Transgender Rights, Bangladesh Style

The New York Times

4th July, 2015 09:52:48 printer

Transgender Rights, Bangladesh Style

Tahmima Anam


On March 30, Labannya Hijra became a Bangladeshi hero. Witnessing the murder by Islamist radicals of the secular blogger Oyasiqur Rhaman on a street in Dhaka, she grabbed at the fleeing assailants. Her courageous intervention led to the arrest of two men, who later confessed to the killing.


The most striking part of the story, though, was that Labannya Hijra actually is a hijra, the South Asian term for biological males who identify as women. (Hijras take the group’s name as part of their own; hence Labannya Hijra.) So, as Labannya was lauded for her bravery, she also raised the question of whether members of this transgender community could be treated as active, equal citizens of Bangladesh.


Estimates of the number of hijras range from 10,000 to half a million (out of Bangladesh’s population of about 157 million). In 2013, the government granted “third gender” status to hijras. After Labannya’s heroic act, the government announced plans to recruit hijras as traffic police — a move widely welcomed. And last week, the central bank instructed financial institutions to spend a portion of their corporate social responsibility funds on the transgender community.


It appears that, like Caitlyn Jenner, Labannya has become a symbol of our shifting attitudes to what we regard as normative in the realms of sexuality and identity.


In a number of South Asian countries, hijras are now referred to as members of a third gender. Over the past decade, Nepal, India and Pakistan, as well as Bangladesh, have all granted them legal status. In Bangladesh, this means they may identify their gender as “hijra” in national documents like passports and ID cards.


Their “thirdness” alludes simultaneously to the social exclusion hijras still face and to their ability to transcend the traditional binary confines of gender. In ethnographic terms, hijras exemplify the sometimes surprising cultural accommodations made by otherwise traditional societies in South Asia.


The concept of a third gender goes back at least as far as the third century A.D., with Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts all including debates on sexuality and gender definitions. References to a third gender crop up sporadically throughout the historical record, until the 18th century, when colonial laws criminalized all sexual acts between men and cast relationships into a rigidly binary gendered form.


If this all sounds very progressive, thirdness must also be seen in the light of what it restricts, as well as what it permits. The hijra community is tightknit and hierarchical, with its own rules of kinship and power. When Labannya made her first public statement, she could only do so with the blessing of her mentor, Sapna Hijra — a figure who is somewhere between a symbolic parent and a spiritual leader in the hijra commune to which Labannya belongs.


It would be almost impossible for someone like Labannya to remain within her village of origin or with her biological family. While the hijra can be “out” in Bangladeshi society, it is only within the confines of a segregated community that is largely defined by poverty, abuse and the sex trade.

Bangladesh’s government has also recently refused to repeal the laws, inherited from our colonial past, that criminalize homosexuality. (Similar laws still stand in India, too.) Apart from the fact that gay men and women who are not transgender are subject to these archaic laws, this means that while hijras are allowed to be members of a third gender, it is illegal for them, too, to have relationships with other members of their sex.


In a progressive parallel universe, hijras could be seen as an authentic South Asian expression of the fluidity of sexuality and gender identity. In this ideal world, they would challenge not only our binary notions of sexuality but also many assumptions about our otherwise rigid-seeming society.


But the Bangladeshi hijra refuses to comfortably fit into this framework, because she is not just defined by her hijra status but by all the cultural, social, political and economic frameworks in which she has to live.


Most likely born a boy (though a small number of hijras may be biologically intersex), she will have chosen, along the way, to identify as a woman. She will almost certainly have been abandoned by, or be estranged from, her family. And she is very likely to be a prostitute or beggar. As a result, she is also very likely to be involved with criminal gangs who control where and how she lives, whom she sleeps with, and whether or not she will ever be able to have children.


In a broader sense, an acceptance of the hijra identity doesn’t preclude rigid notions of masculinity and femininity from dominating in Bangladesh. Men and women are still expected to fit into tightly defined gender categories that determine their access to a host of opportunities, from education to health care. And there is still a deeply embedded and rarely challenged culture of homophobia across the social spectrum.


It is important to bear all of this in mind when we think about Labannya and other members of the hijra community. We may celebrate her new status as a full-fledged citizen of Bangladesh, and we must hope that her visibility as the defender of Mr. Rhaman — and perhaps soon as an official member of the traffic police — will alter her status. But it would be premature, to say the least, to pronounce the troubles of the hijras over.


Labannya might remind us again, here, of America’s Ms. Jenner. As we celebrate one exceptional individual, we must also press harder for the social and legal transformations that would grant broader rights for the whole panoply of sexual and gender identities: gay, hetero, trans, cis, “third” or otherwise.