Gender studies · Sociology · Third year

Dissertation: Hijras and Postcolonial Modernity: a critical exploration




Hijras are a traditional transgender community in India. After a sacrificial emasculation, they become vehicles of the powers of the goddess Mata Bahuchara and can exercise their ritual role, called badhai. However, in the current modern context, they are largely marginalized in Indian society. The police violence against hijras finds its impunity in the laws. Driven into sex-work, harassed by the police, their fundamental human rights are violated every day.

In this analysis of hijras, we aim at better understanding the foundations of the violence and discrimination against them. However essentialising hijras as the ‘third gender’ of India could contribute to the justification and perpetuation of discrimination. Therefore it seems more promising to consider that human beings are able to transgress modern conventional standards, at the individual or collective level. Although this rhetoric of androgyny and sexual inversion is present in the traditional Indian conception of gender, how can we account for the stigma and violence against hijras, explicitly motivated by their transgender status? Although Hindu mythology establishes the primacy of the feminine, the daily reality invites to understand Indian society as one dominated and organized under the primacy of the masculine.

Their unique position will be analysed firstly in relation to their gender, marginalisation and religion, and secondly in relation to the post-colonial heritage of their milieu. However, there is no adequate theory that perfectly suits hijras’ situation because Queer theory is culturally specific and subordinates postcolonial thinking on transgenderism (Roen, 2001). Therefore, this study will move beyond the description of community’s circumstances and explore the topic in an explicitly theoretically informed way, by discussing hijras’ liminality, non-representation, and the limits of Western theory to apprehend and explain their sociological situation.


Table of content


Abstract……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 2

Table of content………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 4

Introduction: the ‘third gender’ of India?……………………………………………………………………….. 5

Methodology………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 7

PART 1: Presentation and situation of the community………………………………………………… 8

  1. Place and role of the community within the Indian society……………………………………. 8
  2. Discrimination, stigmatization and the impact on AIDS……………………………………….. 10
  3. Hijras and religion: syncretism between Hinduism and Islam………………………………. 12

PART 2: Evolution of hijras’ status…………………………………………………………………………….. 14

  1. British colonial legislation……………………………………………………………………………….. 14
  2. The impact of colonial modernity: non-representation and liminality…………………… 16

Conclusion………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 19

Reference list……………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 20



Introduction: the ‘third gender’ of India?


Hijras, as transgender individuals question the binary division of the modern world as they are identified as the ‘third gender’ of India, or as individuals ‘neither male nor female’. Is it even possible to conceive the gender system outside this normative separation, with a possibility for the existence of a ‘third gender’? Nowadays, sociological issues highlight gender relations which create and reproduce inequalities between men and women and the most frequent is the masculine domination with sexuality conceived as an instrument for regulating social relations. Similarly, Bourdieu argues that there is ‘a process of practical construction imposing a differentiated definition of the legitimate uses of the body, in particular sexual ones’ (Bourdieu, 2001, p.23). Thus, each culture has its own value system that defines socially acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, especially in the area of sexuality. India has a heterosexist system, understood as the incessant promotion by modern institutions or individuals of the superiority of heterosexuality and the subordination of homosexuality (PUCL-K, 2001, p.6). Therefore, those who cross the barrier of genders, such as hijras, are sanctioned by the entire social body.

Although hijras have an ancient history their status and place in society have evolved drastically and have been particularly affected by colonial modernity (Reddy, 2010, p.25). This study’s line of argument is to explore the problem space and analyse their very distinctive liminality. Because of their situation in a liminal space, hijras are subject to non-representation. Indeed, their unique identities and subjectivities lead to a theoretical problem space as they are concerned by both Queer and postcolonial theory but none perfectly apply to them.

This analysis does not essentialise hijras as a third gender, but seeks to show ‘what it means to make sexual differences matter […] in terms of other forms of social differences’ (Cohen, 1995, p.227). This study seeks to investigate the impact of modernity on hijras, in relation not only to their gender but also to the postcolonial heritage of their society. Firstly, it will examine hijras’ position within the Indian society and its links with the discrimination they are facing and the ambiguous status towards Hinduism and Islam. Next, it will analyse the evolution of their status based on the historical context, particularly in relation to the British colonisation and the ‘modernity’ it claimed to bring.




Secondary data on hijras are difficult to find as there are only but a few authors who have conducted research on it, and most of them are American researchers with Indian origins. The literature review, which will document on the functioning and the special status of the community, will be initially based on the university Library Search and Google Scholar. The main books used will be Reddy’s With Respect To Sex (2010) and Nanda’s Neither Man Nor Woman (1999), two anthropological works on hijras’ identity. Then the theoretical analysis will explore postcolonial and gender studies and the Queer theory. Therefore this interdisciplinary dissertation will adopt especially the insight of history, ethnography, anthropology and sociology. Finally, the focus will be broadened as some documentaries on the rituals, as well as newspapers and quantitative data on AIDS will be analysed.



  1. Place and role of the community within the Indian society

Hijras are mostly men with feminine attributes and clothing, although Marglin (1985, p.35) highlights a hijra women matriarchal community ritually and sexually dedicated to Hindu temples. The hijra population is estimated between 10,000 and 2,000,000 (Bobb & Patel, 1982). Some renounce sexual desire after undergoing a sacrificial emasculation, nirvan – literally rebirth – which is a removal of the penis and testicles, and is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata. With this emasculation, hijras obtain their ‘supernatural powers’: blessing (and thus cursing) the population, giving fertility to newborns and to married couples during ceremonies. Hijras therefore have a well-defined ‘occupation’ called badhai within the Indian society. However, if the society does recognize their traditional role, in the contemporary modern context it tends to become marginal and many hijras are pushed to other ‘livelihood’, ie sex-work or begging. The importance of rituals in the community confirms Weston’s thesis that the form of the hijra family can ‘be read simultaneously as radically innovative and thoroughly assimilationist. In the end, they are intrinsically neither’ (Weston, 2013, p.64). Therefore all these characteristics clearly show that hijras are situated in a liminal space hovering between acceptance and rejection as it will be explained in the second part.

Badhai is the most important role of hijras within Indian society and occurs during weddings and births of male children. After their music and dance performance, they receive money and material goods that they share among members present at the ceremony (Nanda, 1999, p.4). Badhai takes place not only in the traditional Indian family, known as ‘joint family’ as opposed to the ‘nuclear family’ form which dominates in modernity (Srinivas, 1995, p.138), but is also very present in the cities of northern India. It has however become more marginal in the southern regions where it cannot allow them to financially support themselves (Nanda, 2006, p.237). This liminality between traditions and modernity lead many hijras to get involved in sex-work or to beg in urban centres. Deprived of their traditional role which gave meaning to their existence, they fall back into activities located at the boundaries of society.

The hijra community faces intense discrimination and therefore remains ‘invisible’ particularly in terms of employment. When some manage to be employed, they are quickly dismissed or harassed at their workplace, once their identity is known (PUCL-K, 2001, p.32). In this context, sex-work is one of the few options available to hijras who do so for many reasons. On the one hand, for many, sex-work is nothing dishonourable but a purely economic exchange which allow them to earn a living, and even financially support their families. On the other hand, they argue that self-employed sex-work is better paid than other jobs, providing freedom and autonomy. They can set their own schedules to engage in NGOs to advocate for the recognition of their rights. Hijras’ relation to sex-work is therefore liminal between asceticism and eroticism. Through the transformation of their body which allows them to be more authentic, they idealize asexuality and at the same time they are perceived as erotic characters (Reddy, 2010, p.245).

Hijras who beg are the most ‘disadvantaged’, the poorest and least educated of the community. Generally, they operate in group to reduce the possibility of aggression, and beg primarily from merchants rather than in public places (Nanda, 1999, p.50). Most often, hijras are placed in front of shops, leaving only when the owners have given money away. They usually donate because hijras are considered to have the power to bless and curse, and are also known to lift their saris when refused donation thus exposing to view their excised genitals. This approach seems to be especially deterrent because it shames the person exposed to this show (Cohen, 1995, p.296). The behaviours characterizing hijras can only be understood within their specific culture and are very difficult to apprehend from a modern Western perspective.


  1. Discrimination, stigmatization and the impact on AIDS

Hijras build their relationships almost exclusively within the community, which can be seen as a ‘survival strategy’ in response to the discrimination they suffer from civil society. Indeed, because the society sees them as ‘deviant’ the community often constitutes the only support on which hijras can rely (Bakshi, 2004, p.213). The stigmatization of certain practices has always contributed to and supported sexual normality and normativity. Therefore discrimination against sexual minorities, and the strategies implemented by the various societal bodies (family, media, medical and political community) maintain the established modern order. Nevertheless if the marginalization of hijras usually starts at the family level (PUCL-K, 2001, p.31), the discrimination process is widespread and sustained by the entire society. The media have long participated in the climate of intolerance against hijras, including maintaining prejudices on the community and spreading rumours on hijras customs. For instance, newspapers have contributed to spreading rumours that the hijra community kidnaps young boys and castrates them (Human Rights Watch, 2008). However it seems that their discourse has changed now, and that the media have taken part in the struggle initiated by sexual minorities for the respect of their civil and human rights (Dutta, 2012, p.837). However, it should be emphasized that this shift in media perspective is mostly due to a Western LGBT influence and not to a more culturally specific one. This illustrates once again the subordination of Indian postcolonial thinking to Western Queer theory in a certain ethnocentric way.

In India, transgender people considered as ‘sexual outlaws’ are imprisoned under laws that regulate privacy; hijras like many sexual minorities are tortured by government forces in order to make them confess their ‘deviancy’, and violated for cure (Amnesty International, 2001, p.7). Widespread violence across the society is encouraged by the state. Indeed, not only the laws criminalizing homosexuality ‘legalize’ violence against sexual minorities, but also some impunity is given to police officers. The police harass hijras based especially on two pieces of legislation. Firstly, inherited from the colonial period is the ‘unnatural offences’ article of the IPC which criminalizes all sexual relations ‘against nature’ and will be detailed in the next part. The second piece is the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act of 1986, which criminalizes prostitution. As the victims belong to a marginalized social group, police agents are convinced that their actions will not be judiciously investigated (Amnesty International, 2001, p.14). In addition to the sexual nature of violence, another feature is its daily occurrence and the fact that no space, whether public or private, is able to protect hijras. In summary, the law criminalizes the sexual orientation ‘against nature’ and sets up a legislative arsenal that participates in the daily harassment of hijras. This unequal situation is a reminder of Foucault’s concept of power/knowledge which explains how claiming to possess knowledge and truth legitimizes the use of force.

The AIDS/HIV epidemic is increasingly virulent in India and affects hijras given their involvement in sex-work. Moreover, the police harassment the peer educators who conduct prevention among risk groups (Human Rights Watch, 2002, p.4), and the discrimination against any person affected by the virus within the hospital environment contribute to the spread of the disease. With 0.8%, India has the largest population of people living with AIDS/HIV after South Africa. In six states the epidemic has reached worrying proportions, as more than 1% of pregnant women are infected and account for nearly 80% of AIDS cases in the country (UNAIDS/WHO, 2004, p.2). Most of those infected have contracted it sexually, and out of the estimated 550,000 people with AIDS, 370,000 come from 60 major cities, although condom use is more prevalent in urban than in rural areas (World Bank, 2004, p.17). The groups considered at high risk face a powerful marginalization and stigmatization by the whole population. The fear of discrimination and the absence of available and financially accessible treatment discourage individuals to do anything that would identify them as HIV positive. The focus on sexual diseases can be seen as a result of the modern Western discourse on transgender which seeks to medicalise sexuality. Modernity being driven by truth-seeking and rationality, this medicalisation of transsexuality via HIV/AIDS but also reassignment surgery can be seen as a way of controlling the transgender embodiment in order to deal with sex rather than gender. Indeed, as Stryker argues, transsexuality is ‘a culturally and historically specific transgender practice/identity through which a transgendered subject enters into a relationship with medical, psychotherapeutic, and juridical institutions’ (Stryker, 1994, p.251).


  1. Hijras and religion: syncretism between Hinduism and Islam

Religion is a central element in the construction of identity, both at the individual and group level. Firstly, the origin of hijras is linked to Hinduism, the whole community worships the Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata, to whom they dedicate their emasculation. The hierarchy between badhai hijras and sex-workers also reflects a Hindu conception of sexuality and asexuality, in both myth and reality. However, hijras are also defined as Muslims, practicing certain Islamic rituals. Remarkably, despite the religious component the recruitment of the community’s members does not rely on any distinctions between religions (Nanda, 2006, p.227). Thus the religious position of hijras is a syncretism between Hindu and Muslim rituals and practices.

Several points can be advanced to highlight the links between hijras and the Hindu religion. First, as hijras refer to Hindu myths to legitimize their lives and practice, one of the first sources of legitimacy is sought in the Hindu mythology episodes with many transvestite gods, half-man/half-woman heroes, gods born of divine homosexual unions. In this context, Bakshi (2004, p.214) has shown that hijras are particularly referring to the cult of Shiva, the symbol of ambiguity between asceticism and eroticism, especially in the half-man/half-woman form. It must be noted, as O’Flaherty stressed, that ‘although in human terms asceticism is opposed to sexuality and fertility, in mythological terms tapas is itself a powerful creative force’ (O’Flaherty, 1981, p.41). In addition to this mythological basis for legitimation, as seen above hijras invoke the emasculation as evidence of their authenticity, their asexuality and as the vehicle for their ritual powers (Biardeau, 1994).

The links between the hijra community and Islam are more important than it might seem at first. Reddy is the first to support the thesis that ‘hijras identified generally as Muslim’ (Reddy, 2010, p.117) firstly because of their daily practices (say namaz to salute; dress in Burqa; participating in Muslim festivals such as Muharram; travel to Mecca etc.). Secondly, they see castration as an extreme form of circumcision which is a key element of Muslim identity. Finally, the strongest point of this identification is the fact that all hijras are buried when they die. This is particularly important since in the Hindu religion, the purification of the soul after death goes through cremation. It should also be noted that hijras and eunuchs in general hold a very important role in Muslim courts in the Middle Ages. The liminal space in which hijras are situated allows them to blend practices from Hindu and Muslim faith at both the individual and collective level which again highlights their multidimensional subjectivities and fluid identities.




  1. British colonial legislation

The social status of hijras has always depended on the evolution of the historical concept. Going back to the medieval period, during the reign of Muslim Kings, they had a political and religious importance. However during the British colonization period their status changed radically (1858-1947) because it became criminalized under the British domination and law. Thus the consequences of Western modernity in terms of representation and liminality ought to be analysed. Historically, according to Basham (2014) the main cause to the decline and stigmatisation of hijras is the weight of Victorian morality. The social order was totally upset by the arrival of English settlers on Indian soil, from the 18th century onwards. Colonial reports categorized sexual acts as either authorized ‘natural’ sex or criminalized because ‘against nature’ therefore making all homosexual relations ‘criminal’.

In 1860, Lord Macaulay introduced section 377 entitled ‘unnatural offences’ in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This section of the Criminal Code stipulates that ‘whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman, or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years and also be liable to fine’ (PUCL-K, 2001, p.11). Through this conception of sexuality, any sexual act not leading to procreation was against nature. In its examination of hijras, colonial literature was less focused on their status as ‘third sex’ than on their status among the other Indian castes. However, if the castes were certainly the first social group existing in India, the colonial imagination did not consider hijras as a caste in itself. They were classified and recorded in a new category created by the colonizers: the ‘criminal castes and tribes’ (Tolen, 1991, p.107). This colonial category involves the construction of a detailed definition of the nature, characteristics and habits of the individuals supposed to belong to this category. This definition is obviously based on the modern colonial understanding of Indian society but also on the construction of crime, deviance, and vagrancy present in Victorian England (Yang, 1985). Tolen explains that ‘by the mid-19th century, the idea of ‘dangerous classes’ (…) is firmly ensconced in Victorian thought, and a common discourse identified their physical characteristics, habits and locale’ (Tolen, 1991, p.108).

Thus, hijras were integrated in this category of dangerous outlaws simply because of their ‘nature’. The link between criminal castes/tribes and non-standard sexuality became more explicit in the ‘Criminal Tribes Act’ in 1871, put in place for the ‘registration, surveillance and control of certain tribes and eunuchs’ with eunuchs being defined as males ‘who admit themselves, or on medical inspection clearly impotent’ (Reddy, 2010, p.26). Therefore, anyone matching that description can be monitored and stopped. Since the end of the 19th century, the law has criminalized their daily reality, their way of life (they dress and behave in a feminine way) and their livelihood (singing and dancing). Finally the land previously given to hijras by those in power (including Muslim leaders) has also been confiscated as hijras cannot present legal evidence of this heritage (Review Department Correspondence, 1844, in Reddy, 2010, p.27).

The colonial law established the marginalization of eunuchs in Indian society. Moreover, it is interesting to note that if the criminal castes/tribes found some support in the Indian nationalist movement of the 20th century that led the country to independence, eunuchs were totally marginalized from these modern discourses. The condemnation of the concept of criminal castes/tribes did not concern hijras and their current situation seems to still be impacted by this heavy colonial past, since the ‘unnatural offences’ section of the IPC is still enforced. This colonial masculinity is questioned by Gandhi’s nationalism and his call for a ‘dissident androgyny’ as described by Leela Gandhi (1998, p.100), which revises the concept of masculinity by opposing the Indian spiritual strength and the Western physical strength (Chowdhury, 2001).


  1. The impact of colonial modernity: non-representation and liminality

‘Modernity’ is the project from the Enlightenment philosophers to impose reason as a transcendental norm to society. It is expressed by an ideal of individualism, universalism, rationality and progressivism, which was a justification for colonial conquest in the 18th century. The concept ‘was used as a discipline of dominance, impressing the superiorities of Western culture, claiming powers to control the future’ (Washbrook, 2009, p.125), which questions the demarcation between past and present, tradition and modernity. This demarcation directly impacts the situation of hijras because their traditional role becomes a characteristic of the past which compels them to find new roles to adapt a modern culture within a changing society. However, the process of westernisation has two major implications. First, there is a risk to assume that gender-phobic attitudes were only brought by colonisation, due to the imaginary and romanticised idea on third-gender acceptance. Second, transgender people sometimes cultivate traditional values in order to resist the Western discourse which increasingly focuses on a medicalised construction (Roen, 2001, p. 254-255).

This demarcation between tradition and modernity was developed in the 1990’s by postcolonial studies. Led by Edward Saïd’s Orientalism (2003), an epistemological debate arose. It argued that knowledge, when generated by the Occident, legitimized colonial domination in the past and currently reinforces neo-colonial subordination in a globalization context. This argument is successful because it has as central theoretical reference the work of Foucault on power/knowledge (Young, 1995, p.58). Saïd claims that Orientalism, that is to say the conception of the East by the West, is a discursive construction of colonial and cultural domination and power. This discursive non-representation of both the objective history of ‘the Other’, and the subjective experiences of the subaltern engendered many debates, such as the possibility to extend Foucault’s analysis of asylums or prisons to ‘the broader narratives of imperialism’ (Spivak, 1988, p.291). Indeed, Spivak explores the relations between power, desire and subjectivities as well as the intersection of her theory of representation and global capitalism. She concludes that oppressed groups can use their marginality to undermine the hegemony of authority and the epistemic violence of imperialism. Therefore, the invisibility of hijras in modern discourses on social, political and economic issues is slowly shifting. After being excluded from the global rhetoric on human rights recognition, nation-state’s democracy and bureaucracy, and liberal capitalist economy, hijras are increasing their representation.

The issue of representation is also present in the theoretical framework. Both Queer and postcolonial theories are useful to explore hijras’ liminality and unique subjectivities, however there is a power relation between these two approaches (Roen, 2001). Queer theorising and Western LGBT political actions in the Global South are highly criticized for being ethnocentric, and for believing in a ‘civilizing mission’ emanating from ‘gay imperialism’ (Vervynckt, 2013). One positive aspect however of such a mission could be the creation a transnational movement rather than a colonialist control. Therefore it seems that only an evolution of epistemology and a production of a culturally specific knowledge on transgender could overcome hijras’ liminality.

Hijras are situated in an ambiguous liminality, that is to say an intermediary status, an in-between identity between male and female, traditions and modernity, Hindu and Islam, purity and danger, embraced and rejected. Liminality is often associated to ritual passages and Douglas (1966) highlights the connection with danger or source of an extraordinary power associated to those outside cultural classifications. Hijras identity which transgresses borders between genders is potentially dangerous to maintain ideal order and, in response, they are excluded by society. For Bourdieu, the reaction to the subversive potential of the gay and lesbian movement ‘is imposed through collective acts of categorization which set up significant negatively marked differences, and so create groups, stigmatized social categories’ (Bourdieu, 2001, p.118).




To conclude, hijras are victims of exclusion manifested especially in employment, and the community is confronting many forms of stigma, spread notably by the media. In hijras everyday reality the role of the Indian state in the establishment and the persistence of discrimination and acts of torture is prominent. Finally, the modern situation of hijras is increasing their vulnerability to AIDS/HIV: the number of infected people increases, and in the absence of any available treatment, it is more than urgent, now that sex-workers seem to be fairly well informed about the ways of prevention, that they be informed of the disease, its evolution, and the available treatments, in order for the disease to stop being seen as a shame. Nevertheless, the hijra community is increasingly structured and organized in response to the marginalization and victimization directed against it. NGOs fighting for the rights of sexual minorities, are working to teach sexual minorities what their fundamental rights are, and the means at their disposal to enforce them. Action requires the awareness that the current situation can be challenged, that the texts of laws criminalizing hijras may also serve to defend them against those who harass them, including the police. The violation of human rights must not go unpunished; and the community can and must mobilize to fight against the impunity enjoyed by its perpetrators.

If the LGBT movement aims for recognition within the established political order, Queer theories argue for the transformation of the entire modern system. However, transgender theorising is ethnocentric and the ambiguous liminality of transgender indigenous remains romanticized in the Western imaginary (Roen, 2001, p.254). It is not a matter of eliminating all sexual differences, but rather fighting for the establishment of a new, tolerant and de-binarized order in which hijras would be accepted not only as transgender people but as hijras.


Reference list


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Douglas M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge.

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Stryker S. (1994) ‘My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: performing transgender rage’, GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies, 1(3), pp. 237–254.

Tolen R. (1991) ‘Colonizing and Transforming the Criminal tribesman: the Salvation Army in British India’. American Ethnologist. Vol 18 (1), pp.106-125.

UNAIDS/WHO (2004) India Epidemiological Fact Sheet on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. Available at: (Accessed: 20.03/16).

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