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What does it mean to be transgendered in India?: GetReligion, April 18, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Buddhism, Get Religion, Hinduism, Press criticism.
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Is it possible to write intelligently about sex in the non-Western world for an American media audience? Or, is our culture so narcissistic, so incurious, so parochial that a newspaper would be wasting its time in attempting to explain the difference between our world view and their’s?

A recent spate of articles in the American press about Tuesday’s decision by the Indian Supreme Court creating a “third gender” under law prompted these musings. Stories in the Washington Post and MSNBC about the Indian court ruling are so slanted for an American audience (and these outlet’s particular audiences) that there is but a tenuous link between their reporting and reality.

The pro forma MSNBC story begins:

Transgender people in India no longer have to categorize themselves as “male” or “female” in official documents. India’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling Tuesday that allows hundreds of thousands of transgender people to identify themselves as a third gender. Human rights groups are lauding the decision as historic and groundbreaking.

The article follows a standard formula for legal news and provides snippets from the decision.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” the court wrote. “Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, one of the two head judges on the Supreme Court bench, told the court.

The article notes what the implication of the ruling might be:

The high court has ordered the government to allocate public sector jobs to transgender people, known as “hijras” and include them in welfare programs.

And also offers comments from a high profile transgender activist and refers to arguments made in the brief. It then offers political and legal context to the ruling and closes with a word of hope from the LGBT community.

While India now recognizes the transgender community as a third gender, the ruling only applies to transgender people and not gays, lesbians or bisexuals. In December, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 court order that decriminalized homosexuality, reinstating a ban on gay sex. India’s general elections will be held on May 16, and LGBT rights activists hope the new parliament will repeal the anti-gay law.

All in all the structure and tone of this story is what one would expect of an MSNBC story about an American court decision on transgender issues. Voices opposed to the ruling would have provided balance and developing the apparent contradictions between this latest ruling and the December 2013 ruling criminalizing gay sex would have been welcome.

Yet, this is not a story about America, but India. And the American left-liberal model, with all of the assumptions implicit in that world view, does not work.

First off, can we assume that an American transgendered person is the same as an Indian transgendered person, or what the article calls a hijra?

According to the leading study on India’s transgendered community, With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India by Gayatri Reddy, hijras are:

phenotypic men who wear female clothing, and ideally renounce sexual desire and practice by undergoing a sacrificial emasculation — that is, the excision of the penis and testicles — dedicated to the goddess Bedhraj Mata. Subsequently they are believed to be endowed with the power to confer children on newlyweds or newborn children.

Hijras do not occupy the same place in Indian culture as the transgendered do in America. First hijras are almost exclusively male to female. Second they have a quasi-religious cultural roll in Hindu society and have been present, though on the fringes of that society, for thousands of years.

Can we also assume that gender identity in America is equal to gender identity in India? In her monograph Reddy notes that by the 3rd Century (AD or CE) the view that there were three genders was being debated in Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jain thought. For Brahmans sexual identity was founded upon the presence or absence of certain primary sexual characteristics. For Buddhists it was controlled by procreation with the impotent consigned to the third sex. But the Jains argued that biology was only one marker of sexual identity. One’s psychological gender was as important as one’s physiological gender in establishing sexual identity.

And, what is the role of Islam in all of this. Hijra is an Urdu word and Indian popular culture associates hijras with those parts of India where Muslim influence is strongest.

And, how can we understand the court’s decision’s recognizing a third sex yet upholding criminal penalties for homosexuality? I am no scholar of Indian law, but could the quasi-religious understanding of the hijras be at work? It seems India’s courts are moving in an opposite direction than America’s — in the West sexual identity is tied closely to sexual activity while the Indian courts seem to separate the two.

Let me say that the issue being addressed by this post is not the moral worth of transgendered people or the rights and wrongs of the Indian court decision. Nor am I saying that every foreign news story be accompanied by a scholarly monograph.

I am asking whether it is possible to understand the issue of the hijra without a single reference to religion in the MSNBC story? Treating this story as if it were an exotic version of Bowers v. Hardwick may come naturally to an American newspaper, but it leaves the reader ignorant of what has happened.

Holy Cow Batman!, The Guardian on Hinduism: Get Religion Oct 16, 2011 October 17, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Buddhism, Get Religion, Islam, Judaism, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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After me everybody … “Hindus do not worship cows.”

Repeat please … “Hindus do not worship cows.”

One more time like you really mean it … “Hindus do not worship cows.”

It is the caped crusader’s sidekick who cries “Holy Cow”, not the sadhu.

Hindus venerate cows. There is a difference.

The Observer — the Sunday edition of the Guardian newspaper in London — doesn’t appreciate the distinction. Nor does it appear to be fully on board about a number of religious dietary laws. But it does have an excruciatingly hip article in its lifestyle section entitled “Religion and food: Lord knows, they don’t mix.”

Written in a jocular, off-hand style this article offers the philosophical musings of a food writer on the dietary laws and food customs of some of the world’s major faiths. It is also a silly little piece whose treatment of religion is puerile, offensive and profoundly ignorant of the subjects it seeks to address. I am not complaining mind you. Critics need stories like this. When a quality newspaper like the Guardian is willing to throw a slow pitch down the center of the plate it is churlish of me to complain. Let’s take our place at the plate.

There are lots of good reasons for cutting down on meat; Jesus really isn’t one of them. Not that the Catholic Church would agree. A few weeks ago the UK’s bishops declared that they would be encouraging their congregations to give up flesh on Fridays as a way to “deepen… the spiritual aspects of their lives”. Organised religions have form where this sort of thing is concerned. This summer also saw the publication of Kosher Modern, a cookbook designed to make the stringent dietary rules of observant Jews – no pork, no shellfish, no mixing of milk and meat – an opportunity rather than a constraint. A few years ago, a Welsh Hindu community went to court (unsuccessfully) to save a bull called Shambo, marked down for slaughter because he had tested positive for bovine tuberculosis. Hindus don’t eat beef. They worship the animals. The Muslims don’t eat pork. The Buddhists are vegetarians and the Jains are strict vegans who won’t even touch root vegetables because of the damage it does to the plants.

From this I can reach only one conclusion: God is a seriously picky eater. And yes, I know, the Jains and the Buddhists don’t have an overarching deity per se, but you get the point. The divine is marked by a palate that would shame a three-year-old brought up on crisps and Sunny Delight.

From this point forward in the article the author provides his interpretation of these dietary laws, noting that he is a “head-banging atheist” and consequently a “Very Bad Jew”. I am not concerned with the author’s views on the merits of religion or dietary laws. His sentiment: “Worship however and whatever you wish, but don’t expect me to respect you for it,” is not the subject of this critique. What concerns me are the statements of fact.

Let’s go through these one by one in order of veracity.

“Muslims don’t eat pork.” Yes.

“Jews – no pork, no shellfish, no mixing of milk and meat.” Yes … but.

The author’s interpretation as to why Jews keep kosher: “Because it defines difference. It sets them apart” — would not meet with universal approval amongst all rabbinic scholars.

England’s Catholic “bishops declared that they would be encouraging their congregations to give up flesh on Fridays as a way to “deepen… the spiritual aspects of their lives”.  Yes and no.

Effective 16 Sept 2011, Roman Catholics in England and Wales are to abstain from eating meat on Fridays as an act of penance. Those who do not eat meat normally should abstain from some other food. The bishops stated:

“Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord” …  the Bishops’ Conference wishes to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance. The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat.

The Catholic Church in Britain is going back to meatless Friday’s as a mark of penance. No the bishops are not “encouraging their congregations to give up flesh”, it is an obligation. And they are not to give up “flesh”, but meat.

“Jains are strict vegans.” No.

Jains are “strict” vegetarians but not all Jains are vegans. Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, or poultry. Vegans, in addition, do not consume animal by-products such as eggs, dairy products,  or honey. Guided by the principle of ahimsa (non-harm) some Jains in the Indian diaspora have adopted a vegan lifestyle out of an ethical concern over Western factory farming practices. Their holy texts do not prohibit the consumption of dairy products and Jains may consume milk, curds and clarified butter (ghee).

“Buddhists are vegetarians.” No.

Not all Buddhists are vegetarians. The Buddha was not a vegetarian, and he did not prohibit eating meat. Some schools of Buddhism interpret his ethical strictures so as to discourage meat eating. Roughly speaking among the two major Buddhist traditions, the Mahayanists are vegetarian and the Theravadins are not. There are exceptions to this dictum. Ceylonese monks of the Theravadin school are often strict Buddhists, whilst amongst Tibetan and Japanese Buddhists of the Mabayanist school vegetarianism is rare.

“Hindus don’t eat beef. They worship the animals.” No.

Taking as my guide, What is Hinduism? published by Hinduism Today:

Hindus don’t worship cows. We respect, honor and adore the cow. By honoring this gentle creature, who gives more than she takes, we honor all creation … Gandhi once said, “One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals. Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world. The cow means the entire subhuman world.”

Looking at the box score, 2.5 answers rights, 3.5 answers wrong. This would have prompted a Holy Cow! out of Harry Caray.

I appreciate the audience for this article is the home team Guardian reader. But it does help not to be infantile when posing as l’enfant terrible. When you mock the religious sensibilities of others in a superior tone it helps to know what you are talking about. The Guardian doesn’t.