‘Apa (sister), never fear someone who is hijra as we are also human, we are also Allah’s bandas (people of God)’. I received this advice from a hijra sister in April 2015 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I remember everything about her. She immediately stood out to me – wearing a black salwar-kameez, kohl under her eyes, and a small black teep (or bindi) on her forehead – in comparison to her more vibrantly adorned counterparts. Our interaction was very different to what I was told to expect from a hijra group. She did not see me, a 19-year-old British-Bengali girl with no previous exposure to the hijra community, in the same way as she approached my sister-in-law. Growing up with Vitiligo, a skin condition characterised by patches of skin losing its pigment, I had experienced my own share of ‘othering’, and I did not approach them as ‘others’ in the same way that society often does. I merely saw them as unacquainted people I was meeting for the first time.
In Leyla Jagiella’s Among the Eunuchs: A Muslim Transgender Journey, we meet a plethora of hijras. The compelling text explores her encounters, as a white transgender Muslim woman, with the hijra and khwajasara communities in South Asia. It is part memoir and part historical research, weaving together the long-forgotten history of the transgender community in South Asia with Jagiella’s own personal and political experiences. Throughout the book, she strives to make her first-hand knowledge accessible to all – ‘the uprooted, the in-betweens, the mixed and the misfits.’ Jagiella speaks of her experiences of not belonging – in her hometown, her assigned gender, her name; and the book follows how she navigates around the complexities and fragilities of finding her place in the world.
I must admit that initially I was sceptical at the idea of a white European Muslim transgender woman writing about her experiences of living in hijra and khwajasara spaces in India and Pakistan. I was unfamiliar with Jagiella’s work, and was worried about the ‘exoticisation’ of a marginalised community and being South Asian there was also a sense of protectiveness behind the concern. I was weary at the use of the word ‘eunuch’ as I (and perhaps many others) have misunderstood it to not include people who are intersex or do not identify with their birth sex. Jagiella traces back the use of the word ‘eunuch’ to ancient Mediterranean times to show its connection to contemporary transgender identities in order to ‘understand the traditional self-image of the khwajasara and hijra community’. The history of the term becomes increasingly important in understanding the official social category of ‘third gender’ and its importance to the South Asian trans community. Jagiella urges that in order to fully empower the community it is essential to understand that they already occupy a specific space in their respective societies harboured through a longstanding historical, cultural and religious legacy. Although, this legacy does not always do justice to these communities, it does offer them their own space which does not exist in the West. Despite the view held by Western activists that the queer communities of the Global South are oppressed and need to fit into ‘more globalised notions of gender and sexuality,’ South Asian hijra’s and khwajasara’s have through their own efforts secured their spaces as well as gained legal recognition as a ‘third gender.’
Leyla Jagiella, Among the Eunuchs: A Muslim Transgender Journey, Hurst, London, 2021