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     Volume 8 Issue 84 | August 28, 2009 |

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Special Feature

The Tale of the Outcasts

Thithi Farhana

Hermaphrodites have often been depicted in cinema to provide some comic element. Seen as freaks of nature; they are ridiculed and sometimes feared in our culture that does not tolerate anything that diverges from the common. In the Hindi movie Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) they accompanied one of the heroes, Akbar (Rishi Kapoor), in a song. But one of the first sympathetic portrayals was in Mani Ratnam's Bombay (1995). Off-screen their story is one of discrimination and dejection. In the customs of South Asia, a hijra, is usually considered a member of "the third gender" neither man nor woman. Most are physically male or intersex, but some are physically female. Hijras usually refer to themselves linguistically as female, and usually dress as women. To Indian anthropologist Serena Nanda, Hijras described themselves simply as "neither man nor woman.

According to Adnan Hossain, a student of the PhD programme in Social Anthropology Department of social sciences, University of Hull, “Hijras or hermaphrodites are people with ambiguous genitalia. Also called intersexed, hermaphroditism is primarily a medical condition which results from multifarious biological factors. The term 'intersexed' is reserved to refer to a somatic condition in which the hermaphroditic person is supposed to posses both masculine and feminine traits”. However, hijras of Bangladesh define themselves as people who are neither male nor female. They regard themselves as people incapable of sexual sensation. They also claim to have neither a male nor a female genitalia.

According to them, hijras are of three types. A 'real' hijra has no trace of genitalia except for a tiny hole for urination. They can be both flat-chested as well as big-breasted. The 'male hijra' has a tiny non-erectile phallus. More often than not, they go for a medical operation. The 'female hijra' look like women, have female genitalia but they do not menstruate. They may also possess masculine traits.

According to Canadian researcher Aude Leroux-Lévesque “in the last two centuries, hijras progressively struggled against marginalisation, harassment, malicious rumours, denial of human rights and lack of resources.” Consequently the number of hijras who turned to prostitution dramatically rose. This is because according to hijras themselves, they are not given any support by the government or local authorities. Hijras are a significant presence in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and are part of the variegated South Asian culture. National governments deal differently with hijras, according to their constitutional and religious identity. When it comes to hijras and prostitution, the law is particularly strict although the demand of hijras by male customers is extremely high. In Bangladesh sex work has been declared legal by the Bangladeshi High Court in 2000. However, hijras still live in the margin of the society. Bangladeshis, as other South Asians, respect hijras out of fear but at the same time, especially with the increasing spread of Islamist predication, overtly condemn their existence. Leila Hijra of Shustha Jibon a NGO of Hijras says “ People who are building a new house sometimes hire us to dance in each new room, to take away any potential bad luck. We are also hired to dance at weddings and to celebrate the arrival of newborn babies. The everyday life of Bangladeshi hijras is far from being a laughing matter. With the spread of modern forms of entertainment --particularly TV-- the call for hijras is decreasing. Increasingly, we are compelled to earn our living by collecting money from shopkeepers --a form of mild extortion -- and by prostitution.”

Abu Mokeram Khondaker Secretary General of Association for Environment and Human Resource Development (AFEAHRD) says,“Hijras face prejudice and discrimination at every turn. Marked out by their sexual difference, they are hounded out of schools, and hence lack the necessary qualifications to get proper jobs. It's almost impossible for them to become educated, to get a passport, or even to open a bank account.”

Pinky Hijra of Badhan Hijra Sangha comments, “there are no authentic statistics on how many hijras are there in Bangladesh. According to newspaper reports, the number varies from 30,000 to 150,000. Hijras get little sympathy from society. We are commonly subject to ridicule and rejection. Naturally, survival instincts make us live together as far as possible. We live in small groups and each headed by a senior leader called Guru Ma, who trains the newly joined hijras to dance, to sing, and to use musical instruments.” Shale Ahmed Director of Bandhu Social Welfare Society says “A lot of people assume hijras were born hijras. Their parents hide them from the eyes of society for as long as they can, ashamed of their 'sexual anomaly'. At one point these people 'come out' and start living the way they do. However, in reality there are many who simply decide to enter this community because of hardships they suffer in life, economic or otherwise. Some are forced into it. They leave their old family and find a new one. They all have to be castrated, according to the rules. Many of them try getting this operation done in the hands of quack doctors and die. So there are only just a few properly castrated hijras out there”.

According to Joya Hijra “We are not only deprived of human rights, but also abandoned by family members. We can go home till our parents are alive. But after their demise, siblings reject us and refuse to communicate with them.” She further adds “I went to village when my father had died. Then I was rejected by family members. Like me, every hijra has a tragic history”. Leila Hijra adds, “The hijras in Bangladesh are predominantly Muslim. There are some Hindu ones too. The community is an amalgam of many religions. We are buried in accordance to whatever religious background we came from. However, this is done secretively. We want to avoid any sort of possible conflicts regarding whether or not to treat the dead body as male or female”.

According to our 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 Bangladeshi law recognises only two sexes, male and female. All Bangladeshi governmental documents therefore are meant to be prepared for male or female citizens. Hijras are left with no choice; they have to identify themselves as either male or female in those documents.

As hijras reveal, despite the general bias of the society they live in, they are still sought after. There is a high demand for hijra sex workers. Continuous issues between professional female sex workers and hijras (whether actual or not) seem to be customary in red light quarters or brothels of big urban centres in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Reasons are vague and should be looked for in the South Asian gendered social structure. Having a trans-cultural, trans-religious and trans-national identity, hijras truly represent all aspects of South Asian population. They come from Hindu, Muslim and Christian backgrounds. They can be educated or illiterate; they can belong to the lower strata of the population or being the sons of urban elites. Yet while the reasons to join a hijra community may vary, once being initiated they all know prostitution should be avoided. At odds with such rule, hijras are increasingly abandoning their traditional a rule linked to a glorious past (the Moghul courts and ancient Hindu mythology) and embrace a lifestyle grounded on sex work.

While overall HIV prevalence remains under 0.1 percent among the general population in Bangladesh, there are risk factors that could fuel the spread of HIV among high-risk groups. Prompt and dynamic action is needed to reinforce the quality and coverage of HIV prevention programmes, particularly amongst the high risk group including Hijras(Transgender). Hijras are found all over Bangladesh. They suffer from different types of social and political marginalisation. Hijra communities in the country are discriminated against, only due to their sexual identity. Lack of education is a major problem for them, because of which they are not aware of their rights. In Bangladesh most Hijras are involved in selling sex to clients. Due to their low educational status, lack of alternative profession, associated stigma, discrimination and violence, Hijras are most at risk of getting infected as well as transmitting HIV to their clients. HIV prevention activities are one of the components of an UNFPA programme implemented through Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of Bangladesh. Under this country programme, UNFPA emphasises on prevention of HIV among Hijras group to contribute to national response for HIV prevention. Accordingly, it has outsourced BSWS(Bandhu Social Welfare Society) with reducing the risks of STI/HIV transmission among Hijras in Bangladesh as well as improve their livelihood. The project is being implemented by BSWS since 2007 in coordination with Shustha Jiban. There was another Hijra organisation involved since 2007 till 2008 with the project which is currently working with HATI project in Chittagong.

Badhon Hijra Shongho, Shocheton Shilpi Shongho (SSS), Social Advancement Society are working for this community. Apart from these, there are some NGOs that work with this community although the main focus is on HIV/AIDS awareness. Bangladesh Association for Gays (BAG) was the first internet-based organization to support hijra, kothi, panthi and other sexual minorities.

In July 2009, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that hijras should be registered by the government in an effort to integrate them into society and provide them with access to benefits for the poor such as the Benazir Income Support Programme. Hijras have been elected to high political positions in India. Shabnam Mausi became India's first hijra MLA in 1999. Another hijra, Kamla Jaan, was elected as mayor of Katni, while another, Meenabai, became the president of the Sehora town municipality, the oldest civic body in the state of Madhya Pradesh. In 2005, 24-year-old hijra Sonia Ajmeri ran for state assembly on an independent ticket to represent the estimated 40,000 eunuchs in Gujarat. The wave of hijras entering politics has not been without controversy. In November 2000, Asha Devi was elected mayor of Gorakhpur, a post reserved for a woman. The city had a population just about 500,000 as of 1991. She was unseated when a court decreed that she was a man, but was later restored. In 2005, a fiction feature film titled 'Shabnam Manushi was made on the life of a eunuch politician. Yogesh Bharadwaj directed it, and the title role was played by Ashutosh Rana. The 2008 movie Welcome to Sajjanpur by Shyam Benegal explores the role of Hijras in Indian society.

Pinky Hijra comments “If a blind, deaf or any other physically disabled person has the privilege to enjoy the rights of citizenship like other normal citizens, then why should the Hijras be restricted in having it?”

Bangladesh is so far quite undeveloped in terms of recognising this third gender and giving them rights and an identity in society. But they are citizens of the country. There has been some attempt to draw attention to this issue in parliament, or to classify these people as 'physically handicapped' and give them voting rights. Canadian Researchers Sébastien Rist' and 'Aude Leroux-Lévesque comment “it will be very hard to change the perception in one day. Hijra communities across the world, even in the most liberal, open and developed nations still suffer from stigmatization. Countries like India have just recently taken the necessary steps to help better the lives of hijra by legalizing homosexuality. Likewise, Bangladesh must hope for a fair representation in the media.” They further add and emphasise the need to empower this community. “Hijras have capacities, we just need 'help them as we as find areas and venues in where they might be able to use them; i.e dancing, signing, art, handicrafts to name a few.”


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