What Does it Mean to be a Hijra Mother?

Hijras are known as the “third gender” in India. This article aims to understand hijra motherhood, “natural” motherhood, and womanhood in context of a recent advertisement. The author questions the false binaries of sex and gender through hijra subjectivities.


Biological determinism has been a dominant factor in identifying family relations. If not through a “natural” birthing process, including the (often debatable) C-section, biology is maintained through options like in vitro fertilisation, intracytoplasmic sperm injection, and surrogacy. Adoption becomes a reluctant choice often resulting from the financial inability to procure the previous options, though this is not necessarily true (Bharadwaj 2003). Yet, seeking social acceptance for adoption might not be an easy task. There is stigma associated with the process of adoption, which is also riddled with the politics of eugenics.

The question of motherhood then also becomes a striking one. The question, “who is a mother?” gets rephrased to “who is the ‘real’ mother?” which then gets paraphrased to “but she is not the ‘natural’ mother” (Nandy 2015). The question of motherhood is also related to the question of womanhood. In this article, I aim to understand what it means to be a hijra mother.

Is It Essential for a Mother to be Woman?

The advertisement for Vicks features Gauri Sawant, a self-identifying hijra, who plays on reel one of her real-life roles—that of a mother to her daughter.[1]

Screenshot from the advertisement on YouTube

It has often been controversial to understand hijra subjectivities as that of trans women and to accept trans women as women. In an interview given to Channel 4 News,[2] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that trans women are trans women that have male privilege, which she later clarified in her Facebook post[3] as:


A trans woman is a person born male and a person who, before transitioning, was treated as male by the world. Which means that they experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own.


Within feminism, the question of identifying the transwoman as woman remains unresolved. Yet, I am of the belief that transwomen are not biologically male and addressing transwomen as “biologically male” may justify the mistreatment that most transwomen have to face. One of the ways in which gender is constructed is based on the person’s perceived sex and sex is not a static binary. The two-sex binary is maintained with the help of the medical fraternity, law, and the state apparatus (Fausto-Sterling 1993). The question that arises next is: who is a woman? 


There is often a compulsive biological essentialism attached to identifying who a woman is. For instance, trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF) believes that transwomen are not “real” women. Such exclusion of transwomen has often come from positions of cisgender transmisogyny and cissexism, which trivialises tran-women’s experiences of having a vagina to that of having a “surgical fuckhole” instead (van der Merwe 2016). Does one necessarily need to have a vagina to identify as a woman or does being born with a vagina automatically render one a woman? An affirmative answer to these questions stems from cis privilege, which is a “set of unearned advantages that individuals who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth accrue solely due to having a cisgender identity” (Walls and Costello 2010: 83).


What womanhood then means depends on what gender roles are expected out of a woman or, in other words, the gender roles that a self-identifying woman chooses. That “choice” is a complicated agentic struggle buried in patriarchy, which systematically maintains the gap between the gender binary. The identity of being a woman becomes a stereotype if based on essentialist constructs of gender roles by a repeated performance of gender and sexual norms. This is accidentally advocated for by a section that finds it difficult to accept transwomen as “women.”


The next question is: who is a mother? Is it simply that parent who identifies as a woman? Or could “mother” be a trans-inclusive term, especially for transmen who may give birth but not identify as women (Power 2012)?


The process of being a mother and the expected roles of a mother end up being divided into categories like “real” and “(un)natural.” Motherhood is often seen as a gender norm required to achieve “authentic” womanhood (Bianco 2015). Does not being a mother make one “less of a woman,” or to put flippantly, “an incomplete woman?” The idea of motherhood through trans subjectivities expands the idea of motherhood and opens a new window for understanding the term mother. This is done either by disassociating womanhood from motherhood or by making womanhood trans-inclusive. For instance, Thomas Beatie, a transman who gave birth to a baby decided to keep his (female) reproductive organs while transitioning into a man through hormones and surgery (Orr 2008). 


The conventional mechanics of reproduction have been broken by the laboratory and it may be possible in the distant future to have virgin births and make human reproduction sexless (Prasad 2012). The societal expectations of conventional motherhood are yet to be examined across different gender and sexual roles. In India, an interjecting space to dislodge notions of conventional sex and gender across not only motherhood but also childhood has been found by hijras who have reclaimed motherhood through adoption. The formalities of adoption by hijras are unclear both in law and to the population at large. Further, there are reports in media about how the Indian adoption system is still ill-equipped to deal with adoption of intersex children (Ashwini 2016). In the changing context of generational relations and kin assistance, hijras adopt teenagers and adults who may not be comfortable in identifying with their assigned gender at birth into the hijra communities.

Motherhood and Childhood through Hijra Subjectivities


 1975: In an early dawn of the month of Ramzan, a hijra picked up a mutilated new-born girl-child from the streets of Mahim, Mumbai … later named Tamanna [hope].


The above quote is the opening to the Bollywood movie Tamanna (1997) directed by Mahesh Bhatt. The film is based on the real-life story of a self-identifying hijra Tikku and her relationship as a mother to her “female” daughter. Another Bollywood movie released in the same year, Darmiyan: In Between directed by Kalpana Lajmi is also based on the real-life story of Tikku, but focuses on the relationship Tikku has as an “intersex” child with her own “female” mother. I use the pronoun “her” to identify Tikku because later in life, after the death of her biological mother, Tikku becomes a hijra. 


Darmiyan: In Between is set in Bombay of 1946. Throughout the movie, Immi (reel character for Tikku) is struggling to fight the discrimination, abuse, and stigma of growing up as an “effeminate” and “not man enough” child who is born with an intersex variation, but is raised as “male” by her mother. The mother disguises her intersex child as a son to protect the child from being adopted by the hijras. She does not want to lose her “son” who would then metamorphose into becoming a hijra. Additionally, in a dialogue between the hijra guru (who wants to be Immi’s new mother) and Immi’s biological mother, the guru points out that if adopted, Immi would not be denied the identity of a person born with an intersex variation by becoming hijra. The biological mother, on the other hand, suggests raising Immi as her brother instead of son to fight the discrimination she herself would receive for having given birth to an intersex child. The fact that the mother wants to guard a male identity for Immi is symbolic of the fact that in Indian society there is preference for the son and shame in being a parent to an intersex child. 


In India, the cultural understanding of hijras is that of an intersex community. In fact, in colloquial Hindi, the term intersex is culturally syonymous with the term hijra. Within hijra communities, those born intersex are considered “natural” hijras who are “born that way.” This could also probably be the reasoning behind folktales in India, where a common myth is that an intersex child is an androgynous avatar of God and is destined to become a “natural” hijra. There are other similar legends of intersex children being offered to the hijra community by the biological parents in India, whereby the hijras adopt intersex children with pride and increase the membership of the hijra communities. Having said that, on a cautionary note, I want to reiterate that in the contemporary context:


One doesn’t need to be born with an intersex variation to be considered a Hijra … no intersex variations are related to the Hijra identity without the patronage of a Hijra guru. (Goel 2016: 537)


There are known cases of gender-reassignment surgeries being performed on children born with an intersex variation (Goel 2014). The medical interventions and genetic de-selection are based on the presupposition that intersex traits are disorders (see Organisation Intersex International Australia Limited 2017). Such operations by medical doctors in hospitals are done to prefix a gender that can then be assigned to an intersex child based on their cosmetically “fixed” perceived sex. This only proves further that biologies can be manufactured and any assertion over the “real” identities of any gender based solely on their sex is problematic.


Examples of hijra filial affection can be seen in stories of adoption by hijras—through the experiences of Mona and her adopted “female” daughter Ayesha (Butalia 2011), Zeenat Pasha and her adopted “male” son Asif, and Gauri Sawant and her adopted “female” daughter Gayatri (Sinha 2012). For Mona, experiencing motherhood was one of the only ways to experience “complete” womanhood (Butalia 2011). And although Gauri calls herself a “mother by accident,” she believes that being a mother is inherent to being a woman. At the same time, Gauri’s hijra guru cautions against motherhood if the driving reason for it is to experience womanhood (Sinha 2012). There seems to be an underlying assumption that by practicing motherhood, a person comes closer to the gender identity of being a “complete” woman. Motherhood becomes a gender norm for performing womanhood, and the child becomes an agent in achieving it.


Teenagers and adults who want to become members of the hijra community are adopted by hijra gurus through an initiation ceremony, which is sanctioned by arbitrary councils within hijra communities known as the hijra panchayats or jamaats (Goel 2016). Within the hijra community, members “call one another nani (grandmother), dadnani (great grandmother), mausi (mother’s sister) … or amma or ma (mother)” (Saxena 2011:55).


It is unknown if such arbitrary hijra councils have any constitutional bearings. It is unclear if adoptions by hijras are legal. The hijra panchayats or jamaats that legitimise the adoption of teenagers and adults who want to become members of the hijra community are arbitrary hijra councils. They create new forms of kinship networks and non-biological families which function within a system of informality. Information regarding adoption by “third genders” via the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) by the Ministry of Women and Child Development is also not available. 


Yet, hijra motherhood challenges heteronormativity of the family as a social institution. By claiming motherhood, hijras have re-appropriated the gender of the term mother by making it trans-inclusive, third-gender inclusive, and non-binary inclusive. Additionally, making womanhood trans-inclusive by practising hijra motherhood, a new frontier is also set for hijra performance of gender. 

The Steps Forward


Trans-adoption in hijra families has always been the norm, yet it was only through cases of normative child adoption that hijra motherhood came into being and was accepted in a patriarchal and predominantly trans exclusionary society and media. The fact that a video featuring a hijra mother went viral on social media may be attributed to this revelation. The celebration of the video on the internet also shows a welcoming attitude towards trans-inclusive motherhood. 


There is a need to revisit notions of adoption and motherhood within and outside the gender–sex binary. There is a need to question the conventional institutions of family, marriage and kinship across different genders and sexes. There is a need to intervene at the policy level to examine adoption across genders and sexualities, thereby making the process of adoption more accessible and transparent. There is also a need to decriminalise adoption for various groups of third gender minorities who are yet to get marriage and adoption rights despite being recognised officially as third gender citizens by the Supreme Court in April 2014. 


Change can only be enabled by moving towards a new feminist consciousness which overcomes the false binary of identifying any gender through the parameters of real and fake. It is only within a patriarchal set-up that divisions within and across genders are pit against each other, creating a gap in manifesting different gender-based identities and sexualities. The hijra community offers an important lesson towards a future where it will not be necessary to identify motherhood by gender segregated terms such as “a hijra mother,” but instead, simply as mother.

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