if they don’t pay up.  As Mrs Postan discovered, prior to British dominance in India, hijras were often employed as guardians of the “virtue” of the harem, held ritualistic status as bestowers of fertility and owned land and occasionally high status in Mughal India.  For the British, however, they represented all that was debased about Indian society and, in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, the hijras were classified as a criminal tribe, inherently immoral and corrupt.

Nineteenth-century British imperial imaginaries took great delight in expressing the terror of, and a morbid fascination with, hijra bodies.  Government reports speculate on the details of their rites and practices and the specificities of their castration.   Scandalized by the indecency of the very existence of a third gender, colonial discourse performs shock and horror, a pathos that leaks out of otherwise dry, bureaucratic reports.  Representing the hijras allowed the British to indulge in, and yet simultaneously deny, the sexual titillation aroused by the fantasy of bodies marked deviant.

Today, in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, hijras have gained legal recognition and the right to vote.  Yet one of the most recently celebrated forms of hijra inclusion in South Asian nation states still relies on the horror that hijras inspire in society at large.  In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, hijras have been seen as particularly suited to be tax collectors, where their presence is enough to shame and embarrass people into paying up.  Heralded as more ‘respectable’ than sex work or begging, this route may be more lucrative but to what extent is it just another avatar of deeply-ingrained prejudice in the service of the state?

Further reading:

Mrs Postan, Cutch, Or Random Sketches of Western India (London, 1838).

Aniruddha Dutta, “Epistemologies of Collusion: Hijras, Kothis and the Historical (Dis)continuity of Gender/Sexual Identities in Eastern India,” Gender and History, 24, 3 (2012), 825-849.

Laurence Preston, “A Right to Exist: Eunuchs and the State in Nineteenth Century India,” Modern Asian Studies, 21, 2 (1987), 371-387.

Gayatri Reddy, With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India (Chicago, 2005).


Onni Gust is Mellon post-doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, researching and teaching on early-nineteenth century gender formation in the context of  European imperial expansion, particularly in India.  Onni teaches European Imperial History and Gender and Sexuality Studies, works with LGBT youth and takes part in queer anti-racist and trans activism in the UK and USA.



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8 Comments

  1. Really interesting post! I know little about this beyond a snippet of Stephen Fry’s BBC documentary “Out There” which aired late last year. He interviewed some hijras and gave a basic overview of the situation and history. He spoke to their families, and discovered the sense of community (although mostly built through social “exile”) amongst the hijras. Still enough was shown to evoke a feeling of shame in us prudent Brits. Can’t wait to read more from this blog 🙂

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  5. I have read that in ancient kingdoms, in china, rome and some parts of india etc, all important government jobs used to be reserved for this group (unable to have children, they were expected to be epitomes of selfless devotion and trust!), in addition to the even more important job as the harem keeper. This perhaps made this group a ‘much sought after’ profession anybody can dream of, attracting willing converts. Today, in a changed society this group is a total misfit.

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