Earlier today (November 11), the government of Bangladesh made a pioneering move in extending official government recognition to people who identify as hijra. Recognition means the extension of several state benefits to hijra communities, including priority access to education, housing and health services, and the option of reflecting their gender identity in passports and other identity cards.
Photo: Ian Taylor, Flickr
The decision came during a cabinet meeting today, chaired by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. “He said the recognition that the government has given will help reduce the gender related disparity in education, medicare and habitation, he said adding that this group has long been facing the social disparity including denial to voting rights,” reports News Next Bangladesh.
Hijra identities and sub-cultures do not map neatly onto the categories of transgender and intersex, although transgender is a term sometimes embraced by community members, and by rights advocates. Many hijras identify as neither men nor women, or third gender (or third sex), but some also identify as women, and this varies within the Indian sub-continent, and in South Asia in general.
The decision was announced by Cabinet Secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan at a media briefing following the meeting. He advised that English language documents will refer to them as Hijras as the government claims “any English translation would be misleading”.
Hijras already have voting rights in Bangladesh (since December 2009). A survey by the Ministry of Social Welfare says 10,000 people who identify as hijras live in the country. Others put the figure higher, at somewhere between 30,000 and 150,000.
The move comes as the current government’s term winds to a close.
Since the 1990s, organisations working to promote the rights of hijras – together with kothi and MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) – in Bangladesh, such as the Bandhu Social Welfare Society and Badhan Hijra Sangha have highlighted their significant social and economic exclusion, often linked to high levels of violence, familial rejection, police harassment, inadequate access to health and education, and – for many – reliance on sex work.
Various campaigns focus on the extension of specific political and social rights to hijra communities, such as voting, health services, and the legalisation of sex work (and, correspondingly, freedom from police violence and harassment). State recognition of hijras as a specific population is regarded as a strategic way to extend rights.
Bangladeshi Development Journalist, Tithe Farhana, for example, writes that “According to the Bangladeshi constitution, equality before law is guaranteed on the basis of citizenship, not on the basis of sex. But the Hijra community is essentially deprived of several rights under Bangladeshi law, because it recognizes only two sexes, male and female. All Bangladeshi governmental documents, therefore, are prepared only for men and women, leaving hijras with the cognitive dissonance of having to conform to one of the two restrictive categories.”
Similarly, Pinky Sikder, Director of Badhan Hijra Sangha, an NGO aimed at protecting the human rights of transgender and/or hijra communities in Bangladesh, also explains:
“One of the reasons why the hijra community is deprived of fundamental rights is that, traditionally, the law only recognizes the male or female genders. A low number of hijras were included in the voters’ list, but they were not identified as the ‘third sex’. Rather, those who wear saris were considered females and those who wear shirts were considered males. Bangladesh’s transgender community recently lodged complaints that officials were refusing to count them during a national census. About 300,000 census takers are going door-to-door across the country of 146 million people, but many transvestites, eunuchs and asexual people say they are being ignored because they do not fit into strict gender categories.”
“They have counted only a few of us. We have said time and again that we are neither male, nor female. We should be categorized as ‘other’ or transgender. Transgender people in Bangladesh, a Muslim country, have lobbied for years to be categorized as “other” when declaring their gender on census and other official documents,” she added.
For more information see:
- Dhaka Tribune: Hijras now a separate gender
- LGBTI Bangladesh: Trans issues (various texts)
- Global South Development Magazine: Transgender realities – fighting for human rights in Bangladesh (interview with hijra/transgender activist Pinky Sikder)
- Bandhu Social Welfare Society: Homepage