The secret language of South Asia’s transgender community

A hijra waits for her dance at a national hijra festival in New Delhi, India.
A hijra waits for her dance at a national hijra festival in New Delhi, India.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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In South Asia, there is a hidden language known only to the region’s hijra community.

Found in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, the hijra are an old and marginalized group, whose members identify as men born with the souls of women. Hijras call themselves she-males and effigies, as well as kwaja sera, or the “guards of the harem,” a title that recalls their historical role serving monarchs in the region.

These days, the hijra are known as performers and panhandlers. What few know about them, however, is that they are the keepers of many secrets, including the centuries-old language of Hijra Farsi. “It’s importance for our people that when we want to talk to our siblings and others from our household … we speak in our language and others won’t know what we’re saying,” says Deemi, a hijra living in the Pakistani city of Lahore. “It’s also our identity.”

Hijras in South Asia

Hijras typically dress like women, but no physical transition or change is required to be inducted into the community. In fact, most identify as neither men nor women, but rather as a “third gender,” a status that has received legal recognition in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Despite these protections, hijras remain outsiders. Many live apart from society and are excluded from most professions. In addition to panhandling and performing, prostitution is a common way for hijras to earn a living, a circumstance that arguably isolates them even further from mainstream society.

Perhaps because of this marginalization, hijras have done their best to survive and create a supportive, close-knit community. This closeness has been facilitated by Hijra Farsi, which has a history that is as unique and mysterious as its speakers.

The history of Hijra Farsi

Serving as both a secret code and a cultural identifier, Hijra Farsi has murky roots.

Despite its name, the language does not significantly overlap with Persian. No one seems to know when and how Hijra Farsi began, though some hijras say it started during Mughal rule over South Asia. It was then, according to folklore, that the hijra community was founded by a royal eunuch named, Mai Nandi.

Eunuchs, the khwaja sera, guarded the royal harems and had access to the court. Nowadays, hijras view this royal access as a source of pride, with many Pakistani hijras still referring to themselves as khwaja sera. According to Dr. Kira Hall, an associate professor of linguistics and anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who studied Hijra Farsi in India, this might explain why the hijra language is named after Farsi, the court language of the Mughals. “The fact that they call the language Farsi also reflects their own belief that their community goes all the way back to the medieval courts,” she observed.

With the fall of the Mughal empire and start of British colonial rule, eunuchs were pushed into a more marginalized position. Colonial laws criminalized their choice of dress, as well as the public dancing they regularly engaged in. The crackdown caused hijras to become protective of their language, which evolved into a survival tool.

While Hijra Farsi has no documented history, Hall has found evidence of hijras speaking their own language as far back as the early 1800s. “What you do find, 200 years ago, are discussions by various colonialist travelers about these hijras … [indicating they have] a secret language,” Hall says.

A complex language

Hijra Farsi began and has continued as a learned, as opposed to a mother, tongue. The language is introduced to newcomers when they enter the hijra community, together with the group’s alternative family structure, cultural norms, and other traditions.

Dr. Muhammad Sheeraz, a professor at Islamabad’s International Islamic University, conducted a year long study on Hijra Farsi in various Pakistani cities. Dr. Sheeraz estimated that Hijra Farsi has a vocabulary of around 10,000 words, including some absorbed from other languages spoken in South Asia. “It’s pretty complicated and it’s a massive vocabulary system,” Hall confirmed. Much of the vocabulary centers on trade, money, hijra rituals, cursing, and sexuality.

According to Dr. Hall, the most precise way to describe Hijra Farsi is as a register, that is, a variation on a language used for a particular situation or context. Even if Hijra Farsi does not meet all the linguistic requirements of a language, Hall is happy to call it one. “I think it’s a language because the hijras call it a language,” she says.

Language or not, Hijra Farsi is difficult to teach and learn. Seasoned speakers often tease and make fun of newcomers who have yet to master Hijra Farsi. With no written script or textbook, the learning process is generally an informal one, helped along by gurus, who serve as parental figures. “We are the teachers and we are the book,” says Deemi, who is a guru to about ten hijras. “When we speak it with each other in front of new chelas [or inductees], they ask us what it means,” she explained. “We tell them and that’s how they start speaking it.”

Deemi says it took her only a few weeks to learn the language when she first joined the hijra community. For others, like Annie and Jia, two hijras living in Rawalpindi, it took four or five months. Jia, who learned just by listening to others speak said that “[in] the start, it was difficult, then it slowly became easier.”

Hijra Farsi as a community-building tool

Having a language that creates a sense of a community is a necessity for hijras, who typically give up a great deal when they join the community. “They consider themselves completely separate … from the general community,” says Khawar Pervez, who supervises outreach to the transgender community for Dareecha Male Health Society, a Pakistani NGO. “They call everyone else dunya daar [or, ‘people of the world’]. That’s why they have their own culture, and also their own language.” Dr. Sheeraz echoes this observation. “Being hijra is speaking this language,” he asserts.

Many hijras live with gurus in households called deras. Most find their way to a dera by their early teens. They are typically runaways, or have been left by their families. Once at a dera, young hijras are inducted into their new homes through various rituals, which can include a reenactment of childbirth, payment to a guru, or even a “wedding” ceremony of sorts, which ties the newcomer to their dera.

After a new hijra’s induction, the guru becomes her parent and teacher, helping her learn Hijra Farsi, as well as the hijra way of life. Every inductee must follow the rules of the house and hand over all their earnings to the gurus, or risk being ostracized. “With a guru, [a hijra has] a lot of protection,” explains Tahir Khilji, the director of VISION (a Pakistani NGO assisting children and minorities) who has worked with hijra communities in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh for the last two decades.

Both the mentorship of a guru and the mastery of Hijra Farsi are critical to a new hijra’s success. Many hijras believe, however, that it is important to keep their language secret. “If we want to say something that we cannot say in front of ‘people of the world,’ we can say it in [Hijra] Farsi,” Annie says.

“My own understanding is that this is the only way that they can protect themselves from a threat from the outside world,” Khilji explains. This is one of the reasons why many hijras are reluctant to translate Hijra Farsi words for outsiders. “They don’t like it when anyone else understands or speaks their language,” says Pervez.

Referring to translation requests from outsiders, Annie says, “They ask but we lie to them.” She adds that hijras often tell non-hijras they are speaking a regional language instead of telling them about Hijra Farsi. Dr. Hall also said the hijras she spoke to have been “fairly cautious” about sharing details about their language. “They have to be because they’re so marginalized,” she explains.

But there is much more to Hijra Farsi than just practicality and secrecy. It is a powerful symbol for the hijra community. Given the marginalization they face in South Asian society, hijras see the language as something that is truly theirs, and speak about it with pride. “This is our language,” says Deemi. “And it’s a very beautiful language.”