In November 2013, the Cabinet of the Bangladesh government in an unprecedented manner decided to recognize ‘Hijra’ as a gender marker effectively classifying 160 million people as male, female and hijra. The announcement, widely covered and revered by national and international media, caught many activists and especially the hijra community by surprise. Firstly, because it happened when it was least expected but mostly because the community had no idea what the announcement meant. It was also very unusual for the Cabinet to take such decision, which clearly had a socio-legal implication.
Soon after the Cabinet declaration, a gazette was issued on January 26, 2014 and included a single sentence about the recognition: “The Government of Bangladesh has recognized the Hijra community of Bangladesh as a Hijra sex.” The circular made the declaration somewhat official, and jubilation erupted within the hijra community. With support from local and international NGOs, the community organized the first-ever Hijra Pride in 2014.They marched, sang, and danced their way through the streets of Dhaka with a huge Bangladeshi flag, banners and posters displaying their appreciation for the government. One of the banners read: “The days of stigma, discrimination and fear are over.”
The hijra community of Bangladesh has been demanding legal recognition for a very long time. Many research reports showed that the discrimination and violence faced by the community can only be adequately addressed when they would be recognized as a separate gendered identity beyond the male-female binary.So, it was no wonder that the proclamation from the government brought much relief and joy to the community. However, the optimism for a better day was soon overshadowed by the actions of the very government that sought to remedy the woes of the community.
In December 2014, the Ministry of Social Welfare decided to recruit hijra individuals for low-ranking government jobs. Though the recruitment announcement did not give much details and the process remained very vague, many hijra individuals lined up for the jobs, which they thought would the change the course of their life. An initial screening was done followed by general interviews, after which 12 hijra individuals were finalized. Now the last step was to assert whether the applicants were ‘real hijra’ and that’s when things started to go wrong.
In January 2015, the Ministry of Health asked the 12 finalists to report to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital (DMCH) for a physical check-up in order to qualify for the jobs. According to an extensive Human Rights Watch report, what followed was a humiliating, dehumanizing and further stigmatizing experience for the individuals. Those who went for the medical check-ups were made to strip in front of a crowd in an open room, expose their genitals for a stranger (not a doctor but a guard or a bystander) to examine, and undergo a second round of check-up under the X-ray and the ultrasound machine. During this whole process, they were mocked by the doctors, teased by the guards, and rebuked by the female lab technicians. Finally, the DMCH doctors declared them as ‘fake hijra’. The DMCH report said all but one hijra were indeed adult men with fully functional male genitals and reproductive system.
Soon after the medical examination, the result was leaked to the national press, which sensitized the issue as ‘real men faking as hijra’.Even the photos of the 12 individuals were released to the media! Needless to say, the hijra candidates never got the jobs but on the contrary this whole experience, as some of them said, was the most abusive and traumatic in their lives. Indeed, not only their identity was brought down to mere pathologization, their bodily integrity was violated, their human rights were infringed upon, and their dignity as human beings was shamefully denigrated. And it was all because the government and everyone involved in the process had zero knowledge about gender identity and its various manifestation.
Despite the high visibility of the hijra community in Bangladesh, the myth, enigma, and a cloak of mysticism that surround the community is indeed very intriguing. While some of these myths are perpetuated by the hijra community itself, most of it is driven by the fertile imagination of the dogmatic populace. According to the popular belief, a hijra is an individual born with ambiguous or dysfunctional genitalia, someone who is incapable of physical desire and hence someone who has attained some form of holiness. This belief is reinforced by some hijras who claim to have ‘a pen but without ink,’ confirming their absence of desire as something bestowed upon by the almighty. On the contrary, a hijra is as much a sexual being as anyone else. They desire a masculine man as their parikh(lover) and imitate the role of a female person in the relationship.
In South Asian context, the ‘hijra’ identity is not solely dependent on the gender identity or the biological sex characteristics of the person. While a hijra individual is usually assigned ‘male’ at birth and then grows up to identify as a ‘female’, it is the hijragiri that defines and determines someone as a hijra, according to researcher Adnan Hossain. Hijragiri(the profession of a hijra) traditionally meant the ritual of badhai(blessings conferred on a newborn through dancing and singing), the collection of cholla(collecting tolls from a jurisdiction), and becoming skilled in utilizing the ultilanguage. Moreover, one must have a guruand live in a commune in order to be recognized as a hijra. This lifestyle and the traditional profession related to being a hijra is what differentiates the hijra from the Western understanding of transgender. A hijra can be a transgender, a transsexual, a cross-dresser or an intersex person. Many of them also go through the ritual of castration (sacrificing their male genitals) to attain the so-called spirituality to perform badhai. The emasculated hijra individuals usually hold a higher position within the hierarchical system of the community. The one person who was not found to be ‘male’ during the medical examination went through this castration process. However, after an ultrasonography it was soon found out that the person still had male sex characteristics and was subsequently disqualified as well.
To understand the hijra identity a bit better, one must also consider the socio-economic positioning of the community. Almost all the people who identify as hijra come from low-income background and live in the poorer parts of the capital. It is very unlikely that the middle class or the upper class does not have any hijra individual, but they are not a part of the hijra community and do not engage in hijragiri.Those from middle or upper class are also most likely to identify as ‘feminine’ gay or transwoman due to the exposure to the Western definition of sexual orientation and gender identity. The majority of hijras are burdened by poverty and face discrimination, bullying, and violence from an early childhood within the family, in the neighborhood and of course in the schools. Eventually the only way out that remains is to be a part of the community and engage in hijragiri,which in turn perpetuates poverty, discrimination, and marginalization. So, when the government recognition came, it came as a life-altering event for the community.
The whimsical recognition of Hijraas a third gender by the uninformed and unprepared government caused more harm than good. It not only brought forth the dehumanizing pathologization of hijra identity but also divided the hijra community to an extent. The allurement of government jobs and other facilities instigated a new controversy as to the ‘real hijra VS fake hijra’. Many organized groups took the advantage of this discord and began blackmailing general people in an unprecedented manner.The gurus, who were running the birit(jurisdiction for toll collection) fought with each other over petty subsidies from the government.
However, the biggest damage that happened was probably the anti-discrimination law that the government started to draft. In order to protect the hijra community from any form of discrimination, hijra individuals were categorized under a form of disability. Drafted in Bengali, the law used the phrase ‘lingo protibondhita’, which literally means disability based on biological sex. This understanding of hijra derives from the existing idea that hijras are born with dysfunctional genitals and are incapable of reproduction. This also takes the definition of disability to a whole new level. If the law passes, Bangladesh will probably become the first country in the world to introduce disability on the basis of genitalia.
The effort to identify and include hijra as a disability category is not new. Bangladesh parliament in 2011 proposed to ‘rehabilitate’ the community by bringing them under the disability quota. Subsequently, a project was launched to provide disability allowances, livelihood training, and social safety net. Mass campaigns were also organized to sensitize the people.These projects were a step forward in consolidating the definition of hijra as a kind of disability. Many government officials involved in those projects openly said hijras were genetically defective.What was more worrying was the complicity of some local NGOs and the National Human Rights Commission in these projects. Ultimately the NGOs and the government both used the hijra community and their sufferings to their own benefit to access more foreign funding and to improve the image in international arena. Because the hijra community lacked skills, education, and resources, these NGOs were able to manipulate the community by telling them that ‘something is better than nothing’.
And indeed, many hijra individuals thought the same too. Some elderly hijra gurusare now able to live a little better because of the disability allowances.Hijras who do not want to do sex work are able to look for alternative livelihood because of the ‘integration and mainstreaming’ projects. Many private companies, government institutions, garments factories, and NGOs have started to recruit hijra in recent days. Needless to say, a decent livelihood is much more important for a community that has no access to resources in the capitalist system. But it does not have to be either or. It is a failure of a state if a person, who is not disabled, has to self-identify as a disabled to access resources, which is a constitutional right for every citizen. It is also a failure of the law if it propagates further stigmatization and discrimination, from which it was supposed to the protect the community in the first place.
The recognition of third gender can still be a wonderful opportunity to start the conversation around legal gender recognition, which is based on self-determination, scientific understanding of gender identity and expressions, international human rights standard, and informed approach to contextual, traditional, and historical positioning of the hijra community. Most of Bangladesh’s neighbors – Pakistan, India and Nepal – have a better (not perfect) law regarding third gender recognition. If Bangladesh government really wants to do something for the hijra community, it must listen to the community. It must educate itself and others on the concepts of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expressions.
Each person’s self-defined sexual orientation and gender identity is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity, and freedom. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. In this 21stcentury, it is only expected that a State should enact laws to benefit not some but all its citizens.
Shakhawat Hossain Rajeeb is a gay rights activist who has worked with Boys of Bangladesh for 13 years before being forced to exile to Sweden, where he currently works with RFSL, the national Swedish LGBTQ organization.
Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Ministry of Social Welfare, Bangladesh Gazette, No. sokom/work-1sha/Hijra-15/2013-40.
Sharful Islam Khan , et. al., “Living on the Extreme Margin: Social Exclusion of the Transgender Population (Hijra) in Bangladesh,” Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition, 2009,
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2928103/ (accessed March 20, 2019).
The Daily Star http://archive.thedailystar.net/magazine/2011/10/03/special.htm(Accessed March 25, 2019)
BBC Bangla, https://www.bbc.com/bengali/news/2011/10/111006_mb_bd_hijra.shtml(Accessed March 27, 2019)
The Dhaka Tribune, https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/nation/2017/05/07/tk100-hike-transgender-allowances(Accessed March 27, 2019)