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  • Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra, c.1850‒1900 by Jessica Hinchy
  • Catriona Ellis
Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra, c.1850‒1900
By Jessica Hinchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Jessica Hinchy's book Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India considers the relationship between the colonial state and the transgender Hijra community. Since 2014 Hijras have been officially recognised as the third gender in India but in the nineteenth century were known to the British as a small community of eunuchs primarily identified by wearing female clothing and associated with public performance and blessings of fertility at weddings and births. Providing a history of this understudied group and its interactions with colonial officials in the North West Province in the late nineteenth century, Hinchy convincingly argues that the interest in Hijras was more than an eccentric colonial obsession with a group associated with deviant sexual behaviour. Rather a detailed study of the colonial "panic" surrounding Hijras provides a glimpse into the underlying fragility of colonial power (27), the ambiguities inherent in colonial attempts to classify and monitor Indian subjects, the ways in which "gender expression, sexual behaviours, domestic arrangements and intimate relationships were central to colonial governance" (20) and how this was played out in individual lives.

In Part One Hinchy argues that Hijras came to be viewed by colonial officials in NWP as an inherently ungovernable population, conceptualised in terms of filth or contagion. This view was reinforced by the information provided by middle class Indian men such as Syed Ahmed Khan, reflecting both changing concerns about homosexuality and anxieties that "respectable" children were threatened with kidnapping and slavery. The incorporation of Hijras into Part II of the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 in NWP shows their association with criminal, deviant and mobile populations. Yet unlike other CT populations Hjiras were castrated and therefore insufficiently masculine, which categorised them as incapable of moral improvement through productive labour, showing the intersectionality of race with ideas about gender, sexuality and the body (98). As Hijras could therefore be neither assimilated nor recovered, Hinchy frames the colonial approach within Patrick Wolfe's "logics of elimination," drawing parallels with the settler colonies. The aim of legislation was the physical extirpation of the future Hijra community by prohibiting emasculation and by removing children from Hijras' households, and cultural extermination though policing dress and public performance.

Methodologically Part Two is probably of most interest to the non-specialist. Hinchy weaves together microhistories with wide-ranging observations on the nature and implications of colonial governance, and the disjunction between the claimed power of legislation and the realities of its enforcement. Chapter Five provides a detailed analysis of colonial archival practices and the limitations within the collection and circulation of colonial record-keeping and intelligence gathering, highlighting the silences in the archive and the ways in which gaps themselves became evidence of criminality. More interestingly, Hinchy demonstrates that the colonial archive is "multivocal," formed through the participation and contributions of a wide number of individuals and networks of information within both Indian and British communities, reflecting multiple and contested narratives. This is used to good effect in Chapter Six, which is an account of Hijra life histories pieced together from fragments of biographies and individual lives. This detailed assessment reveals the wilful limitations of colonial understandings of Hijras' everyday life, showing their seasonal mobility and complicated household structures and emphasising that performance, begging and the badhai gifts received were only one aspect of economic life, with many engaging in agriculture and artisan crafts. It also highlights the centrality of discipleship lineages for the generational transfer of knowledge and the extent to which anxieties surrounding the corruption of innocent children vastly overstated the proportion of children living in Hijra households.

Moving away from grand narratives of sexuality and gender in colonial rule, Part Three focuses on the everyday contingent interactions between colonial officials and Hijras. Chapters Seven and Eight highlight the difficulties faced by a wide range of competing medical, legal and penal officials who sought to make deviant bodies "legible" and controllable, in particular through policing their '"endered self-presentation' (clothes) and bodily labour (performance). Chapter Eight also...


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