No man or woman’s land

Namira Hossain writes about the persecution faced by transgenders in Bangladesh leading to their isolation from the society

SONY RAMANY

SONY RAMANY

The popular web-information platform Wikipedia tells us that the word ‘hijra’ is an Urdu-Hindustani word derived from the Semitic Arabic root hjr in its sense of ‘leaving one’s tribe’, and has been borrowed into Hindi and Bengali. The Indian usage has traditionally been translated into English as ‘eunuch’ or ‘hermaphrodite, where ‘the irregularity of the male genitalia is central to the definition.’ However, in general, hijras are born with typically male physiology, only a few having been born with male intersex variations.

Joya Sikder, 35, is a transgender and a Field Research Assistant at ICDDR,B and founder of Somporker Noya Setu, an organisation that works to gain fundamental civil rights and health rights of the transgender community and sexual minority groups. She shares, ‘hijras have been in our culture since Mughal times. But only since 2013, we have been given the identity of a third gender.’

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She goes on, ‘it is important to explore new dimensions in gender identity and the third gender was needed, as they are not accepted as men or women. Hijra and transgender are umbrella terms – there are trans-men and transwomen. Bangladesh has about 17,000 transgenders although official statistics say 10,000 which largely consists of trans-women. Everybody thinks hijras are the same as hermaphrodites, they are not. Trans-women are born as males but want to be female and for trans-men, it is the other way around.’
The transgender community is largely marginalised and looked upon by the rest of society with fear and trepidation often with valid reason. Dhony Shaheb, who works at a well-known e-commerce firm, tells New Age Xtra, ‘They come to our office every month and harass us. They take their clothes off and terrorise everyone and leave only when they get money.’

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Along with harassing people for money, hijras are associated with certain stereotypical actions – such as the hijra clap and dancing for newborn babies. Khushi, 29, and a transgendered sex-worker, says, ‘when you see someone you know across the street, you holler their name out. We do our clap, it’s like a siren. It is also a sign of intimidation, or symbol of power.’
Symbols of power would be of great import to those who almost have no power or voice in society. Joya says, ‘we have traditions of our own such as the new-born baby dance. Everyone thinks the dance is just an act to hustle money from people, but it is our way of honouring motherhood. As we cannot be mothers, we feel that absence in our life.’
The absence of familial ties is also ubiquitous for them, as even their families refuse to accept them as they are. Joya says, ‘Adolescence is a trying time for most but for transgenders, I would say particularly so. They go through these changes mostly on their own – staring at the mirror, observing other girls and how they dress up in order to emulate them, they start to feel attraction for boys. But their families do not accept them – often they are subjected to physical abuse and even sexual violence from their own family members. That’s when they usually seek out a hijra community and leave their families. They come under the protection of a Guru-Ma.’

SONY RAMANY

SONY RAMANY

That’s when the process of becoming a hijra begins. ‘They have no one with to share what they are going through. They want to be with others of like-minds, so they come into the community and work under a Guru-Ma who adopts her and trains her,’ says Joya.
She goes on, ‘after a certain period of time working under Guru-Ma, there is a ritual when everybody else is invited and that’s when she officially becomes a hijra. They are groomed, and sit on a floor which has been wiped clean. A packet of sweets are placed in front and they are given chun (slaked lime that is taken with paan) and a mirror and asked to see their own faces.’
They then have to promise a certain amount of money to their Guru-Ma for taking care of them. ‘If they don’t give the money they are told that their faces will crack, like chun that has been left out too long and dried up,’ adds Joya. After the ceremony is over, they are given new clothes and some sweets and begin to live and work as hijras.
Ostracised by not only their families, but they are also marginalised in society. Hardly any opportunities are afforded to them including education, leaving them no choice but to earn through chanda (collecting money from locals) or as sex-workers. Khushi shares ‘when I was eight years old, I had to leave school. I was beaten up often for being effeminate and people could say things like “half-ladies” when they saw me. The way they looked at me was not good.’

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True to her name, Khushi smiles, ‘we are not all the same, we all have different likes and dislikes – people cannot accept that I like men. What is it to them? Someone whose son is a mastan will be accepted by his father, yet no father will accept a hijra.’
Due to this, transgendered people become voiceless as they are subjected to humiliation and abuse. ‘One day when I was 10 years old, I was out running some errands. I was wearing a lungi and strutting about like I usually do. Suddenly this policeman called out to me. He took me onto his lap and then entered me. It hurt so much I was seeing stars, it felt like I had left this world.’ Khushi goes on, ‘I was bleeding heavily. He just handed over a 50 tk note to me and told me to buy some medicine.’
Sexual abuse and violence become the norm for them growing up throughout their lives, and they are no stranger to pain. Shelly, a 22 year old transgendered sex-worker, says, ‘I never understood the insults growing up – I did not know what was fire or water. At school, I was not only beaten up by other students but was also tortured by my teachers – pens stuck into my skin, my head banged against the wall. I wanted to study, but civil society does not accept us as human beings.’
Joya says, ‘transgenders are not given a voice, nor any kind of mental or social identity. They do not have the benefits of education, so they are not able to get jobs. We deserve equal opportunity, just because we have fallen behind in the past does mean we should be left behind. Allow them to learn on the job, the government could try to implement a skills training programme.’
The amount of money they earn in their roles as hijras for their community is negligible. ‘From collecting money, they earn maybe at maximum Tk 5,000 per day, half of which has to be given to the Guru-Ma,’ says Joya. ‘As sex workers, they make maybe Tk 300 – Tk 500, not more than that. A lot of money is spent on cosmetics and clothes in order to attract customers, so after basic expenses, they are barely even able to make rent.’
Getting recognition as a third gender, means that the transgendered community finally has an identity to be able to apply for jobs – with a third box added under gender – male, female and ‘others’. The government promised that in 2015, 14 jobs would be allocated to the transgendered community within Dhaka as a policy that would be more inclusive of minorities in the working population.
This promise so far has not come to fruition, leaving the transgendered no choice but to continue in their marginalised role. Khushi says, ‘On the 1st of December last year, we went for job interviews. We were told we would hear back from them, but we never did. It’s always “tomorrow” but tomorrow never comes.’
Millie, a 35 year old transgendered sex-worker shares, ‘I moved to the city from Brahmanbaria about 15 years ago. I was working at an NGO then but it became impossible for me to continue to work there. I was spending more money than I was earning just to get to work! I could not ride the bus, as people did not want to sit next to me. People are scared of us like we are monsters.’
When asked how they feel about the government’s plan to implement hijras as traffic police, they are unanimous in their feelings against it. ‘When people want to do something, they do it. They even went to the moon. I want to be accepted by civil society, and live and work amongst other people as human beings.’ Shelly adds, ‘we all have our own aspirations and we deserve equal rights just like everybody else.’
Bangladesh has made a progressive stance in recognizing the transgendered community as a third gender but it remains to be seen now whether the rest of society is ready to accept them. ‘I know someone who says I am not a hijra, I am a mermaid. But I think I am like a paper flower, I make myself everyday,’ says Joya, with the air of a person who has accepted herself for what she is even if society cannot.

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