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