New Internationalist

The Third Sex

Issue 350

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Urvashi Butalia's View From The South

The Shadow The Third Sex

Mona Ahmed's visiting card currently lists five names. Apart from Mona, which is how I know her, there is Ahmad Bhai, Saraswati, Ahmed Iqbal and Radharani. These names are a mix of Hindu (Saraswati, Radharani), Muslim (Ahmed Bhai, Ahmed Iqbal) and Christian (Mona), but they also combine different genders. Mona, Saraswati and Radharani are female names. Ahmed Bhai and Ahmed Iqbal are male names. This is entirely appropriate - with Mona it's difficult to tell from one moment to the next which gender she will assume.

I refer to Mona as 'her' because that is how I know her. Now 66 years old, Mona is a tall strapping woman who was once a man. The sex change was incidental. She did it because by the time she came to an awareness of herself, the sex-change technology had just become available. As far back as she can remember Mona felt uncomfortable in a male body. As a young boy all she wanted was to spend time with girls. For this she was reviled, ostracized and made the butt of many jokes. Then at 18 she met a group of eunuchs - castrated men who dressed as women and sang and danced for a living. Mona joined them and quickly felt a sense of belonging. She then opted for castration and later for a sex change, so today she has a woman's body.

If you ask Mona to describe herself she will say she is the 'third sex' - somewhere in-between and beyond male or female. Depending on the situation she might assume either identity. When Ahmed Bhai emerges every now and again the change is signalled by what Mona calls 'male clothes' - the traditional shalvar-kurta (long trousers and shirt) in dark colours with breast and side pockets. The loose, safari-style shirt effectively camouflages her breasts. As Mona she wears glittering, flimsy garments with sheer embroidered scarves, hennaed hair, nail varnish and lipstick. Sometimes things are even more confusing: Mona relates to different people differently. Now she is female and now male. Now someone will call her 'uncle' and someone else may address her as 'sister'.

I've known Mona for many years. And I am fascinated by how identity (which lies at the root of so much conflict and grief today) is such a fluid thing for her. In some ways she is trapped inside the ambivalence that her male/female identity gives her. In what we call 'normal' society, you have to be either male or female. When Mona needs to see a doctor, the latter needs to be alerted that the person he/she will see is somewhere between the two sexes. But in other ways the blurring of the borders of gender identity allow Mona an amazing access and a constant movement between the two.

As far back as she can remember Mona felt uncomfortable in a male body. As a young boy all she wanted was to spend time with girls. For this she was reviled, ostracized and made the butt of many jokes. Then at 18 she met a group of eunuchs – castrated men who dressed as women and sang and danced for a living. Mona joined them and quickly felt a sense of belonging

As a eunuch she has limited ways of making a living: eunuchs live on the fringes of Indian society and can't easily find jobs. The group to which she belongs make their living by blessing newborn children in return for money - an act which plays on people's fear of the 'evil eye' and is the reason families willingly oblige. Sometimes the group also sing and dance at weddings. Mona was born a Muslim but at these moments she assumes a Hindu name and identity since the communities her group visits are usually Hindu.

There are times when Mona yearns to be what she calls 'normal'. But that normality doesn't have to do with sex. Instead, it's a longing to be part of mainstream society. It has to do with acceptability, with respect - all of which elude her simply because she cannot be classed as one or other of the two genders available to us. At other times she laughs at the trap of 'normal' society. Years ago she adopted a little girl when she felt a strong urge to motherhood which for her had nothing to do with biology. In a poignant twist to the ambivalence that runs through her life, Mona's little daughter addresses her mother (for this is how Mona sees herself) as Abbu, a word that means 'father'.

But none of this really counts once you get to know someone as a person. For me there are many lessons in this friendship with Mona. It's a friendship that crosses the divides of class. But more than that it's a friendship that has taught me about identity - about how fluid, changing, expedient and sometimes even unnecessary it can be. And about how rigid, unbreakable and unbridgeable we've made it - so much so that it has now become almost acceptable to commit terrible violence in its name, or to become the victims of such violence simply because you carry that identity.

It's for this that I look at my friendship with Mona as an island of sanity in an otherwise crazy world.

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher.
She lives in New Delhi.


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