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Critique Essay Law/Legal Nonfiction Social Sciences

Beyond Emasculation: Being Muslim and Becoming Hijra in South Asia

By Adnan Hossain, 2012

Hijra, the icon of sex/gender non-conformism in South Asia, are “male-bodied” people who identify as female and sacrifice their male genitals to a goddess in return for spiritual prowess. While hijra draw on a narrative tradition that creatively mingles Hinduism and Islam, scholars suggest that hijra exhibit a special bias towards Islam. In recent times, as in the more distant colonial past, that association has been drawn on the basis of emasculation, the putatively defining ritual of hijrahood. Drawing on ethnographic research in contemporary Bangladesh, this paper challenges the association between emasculation and hijrahood. Becoming a hijra is a complex process. Hijrahood is an identity acquired through various and repeated ritual and gender practices that are described by my interlocutors as hijragiri, “the occupations of the hijra ”. Those occupations are construed as acts of devotion to both Muslim saints and Hindu mother goddesses, an eclectic cosmological frame of reference that defines and is practically acquired in and through ritual practice. I argue that hijra transcendence of the categorical boundaries and communal politics that divide Hindu and Muslim in South Asia is best accounted for neither in terms of an abstract theological pluralism nor in terms of hijra’s ascribed and chosen affiliations with other subalterns. What Reddy ( 2005) refers to as hijra “supra” religious/national subjectivities emerge out of the plurality of their daily life practices and the incessant material and symbolic comings and goings through which “hijrahood” is constructed in South Asia.

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