A Slow March Towards Trans Empowerment

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Source: Star Observer

H U M A N  R I G H T S – B A N G L A D E S H 

Fahin Rahman Aungkita

Spinning the hem of her saree and clapping loud enough to catch everyone’s attention, she walks with her head held high. The heaviness in her voice hangs in the air as she proclaims her presence with gaudy accessories accompanying her loud makeup and vibrant hues. She turns heads as she moves past keen spectators, and carries with her the air of disgust, abuse, bullying, harassment, and the heavy baggage of social exclusion.

The transgender community of Bangladesh consists of a government estimated population of 10,000 as of 2013. However, this is after the national consensus deliberately missed out many. Different rights-based organisations have estimated the actual count to be in the range of 50,000 to 1.5 million.

While the country has made commendable attempts to recognise the rights of this community, it is still hard to fathom an inclusive society where the inhabitants embrace these humans, no different than themselves, without detestable feelings. The path to equality remains congested with lack of implementation of assured decrees and day-to-day mistreatment and harrying. While the hypothetical protagonist of the aforementioned scenario may have a home to live in now, voting rights to contribute to democracy, and the ability to see someone from her own community achieving positions she could only dream of, the nation still plods in the path of social exclusion.

In November 2013, Bangladesh cabinet granted legal recognition to the community as a third gender. Yet they neglected to outline who is eligible for the identity and also the steps one must follow to identify as ‘hijra’. And when necessary steps to get identification were put in place, they involved medical ‘check-ups’ that allowed the trans people to get harassed and abused

April 2019 saw the marginalised community finally being granted full voting rights by the creation of the category of ‘third gender’ on the voting list. Tashnuva Anan Shishir, performer and actor, when interviewed by The Dhaka Apologue, raises questions on the logic of terming it third on the spectrum, as to why there exists a numerical hierarchy. 

“The Hijra community is part of a rich culture that is not to be set by the state or government or you and me. An individual should get to decide what they want to be called and referred to. When I go to vote, there should be more than just one box to choose and limit my identity to.” 

While Facebook goes overboard in including over 50 gender options to let people identify themselves, limiting options to three is in no doubt a figure in dire need of improvement. 

November 2020, too, arrived with a delightful news for the transgender community when the Prime Minister told the cabinet meeting of the introduction of legislation allowing a trans person to avail inheritance in accordance with Sharia Law. However, many activists wonder how effective the legislation will be considering the fact that many transgender people are denounced by their own families. 

Back in 2015, the Ministry of Social Welfare released applications to employ 14 transgender people in clerical positions to generate employment opportunities for the marginalised community. The selection of 12 Hijra people after an interview was followed by a medical examination, the report of which concluded all candidates were actually male and not Hijra people. Besides the immediate termination of the appointments, the news went viral in the media, tarnishing the reputation of the community, and defeating the purpose of the initial efforts vehemently. Later it was revealed that there was no psychologist in the medical team. The outrageous report was based solely on the basis of genital examination and the fact that a transgender person can identify as a woman despite being born with male genitalia was grossly neglected. 

The mere definition of hijra seems to be severely misunderstood by the state itself, which appears to think that the community only constitutes of people who are intersex or those who have some genital defects. This belief often allows them to term transgender people, who do not identify with their assigned gender but have no physical markers of their identity, as ‘fake’. 

Even more frequently left out of the picture are the trans men—those assigned female at birth—of Bangladesh who are victims of the same struggles and concerns of safety. Not only do they not qualify as ‘hijra’ in the eyes of the government, but without legal recognition and protection, they are even more stigmatised and abused—sometimes by law enforcement themselves. 

All the while gender diversity and sexual identity remain vague concepts amongst laymen. 

Looking into the rationale, the problem sprouts from the four walls of a family where what family education failed to provide, we learned from the environment around us. This is about the community which is usually never brought up in family discussions, let alone in a positive light. From a very young age, gender was taught to us as a completely binary system of male and female so that the concept of a ‘third gender’ may seem otherworldly to some. 

And the word hijra has been hurled as an insult around us for as long as we can remember. Calling the male friend with a feminine walk by the name was commonplace, terming him half-ladies was a given, and the girl not conforming to societal standards was termed manly and hijra-like.

Before failing ourselves, we were failed to be taught to think about the populace who called themselves by the name with pride, the community that was always absent everywhere we stepped in, be it education, occupation, politics, or the entertainment industry, where the transgender role in a film or television should it exist, was of an eccentric addition as a side-character played almost always by cisgender actors.

On coming face to face with the members of the transgender community finally, the experience has been mixed, reiterated 9 out of the 10 randomly picked respondents of the youth who were reached out, their grounds mostly including insults for not being able to pay sufficient money when sought. Stories of misbehaviour by the hijra people have been spoken loudly many times and the entire community is often blamed for the misconduct of the few who hassled. 

Final-year-student at the University of Dhaka, Syeda Rifa Tasnia, says how she feels scared when a transgender person comes near. “It’s not like they are all rude when asking for money, but the uncertainty of unprecedented aggression scares me. I have known fake ones taking the disguise who made a business out of it.”

Tashnuva Anan Shishir sheds light on the matter saying,

“The marginalised community consists of many people who have been abandoned by their family and the society. People need to understand they do not know many things. We have seen many sons of privileged families growing up with proper socialisation who ended up as rapists, haven’t we? Then how do we blame an underprivileged community that has been deprived of it all? Those who have been harassed should talk against the harassers rather than raising a finger at the whole community.”

And this is a community of people who are thrown out of their homes by their own family or are forced to leave by society. Many fail to get proper education due to discrimination and harassment. And are again and again refused by employers when they apply for a job. Thus, for many begging and sex work become the only source of money. The inability to lead a normal life should be taken into account before we overgeneralise and put all transgender people in a box labelled ‘harassers’. 

The list of struggles extends also to grave human rights violations including lack of rights protection, arbitrary arrests, sexual abuse by law enforcement agencies, the risk of HIV and STIs of those engaged in sex work and prostitution, refusal of medical treatment, and the underreporting of injustice. All these create a vicious cycle that acts as a barrier to their development and that must be overcome if we are to truly move towards equality. 

It has been seen again and again that when given opportunities, and the right environment and support, the trans people of Bangladesh can break the barriers society has placed around them. 

Adnan Fahim, a facilitator at Bangladesh Youth Leadership Centre, while sharing his experience at his first Youth Leadership Summit by the organisation said,

“I was pleasantly surprised by the eloquence and inspiring stories of the group representing the transgender community that participated in the summit. A trans person was included in every team of 10. Every one of them was educated and gilded with awe-inspiring knowledge. I have previously been approached by hijra people on train journeys who would collect no less than 100 taka from each passenger they would target. They would even wake any sleeping passenger and would badly insult anybody who would refuse to pay money to them. But this was different.”

Is it the lack of education and socialisation then that creates this drastic duality?

“Definitely. I have met Hijra people who are nice and kind while I have been ridiculed and harassed by some. The beautiful people I met at the Summit said we cisgender people are not ready to accept them, and they may be right but most of us are unaware about the community to begin with,” Adnan told TDA.

Tashnuva Anan Shishir was a participant at the summit as well. Earlier this year in February, for the first time in Bangladesh, two transgender women have been selected to study at the international platform of BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health along with students from 14 other nations. Tashnuva is one of the two alongside Ho Chi Minh Islam, a practising nurse by profession. They both were selected deservingly with credits to their merits. 

This year on International Women’s Day, Tashnuva, again, left a mark as the first transgender woman to present news on Baishakhi television. 

By the same token, the allocation of houses to 50 transgender women under the Ashrayan-2 project was a step towards development, but we mustn’t forget the many who are homeless still, those who still can’t walk past a crowd without being bullied, and those who can’t even step out in fear of their lives.

The opening of the Dawatul Koran Third Sex Madrasa by the late businessman, Ahmad Ferdous Bari Chowdhury in the capital at Kamrangirchar last year, broke major gender and religious stereotypes as he provided with a place where transgender people of all ages would be able to take vocation surrounding Islam. This shows for the first time a real effort to educate this marginalised community. 

The nation remembers the story of Labannya Hijra who chased and helped catch the two assailants of secular blogger Oyasiqur Rhaman. It lauded her efforts and bravery and soon after, plans of recruiting hijras as traffic police were announced. Nevertheless, while Bangladesh is yet to see its first transgender traffic police in more than 6 years since then, nobody has forgotten a chance to go on about the harassment by the community. 

The conspicuous social exclusion is a consequence of the misdirections, delays, and inadequacies of the government, as much as the misconstrues nurtured in every household of the society we live in. Dwelling on the adverse stories, many of us have hindered the empowerment of the transgender community rather than actively supporting the idea of a safe and inclusive society where they are treated as equal. 

Despite how grim the situation may seem, though, there shines a sliver of hope in every shackled story that breaks free. There is communal joy in seeing how the stories are welcomed with warmth by the multitude, a dream envisaged by every member of the transgender community for themselvesto reduce the gap that still lies between mankind and for cisgender people to finally accept hijra people as one of their own—a process that should doubtlessly begin with educating oneself, and being understanding and open-minded. 


Fahin Rahman Aungkita solves crimes for the sake of studying. Discuss all that goes unnoticed with her cat Chandler and her at [email protected]


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