Difference evokes mixed reactions. Often, we are either indifferent to someone or something that is not in agreement with our own ideology; or, we tend to condemn that which is not compatible with what we think is ‘agreeable’; or else, we attempt to understand the ‘other’s’ point of view with a spirit of tolerance, compassion, and receptivity.
However, usually, ‘affront’ comes easily to us because we are used to fixed, binary categories to perceive the world around us. It is either this or that. Anything beyond is unacceptable, unpalatable, and deemed ‘unnatural’. Consequently, the in-between or the grey area is invariably pushed into a conflict zone.
In this regard, author Adnan Hossain’s latest book, Beyond Emasculation: Pleasure and Power in the Making of Hijra in Bangladesh (Cambridge University Press, 2021), is an immaculately and sensitively woven narrative of our society’s one of the most marginalised and disenfranchised communities — the hijras.
Hossain’s ethnographic journey through the lanes and streets of the ‘in-between’ place called ‘Hridoypur’ in Dhaka leads to a remarkable discovery of lives and voices that have not been documented and heard enough. The author’s sensitive, intersectional, and deeply reflexive engagement with the hijras of Bangladesh (“a visibly organised public subculture”, as pointed out in the introduction by Hossain) brings out the hijra subjectivity that has been confined by chains of normative notions of masculinity and so-called ‘authentic’ representation of the hijra identity.
In an exclusive e-mail interaction with Feminism In India about Beyond Emasculation, Adnan Hossain, who is an Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and Critical Theory at Utrecht University, discusses a plethora of concerns related to caste-class struggle, identity politics, hegemonic masculinity, erotic desire, sexual diversity, and language while delving into the subjectivity, agency, and selfhood of the South Asian hijra.
Here are some excerpts:
FII: You argue that the idea that “more genders denote greater freedom or acceptance” is simplistic because relegating the hijra to the status of “third sex/gender” is often (mis)read as a “form of gender failure”. However, the term ‘transgender’ as an umbrella category runs the risk of homogenising the lived realities of hijras. As a researcher and an academic, how do you negotiate this paradoxical space of conflicting labels and ambiguous generalisation?
Adnan Hossain: I do not take any concept, label or category for granted. My approach is to think of the concepts, categories and labels that we are often thinking with rather than simply applying those in my analysis. That said, there always remains this challenge to describe or/and explain a context without necessarily using theories and labels developed elsewhere or in a different context. This is, however, not to suggest that ideas and terminologies developed in a specific context should only be used in that specific context.
The important point is to be alert to the way the broad-brush deployment of ‘western-fabricated’ concepts, labels, and categories in a non-western setting may often result in representational effacement and even violence. I would further add that there is an unevenness in terms of how ideas and categories travel. It is linked with political economy. Ideas and labels that emerge in the northern global context often become hegemonic on a global scale, while concepts and categories originating in the global south tend to be seen as provincial and local with limited applicability beyond their point of origin.
It is against such a backdrop that we need to see the reception, contestation and use of terms like transgender or even third sex/gender in South Asian and Bangladeshi contexts. So, the way I negotiate and navigate ‘this paradoxical space of conflicting labels and ambiguous generalisation’ is by describing the context in which a specific term or concept emerges or is used rather than taking a concept or a term as a totalising cypher that covers the entire ground.
FII: An important point raised in your book is the phallocentric logic and framework within which the conceptualisation of a hijra takes place. A hijra is someone, as you argue, who is invariably designated a “feminine-identified” reality and assigned a “male gender at birth”. Within the paradigm of “male femininities”, then, how would you read the recent news where author Khaled Hosseini supported his daughter’s coming out as transgender? Could this be an example where there is no “exclusion of the female-born, male-identified” people, and the parochial use of “transgender” is challenged?
Adnan Hossain: I am not familiar with the coming out story you have described, but you are right in noticing the parochial way transgender is often used in the subcontinent and beyond to designate mainly those assigned a male gender at birth who may later identify as female and not the other way round.
My critique of the phallogocentric logic that works to prevent us from reading hijras beyond the third sex/gender paradigm brings into view the cultural devaluation of femininities. From that perspective, the critique of phallocentrism is also the critique of the parochial use of transgender to only include male assigned and feminine identified people.
FII: While discussing your ethnographic research conducted in the slums of Dhaka, you talk about ‘Hridoypur’, a pseudonym you used to protect the identity of your participants, respondents, and interlocutors. For me, the name is significant, and it means a town of hearts. It also reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, where she names the home of transgenders ‘Khwabgah’, which again resonates with dreams and desires. How did you come up with the name Hridoypur?
Adnan Hossain: Thank you for taking note of this. I was not expecting anyone to ask me anything about this. You are indeed correct that Hridoypur means a town of hearts. I just needed to come up with a fictional name to describe the area where I was embedded, but maybe I called it so as that is where my own heart was. It was a very vibrant and happening working-class area, and I enjoyed my time there back in the days when I was a regular frequenter.
FII: It is evident in the book that your childhood curiosity about the community of hijras informed your position as a researcher much later in life. Tell us if you discovered or connected with your own transformed subjectivity while being engaged in unearthing the hijra subjectivity.
Adnan Hossain: It does go back to my childhood and various curiosities I had about the hijras I encountered both within my household setting as well as in the public spaces adjacent to my house. Now in terms of my research with the hijras, what I would say is that this idea that one enters the field with a fixed set of identities or positions and that one remains or continues to remain the same throughout one’s entanglement with the people under study is a rather problematic assumption.
Our identities, subjectivities and positionalities are often contextually generated and can be made and unmade depending on the socio-spatial context of our encounters. For example, I was seen by some hijras as a hijra myself in the guise of a man partly because of my ability to speak Ulti, the hijra clandestine language used as a sign of communitarian belonging and partly because of the way I use my hands to communicate to others. But then there were also hijras who assumed I was actually a lover surreptitiously soliciting sex under the pretext of research.
FII: In one of the endearing segments of the book, where you elaborate on the rituals of the hijras, you talk about the dilemmas a researcher encounters. One of the striking revelations is that the more you clarified your position as a “male-born”, “male-identified” and “middle-class” subject in Bangladesh, the more it intensified their belief that you were one of them: “I was indeed a lover but a secretive one.” The fact that you could access their world without suspicion did that make you feel like someone who is an invader in disguise, perhaps, or was it liberatory in some way because empathy is what was at the core of your research, and that got validated in their undisputed acceptance of you as one of them?
Adnan Hossain: To be honest, I was not troubled by the questions of insiderliness and/or outsiderliness in my involvement with the hijras. Part of it has to do with the way I ended up being a social scientist myself. I struggled while growing up (and even today) to fit into the mainstream Bangladeshi society at large, and one of the ways I could survive its various institutions and rituals was by researching and studying them at a distance rather than simply participating in them.
I was and continue to be seen as iconoclastic, socially transgressive and even a misfit. So, it was not difficult to relate to the hijra space for me. Now that I reflect on my earlier entanglement, especially from the time I started researching the hijra community in my early 20s, I feel the hijra space functioned as a refuge for me. But that said, I had various material and symbolic privileges and cultural and symbolic capital as a middle-class Bangladeshi that made it possible for me to take such an exploratory and investigative approach to the hijra universe.
It was part of my attempt to understand how difference is dealt with in society. I was never meant to be an academic. But then, hijra as a subcultural formation is not without its own communitarian rules, rituals and stratification. So, I am not sure I would have survived myself had I been part of it either as a lover or one of them.
FII: The ‘male femininity’ approach liberates the researcher from the fixed binaries of gender identification. Does this approach also discuss the questions of ableism and ageism?
Adnan Hossain: ‘Male femininity’ or ‘male femaling’ is an approach that I combine with ‘masculinities’. While ‘masculinities’ allows us to account for the way the production of hijra subject position is socially and ideologically legitimated, ‘male femininity’ attends to how gender is operationalised. It is through various doings, practices and performances, and bodily modifications that gender is lived.
‘Male femininity’ in the way I am employing it helps us understand the link between gender/sexual ideologies and various enactments and practices. It is precisely this attention to doing and actions that make this approach particularly suitable to attend to questions of ageing and ableism. Let’s take the ageing hijra bodies as an example. How an older person, within the community context, comports oneself in both public and private spaces may differ from how younger ones do things. ‘Male femininity’ as an approach is well equipped to account for such shifts in practice.
FII: The recent debate on abortion following the overturning of Roe vs Wade by the US Supreme Court has sparked heated discussions around the world. What were the insights that you could gather on parenthood through your in-depth and intimate interactions with the hijras of Bangladesh, especially from the lens of rights to bodily autonomy, agency, desire, and pleasure?
Adnan Hossain: There is hardly any attention being paid to the way many hijras also adopt and raise children. This is certainly the case in Bangladesh. Although the legal system is too complicated to allow for such practices, these are happening on a social level. There are often problems with regard to inheritance, especially in the context of the transfer of intergenerational wealth from hijra gurus to their celas or adopted children, as well as in the context of hijras inheriting property from their natal families. More research-based knowledge, clarity and advocacy are necessary on these issues.
FII: Becoming a hijra, you argue, “is an achieved status and not an ascribed one”. How do you foresee the future of queer studies and sexual diversity studies taking shape in Bangladesh and elsewhere? Will there be more reflexivity and intersectionality in our pedagogical approaches and enquiries so as to shed the Western-inspired stereotypical representation of the hijras in South Asia and the world over?
Adnan Hossain: Indeed, I say so to draw our attention to the way hijra is naturalised in our everyday common sense as a biological category. The idea that anyone that departs from normative protocols of masculinity is denigrated as a hijra only tells a partial story.
Such a representation ought to be disrupted and challenged in order to be able to appreciate how becoming a hijra entails active disapproval and disavowal of normative gender and sexualities as well as cultivating specialised acumen and skills and their dexterous demonstration both before the fellow hijras and wider mainstream society.
In the future of queer studies, I think it has to be pretty much some individuals or subcultural groups taking initiatives to produce various community-based zones or anthologies in the Bangladesh context that will shape the future of queer studies.
I do not see much hope in terms of institutional and academic sites being respectful of or attentive to queer issues; although hijras are often taken up these days by various social actors and have become mainstream, that has a lot to do with the way hijras are now interpellated in governmental framing as a form of ‘disabled’ people and ‘socially backward group’ delinked from sexual desire. The current societal impetus to work with the hijras in Bangladesh largely stems from a rescue mentality that needs to be challenged.
With respect to reflexivity and intersectionality, I think these are already in wide circulation among critical academic circles in the humanities and the social sciences. In fact, these terms have become routine to the point that the mere inclusion of these terms in the texts sometimes interferes with the texts being actually sensitive to the spirits of these concepts.
This is not to undermine these concepts but to indicate the way various inequalities that characterise the processes of knowledge production do not necessarily disappear with any amount of reflexivity or intersectionality as approaches. But these are important tools that can help us disrupt long-standing forms of representations of hijras rooted in classism, casteism, and colonialism.
Featured image source: Ipshita Mitra and Adnan Hossain