There are many items of clothing that announce to the world that their wearer is now a woman. For some people, it's the bra, for others, it's their first shoe with a heel. For many Indian women, that garment is the sari, an expansive length of cloth that takes skill and know-how to wear correctly. Girls learn to execute this multi-step process from their mothers, and "come out" for the first time in their own sari during Ritu Kala Samskara, a ceremony that marks a girl's transition into womanhood.
But, this journey isn't just for girls. For India's third gender, the hijra, that process of transformation is a much more complicated and fraught one to make. The label of "hijra" pertains to a diverse range of people who consider themselves outside of the cis categorization of male or female, but largely describes those born male who transition to female through a combination of gender affirmation surgery, taking on India's traditional feminine gender roles, and wearing women's clothing.
Though hijras were officially recognized by the Supreme Court in India in April of this year, which mandated their representation within government institutions, the idea of a "third gender" is not new there. Its origins go back thousands of years, and they have held cultural, political, and spiritual importance throughout history. But, like many in the global trans* community, they face incredible prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Even with their new legal recognition, hijras are still marginalized in a country where impoverished women do not have the same rights as their male counterparts. Since reliable doctors for sexual affirmation surgery are expensive and hard to find, many poor hijras seek out less-safe options. So, making the decision to transform at the risk of their own safety, civil rights, and personal health requires an incredible sense of identity. To hijra people, saris are a badge of honor, a symbol of self, and an armor against the world; it is their right.