The following is an informational and reflective blog on the transgender community in Bangladesh called Hijras.
A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop on sexual health and rights which was hosted by an NGO in Dhaka. This was the first time since I arrived in Bangladesh, that I came across people openly discussing sexuality and LGBTQ issues. LGBTQ activism in Bangladesh has proven to be very difficult to do due to potential threats and attack from ‘extremist’ and homophobic individuals. In addition, homosexuality is still illegal and a criminal offense outlined in Bangladesh’s penal code under section 377 (unnatural offences), which states, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
During the workshop, we discussed the Hijra community that exists in Bangladesh and South Asia. I found it very interesting that although Bangladesh has laws against homosexuality and that LGBTQ are marginalized and stigmatized, the Hijra community exists and is legally recognized here as a “third gender.”
Transgender is not a term widely used in Bangladesh. On the other hand, Hijra, is a term commonly used in Bangladesh and most of South Asia to identify transgender women. Society acknowledges this group of transgender women as Hijras, a third gender. Hijras are not considered fully men or women, but a third sex or gender. Hijras often live in all-Hijra communities and live specific lifestyles. Due to being ostracized and marginalized by society, Hijras are often involved in sex work and/or “begging.” Other work to earn money for Hijras includes putting on song and dance performances, blessing new born babies by singing and dancing (Baccha Nachano), and collecting money from shops in markets (Bazar Tola). Hijras are discriminated against and have many barriers to healthcare, housing, employment, and law. Furthermore, in many bureaucratic processes, they are excluded or are put in difficult positions when the can be only put into two categories, male or female.
I have learned about the Hijra community from childhood, growing up in an Indian family. I would see some representations of the community on Indian TV and film, usually as the object of jokes. When I visited India several times throughout my childhood, I did witness Hijras asking for money in local trains, on the streets during high traffic and/or going door to door through neighbourhoods. My family members told me their versions of who Hijras are and what they do. For the most part, I was given very discriminatory and negative explanations of Hijras. I was told to not look them in the eye, to ignore them at all costs. I was told that they would hit me or do magic on me if I got them angry. As I grew older, I learned that giving them a few rupees was the best way to avoid being harassed or cursed by them. I was told very intimidating stories and explanations of Hijras. I saw them as aggressive and scary. Even at the beginning of my internship in Dhaka, I reacted quite nervously to Hijras. I was at a clothing market when I saw some Hijras in the shopping complex. I told my friend we should turn around rather than walk past them as they will harass us. It turned out that they were simply shopping, just like the rest of the people in the market. I was still uncomfortable walking past them. Unfortunately, my prejudices got the best of me.
Just like I did, many people in South Asia have a prejudice against Hijras. The community is largely marginalized on a micro-level by people on a day-to-day basis. But, along with dealing with the daily discrimination by everyday people, the community also faces greater barriers. Not until a few years ago, they had no recognition as being a third gender. They had to choose between identifying as male or female on identification and documentation. In 2013, the Bangladeshi government approved for the Hijra community to be able to identify as a third gender in government documentation, passports, and national identification in order to have access to their rights. Although this was a huge step in advancing the rights and inclusion of Hijras in Bangladeshi society, it has not played out so well.
It has been over 3 years that Hijras have been legally recognized by the Bangladeshi government, yet they are still waiting to be identified as such on National ID cards and in voting documentation. Bangladeshi passport forms have implemented the third gender identity, but Hijras have a hard time checking it off, as the National ID, birth certificate and other important IDs do not have the option and so it would not match. Because of the lack of implementation of recognizing Hijras as a third gender, they have still not been able to secure their rights like the new government decision promised.
The fact that Bangladesh has recognized Hijras as a third gender shows that the country is progressing in terms of giving this community the rights and recognition they deserve. If the third gender recognition is improved and Hijras are able to tick this box on their identification and documentation, I think many barriers will break down and the community will be able to access a lot more services. Bangladesh still has a long way to go for LGBTQ rights, but starting with the Hijra community is a good step.