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Hijras and Bangladesh: The creation of a third gender

Adil Mahmood looks into the background of the new gender category in Bangladesh and investigates its repercussions on a national and international scale.  

On November 11, the Bangladesh cabinet passed a law which declared the 10,000 ‘hijras’ (transsexual people) a separate gender. Hijras will be given similar rights as any other man or woman residing in the country, in terms of education, job facilities, housing and health.

This decision of the government was passed days before their term was about to end, and one worth appreciating. At present, there are 10,000 hijras living in Bangladesh. Hijras already have voting rights and now they can get passports as well.

This groundbreaking decision is important as for some time Hijras have been objects of ridicule or sometimes looked at with fear. They can earn a living by performing in private shows at people’s houses, but with the advent of technology, this is also a dying phenomenon. As such, prostitution amongst Hijras has been on the rise. The death of a Hijra also proves to be a difficult situation, as up until now, they have not been given proper burial rights. As they did not belong to either the male or female gender, burial ceremonies became cumbersome.

Hijra: A History

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the term “Hijra” itself. While some are born this way, others emasculate themselves — through castration — which according to them emancipates them. In most cases, they are sent away from their homes right after birth, and receive no formal education. While it is common in Bangladesh to hear people complain about the rough behaviour of the Hijras and their constant begging, do we at all take notice of the hardships they go through in their lifetime? Can we begin to understand what life must be like for them? If not properly educated, how can we expect them to earn a decent income any other way? Have we ever offered them jobs or made any other effort to help them? This group is one that is rejected firstly by their parents who give birth to them, and then by the entire society. Consequently, they have no one other than those like them to rely on.

It is important as a nation, perhaps we need to be more accommodating to change, to break free of conventional thinking, and actually work to establish equality for all. What can be the next big step then? For Bangladesh, it could definitely be accepting and addressing the rights of the LGBT community, groups whose presence are completely ignored.

In an interview in one of the leading TV channels, a journalist asked a few Hijras what gender they would want to be born as in their next lifetime. One of them said male, the other said female, while another said male or female, but not something in between. Let’s stand up together and make them feel like a part of our world, so that they too can become first class citizens of Bangladesh and not struggle constantly for mere survival.

Definitions of transsexual, transgender and intersex

Transsexuals are those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. A transsexual person may or may not undergo medical procedures to change their sex organ.

Intersex people are those whose reproductive organs cannot be identified as either male or female.

Transgender people are those who change their gender roles like the transsexual people but do not undergo medical procedures to change their reproductive organs.

The simple way to point out the difference between transsexual and transgender is that in almost all cases, the former group seeks to modify their bodies through hormones, sexual reassignment surgery or both. The latter choose not to change their sex organs.

A well-known American transgender activist Virginia Charles Prince spells out the difference between transgender and transsexual in a simple yet concise way in her book titled “Men Who Choose to Be Women.” She explains that: “I, at least, know the difference between sex and gender and have simply elected to change the latter and not the former.”

The debate on hijra or transgender matters

Although the term “transgender” has many definitions, it is the term which is most frequently used as an umbrella term to refer to all people who move away from their assigned gender at birth or move away from the binary gender system.

The term includes transsexuals, cross-dressers, drag kings and queens, two-spirit people, and so on. A point to be noted is that there are many transgender people who do not feel that they exist within one of the two standard gender categories. Rather, they believe they could be somewhere between, beyond or outside of those two genders.

What international organisations say

On March 7, 2012, United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon said: “We see a pattern of violence and discrimination directed at people just because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender …”

The speech was made after the UN recognised such people’s rights as human rights. In Geneva on June 17, 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The UN’s press release opted to simply use the term “trans” to refer to both transsexual and transgender people.

I had the chance to talk with a high level official at the Passport department in Bangladesh regarding the recent “Hijra” initiative. He expressed his concern and said: “I am worried – how would other countries know what Hijra is if we have to refer them with the suggested term that came from the cabinet?”

We can obviously appreciate the fact that the government took a stance in favour of those who neither identify as being male or female. However, in choosing to only allow the term ‘Hijra’ they are not thinking about the international perspective. Now, the choice is whether people would prefer a flawed term in law or policy which will undoubtedly bring more sufferings, or would rather point out the flaws and give the government the chance to correct those.

I would prefer to criticise the government regarding this step because it is not criticism for criticism’s sake, but constructive criticism. We need to think about and debate each and every definition in which there are flaws, even if it brings good to just a few people. Ultimately, we want recognition for all, not only a few.

Lastly, we also have to respect the fact that there are some trans-people who identify with the word “Hijra” more as they feel that they are reclaiming a word which has historically been used to disrespect them. It is important however, that we should use an internationally recognised umbrella term which is understandable to all, both nationally and internationally.

Then, those who want to be recognised as Hijra, are given the option on official documents to specify their gender and thus not be excluded from any government decision.

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