Importing Western Gender Codes: How South Asia’s Trans Communities are Still Experiencing the Effects of British Colonial Rule

By Robbie Houliston, Staff Writer. Photo by Sneha Sivarajan on Unsplash

Warning: This article contains discussions of historical gender and sexuality based discrimination, including transphobia and homophobia as well as descriptions of medical and sexual abuse. Please read with caution.

“The colonial exporting of European attitudes and laws aiming to directly harm LGBTQ+ communities throughout early-to-late modern history has led to some disturbing parallels in issues facing trans communities all over the world”

With Rishi Sunak’s plan to revisit protections given to trans people in Britain by the 2010 Equality Act, and the PM’s less than promising voting record on LGBTQ+ issues, there has been understandable anxiety in Britain about what the future holds for the transgender community. As these concerns continue to circulate here, it is important to remember that Britain’s historical and contemporary engagement with LGBTQ+ rights affects individuals not just in the UK, but around the globe owing to Britain’s history of colonial rule. 

This can be exemplified by the effects of colonial rule on the Hijra community. Hijras are a transgender community found in South Asia with a history stretching back over 4000 years. Identifying as neither male nor female, the community has ties to various forms of rule across South Asian history. During the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire, Hijras occupied many positions of power in the political sphere as royal servants, military commanders, and political counsellors. In some cases they were believed to have a connection to the Gods. Hijras were often conceived as “clever, trustworthy and fiercely loyal and had free access to all spaces and sections of population, thereby playing a crucial role in the politics of empire building”, especially in the Mughal era. However, as British rule in the subcontinent expanded and became more solidified with the East India Company in the 18th century and Crown Rule in the mid 19th century, efforts were made by the British to eradicate the Hijra community. Many European travellers were reportedly horrified by Hijras and could not comprehend why members of the community held such positions of power, reflecting European attitudes to the LGBTQ+ community at the time. 

One of the most devasting moments for Hijras, along with many other LGBTQ individuals throughout the British Empire, was the introduction of Section 337 in 1861, which banned sex acts viewed as being “against the order of nature.”Another piece of legislation which specifically attempted to decimate India’s trans communities came with the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act. Under this legislation, Hijras were legally designated as a “criminal tribe”, banning what British lawmakers saw as cross dressing and castration. The legislation also permitted British officials to remove children from Hijra households under the assumption that they were being regularly groomed; a discourse which has sadly permeated contemporary anti-LGBTQ+, demonstrating the lasting power of colonial narratives. Because such laws made it impossible to obtain official employment while openly maintaining self-expression as gender non-conforming, sex work became one of the most prevalent methods of maintaining income in an attempt to alleviate the poverty Hijra communities were subjected to. 

While the effects of Colonial lawmaking and discourse are still felt throughout the community, there has been some progress within the last decade. In 2014, India’s Supreme Court created a legally recognised “third gender” status for Hijras, which grants access to various social welfare programmes. However, progress towards equality has been limited. Hate crimes against Hijras largely an experience resulting from sex work, remain high. A study conducted by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties found that Hijras in India experience regular violent assaults in public and are most at risk in police stations and in prisons. There have also been widely reported instances of medical discrimination and abuse. Experiences of transgender individuals have involved doctors refusing to conduct vital physical examinations or simply turning away trans patients. In one study carried out by the Indian Civilian Welfare Foundation (CWF), one transgender woman explained that she had recently gone to the doctors for kidney treatment without informing the hospital that she is trans, explaining “it’s less complicated that way… we end up feeling embarrassed about ourselves after visiting hospitals. Treatments are cursory. Sometimes doctors prescribe without examining us. They’re afraid to even feel our pulse”. The study conducted by the CWF even contained a testimony of one transgender individual who received electro-shock treatment before being referred to an asylum. This widespread lack of access to healthcare, even healthcare unrelated to sexual reproductive matters, is in direct contention with chapter IV of India’s Constitution, which guarantees that the State will protect “health and strength from abuse”.

From sexual violence to medical discrimination, these painful testimonies will regrettably resonate with many in the LGBTQ+ community here in Britain. While social and economic issues vary across countries and continents, the colonial exporting of European attitudes and laws aiming to directly harm LGBTQ+ communities throughout early-to-late modern history has led to some disturbing parallels in issues facing trans communities all over the world. Globally, transgender communities are still facing the impact of colonial anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination today. It is, therefore, vital to recognise that as campaigns for transgender rights continue in Britain, the history of British colonialism has solidified transgender liberation as a truly transnational issue. 

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