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Sunday, 25 September 2005
Beauty therapy for Indian eunuchs
By Paddy Maguire
BBC News, Chennai
At the salon
Nikkila says her pupils gain self-worth and new skills
Eunuchs in southern India are training as therapists and beauticians in a move to integrate them in a society which largely shuns them.
In Tamil Nadu state there are an estimated 150,000 eunuchs (or "aruvani" as they now prefer to be called).
Most eke out a living by begging and many end up working in the sex industry.
The new scheme is the brainchild of M Nikkila, a Madras (Chennai) based beautician and therapist.

"Four years ago I saw one eunuch beggar being mercilessly harassed by the public.
"These days they have no place in society, no rights, no jobs.

"So I thought I would train them to become beauty therapists.  This course is the first step."
Identity crisis
Teaching her group of six a range of treatments from pedicures to massage, Nikkila's aim is twofold — to instil a new sense of self-worth and to equip her pupils with skills they can use to earn a salary.
Most of us in this group are well-educated and from good families but our parents would not accept us, so we had to leave
Priya Babu, eunuch
The business plan is simple.  By calling on Nikkila's wide network of clients built up over 15 years of practice, the eunuchs will do "home visits".
Their female clients will buy the particular products they need, removing the pressure of large financial outlay by the newly trained therapists.
Unrecognised as females by law, these castrated males face a very real identity crisis.
Once their surgery has taken place they are no longer considered male and there is no legal framework in place to deal with them.
President of the Sudar Foundation, V Vasanthi, says: "We are fighting for human rights and against violation of those rights.  Our foundation also fights for legal rights and aims to change society's view of us."
Marginalised by the public, eunuchs exist in self-contained family networks of adopted "daughters" and "mothers".
'Good students'
Aruvani at beauty salon.

Aruvani say they have gained respect
Aruvani at beauty salon.
Aruvani say they have gained respect
Priya Babu, 36, is the "mother" of this group.  They come from a small knit community of 30 that live in Chengelpet, south of Madras.
"We are trying to present ourselves in such a way that society will acknowledge us.
Historically we have been respected but that is no longer the case.
"Most of us in this group are well-educated and from good families but our parents would not accept us, so we had to leave."
By choosing to become a eunuch, individuals often have to turn their backs on family, friends and any status they may have previously held in society.
But many say this is preferable to being forced to live against their nature.
Often they are barred from beauty parlours so this course gives them a chance to treat themselves.
"I find they are good students and hungry to learn.
When they first came they would welcome me as if they were still begging but I have been teaching them to carry themselves differently and dress differently," says Nikkila.
Kalai Kani is a theatre performer and film artist also involved with the group.
"I teach them to relax and use their voices more effectively, to change the tone and pitch."
The training seems to be paying off.
"I was very depressed before I joined the class," says Eswari, 24.  "Now I feel much lighter and am looking forward to starting work."
Jamuna is 26.  "I saw a life that was only begging.  After learning these skills I can work hard in a respectable way. 
People used to tease me but now they look at me in a different way.  We have become an example to the other groups."
"Her training is also useful for me," joked Priya Babu as she enjoyed the benefits of Jamuna's pedicure treatment.
But the question remains whether the general public will be as enthusiastic.
Nikkila is confident that the service will be a success.
"Beauty parlours are really taking off in India and the demand is huge.
Already I have a dozen clients who have said they will be happy to be treated by my pupils."
"These therapies are about using feeling to treat the clients.
My next project will be to teach deaf and dumb people the same skills and get them working as well."
Aruvani — a day in the sun
Compilation of three articles by the BBC:
By Charles Havilland   BBC correspondent, from Villupuram, south India, April 27, 2003.
By Jill McGivering    BBC correspondent in Delhi, February 4, 2003.
Article dated March 9, 2001.    It has no byline.
Eunuchs from all over India gathered in a small village this week to re-enact a story from the Hindu scriptures in which they pretend to marry a warrior-god.
Two eunuchs — or hijras as they are known here — sit side by side at a table in a café.       They dip long, red-varnished fingernails into the hearty south Indian lunch — rice, lentils and vegetables — and ear, and gossip.
One slim, the other stout — they are dressed like twin sisters, in immaculate brown and white saris.       Delicate gold chains are arranged over their hair.
Picture of 3 Aruvani taken at previous photo shoot
India’s Aruvani are gradually asserting their rights
Another hijra, perhaps 35, sits down next to me to introduce herself.
“I’m Jayalakshmi,” she said, smiling broadly, “and that’s my mummy”.
She pointed to an older, slightly vexed-looking hijra.
Hijras often live in close communities, setting up their own “family” networks of motherhood, daughterhood and sisterhood.
All identify themselves as female.
For these days leading up to the first full moon of the Tamil New Year, the hijras have colonised the sleepy town of Villupuram, darting in and out of shops and along the balconies of the guest houses.
Some lodges won’t let them stay — my receptionist suspiciously asked whether I was expecting any other friends.
But generally between the townspeople and these seasonal guests, good humour and banter prevailed.
Celebration of a legend.
An hour’s bumpy drive away, past water-starved fields of sugar cane, lies the little village of Koovagam, the hijras’ Mecca, with its temple to the deity warrior, Aravan.
According to Hindu scripture, Aravan had to be sacrificed by his people, the Pandavas, to win a war.
He asked to get married and enjoy sexual bliss on his last night alive.
To fulfil this wish, Lord Krishna briefly took on female form — then became a “widow” the next day.
At the Koovagam festival, not only thousands of visiting hijras but many ordinary young men from the neighbourhood, too, act out this role of bride.
For once, the hijras are out of their ghetto, performing an age-old ritual.
And they revel in it.
Soon, in Koovagam’s temple portico, we visitors were surrounded by circles of dancing hijras, clapping seductively as they sang in deep, mellow voices about the wedding night ahead of them.
Inside, the atmosphere was apocalyptic — a place of excited shouting, bells clanging, the air thick with the sweet smells of burning camphor and jasmine, priests smashing open the coconuts offered up to the deity.
In the inner sanctum, the crowds jostled for an audience with the god; in front, the priest was tying the sacred marital thread around the necks of hijras, their moment of marriage to Aravan.
Then, out they stepped, posing proudly for the cameras.
Picture of Aruvani dressed in fashionable cloths and jewellery
Ram blessed Aruvani for their devotion.
A court in February 2003 said eunuchs are still technically men in a controversial ruling set to force a mayor from a job held for women.
The landmark judgement in the central northern state of Madhya Pradesh has thrown the political status of eunuchs throughout India into doubt.
Its immediate effect was to say that Kamla Jaan — a eunuch — did not qualify for mayor of the city of Katni as the post was reserved for a woman.
Ms Jaan made headlines four years ago when she became the first eunuch in India to be elected to the post of mayor, in the city of Katni.
She has been followed by a number of other eunuchs, elected by a public disillusioned with mainstream politics.
Now she is being forced from office after a lengthy court battle about her gender.
The case has even confused journalists who previously referred to her as “she”, and are now uncertain what title to use.
As part of India’s reservation system, Katni’s mayor must be a woman.
Although Ms Jaan, like most eunuchs in India, dresses as a woman and describes herself as female, the state’s high court has upheld an earlier ruling that she is technically male and therefore fails to qualify.
Ms Jaan’s medical history is unclear.
In India, eunuchs often form close-knit and ostracised communities.
Some are castrated men but others are transsexuals or hermaphrodites who have been rejected by their families.
Traditionally eunuchs earn money by singing and dancing at weddings and births but recently they have also started to enter politics, standing as independents and offering an alternative to mainstream political parties.
Some have argued that because they do not have family connections nor children, they are less likely to be corrupt.
This landmark case marks the first time a eunuch has been disqualified from holding office on the grounds of gender.
Picture of Aruvani MP, Shabnam Mausi.
Aruvani have gone into politics, with Shabnam Mausi as the country’s first MP.
Ms World
In 2001, more than 100 eunuchs competed at “Ms World 2001” during Holi, the Hindu festival of colours.
In Bhopal, capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, eunuch beauty contestants sprinkled powdered colours on each other to mark Holi as they graced the stage.
Hijras is Urdu.       It means “impotent ones.”       The expression is broadly used to describe those classified as neither male nor female.      
On the fringes of society, eunuchs live mainly by singing and dancing at parties, prostitution and begging.
Eunuchs often will dress in colourful saris with heavy make-up and jewellery and gatecrash wedding parties, singing songs and dancing until they are paid to leave.
No one really knows how many eunuchs India has.       Estimates vary at between half a million and 1.2 million.
Many are castrated at puberty, while others are hermaphrodites or simply cross-dressers.
Eunuchs deny long-standing allegations that they kidnap and castrate boys.
Indian media have reported cases of teenage boys being forcibly castrated.
In 1995, a eunuch was arrested in New Delhi for castrating a man after drugging his food.
Hindu sacred texts are said to contain descriptions of impotent men who danced and cast spells.
To this day, many Indians believe eunuchs have occult powers so they pay for their dancing and singing.
According to the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, which dates from around the third century BC, the god king Ram blessed eunuchs.
When Ram was banished, he urged all male and female followers to go home.
Being neither, the eunuchs waited 14 years for his return from exile.
Ram blessed the eunuchs for their devotion.
Emerging from the fringes of society, eunuchs in Lucknow, capital of northern Uttar Pradesh, have recently modelled designer clothes at an upbeat fashion show.
Voters in Madhya Pradesh made history by electing India’s first ever eunuch legislator in February last year.
Shabnam Mausi or “Aunt” Shabnam, 40, was born to a Brahmin family and previously made a living out of singing and dancing.
Madhya Pradesh also has two eunuch mayors and three senior business executives.
And in Uttar Pradesh, voters of Gorakhpur elected Asha Devi, a eunuch, as mayor last November, Reuters reported.
Plans are also underway to launch a eunuchs’ political party. Shabnam Mausi said she planned to register a party with the Election Commission of India after January.
The party would be open to males, females and the “third sex” from all over the country.
Aruvani having fun outside stadium.
India’s Aruvani have long lived on the fringes of society.
Radha, from the holy Hindu town of Kanchipuram, told me she loves the Koovagam festival, simply because, for once, she can get married.
Now aged 37, she ran away from her family at 12.       You can, as the villagers do, see people like her merely as figures of fun.       She looks a bit like a pantomime dame.
She’d never pass off as a woman — close your eyes, and her gravelly voice uttering the percussive Tamil tongue could be that of a Madras rickshaw-driver.
You can pity them — Radha has spent 25 years in a ghetto in a hostile town, and what do she and her friends do?       We go to the shops and ask for money, she says; other than the sex trade there’d be few jobs open to them.
But Radha and her friends just want you, for once, to relate to them as human beings: she seemed surprised but quietly pleased that a journalist should want to speak to her.
Surprised, because most of these people’s lives is a story of alienation from family and society.
Despite some lingering beliefs that hijras bring good luck at weddings or after a birth, there has been widespread fear and hatred of them.
That has bread an aggressive, vulgar streak in the hijras, and perpetuates a kind of vicious circle of mistrust.
The ceremony at the Koovagam festival does seem to reflect both the sadness and happiness of the many hijras.
Famila, aged 24 and from Bangalore, had her operation five years ago, after years of isolation.
With her fine features, I honestly think most people surrounding her thought she was simply a woman.       She came second in the festival’s “Miss Koovagam” beauty contest.
In perfect English, she told me that although she’s a feminist and doesn’t believe in beauty pageants, she’ll use it as a platform to talk about hijras’ rights.
Famila already works as a rights lobbyist and says more and more hijras are taking on these leadership roles.
In central India some have been entering local politics and becoming mayors.
But on the last day at Koovagam, the morning after the wedding revelry, the ceremony, reflecting the sadness of many hijras, has the image of the warrior paraded around and then destroyed.
And the hijras snap their sacred marriage threads and don the white clothes of widows.
There begins the weeping and wailing, the mourning for what is no longer.
And there ends, for what has always been in the past, another year, a brief escape from reality, a hijras’ day in the sun.
Singing Aravani tax collectors
India's eunuchs seek new way
Eunuch MP takes seat
India stages Ms World for eunuchs
Wikipedia — Hijra
Same gender sexuality
San Francisco should be proud
Transvestite Grayson Perry takes the Turner
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