The Xanith:
An Intermediate Gender in Oman
By Serena Nanda


Unni Wikan (1977) describes one such alternative gender, the “xanith” (han-eeth), in Oman, an Islamic society located on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Xanith means “impotent, effeminate, and soft.” Individuals so labeled are regarded by Omanis as neither man nor woman, but with characteristics of both. Xanith are born as males; they have male genitals and do not, like the hijras, practice emasculation. Xanith have masculine names and are referred to in the masculine grammatical gender form. Under Islamic law they have all the rights of a man, for example, the right to testify in court, a right that is denied to women. They also worship in the mosque with men. Like men but unlike women, xanith also support themselves economically.

In other ways, however, xanith are like women. They do women’s work in their households and are complimented and feel flattered by attention to their cooking and housekeeping abilities. Their appearance is judged by standards of female beauty: white skin, shiny black hair, large eyes, and full cheeks. In Omani society, where women are in purdah (seclusion) and men and women are strictly segregated in social interaction, xanith are classed with the women for many social purposes. On festive occasions they join the women in singing and dancing; they visit and gossip with women where other men would not be allowed to do so; they may walk down the street arm in arm with a woman; and in this society, where eating is considered an extremely intimate act, they eat with women. Most significantly, only they, and never other men, are allowed to view the face of a bride on her marriage night. This clearly indicates that, although the xanith have some characteristics of men, “they are not men.”

The most important reason xanith are considered “not men” has to do with the fact that in Oman, the definition of a man centers on sexual potency, demonstrated through marriage. On the morning after a wedding there must be public verification of the consummation of a marriage, either by showing a bloody handkerchief or by the groom claiming that his bride was not a virgin. It is only by this public demonstration of his ability to perform sexual intercourse in the male role (as penetrator) that a person is validated as a man.

The xanith act as male homosexual prostitutes; any male homosexual prostitute will be classed as a xanith because he takes the receptive, passive role in sex associated with being a woman. Indeed, in Oman one of the important distinctions between a man and a woman is that men take an active, penetrating role in sexual intercourse, whereas women are viewed as passive receivers. Because it is the active and potent role in sexual intercourse that is the essential characteristic of a man, a xanith is not a man. This definition of manhood, however, makes it possible for a xanith to “become” a man. If he chooses to marry, and if he can demonstrate publicly in the approved ways that he is indeed potent in the male sexual role, a xanith moves into the category of man. From that point on he is subject to the same constraints on his behavior with regard to interacting with women as are other men. Thus, on questioning the gender role of a particular individual, Wikan occasionally was told “X was once a xanith, but now he is a man.”

Xanith, then, are definitely not men by Omani standards; they say, when asked, that they are women, and yet they are also not women. Xanith are prohibited by law from wearing women’s clothing, including the mask and veil that all adult women must wear. Unlike women, xanith freely move around outside their houses, though only during the day. Most importantly, xanith are prostitutes, an activity not acknowledged for any Omani woman. In truth, female prostitutes do exist in Oman, but they are few and not officially—or even unofficially—recognized. Women in Oman are regarded as pure: xanith, as prostitutes, cannot be pure and are therefore not women in this most important sociological sense.

Much xanith behavior falls in between that of men and women. Although the facial expressions, voice, laugh, movements, and swaying walk of the xanith imitate those of women, they wear clothing that is a mixture of men and women’s styles. A xanith wears the ankle-length tunic of the men, but belted tightly at the waist as a woman would do. Men generally wear white clothing, women wear bright-colored patterned clothes; xanith wear unpatterned colored clothes. Men wear their hair cut short and women wear it long; xanith wear their hair at middle length. Men comb their hair backward from their face, whereas women comb it diagonally from a center part; xanith comb theirs forward from a side part and oil it in the manner of women. In Oman both men and women cover their heads; xanith go bareheaded. Both men and women in Oman use perfume; xanith use it more heavily than either. Thus, the xanith demonstrate their intermediate gender role in many aspects of their public presentation of self, and in Wikan’s view they constitute a true gender alternative to men and women.

 

(From Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India by Serena Nanda, p. 130-131)

 

©2003 GALVA-108