Amreeta Lethe Chowdhury
Not all that long ago, in my first trimester at university, I joined a theatre club. The initiation of the new members involved a workshop of sorts, where instructors came in to teach us the very basics of acting on stage. One of these lessons involved learning how to make others laugh. The activity went something like this: A pair was chosen — one would sit on a chair with their fists clenched and jaws tightened, and try their best to avoid laughing at whatever the other person did.
It was fun, initially. The antics ranged from poorly delivered jokes to celebrity impressions and physical comedy, with each pair breaking from their shyness and becoming more daring with their choices than the last. A quarter of the way through, however, one of the acts took a particularly awful turn. The man whose turn it was had begun clapping his hands, swaying his hips, speaking in an effeminate tone — impersonating what by then the audience had caught on to be a hijra.
This, of course, brought on waves of laughter from across the room, including from most of the older members and instructors. If that weren’t enough to make one uncomfortable, this particular impression soon became the go-to act whenever a pair couldn’t think of any other joke. In the matter of a few moments, what was supposed to be the non-discriminatory atmosphere of a liberal educational institution had transformed into a space where transgender people, although there were none present then, were explicitly unwelcome.
None of these acts had brought on any rebuke from those in charge. In a country where the LGBTQ community has been beaten, baited, and butchered in broad daylight till they were driven underground, all without drawing much disdain from the general population, this is no surprise.
“They’re different from us. We’re normal and they’re so very clearly not.
Ridicule is only the very least of what they really deserve, if you think about it. If they didn’t want to be made fun of, they shouldn’t have been behaving like that.”
Having grown up in Bangladesh, this is hardly an uncommon line of thought. You grow up here associating the hijra with an array of unsavoury activities, where the very word being spoken makes your fingers itch to roll the windows up, lock the doors, and push your wallet further into your pockets. You are told to not even look them in the eye. So, jokes about them are only par for the course.
But I bring up this particular instance because it led to the absolute disillusionment of my expectations of universities as spaces carved out for tolerant thought and discussion. Instead, the occurrence only solidified just how delusional we are about our own “woke” bubbles when we say that things are looking up for the socially outcast. A mere pop of the bubble away, the mass populace is still very much against the idea of any kind of acceptance, or even tolerance towards these communities deemed socially and morally reprehensible.
It is true, however, that not all of these people using the term hijra in a derogatory manner are necessarily bad people. Our collective discomfort, and often outright hatred, towards minority communities stems from how we have been taught to think of them from a young age. And towards the hijra community, we have always been particularly venomous.
Among the foremost ways of perpetuating this hatred is the use of language. Hijra in and of itself has no pejorative associations, and simply means “hermaphrodite”. However, similarly to how we have made feminine and non-heteronormative associations prompt phrases such as “You ___ like a girl” or “Ew, you’re so gay”, we have also attached these negative connotations to the word hijra. And so, calling any effeminate behaviour from a man hijra-like performs a similarly derogatory function as its more Western counterpart of calling someone gay as an insult.
Using hijra in a negative manner thus centers the value of a person on one apparent (and grossly misrepresented) aspect of their identity. It dehumanises them by treating them as nothing more than a collective, rather than offering them the right to break free of herd-stereotypes and establish themselves as individuals.
Although I have said earlier that mindsets such as these are a product of collective cultural values, this is only to provide a basis for introspection into where the discrimination stems from — it cannot be used as an excuse. While it is true that the learnings of our childhood are often particularly ingrained into our heads, it is equally true that the responsibility of breaking free of those wrongful teachings is ours alone. Unlearning and discarding internalised misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and any other intolerant view is the responsibility of the individual.
Acceptance comes gradually, and we have seen hijra communities make great strides in terms of their rights and progress. But as per the anecdotal evidence, there is still a long, long way to go. It is important to be reflective of ourselves and the privileges we are awarded at birth; recognising our privilege helps us identify how we are constantly rewarded by society for possessing attributes we often have no control over. It is also important to figure out how to use that privilege for the betterment of those not awarded the same social and cultural benefits as us.
Unlearning can begin simply with changing the language we use. To start, make a conscious decision to stop using people’s identities as insults — hijra, gay, or anything else for that matter.