Trigger warnings: Mentions of transphobic comments/incidents
Disclaimer: The word “hijra” is commonly used in reference to the South Asian transgender and intersex community. In Pakistan, the word takes on a derogatory connotation and much of the community does not approve of its use. However, in Bangladesh, many members of the community are proud to consider themselves hijra. While it can be used in a derogatory way at times by non-transgender people, like how the word gay is used as an insult in America, many people have gradually begun to reclaim the word and its meaning.
I was first introduced to the hijra community in Bangladesh when I was 15 years old. It was 2009, and I was at my uncle’s wedding. They arrived unannounced to the front yard of my family’s home to perform dances and songs, and asked for payment. I was fascinated by them – growing up in the United States had robbed me of the lived cultural experiences my cousins who grew up in Bangladesh had. But I also noticed how some of my family members were uncomfortable and angry at the arrival of the hijra. Some even yelled at them to leave. I became uncomfortable with those reactions; I didn’t understand why they reacted so negatively.
That day, I learned that hijra is an identification category for a third gender. In South Asia, the term, hijra, refers to a subset of transgender people. They do not associate themselves with the sex and culturally correlated gender assigned at birth; in fact, they do not identify as either male or female, man or woman. Thus, they categorize themselves as hijra – a third category. Many intersex people also identify as hijra in South Asia. It is a widespread notion in South Asia that most hijra are born biologically male and assigned a male gender category at birth, and later identify with what is culturally perceived as feminine gender roles. Thus, the dominant view also in evidently overlooks the recognition of trans men.
My mother explained to me that hijra will often show up at large celebratory life events, like weddings and the birth of babies, to sing, dance, and pray for the families. Afterwards, they ask for payment because it is one of their only avenues of income. She also told me the hijra community is severely discriminated against – they are excluded from “normal” society because they do not fit into the culturally accepted (mythical) binary of gender and sex. They are a neglected and segregated people.
And that’s when I understood those negative reactions I witnessed. Those guests and family members, like many in Bangladesh, were prejudiced and bigoted against the hijra community. And that’s what spurred me to educate myself and others about this community as much as I was capable of.
On January 26, 2014, the government of Bangladesh announced the legal recognition of hijra with the following statement: “The Government of Bangladesh has recognized the Hijra community of Bangladesh as a Hijra sex.” This recognition was a huge victory for the hijra community – they held a celebratory Pride Parade later in the year 2014 – but there’s so much more that needs to be done, and it starts with the very terminology.
Academic circles and Western narratives refer to hijra as a third gender, but the terms gender and sex are conflated in South Asia. Thus, there is little understanding of what it means to identify as hijra – that is a major disadvantage to the community because while recognition of them exists, knowledge of this identity category does not. Because hijra are considered social outcasts, there is not enough developed discourse that allows their voices and lived experiences to become common knowledge. As a result, people have varying degrees of knowledge of what hijra means. Some believe being homosexual and transgender are the same things (this, of course, is completely incorrect – sexuality does not equal gender identity); some believe hijra are only trans women; some believe they are only intersex people. This lack of understanding is extremely problematic and further marginalizes hijra.
Without providing proper guidelines and explanation of who hijra are and solely going off of the widely varying personal understandings of what hijra means, this recognition does not mean much. In December of 2014, the Ministry of Social Welfare in Bangladesh allowed hijra to apply for jobs within the government – a large step forward for their community. But measurements were taken to find proof that those lining up to interview for these positions were, in fact, hijra. Candidates were not only asked questions about their gender identities and sexuality, they were also stripped down while doctors examined their genital areas to make sure they were “authentic” hijra. This humiliation and harassment come from both bigotry and the lack of attempts to publicly define the term “hijra.”
Furthermore, solely recognizing this third category did not establish stable constitutional rights for the hijra community, such as being able to own and inherit property. Rape laws were not changed to include hijras; they still do not have easy access to medical facilities; there is no official government database as of yet to count their population to assess their needs and demands; and laws that implicitly enforce heteronormativity in Bangladesh are still interpreted in ways to harm and punish non-heteronormative behavior.
Hijra are socially marginalized to the extreme and their frustrations and vulnerabilities have been historically overlooked. Because of their outsider status, they have essentially created their own sub-society with their own language (Ulty), ritual ceremonies, and families (because they are often excluded from their own).
Yet, the hijra community has existed in South Asia for over 4,000 years. They are celebrated in Hindu texts and had high status during the reign of the Mughal Empire. They worked as performers and bodyguards and were an active part of the Mughal Empire’s success.
When Britain invaded and colonized South Asia, they began an active attempt to eliminate hijra communities in the area because the hijra identity challenged Western morality and conceptions of gender. British colonizers classified hijra as eunuchs rather than trying to understand their identity, and stripped them of their status by only allowing them to work as domestic workers or farmers.
Colonization has had a long-lasting impact on how current South Asian societies view the hijra community. But now, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, is increasingly turning a blind eye to the violence and injustice the hijra community faces in order to pander to rising Islamic ideals. The government’s failure to take action is, in large part, the reason hijra suffer such prejudice.
As of now, hijra do not have equal and equitable employment opportunities. They are economically exploited. Even though the government has taken rudimentary steps to provide them with jobs, they are met with discrimination. Many live in poverty and are forced to beg for money or become sex workers, further demonizing and dehumanizing them in the eyes of society. The public stigma about hijra is that they are uneducated and immoral, yet the underlying problem – the fact that they have extremely limited access to jobs and educational opportunities in the first place – is unaddressed. Their status as an extreme form of “other” has disenfranchised them most. Their social exclusion has led to their economic exclusion.
Only as recently as 2018 were hijra allowed to vote under this third gender category and in July of 2018, Bangladesh’s government appointed Tanisha Yeasmin Chaity as the first hijra official in the National Human Rights Commission. These are great steps for Bangladesh to take in securing rights for the hijra community, but there is still a long way to go.
Hijra are, essentially, the oldest transgender community in the world. Since first being introduced to the hijra community at 15, I have done research and written academic papers to call attention to the injustice of their status. Othering groups of people, punishing them for being different from the mainstream, and economically subjugating them for that difference is something I cannot reconcile with my conscience and morality. From afar, I have attempted to educate Bangladeshi communities both within the United States and Bangladesh. There are not many advocacy groups to help hijra in Bangladesh, but one notable group is called the Bangladesh Hijra Kalyan Foundation has been around for quite a while. I keep up with their advocacy activities such as bringing attention to the hijra community’s economic state and providing communities with food. In August of 2016, an NGO named Uttoran Foundation began efforts to better the social and economic statuses of hijra. Like all impoverished and segregated communities in the world, the hijra deserve allies and advocates to fight alongside them for their rights. The attitude and mindset of society has to change. We must decolonize our minds and view hijra as human beings.