In a historic ruling, India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered that a third gender category be created for transgenders or “Hijras,” as transgenders are often referred to in South Asia.
According to The Times of India, the Supreme Court “said that transgenders will be allowed admission in educational institutions and given employment on the basis that they belonged to the third gender category.” The court further ruled that Hijras in India could not be discriminated against based on their gender in pursuing equal opportunity in education or employment.
Hirjas is a broad term used throughout South Asia that can be used to refer to everything from a transgender person to a “natural hermaphrodite to a male cross-dresser in a sari,” according to ABC News. There are an estimated 5 to 6 million Hijras living in India, many of whom face severe discrimination, including in getting an education and a job.
The Supreme Court ruling further ordered the government to classify transgender persons as part of the Other Backward Class (OBC). OBC is a collective term used for different people in India who are classified as being “socially and educationally backward.” The Indian constitution requires that the government adopt measures that empower OBCs. The Supreme Court, for example, has ruled that 27 percent of civil service positions be filled by OBC people. Sizeable admissions quota for OBCs are also in place for elite education institutions that receive government funding.
In its ruling on Tuesday, the Supreme Court said that Hijras would now have reservations for employment and education as one of the groups classified as OBCs.
In 2009, the Indian parliament passed a law creating a third gender category on government documents for Hijras. However, implementation of this new law has been sorely lacking, preventing Hijras from getting driver’s licenses and enjoying social welfare benefits, according to the World Policy Institute. The United Nations Development Program has also criticized India for failing to provide Hirjas with equal job and educational opportunities.
Earlier this year, Bangladesh created a third gender for the roughly 10,000 Hijras living in that country.
Should the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling be properly implemented, it should greatly help India’s large Hijra community. Because of the discrimination they face, both from the state and the larger Indian society, many Hijras are forced to work as prostitutes or simply beg for money.
According to Anglo Info, a global expat group in India, Hijras “have their own sub-culture within Indian society and live in communities organiszd around a guru who they consider to be a leader. Many members of the Hijra community work as sex workers. They are a common sight and can be seen begging at busy junctions and in commercial areas.”
The ruling is somewhat of a surprise for the Indian Supreme Court, which has not always been friendly to LGBT rights. In 2009, the High Court of Delhi declared unconstitutional Article 377 of the Indian penal code, which criminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults. However, in December of last year, the Indian Supreme Court overturned the ruling, once again making homosexuality a criminal act in India.