Thursday, July 18, 2024
featured storyGENDERTOURISM

Some cultures recognize more than two genders

The topic of gender has been hotly debated in recent years with terms like non-binary coming into mainstream use in the Western world. There is loud opposition rooted in fear of change to a system of language and behavior that many have grown up in.

Contrary to the argument that the binary gender, man and woman is the natural and historically true way of identifying, many cultures around the world actually recognize more than two genders (sometimes even four or five) and have done so for many, many years. These non-binary genders have also often historically held unique positions in their societies, ranging from artists to religious figures.

Hijra of India

People of non-binary gender expression have been an important part of Hindu society for over 2,000 years. The hijras, the most common so-called third gender in India, can even be found in Hindu holy texts like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, where Hindu hero Arjuna becomes the third gender.

Hijras are often born with male sexual characteristics, though they are also sometimes intersex, and they look and dress in traditionally feminine ways but they are not transgender, as outsiders have often mistaken. Though some choose to undergo a castration ceremony, as a form of offering to Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata, it’s typically not seen as transitioning in the Western sense.

Hijras actually leave home to become part of the hijra community, where, removed from wider society, they are taught lessons specific to the hijra way of life. They learn ritual roles, which include blessings at births and weddings, and many Hindus believe a hijra’s blessing can bring fertility, prosperity, and a long life.

To many Hindus, the hijras’ sacrifice of their procreative ability to the goddess as well as their existence outside the gender binary grants them religious power. Indeed, they have been revered in South Asian history, with many rising to positions of power.

Tragically, when the British colonized much of South Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries, their Christian beliefs of gender led them to deem all hijras as criminals in 1871. They instructed authorities to arrest hijras on sight, which kicked off 200 years of persecution and stigmatization, which they only survived thanks to their important religious functions for Hindus.

Anti-hijra sentiment persists to this day, despite Bangladesh, India, and Nepal all having recognized the rights of non-binary people by 2014. Hijras are often excluded from employment and education, forced into poverty and prostitution, and become victims of violence and abuse which neither police nor hospital staff address. There are millions of hijras in India, however, and education around their persecution is slowly returning their due respect.

Fa’afafine and fa’afatama of Samoa

On the Polynesian island of Samoa, and within the Samoan diaspora, are fa’afafines (meaning in the manner of women) and fa’afatamas (in the manner of men), which are widely regarded as third and fourth genders.

These third and fourth genders have always existed within Samoan society, where tolerance of all individuals is of great importance and children typically aren’t forced to conform to particular gender roles.

These genders of the Samoan culture resist being squashed into other classifications. “Western society tries to fit us [in] a box, to put us under gay, under trans and queer … but I think fa’afafine is our cultural identity—it defines us,” a local told Reuters.

These genders are fully accepted within their families and society, and they often fulfill roles such as caring for the elderly as well as educating people about sex, since sex is typically a taboo subject in public for men and women.

Samoa criminalizes same-sex sexual activity between men, and though the identity of the faʻafafine makes no claim about sexual orientation, this third gender’s choice in who they decide to bed remains protected.

Calalai, calabai, and bissu of Indonesia

The Bugis group of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, recognizes three gender categories beyond the binary. Calalai refers to people who have female sexual characteristics but present in traditionally masculine ways, and calabai are those born with male sexual characteristics who present themselves in traditionally feminine ways. Bissu, a meta-gender group, embodies both masculinity and femininity while identifying as neither.

While the way calalai and calabai present also determines the social positions and traditional roles they adopt (calalai can enjoy activities reserved for men and calabai do the same for women), they don’t identify as men or women. Calabai even reject the restrictions that women experience, and do not have their sexual characteristics altered. Calabai often perform at weddings and ceremonies.

Many bissu are born intersex, but the term is more focused on the presence of a spiritual role in the absence of a gender role. Bissu people, often dressed in flowers and carrying a sacred dagger to symbolize their expansive identity, are thought to bridge the worldly and the divine, and thus perform many spiritual rites.

Sworn virgins of the Balkans

The burrnesha, or ‘sworn virgins,’ are people born as women who take a vow of celibacy and go on to live as men in the patriarchal northern Albanian society. They are neither men nor women, and instead are often referred to as a third gender.

The burrnesha began after a set of codes and laws from the 15th-20th centuries, called the Kanun, stripped women of rights including smoking, voting, buying land, holding certain jobs, entering certain establishments, and so forth, along with dictating that families be patrilineal and patrilocal.

Women were faced with strict and restricted roles, and the most viable escape for those who didn’t want to live within those roles was to give up their sexual, reproductive, and social identities so that they could acquire the same freedoms as men.

The burrnesha could dress as men, be the head of their household, move freely in social situations and establishments, and even take work traditionally only available to men as long as they remained celibate.

As of 2022, while there were no exact figures, around a dozen burrnesha were estimated to remain in Northern Albania and Kosovo. But it’s a good thing, as women no longer feel the need to abandon their gender for basic rights.

Muxes of Mexico

Muxes are a community of people in southern Mexico who typically have male sexual characteristics but embrace a feminine identity. The term, however, is more of an umbrella for all the varied ways in which the community expresses gender identities.

This third gender has a long history in the culture of the Indigenous Zapotec people, who mostly live in Oaxaca. Muxes are respected because they are regarded as part of the Zapotec culture and tradition, not separate from it.

Still, muxes can face certain restrictions, much of which came about, like in many places, with colonization. Many muxes are reportedly prohibited from living with their intimate partners or leaving their family homes.

Beyond taking on household roles that typically belong to women, such as sewing, cooking, and family care, muxes have taken on a valuable function in preserving Zapotec culture, from the traditional dress to the language and other cultural traditions.

There is even a public celebration of muxes every November in the city of Juchitán, Oaxaca. The celebration is known as the Vigil (vela) of the Authentic Intrepid Searchers of Danger.

Two-spirit of indigenous North Americans

Two-spirit is an umbrella term used within some indigenous North American communities, which highlights the complex indigenous cultural understandings of gender roles, spirituality, and the long history of sexual and gender diversity in combination with a Western understanding of gender.

The term two-spirit was only coined in 1990, however the ways of life it represents date back through centuries of many indigenous cultures. It’s hard to define clearly because it varies through name, expression, and status from one indigenous culture to another.

As the name suggests, it typically refers to a person who identifies as having both a masculine and a feminine spirit, which can then be used to describe their sexual, gender, and/or spiritual identity. Many two-spirit people perform roles traditionally assigned to both men and women.

Two-spirit people have historically been held in high regard, and took up important positions in their communities as matchmakers, medicine people, warriors, and ceremonial leaders.

The violent cultural genocide that took place at the hands of European and European-American colonization through things like residential schools resulted in a huge loss of culture and understanding around two-spirit people. However, they are slowly regaining acceptance as not only valued members of society but also as those preserving the history of the culture.


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