You see them every day. Clad in sarees or some other cheap, gaudy outfits, walking in groups along busy thoroughfares, in less affluent neighbourhoods, and marketplaces. And you expect them to approach the commuters, residents and grocers for money, sometimes using vile techniques. In Bangladesh, these people, who are commonly known as Hijras, have come to be associated with this image of a boisterous group of alms-seekers who use profanity, threats of bodily harm as well as people’s sense of prestige to serve their purpose. Unfortunately, this image has been so widely accepted that it is now deemed to be the "defining feature" of the community when, in reality, they are every bit as diverse as any other community.
The problem is, despite the air of positivity seen in academic and policy circles in recent years, transgender people remain one of the most marginalised and misunderstood communities in Bangladesh. The public perception of this community is rudimentary at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. This, some may say, is to be expected given the country’s rigid social structure and lack of openness about gender diversity, where any attempt to establish the “humanness” of transgender people is still viewed as radical. Globally, the picture is not so rosy either.
Some 331 transgender and gender-diverse people in the world have been killed this year, according to a new report released to mark the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, held annually on November 20. The Trans Murder Monitoring report, compiled by Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide, tracks deaths and murders of gender-nonconforming people between October 1 and September 30 every year. Since the project began in 2008, some 3,314 deaths have been recorded. This year, according to Forbes, the number of deaths is down slightly from 2018’s 369, but since data on such murders are not kept or produced systematically in most countries, it is impossible to estimate the actual number of cases.
The report has a chilling conclusion: “Stigma and discrimination against trans and gender-diverse people is real and profound around the world.” These people remain “victims of horrifying hate violence, including extortion, physical and sexual assaults, and murder.”
Such data on the victims of transphobic violence are unavailable in Bangladesh, neither is there an accurate estimate of the number of people who identify as transgender. According to an estimate by the Department of Social Services, there are nearly 11,000 individuals belonging to the community, but Hijra activists believe the actual number is much higher. This lack of verifiable data is demonstrative of the lack of interest, knowledge and initiative by state and non-state actors working on inclusivity and diversity in Bangladesh. It contrasts the enthusiasm that followed the official recognition of the Hijra as a “Hijra sex” in November 2013, and their first annual Pride Parade in 2014. While civil society and the international community rightly welcomed the change in legal status as a major achievement for the community, it is important to note that the new category actually identifies the Hijra as “people who have a problem with sex,” in other words, as sexually impaired or deviant in some way. The government’s initiative, while born of an intent to promote greater acceptance of the Hijras, reflects the erroneous public perception of them being impotent, asexual, and born with ambiguous genitalia.
Zobaida Nasreen, an associate professor of anthropology at Dhaka University and one of a small group of activists campaigning for transgender rights, including social and economic justice and appropriate psychological care, thinks that this approach and its resultant effects prove that the root of the problem lies in the lack of basic knowledge on sexual orientation and gender identity in our society. In a yet-unpublished paper on the construction of the identity of transgender women, she described her experience of being inundated with questions such as “How long can a Hijra person live?”, “Why do we fear Hijra?”, “Who is a real Hijra?”, “Do they have the necessary sexual organs?” etc. Most people seem to think that these individuals are born with ambiguous genitalia. They have no inkling of the concept of acquired gender or the non-binary construction of sexuality.
It is, then, unsurprising that the granting of a legal status has hardly changed the condition of the transgender people in our society. They continue to endure transphobic slurs and attacks, they are cast away by their own family, they are deprived of their inheritance since the inheritance law only recognises males and females, and are not considered for jobs or other rights and services taken for granted by most men and women. Although the community has been increasingly vocal about their rights in recent years, most of them are still forced to choose professions that are generally frowned upon. In the 2018 national election, the Hijras failed to vote as Hijras because they were not recognised as such in the ballot papers. Clearly, the formal recognition of "Hijra sex" by the state, minus supporting laws and directives covering all aspects of their life, didn’t amount to a fuller recognition of their constitutionally guaranteed rights as citizens of this country. The magnitude of the problem today is such that even the ongoing projects by the Department of Social Services meant to integrate them into the wider social network seem like a drop in the ocean.
We need to understand that the Hijras are just like any other individual or citizen. Those taking the moral high ground to reject them because of the objectionable behaviour by certain members of the community are failing to realise that we are only as good as our surroundings allow us to be. They are also forgetting the fact that nothing—no amount of socially deviant behaviour—deprives an individual of basic rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. The Hijras have the right to food, employment and education. They have the right to identify anyway they want to. And it is the responsibility of the state, and the society in general, to create the necessary conditions for those rights to be delivered.
I have had the opportunity to hear the stories of Hijras from their own mouth. These stories provide details of torture, harassment and discrimination facing the community, of being abandoned by family and finding a new home away from home. One Hijra told me how she was gang-raped by some 20 men. As she described the gruesome experience, she was quite elaborate and laughing occasionally as if she was reading from a comic book. The unbelievable strength and fortitude that she displayed could only be achieved through living a life of suffering. There were also stories of fun and love and adventure. These stories put them in the same bracket as any other human being. It’s time we acknowledged their innate humanness beyond the narrow considerations of appearance and sexual orientation.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.