The Steps to Freedom
As many societies become increasingly progressive, people frequently choose to embrace elements of their identity that make them unique. Nevertheless, in many parts of the world people are forced to hide crucial elements of their identity out of fear of rejection from their peers, violence, or excommunication. While influences such as elders, family, and friends may sometimes encourage personal growth, they can also negatively hinder opportunities for an individual to express themselves fully. Therefore, to fulfill their desire to be their authentic selves, individuals may leave their birth family behind to cultivate a more loving, accepting family elsewhere. In Hyberbad, India, hijras, or India’s notable “third gendered” society, find refuge amongst a kinship network of other hijras. In various parts of the world, Wiccans, or those who are apart of the new-age pagan movement, find solace in those who wish to practice the tenets of witchcraft. For some, such as Sita and Radha in the movie Fire, crossing the threshold of heterosexuality is an act of becoming one’s true self. To fully embrace such lifestyles, individuals must accept the specific ways in which their new group functions, and accept the fact that no community is perfect. In order for members of unconventional communities to entirely belong, they must participate in a rite of passage, established hierarchies, and confront social repercussions.
Across the world, individuals strive to join groups that will fully embrace their individuality. To those who follow the path of a Christian, heterosexual lifestyle, the decision to leave behind either of these identifications may seem daunting. However, those who do take this leap of faith often experience a feeling of homecoming within their newfound community. While the new-age pagan faith known as Wicca, gains momentum across the world, women, in particular, find solace in the faith. Sigal Samuel (2018) examines how witchcraft has brought black women together at an event known as The Black Witch Convention. Samuel notes that at the convention, women share stories of “sexual trauma, suppression, and self-acceptance” (p. 4). Samuel also mentions an attendee of the convention, Tamara Young, who explains that she felt the church was “oppressive” (p. 6) for Black women, and thus she found “empowerment” in being apart of a religion that embraced feminine power as well as her African roots. Similarly, Sanam Yar (2018) speaks to women in New York, New York who identify as witches. One Wiccan member named Ms. Cruci states that her choice to join a coven acted as a personal solution to being “disconnected and lonely” (para 21). Another woman, Ms. Farrer, simply stated that after researching Wicca, she realized she was a witch. Reddy (2005) notes that hijras, those who identify as neither male nor female, in India become apart of the hijra community to “authenticate themselves” (p. 15) by participating in various practices and being apart of the larger hijra network. While one could argue that hijras and Wiccans have always been hijras and Wiccans, they were not given their wanted visibility until joining a group of individuals who were the same as them. While one may have multiple reasons for stepping outside of the conservative society within their environment, joining these communities is a task within itself.
When proving their devotion to their new community, individuals must perform a rite of passage to demonstrate their allegiance. Reddy (2005) observes that the hijra community of Hyberbad identify themselves as Muslim and partake in traditional Muslim practices such as circumcision. Therefore, to be a hijra, one “must be” (p. 57) circumcised. Additionally, hijras are required to put a “rit” (p. 156) in a hijra house to be considered a “real” (156) hijra. However, many hijras experience their significant transition into the hijra community before they experience this physical or ceremonial transformation. As Reddy interviews various hijras, such as Kajal, a hijra who lived under the water tank Reddy frequented, she observes a common point many members of the community recall as the moment they began the transition to the hijra lifestyle. When speaking of their childhood, many hijras note their first preference of “gendered female practice” (p. 122), such as doing housework or dressing in female clothes and label these experiences as the moment they knew they were different from their cis-gendered, heteronormative peers. Therefore, for many hijras, the rite of passage is an internal realization rather than an external modification or formal process. However, in other uncommon communities such as the Wiccan community, the rite of passage into a coven or a group of witches is largely ceremonial and spiritual. As White (2016) notes, initiation practices range from coven to coven. Some covens ask initiates to choose a new name as exemplified by the witch, Starhawk, while other covens have noticeably more specific procedures. White mentions the fact that the accredited-founder of Witchcraft, Gerald Gardner, believed it was best if prospective initiates wait “a year and a day” (p. 101) until being initiated. Because many Wiccans regard Gardner as the pioneer of witchcraft, those who follow his initiation techniques may bring in their initiate “naked” (p. 102), “blindfolded” (p. 102), and with their wrists “bound” (p. 102). While many covens employ non-physical forms of initiation, it is not uncommon for physical experiences to act as the transcending act from one society to another. In the movie Fire, Sita and her sister-in-law, Radha, recognize their noticeably unspoken desire for each other through a kiss. While a kiss may seem of little importance and hardly a rite of passage for the two women, the act itself marked a sign of rebellion against their patriarchial household and symbolized their use of personal agency. Bachmann (2002) notes that the movie’s importance largely derives from its portrayal of “female agency” (p. 235) and “female homosexuality” (p. 235) in an explicit way. However, despite hijras’, Wiccan’s, and Radha and Sita’s use of personal agency to enter a new lifestyle, individuals are ultimately at the mercy of their newfound hierarchies.
Upon entering a new community, individuals often discover that an already existing hierarchy is present. Individuals must learn how to function as their newly-authentic selves while also respecting the limitations of their society’s social ranking. Reddy (2004) explains that within the hijra community, “primary legitimacy” (p. 144) is both obtained and maintained by the “guru-cela” (p. 144) bond and the act of putting a “rit” (p. 144) in a house. A rit acts as a hijra’s most legitimate gateway into sealing their future in the hijra community. After the rit ceremony, a hijra’s becomes a guru’s cela. Because of the “social” (p. 157) and “economic” (p. 157) duties of a cela to their guru, a cela’s guru becomes their “everything” (p. 156). In exchange for their cela’s devotion, gurus or senior hijras provide their cela’s with “food” (p. 157), a “training of hijra customs” (p. 157), and “clothes” (p. 157). If a cela breaks their bond with their guru, a hijra may become homeless and therefore lose their izzat or honor. While it may seem unfair for a single guru to determine the fate of another, the hierarchy is largely respected and valued within the kinship network of hijras. While guru-cela bonds are an extreme example of hierarchical devotion, many Wiccan communities also possess a structural hierarchy. White (2016) notes that traditionally, the Gardenian structure of a Wiccan hierarchy includes both a High Priest and a High Priestess. While there are both a male and female role, the High Priestess may possess “considerable power” (p. 98) over the coven. However, Gardner’s description of these roles arguably limits the flexibility of the female, High Priestess role. While High Priestess’ hold a position in the coven that is powerful, they are also expected to be “generous, motherly, and kind” (p. 98). Despite being a “progressive” society, women are still expected by the hierarchy in place to perform as their gender roles. Similarly, in the movie Fire, Radha and Sita are given large amounts of freedom, however, are expected to be dutiful wives. The two women are expected to remain loyal, cook, and perform Indian rituals in which they must fast to prove their devotion to their husbands. Even though the two women long to be together, the patriarchy that exists within the realm of their household limits them from doing so. Therefore, when Radha and Sita choose to run away together, they are abandoning the confines of their household, along with the patriarchy that limited them. Along with respecting the hierarchies of their community, individuals must learn to coexist with their visibility within a larger society.
Outside of the confines of their community, individuals who are non-heteronormative or ascribe to unpopular religious beliefs are frequently the target of criticism. In Hyberbad, India, Reddy (2005) acknowledges that hijras are “stigmatized” (p. 55) figures in the Indian community, and may face violence, harassment, or lack of access to resources such as proper health care. However, by using their kinship as their weapon, hijras have developed clever defenses. For example, the “hijra hand clap” (p. 55) is a loud, noticeable clap used to deflect harassment and coerce shopowners. However, some individuals are not able to provide themselves with any defense. Elizabeth Clark and Herbert Richardson (1977) reveal the extent to which the anti-witch handbook, The Malleus Maleficarum haunted women for decades. The handbook states that women with traits such as “ambition” (p. 6) are infected with wickedness, and should be punished by torture
While places such as India and America may not appear to be equally as progressive, courageous, unique communities continue to bloom out of these locations. Every community functions on its own set of rules, hierarchies, and initiations. While some individuals such as hijras and Wiccans have a lot in common surprisingly, others within the same country such as hijras and Radha and Sita, are vastly different. However, all of these communities represent brave individuals who cared enough about their future to curate a family who would accept them for who they are.
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