These Stunning Images Capture The Beauty & Grace Of India's "Third Gender"

Photo: Jill Peters.
For years, the hijras of India — people who identify as belonging to a "third gender" — held a special place in society.

"Hijras were both revered and feared as powerful entities who lived between the sexes," according to photographer Jill Peters. “They were believed to bestow good fortune and fertility by dancing at weddings and the births of children."

But discrimination and a lack of understanding chipped away at that stature, Peters said, leaving the hijra minority "on the margins of society."

That was the case when Peters came across a group of hijras at a Delhi marketplace in 2007. She asked her guide about them. His answer? "Just stay away from them."

But Peters, whose work focuses on gender identity and sexuality, persisted. Soon after, in Mumbai, she said she approached a beautiful hijra on the street and asked if she could take her photograph. That shoot inspired a series of portraits of hijras in a studio and, later, on the beach.

Peters quickly learned of the heartbreaking discrimination faced by her subjects, some of whom had been shunned by their families and rejected by mainstream employers, forced instead to rely on begging or sex work to raise money to cover medical and other expenses. Her goal, as she writes in the project's introduction, became to "portray them as the subjects of beauty and grace they so desperately wish to be, as if their path to nirvana had not been impeded by a century-and-a-half of prejudice and intolerance."

Peters told Refinery29 that she has come to believe that "a lot of hijras put on a fierce act out of necessity."
"They have a reputation as being provocative. Getting to know my subjects one-on-one provided me with a special insight: Do not believe the stereotype," she said. "I was struck by how naturally graceful and feminine they are. I think that quiet dignity comes through in the portraits."
Ahead, stunning portraits and stories from Peters' photo series, Nirvan: The Third Gender of India. View more of Peters' work with burneshas, people who are born female but live their lives as male "sworn virgins" in parts of Albania, here.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
Can you explain how the third gender differs from other expressions of gender identity that readers here in the U.S. may be more familiar with, such as people who identify as transgender?
"The third gender of India differs in many ways from the transgender community we are accustomed to here in the West. The hijra community functions much like a caste. They live in communal households, sharing chores and responsibilities, headed by a central mother figure, or guru. A guru is an older hijra who they are usually indebted to. They must earn money and bring it back to the guru to pay their debt. Unlike in the West, their communities are built around religion. They are followers of the Hindu Goddess Bahuchara Mata, and identify with Shiva, a gender-ambiguous figure. Becoming a hijra is as much a spiritual experience, involving strict adherence to ritualistic ceremony, as it is a physical state of being."

Caption: Banu.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
Caption: Muskan left home when her family refused to accept her living as a girl. She lives in Mumbai now with a guru and other hijras, cooking, cleaning, begging for a living and giving blessings for pennies. She had [an] operation at 15 — in Andhra Pradesh, parental permission is not required. She is now in debt to her guru for the price of the medical fees. She has a boyfriend back in her small village, whose parents don’t approve of their relationship. He is thinking about moving to Mumbai so they can be together. “Love is the only thing that matters to me. I only want love,” she says.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
In the description of your photo series, you write that “hijras were both revered and feared as powerful entities who lived between the sexes." Can you elaborate on that?
"Hijras are culturally seen as having the combined powers of men and women. Because they can’t have children, they are believed to have the power to bestow or deny good fortune and fertility. This is why they are paid generously to dance at weddings: to ensure future offspring. To incur the wrath of a hijra means to invoke a curse upon oneself of impotence and infertility."

Caption: Vijya.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
Caption: At 12, Sreesha tried on a sari for the first time and never wanted to take it off. She tried to wear girls' clothes in her village, but was ridiculed. If her father caught her, he would beat her. When Sreesha was 15, she met another hijra in her village who took her to Andhra Pradesh for an operation. She did not dare tell her parents what she was going to do. Her family is well off and educated, so they do not need her money. Within the last two years, they have grown to accept her. She is able to visit them dressed as girl. She has a boyfriend in Mumbai who asked her to marry him. She is very happy with her life, because her boyfriend treats her very well.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
You describe hijras as living “on the margins of society.” What kind of challenges do they face?
"No matter which caste a person is born into, once they become a hijra, they are automatically relegated to a very low caste. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a person of the third gender to find employment. Protections from sexual harassment on the job do not exist. A hijra is particularly vulnerable to these abuses because often she can’t go to the police, complaints are often met with further abuse by the police themselves, and hijras have no power within the system. Society as a whole sees them as unemployable and unworthy of basic protections."

Caption: Julie.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
Caption: Harsha always preferred cooking to cricket. After 10th grade, she left home and became a sex worker, saved her money and got breast implants. Three years ago, she joined an NGO that provides social services (such as HIV testing and education) to the LGBT community. She also joined a dance troupe that performs at wedding ceremonies and the births of children. It was her dream to become a dancer and she is very happy. “My life is so beautiful,” she says.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
What is being done to protect and expand the rights of hijras?
"Even though the LGBT community has a serious fight on their hands — [India's] anti-sodomy laws were upheld [in 2013] —they have rallied around the hijras in recent years. These vocal LGBT advocates — mostly well-educated, bilingual professionals, from middle- to upper-class families — see themselves and the third-gender community as two sides of the same coin. India is now considering affirmative action-type legislation to provide better opportunities to the third-gender people. It will be a long process, but it is moving in the right direction."

Caption: Debo.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
Caption: Sangita was 10 years old when she realized she wanted to be a girl. She didn’t tell anyone. As a young man, she got her degree and a job teaching natural sciences at a school in her village. She was happy there for two years, but some parents complained that she was too effeminate, so the school fired her. Her parents were so embarrassed they asked her to leave. Despite her education, Sangita moved to Mumbai so she could be who she is. Now she makes a living begging at the traffic lights. She says she would die if she couldn’t dress in a sari. She is saving up for [an] operation, although she doesn’t want it. She feels she would have a better chance with the boy she loves if she goes ahead with it.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
Some of the photos in the series were shot in front of red curtains, while others are outside. Why did you choose these settings?
"I shot the portraits over a period of a few months, beginning in the studio. One group then asked if they could be photographed on the beach, instead. It is a very spiritual place where they feel the most at ease and free. I felt I should represent my subjects as they wanted to be seen."

Caption: Anusha.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
Caption: At the age of 4, Shreya began to mimic the classical female dancers on television to the amusement of her family. Her mother agreed to enroll her in dance classes. As a dancer, she dressed as a boy until she was 9, then switched to girls’ costumes. At 21, she realized she could fulfill her dream of becoming a woman and had her first operation. She felt that she was in the right place for the first time. In order to earn money for more surgeries, she became an escort. When Shreya returns to visit her family in their small village, she has to wear a burqa, even though they are not Muslim. Her mother does not want any of the neighbors to recognize her.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
What kind of hopes for the future did your subjects share with you?
"They hope for love. They hope for the perfect boyfriend who will treat them with respect. Some would like to have a family. Others dream of becoming famous dancers and performing for crowds of admirers. One of my subjects is very involved in the community and aspires to political office, she dreams of running for mayor someday. Another hopes for the opportunity to use her teaching degree or the ability to find administrative work. Overall they hope for real change. They hope one day they will have equal access to education, employment and healthcare."

Caption: Sonakshi.
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Photo: Jill Peters.
Caption: Sneha had to quit school to care for her two younger siblings, and began dressing in girls' clothes. Her father would come home, see her in a dress, and beat her. She fled to Mumbai when she was 16 and survived by begging. At 18, she [became a sex worker]. Now that she is in a position to send money home, her family has accepted her, and Sneha goes back to her village every year for two months. She married her boyfriend there, against his family's wishes. Sneha would like him to take a second wife so they can start a family and she will continue to visit for two months every year. She puts the happiness of her husband and his parents first.

Peters has also photographed the lives of Albania's "sworn virgins." Click here to see those stunning portraits.
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Interested in learning more about the hijras and their culture? Refinery29's Style Out There traveled to Coimbatore, India, to meet with a brave group of hijras. For more on the episode, click here.

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