THE DISCRIMINATIONS FACED BY THE HIJRA COMMUNITY IN BANGLADESH
Author: Martina Trimarchi
This paper will attempt to form an overview of the life of transgender people or hijras living in Bangladesh. It will provide a cultural and historical background on the conditions of the figure of the hijras. Therefore, it will show how hijras live and how their communities are structured. The crucial aspect is the social exclusion that they experience at the extreme margin of the society, given that they do not have any socio-political space. Their deprivations are grounded in non-recognition as a separate gendered human being beyond the male-female dichotomy. This explanation will guide the reader to the second part of the article, which mainly focuses on the physical and verbal abuses that transgender people suffer due to their main job as sex workers. Indeed, these people are constantly humiliated because of their social status: they face human rights violations even by police officers. This implies having to bear a strong stigma for the entire life. Although in January 2014, the Bangladesh cabinet announced the recognition of a third gender category, it was not implemented even in the people’s national identity cards. Bangladeshi society has taboos that force these people either to assimilate and hide their gender orientation or to live their lives as the most marginalised group.
- Definition of hijra and the historical origin of the term
Hijra comprises one of the most marginalised groups within the Asia- Pacific region and the issues that affect them can be analysed from different perspectives, especially from a gender standpoint. Their vulnerabilities, frustrations, and insecurities have been historically overlooked by mainstream society, which does not accept others beyond the male-female gender norm and forces them to live in social exclusion. As far as Bangladesh is concerned, the Department of Social Welfare survey affirms that there are around 10,000 Hijras in the country (ICCAD, 2020).
From a linguistic point of view, the Hindi word hijra is borrowed from a Semitic Arabic root meaning “leaving one’s tribe” (Alhawary and Benmamoun, 2005). This Indian usage of the term has been translated into English as “eunuch”, “transformed women” (rupantorito naari), “transsexuals”, or “hermaphrodite”, which mainly means irregularity of male genitalia. In simple terms, hijras are born with male physiology or male intersex variations. Hence, they are considered as a “third gender” as they do not conform to conventional notions of male or female gender but combine the two: they are socio-biological males who present women-like features (Jebin and Farhana, 2015).
The historical origin of the term hijra dates back to 2500 years in South-Asia when the denomination of the term was completely different. Indeed, during the Mughal period, the hijra population was highly respected for being trustworthy, and the Mughal’s Royal Court employed them for various kinds of work. Furthermore, in the 4th century A.D, Kamasutra mentioned male-male unions and Bhakti saints in mediaeval India, who would effeminate themselves to worship Krishna and Shiva. Also, in the court of Awash in the 18th century, people would dress up as women on certain holy days. These queer practices were never derided or looked down on. Till the 1800s, Indian poets were openly writing about male-male and female-female relations in the same tones as heterosexual relationships (India Matters: The Third Gender, 2013). Moreover, in the two most celebrated epics (The Mahabharata and the Ramayana) that are accepted as scriptures by Hindu people, the notion of hijras was provided (Jebin and Farhana, 2015).
Nevertheless, when the British colonised the Indian region, they saw how hijras behaved and started criminalising them for being homosexuals; as it was seen as a crime against the order of nature. Around 1860, Section 377 was introduced into the Indian penal code modelled after the English Buggery Act of 1533 (Gender Spectrum, 2017). India’s openness towards sex and sexuality ironically became one of the reasons the British classified it as a backwards civilisation. In response, Indians and Bangladeshi people started adopting conservative Victorian attitudes into their non-heteronormative traditions. By 1920, the concept of sex and sexuality became a taboo subject. However, in 2018, homosexuality was decriminalised in India, and hijras were recognised as a third gender in Bangladesh in 2014 (Gender Spectrum, 2017).
Despite that, due to the historical reasons, the extreme societal marginalisation is still faced by hijras, and the society forces them to live with a stigma for the rest of their lives, segregated at the borders of the society because “they have no other option to earn the hijra way” (UNDP, 2015). The entrenched male-female dichotomy is one of the major sources of extreme social exclusion for hijras, which prevent them from exercising their rights.
- Hijra Community in Bangladesh: How They Work And The Discrimination They Face
Hijras’ identity is established by their induction into the hijra community. Hijras have their own culture and customs, and even a community dialect, known as Ulti (Titir, 2019). A young hijra’s emerging gender identity, which collides with normative gender roles based on sex, usually begins in early childhood. As explained by Anush Irani in his book The Parcel, boys face a difficult situation in their own families because of their “unusual feminine development”, or their willingness to wear feminine garments, which can affect the entire family who expected boys to portray in a “boyish” way. A hijra’s self-realisation is tabooed by the entire neighbourhood because of a lack of knowledge about the third gender (UNDP, 2015). Fearing disgrace from society in the long term, families often resort to various forms of abuse to ‘fix’ their child, also called ‘magyapola’ (effeminate boy) (Khan et al, 2009). This unusual growth of a feminine boy is also not tolerated in schools where the boys encounter a hostile environment for incompatible sex-gender attitudes. This produced a strong sense of inadequateness and confused these boys about their sex-gender alignment because they were seen as a curse. Ultimately, to escape from their family’s maltreatments, many hijras have no choice but to leave. The stigma and discrimination they face continue as they try to survive in a world that looks down on them, as the “gender incongruity is the basis of inequality and inequity” (Khan et al, 2009). After leaving home, they can live either with the hijra guru or live individually, which is very tough in Bangladesh.
When boys enter the hijra community, they are considered as chelas or disciples and wards of a hijra elder, called guru. The guru maintains a few disciples and is responsible for guiding, controlling and assisting them in many ways in everyday life, including offering the new hijra a place to live. Indeed, most landlords do not rent rooms to hijras, and there is no way for hijras to build a house with their own income, nor to claim the right to inherit their father’s wealth and property (Khan et al, 2009). To overcome this problem, on 12 November 2020, Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, announced that the third gender population must be equally assigned rights to property inheritance from their parents. However, property laws are gender-specific under Muslim and Hindu laws, and finding a legal solution around the gender and property issues seems impossible (BBC, 2020; ICCAD, 2020). Hijras also cannot go to banks to save money. They keep their savings either with themselves or with the guru. The chelas have to respect and serve the guru they belong to. Hence, the hijra tradition lies in trusting their gurus. This fills a big vacuum created by the exile from hijras’ families. However, this environment is not always as safe as it seems. As affirmed by the Human Rights Watch, hijras occupy a paradoxical position. If, on the one hand, hijras are recognized culturally, on the other hand, they live in hierarchical communities on the margins of society with limited economic opportunities and depend on their gurus for protection (Human Rights Watch, 2016a). Hijras do not have the same access to work as other people: they claim to be unable to get a mainstream job due to a non-conforming lifestyle and their behaviours. Their only occupation is bazaar tola, meaning collecting money from the marketplace or badhai, meaning blessing a newborn child through dancing and singing, or entertaining people during marriages (Nag, 2005). Since sometimes people do not give them money when hijras are collecting money in the streets, they started to do a tin tali, a traditional clap, and lifting up sarees to show their castrated genitals in public in a provocative way. It is believed that these acts can bring bad luck to the people who do not pay them during the tin tali (Human Rights Watch, 2016a).
As far as castration is concerned, the first traditional ritual when a new hijra enters a new community is the mutilation of its genitals to start a new life free from its masculine body (Irani, 2016). For this reason, hijras are considered asexual outcasts (Khan et al, 2009). The unequal power dynamics between men and hijras also emerge when they work as sex workers. Most of them are forced to sell sex from the age of 8-12 years and provide their earnings to their gurus. This job implies being the victims of sexual harassment as they are forced to have unprotected sex with clients. They are exploited and beaten without receiving any help from the police officer. It also happens because hijras hardly report any incidence to the police because of fear of further harassment. As a result, their human dignity and self-esteem are deeply affected and compromised (UNDP, 2015; Human Rights Watch, 2016a).
Hijras working as sex workers are also at risk of contracting STI/HIV infections, and most of the time they cannot receive proper medical treatments. Indeed, hijras face discrimination even in the healthcare settings, with their access to the services and hospitals constrained because of their social status. Moreover, most of the doctors lack the knowledge of their cultural and social state and treat them as social outcasts. Health facilities sensitive to the hijra culture are almost non-existent in Bangladesh, thus, they have no choice but to get self-treatment or traditional health practices (Khan et al., 2009). This difficult situation worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when Bangladesh was in lockdown. In that country, most people live below the poverty line. Moreover, the lockdown presented a whole new set of risks for hijras because their livelihood depends entirely on their daily works on the streets, collecting money or selling sex. During COVID-19 restrictions, streets were closed, thus many hijras lost their jobs. According to a recent survey to understand the impacts of COVID-19 in the hijra communities, 82 percent of them had not earned money for weeks and 59 percent did not receive any economic support from aid programs or families, even though like other citizens, they needed food, cleaning supplies, medicine, and safe housing (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Following the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the WHO’s call for global inclusion of gender minorities, the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, introduced a directive in response to the COVID-19 pandemic allocating almost $1.2 million to the Social Welfare Ministry (OHCHR, 2020; Human Rights Watch, 2020). This guaranteed a special relief for the most disadvantaged people, including the hijra community. However, it is unclear who received government-promised aid and how.
3: Legal Status Of The Hijra Community In Bangladesh
The National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh is positioned to play a significant role in addressing human rights issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. However, the reality works differently because hijras are not effectively recognised and protected. Even though Bangladesh ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of diverse sexualities, more policies are needed to implement a concrete change. As previously mentioned, due to the lack of laws recognizing hijras status in Bangladesh, these people have been excluded from basic rights such as social, economic and political rights as well as property rights, inheritance, employment, education and health care (Titir, 2019).
In recent years, the government of Bangladesh has taken several progressive steps to solve the problem of gender exclusion in the country. Since 2014, the Department of Immigration and Passports has provided for the third category of “other” on passport application forms, in addition to ‘male’ and ‘female’ (Titir, 2019). Then, in January 2014 , the Bangladesh cabinet published a gazette notification regarding the hijra community that recognised “the hijra community of Bangladesh as a hijra sex” (Titir, 2019). To commemorate the occasion, Bangladesh’s first hijra Pride Parade was held in Dhaka in 2014 (SEWA-AIFW, 2021). Previously, in 2013, the MSW introduced several livelihood schemes for the hijra community, and in 2015 the Bangladesh Bank requested financial institutions to include the hijra community within their enterprises’ loan activities, meaning that hijra can apply for bank loans to start a business (Titir, 2019). Moreover, from 2012 to 2013, a rehabilitation program was launched in seven districts of the country that included Dhaka, Chittagong, Bogra, Dinajpur, Patuakhali, Sylhet and Khulna, to help the hijra communities. Many hijra students received money and training to improve their skills. The program followed in 2014 and allowed hijras to receive the old age allowance (Ministry of Social Welfare, 2015; Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, 2016). Only in 2018, the Election Commission updated NID cards to include ‘hijra’ as a gender identity by amending the Voter List Act 2009 and the Voter List Regulations 2012. In December 2014, the Ministry of Social Welfare invited hijras to apply for low government employment. However, in order to follow up with the application, hijras needed to undergo medical checks as part of the routine government hiring procedure before being given a job. The Human Rights Watch report “I Want To Live With My Head Held High” documents abuses suffered by a group of hijras during such medical examinations at a hospital in Dhaka (Human Rights Watch, 2016b). Indeed, a clear procedure was absent and hospital staff responded based on their own personal biases.
Thus, since the hijra recognition in 2014, the government does not seem to have issued any clear directives to formally accept the gender identity of hijras or transgender individuals. Indeed, their official recognition was undermined by the lack of clear and specific policies to legally change hijras status or to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity (Human Rights Watch, 2016b). Bangladesh has no anti discriminatory laws that specifically protect sexual minorities or laws that recognise the diverse gender identity (Khan et al, 2009). Although hijras do not always identify as homosexuals, they are sometimes persecuted, with prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life as established by article 377A of the Bangladesh Criminal Penal Code. No hate crime law exists in Bangladesh to address crimes committed by a perpetrator motivated by the sexual orientation or gender identity. Although Article 27 and 28-1 of the Constitution of Bangladesh relatively establish and protect the equality before the law and the rights of individuals, more policies are needed to review the Anti-Discrimination legislation (UNDP, 2015). The Human Rights Programme (HRP), a joint initiative of UNDP and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), is now working to promote a culture of respecting human rights and inclusiveness in Bangladesh in order to develop appropriate and inclusive definitions for the full spectrum of gender identity categories and adopt a clear plan of action to provide gender-inclusive sensitivity. The final goal is to uphold and advocate human rights within the population, ensuring that no one is left behind (Titir, 2019).
While the Government has recognised the third gender, hijras continue to face extreme discrimination daily in every aspect of their lives, from accessing healthcare to applying for a job. Society has yet to understand and recognise the multidimensional aspects of gender-identity discrimination and the physical and emotional effects of stereotypical perceptions experienced by hijras. Ongoing programmes and initiatives designed to reduce extreme poverty should prioritise the inclusion of hijras. This will allow for redesigning policies in education, health and employment, which is necessary to promote social integration and reduce stigma and discrimination. Bangladesh’s development momentum is strong, as the country progresses to realise the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs).
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