NBC's comedy Outsourced has introduced a variety of Indian cultural elements to an American audience through its depiction of a call center in Mumbai, as was the case in last night's episode when an impromptu bachelor party thrown for the center's boss included an appearance by an Indian hijra.
Depictions of transgender people are rare enough on television as it is, and depictions of them in other cultural contexts are rarer still. In this case the character is portrayed by Aneesh Sheth, one of the few openly transgender actresses in the industry, not to mention one who's also South Asian. And while it's far from an ideal depiction, the show's introduction of hijra at least opens the door for American audiences to learn more about a long-historied Indian cultural phenomenon and a vulnerable minority group fighting for legal recognition and protections in their home country.
The Hindi word hijra refers to an identity that we would know as transgender in the West, though that identity has a number of other names depending what language is being spoken. For instance, they are referred to as khusra in Punjabi, while the word hijra is actually considered defamatory in Urdu where the term Khwaja Saraa is preferred instead.
Hijra date back in recorded Indian history all the way to the Mughal Empire (early 1500's) and have direct ties to a variety of the region's religious traditions, including the Hindu mother goddess Bahuchara Mata who takes part in several stories related to transgender identity. In fact, as transgender identity or gender ambiguity is tied to a number of Hindu deities and religious parables, hijra are often believed to possess spiritual connections that bring good luck or allow them to bestow blessings upon occasions such as weddings or the birth of a child. This is somewhat parallel to the "two-spirit" identity that has been historically recognized by some Native American tribes.
While some hijra activists have lobbied to be recognized as a "third gender" by their society and government, others prefer instead to be recognized by their self-identified gender identity, which is typically female. In this regard, hijra are aligned with Western transwomen, but unfortunately the similarities do not end there. As is the case with many in the transgender community, many hijra live in poverty and face constant discrimination. Since they are rarely able to secure stable employment, hijra sometimes make uninvited appearances at weddings or other ceremonies to dance and solicit donations, while others rely on sex-work to make enough money to live on. Even their romantic relationships are not recognized by either the law or religious institutions, and they may face derision or worse yet violent attacks from those around them.
However, there is hope for this marginalized group. Hijra and Indian transgender communities and organizations advocating for equal rights, protections, and access to medical care continue to make their voices heard, and a few have even been elected to political office, such as Indian MP Shabnam Mausi. As is the case with transgender rights efforts here, progressive change will hopefully continue with further political organizing and cultural education. As you can see in this recent news report, the Indian media has started using the term transgender when referring the community, many of whom have adopted the same terminology.
This is by no means the definitive summary of hijra (or the Indian trangender community), who share a centuries old history and modern day political struggle which we encourage you to learn about further. As for NBC's Outsourced, the hijra character may put in another appearance in the second half of the show's wedding-themed season finale. Hopefully if it returns for a second season, the show's writers will be able to bring a more fleshed out hijra or transgender character into a future storyline.