South Asian

A ‘Third Gender’: In Search of Recognition

People tend to identify gender with complete certainty in one of the two standard gender categories: male and female. But there are people who do not fit in the rigid binary gender system, many of them who identify as “Hijras” in Bangladesh.

Hijra is a South Asian term that encompasses feminine-centered identities, often thought as a “third gender”. In the West, they are known as transgender women or transvestites.

Born and raised in a nation that is constantly working to strengthen human rights movements and its ravaged economy and infrastructure since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, I sometimes question if the work is good enough. As recipients of social stigma and marginalization, Hijras are confined in a segregated community largely defined by poverty, harassment, and prostitution. If the Hijra community is legally recognized as a third gender in Bangladesh, why are they still expected to fit into tightly defined binary gender categories in order to receive access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities?

Most Hijras lead a very difficult life of insufficient education, poverty, and abuse. Consequently, this overwhelming stress and pressure sometimes compel them to commit crimes for survival. Their families also tend to kick them out of their homes to avoid embarrassment from others, leaving Hijras no choice but to beg for money. Denied of jobs and other opportunities, Hijras are forced to collect money from railway stations, residential areas, and occasional parties and receptions.

I encounter Hijras begging for money from passengers everyday on my bus ride to class. If a passenger decides to not give them money, they would lift up their skirts to expose their genitals to force payment. At one point, I spoke to one of the Hijras on the bus astonished by their inappropriate behavior.  

I asked, “Why do you harass those who refuse to pay you?”

Till this day, her response turns my stomach.

“I work for a man who shelters Hijras like me. But in order to stay I must go out and bring in money even if that means having sex with a stranger. If I do not come back with money, then I will be punished and forced into sex trade. Part of the money goes to our food and shelter expenses while the other part goes to my boss and the policemen who are secretly involved as prostitution ‘brokers’. Their job is to bring in customers who are interested in having sex with us. If I refuse to do what they say, they’ll ruin my life.”

It is important to bear all this in mind when we think about how we perpetuate unbending notions of gender. We may acknowledge the existence of people who move away from their assigned gender at birth but are we as a nation actually breaking free of conventional thinking? It is our responsibility to establish equality for all. Hijras should be able to enjoy the same rights as anyone else yet they are neglected and, thus, put in dangerous situations that make survival a day-to-day struggle.

Of course there are many NGOs who fight for the rights of Hijras in Bangladesh like Badhon Hijra Shongho and Bangladesh Association for Social Advancement. Apart from those NGOs, there are other organizations that strive to bring awareness to HIV/AIDS and LGBT rights. However, these organizations are not enough to secure the transgender community in Bangladesh. The government needs to be more accommodating to change and accept the rights of marginalized Hijras who are completely ignored and subjected to humiliation.

I’m disgusted that I live in a society that enforces violence and discrimination directed at people just because they do not fall in the strict binary gender system. When will we realize that we are all humans despite differences in opinions and preferences? There needs to be recognition and respect for those who identify as Hijras in South Asia and the first step to doing so is challenging the social and cultural frameworks of gender identity. It is crucial for us to understand that social scrutiny and abuse against the Hijra community will ultimately deprive them the ability to decide where to get money, who to sleep with, and whether or not they can ever live a normal life.


By Reshad Ahmed


Racism And How We Give As Good As We Get

Every time we were traveling out of Brisbane (our last city of residence), I’d be routinely put through a “random body scan” by airport security. This diligence wasn’t just restricted to airports. Even the lady at a particular store would make it a point to stop me at the exit to check my bag. Eager college kids distributing promotional flyers would invariably look through me while pouncing on my Taiwanese friend walking with me. The American expat would express surprise that I spoke English “like an American”. The steward at the restaurant would ask us twice if we knew it was beef we had just ordered.

When you are brown and from a nation that loves its curries and worships its cows, people make too many assumptions about you. After all it’s convenient to slot people according to stereotypes rather than going to the trouble of knowing them. Maybe some of the instances I faced may not have been because of my brown skin. Maybe it was me being over-sensitive and mistaking for discrimination snobbishness, awkwardness and staff trying to do their duty. But the fact remains when someone tries to treat you like a lesser being, you may try to shrug it off as their ignorance but a part of you does feel bewildered and singed.

And I’m talking about Australia whose people are among the friendliest. Where men hold doors for you and women stop to ask if you need help with your heavy shopping bags. If you stop a tad longer than necessary at some busy intersection, rest assured someone will come up to you and ask if you’re lost.

You don’t realize you’re different until you move out of familiar terrains where people have their own sets of biases and prejudices.

Funny thing is even in certain pockets of India, especially tourist destinations favored by the white-skinned, it’s we who get treated as unwanted Third World immigrants simply by the virtue of our brown skin.

This internalized racism manifests itself at a fancy restaurant where your Indian waiter will ignore you while he fawns over the German couple, making you wonder if there’s a separate menu for Indians at subsidised rates that comes with the “I’m doing you a favor by letting you in” clause.

The hawkers at Anjuna flea market will dismiss you as Indians who know no better if you dare bargain with them. I’ve had friends recall the time they were shooed away from a “cordoned firangs-only section” of Majorda beach, or a bar meant only for Russians. Or the guide at Umaid Bhawan who refused to entertain local tourists while literally groveling before the Americans. I totally get that this kind of “hospitality” and catering to “western” sensibilities and tastes is mostly dollar driven. The lure of a fat tip is directly proportional to the attention you’re lavished with. And given that most Indians treat service staff as their minions, counting pennies while tipping them, it’s not surprising we are treated the way we are.

This subservient attitude towards ‘westerners’ also harks back to our imperialist past that is deeply ingrained in a psyche that still places light skin on a pedestal. Your “fair skin” is a passport to a brighter future, better husband and babies with a rose-tinted complexion.

Harbouring racist attitudes towards those we see as inferior is second nature to us, be it treating UP and Bihari migrants with disdain or dismissing those from the Northeast as “Chinkis”. Even in Parliament, a respected politician saw nothing wrong with describing South Indian women as dark but with great bodies. Every community asserts its superiority by mocking the other’s food habits, accents and ethnic peculiarities. Our last names are not just surnames we were born with but a repository of information, some stereotypical, about our eating, spending habits, intellect, character or the lack of it.

It’s like a chain reaction where we subject others to what we are subjected to, without even realizing it. But it hurts, doesn’t it, when we are the receiving end of it?

Ironically, most of us see racism as a phenomenon that exists in other countries, particularly in the West, and without fail, see ourselves as victims. Not once do we spare a thought for how we treat our own.

I feel that treating others as lesser beings because of their skin color, spoken English, thickness of wallet is more an admission of your own low self-esteem rather than an assertion of your superiority. It is a projection of your own fears onto another person. A person who has nothing to prove to others because s/he is content with who s/he is will never go out of their way to put others down to feel good about themselves.

But did that stop me from grinning ear to ear when I spotted the airport security staff at JFK (obviously Indian) singling out whites for “random” extra security checks? Not really!


Purba Ray

Image by Associated Press