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Posted on Sat, Dec 18, 2010 : 5:06 a.m.

Exploring transgender identity in India with Fulbright artist Carrie Fonder

By Jennifer Eberbach


The work in progress

photo courtesy of Carrie Fonder

Note: This story has been updated with additional comments clarifying the artist's plan.

Local artist Carrie Fonder is currently in Mumbai, India on a Fulbright Scholarship to study the role of the feminine in Indian art. She is in the midst of creating an artwork out of a rickshaw, a small motorized taxi on three wheels, that comments on gender identity in India. Once the rickshaw sculpture — titled Trans-Co — is complete, she plans to exhibit it in India before shipping it to the United States.

Fonder and three other Fulbright Scholarship artists are planning a group exhibition for Spring 2011, SUPER/POWER: India through the Eyes of Four American Artists, which will feature Fonder’s Trans-Co sculpture and other artworks that “challenge the perceived realities and ideals of present-day India from a Western perspective,” according to the announcement.

Hijras, a social class that includes transgender women (who were born male), intersex individuals and people with a range of gender identities, has a very complicated role in Indian society,” Fonder says. “They seem to be revered and reviled. It is considered auspicious to have hijras sing and dance at important life events, like births and weddings” — however, their role in the workforce and society is greatly limited, she explains. Many are forced to beg on the streets or work in the sex industry.

“Contemporarily NGOs have made some new roles for hijras, as they work in the offices supporting issues like health care for sexual minorities. Hijras often live as part of a household with a Guru being the head of the house. They will even go off and marry. Still, cultural acceptance varies wildly,” Fonder has learned.

Fonder noticed a similarity between the way hijras “customize” their gender identity and the way some rickshaw drivers and truck drivers in India “customize” their autos with things like decorative signs, painted images and text on the back end (almost like bumper stickers), and mud flaps.

For her Trans-Co sculpture, Fonder is adding a number of customizations to a rickshaw that she purchased with money donated via the project's Kickstarter webpage.

Some aspects of the artwork will reference feminine beauty, like a portrait of a hijra she is airbrushing onto the side of the rickshaw. Several elements will reference the male body— including references to the phallus in the work, such as painted lotus blossoms “that are giving birth to phallus shaped parts on the vehicle,” she explains.

“Metaphorically, my whole piece will be involved in a bit of gender play...the play between the physical and the represented is a reemerging thread in my work,” Fonder says.

By referencing both genders, Fonder says her piece "will hint at the fact that hijras are functioning successfully outside a gender binary, through the use of traditionally feminine and masculine symbolism." Her take; “I come to this work from a point of view that I want to discredit the notion of a gender binary that is oppressive to everyone,” she explains.

Overall, each element contained in the piece “will be dealt with in a way that things are ‘presenting’ as things other than what they began as. My metal will present as wood (she airbrushed the rickshaw to resemble wood). The duct-taped seat will be airbrushed to look like a cushiony upholstered seat with buttons. The interior will be airbrushed to appear more cushioned and welcoming,” Fonder explains.

She hopes her “kitsch” sensibility and use of “gentle humor” in the piece “can nudge us towards greater empathy, understanding, and acceptance of those willing to take a risk and ‘customize’ their autos, their gender, their identities.”

The piece will also include a few references to decorations Fonder has spotted on trucks and rickshaws during her time in India. A colorfully painted sign reading “Goods Carrier” will be displayed across the front of her rickshaw sculpture, which is inspired by a sign she saw on a highly decorated truck. The truck also had a series of chains dangling from its front bumper, which the artist plans to appropriate somewhere on the piece.

“I have also purchased a rickshaw outfit” to wear while making the sculpture, Fonder reports. “Initially my intent was simply to save my street clothes the abuse,” however, “it may add up to become a performative element of the piece that could address the notion of gender performance (driving rickshaws is a male profession), as well as the impossibility of really immersing oneself in a culture. Metaphorically and culturally speaking, you can wear the clothes, but it is impossible to walk in their shoes.”

Video about Carrie Fonder's project:

Although there are limits to how well an outsider can fully understand what it is like to be a transgender individual in India, Fonder is finding a lot of compassion for hijras through the process of creating her artwork. Recently, "I made some contacts with an NGO called Humsafar, which deals with rights for sexual minorities. Under their umbrella is a dance troupe called the “Dancing Queens.” This is just one initiative for alternate work options for people in the Hijra community. We have just begun to talk about ways we can work together. Bare minimum, I want to produce prints of my work and donate the proceeds of their sale to the “Dancing Queens.”

“I met a man on a train (in India) who wondered curiously why I darted after a couple of hijras to make a donation to them. I explained why, citing my project, and how it made me feel sad that they weren't able to get employment. The next time a group of hijras entered the train car, he too donated some money. Perhaps it was just done because of my presence, but I hope that the work itself and the conversations the work creates can help create more space for people to be themselves,” Fonder says.

A resident of Ann Arbor, Fonder earned her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2009. Her art frequently explores themes related to gender and sexuality. Find out more about the artist on her website.



Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 8:48 p.m.

As someone who grew up in New Delhi, and saw many a hijra at all kinds of ceremonies( baby births/marriages etc), I am amused that Ms Fonder seems to think that paining one auto-rickshaw will transform Indian attitudes towards hijras in an way. She must have an extremely shallow base of knowledge about Indian society and its social mores and traditions which have developed over thousands of years of Indian social history, to think that one painted auto-rickshaw will do the trick. Very self-indulgent thinking, I'd say. And dont even get my Indian friend, S, who is bedrog's friend get started off on this article!!!! :):)

Jennifer Eberbach

Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 4:48 p.m.

I have edited this article to correct a mistake in the original version. All mentions of "transgender men" have been changed to "transgender women." I thank you for pointing out this error. It was mine - not Carrie's. I also see that as a "social class" not all hijras identify as transgender (although some do). It was never my intention to use terminology that could be considered offensive to anyone, especially any of my transgender readers. I welcome your comments and constructive criticism in this matter. Despite the confusion, I'm pleased that the article is generating discussion. Jen Eberbach


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 4 p.m.

With all due respect to rebbapragada, hijras until recently had a strong presence in muslim popular ( sufi )islamic settings in pakistan prior to its ( per my earlier) tilt toward puritanical saudi arabian style islam. This islamist tilt was the result of increased proselytizing by oil rich wahabbi( of the sort that led to the taliban and al qaeda) and the increased contacts between pakistan and the oil rich middle east since the early 70's ( pakistanis providing the grunt labor...arabia providing the jobs and indoctrination!). In such islamic setting hijras ( or 'mukhannathun) were entertainers at sufi shrines...especially during the death anniversaries ( urs) of sufi saints.. and also often prostitutes in the vicinity of such shrines ( ziarat). The eminent victorian explorer/linguist/adventurer sir richard Burton ( the first european to sneak into Mecca--disguised as an afghan) got his start in the 1840's as a notorious public figure as a young intelligence officer in the east india company army. At behest of his superiors he went undercover into hijra whorehouses in the recently conquered Karachi to clarify why there was such a high VD rate in the british army. His superiors learned more than they wanted to know and burton was quietly cashiered from the service to go onto a distinguised and super colorful career that makes indiana jones look like a grade school librarian. And it all started with hijras ( indiana jones meets ru there's a steven speilberg /harrison ford project!!)

Carrie Fonder

Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 8 a.m.

I contacted Ann immediately upon reading the article myself, to let them know about their mistaken use of the term transgender men. They assured me that the correction will be forthcoming. I am aware that Hijras would more aptly be referred to as transwomen, as well as the offense this mistake could cause. In addition, to clarify, some Hijras are biologically male, some have had re-assignment surgery, and others may have been born intersex. In my experience, some Hijras are not referred to as male nor female, they prefer to be considered the third sex, regardless of their physical attributes. As the article states "I come to this work from a point of view that I want to discredit the notion of a gender binary that is oppressive to everyone." Essentially I consider the work humanist rather than specifically political (though it is undoubtedly that!). The spirit of the Fulbright grant is to promote cross cultural understanding. I came to India to study depictions of the feminine in art and culture. Encountering Hijras had me contemplating the problematic notion of gender binary, as well as the performative aspects of gender. I am still in the process of making this work and learning about the Hijra community, however I'd like to share some links to sources that have been very enlightening for me. "The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story," tells one Hijra's story of oppression by birth family, community, and culture, and her quest to find an accepting community, work and love. You can find it here here: Another source that I would like to recommend is the Humsafar Trust website. They have a MSM circle chart that is helpful in understanding the complex categories associated with not only Hijras, but the entire community of MSM. You can find it here: I appreciate everyone's comments and I hope that conversations created by this pieces are exploratory rather than divisive.


Sun, Dec 19, 2010 : 7:45 a.m.

A good academic study of hijras in india is by anthropologist serena nanda, entitled "NEITHER MAN NOR WOMAN". In pakistan many hijras, who had made a good living in dance and the arts ( per 'rebbapragadas' excellent post), were overnight thrown out of work and even further marginalized by the imposition of islamic law in 1977 by the subsequently -executed head of state z.a. bhutto in a hypocritical and vain attempt ( since he was not in the least religious!!) to ward off violent religious opposition to his reeelection in a massively corrupt vote. A military/islamist coup soon followed with the result being the 'basket-case' Pakistan we all know and love today. I was in-country when all this happened.


Sat, Dec 18, 2010 : 3:31 p.m.

You're kidding right? Seriously. A government funded scholarsh ip for this?


Sat, Dec 18, 2010 : 10:04 a.m.

Actually 'hijras' need not be fully transgendered. Many are simply transvestites ( absent sex-change procedures) who dress and act as women...often as prostitutes, sometimes in religious settings... They are found in muslim pakistan as well, where they are common around sufi ( islamic mystic) shrines... If im not mistaken, the term is actually of arabic origin and is related to 'hajj' or pilgrimage and 'hegira' ( the flight of mohammed from mecca to medina)...although in this case the pilgrimage/flight is from one gender to another.


Sat, Dec 18, 2010 : 9:27 a.m.

I noted this article with interest. However, I note that those who transition to living as female are ordinarily referred to here as "transgender women," not "transgender men." The latter reference is considered derogatory by most transgender persons, as it disrespects their gender identity. Dr. Jillian T. Weiss Professor of Law and Society Ramapo College of New Jersey