Bangladesh: Radical change needed to ensure justice for hijra communities at all times

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, a transgender activist is fighting relentlessly to uphold the rights and dignities of gender-diverse populations living in the country. Maheen Khan reports.

This is the twenty-third in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

As we battle for the rights and protection of marginal communities, one of the most important obstacles to attaining victory is the requirement of radical, social change that challenges the cultural status quo. Societal values and norms that have been constructed through historical events, have to be constantly challenged in order to pave the way for a more equitable planet.

Definition of the transgender community

In South Asia, “hijras” are identified as a category of people who are assigned as male at birth but develop a feminine gender equity. It is estimated that the hijra community comprises a population in the range of 10,000 to 500,000 in Bangladesh. Joya Sikder is the President of “Somporker Noya Setu” (Bridging New Relationships), an organisation that works to advocate and ensure the rights of transgender people through institutional capacity building, networking and awareness.

Joya began her journey in 2010 with advocating for transgender rights, but was soon approached by individuals who constituted the overarching gender-diverse population. She worked with the Bengal Group to stage theatrical drama to express the discrimination, harrassment and struggles that are faced on a daily basis by transgender people.

It is important to note here the correct meanings associated to transgender people, intersex people and the hijra population. Transgender people are individuals who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, and would prefer to adopt a lifestyle that expresses their chosen gender. They may or may not permanently alter their physical characteristics. Intersex people are individuals who are born with reproductive anatomy that does not fall under the commonly held definitions of male or female. On the other hand, hijras are often perceived as a group of people who fall under both transgender and intersex population in south asia. In this article, the terms hijra and transgender will be used interchangebly.

According to Joya, “Truth be told, despite the government recognition of a third gender in Bangladesh, there is no official definition of a hijra. Hijra is a cultural term that has been traditionally used to refer to people who do not fall under the normative dual gender category.”

Transgenders in society

The government of Bangladesh announced the recognition of a third gender by publishing the following statement, “The Government of Bangladesh has recognised the Hijra community of Bangladesh as a Hijra sex,” on 26 January, 2014. This was considered a huge step towards ensuring human rights for the hijra community in Bangladesh. However, despite the laudable policy action, there were no clear guidelines on the qualifying characteristics of the third gender, which led to mass ambiguity regarding the understanding of hijras.

In addition, the community is deprived of property and marriage rights. “Hijra denotes a derogatory term in our society. We are not respected and our dignity is often threatened. The community is linked to crimes and is unable to access legal counsel. Under normal circumstances, we live very precariously. And COVID-19 made it worse for us.” Joya shares.

Hijras earn their livelihoods through a limited number of available options, as they are still socially not accepted in regular jobs. They usually get money from local shops, access food by asking from different households, are often summoned to perform rituals in ceremonies such as weddings and blessing a new-born baby by dancing and singing, and sex work.

Impacts of COVID-19 on livelihood

The lockdown meant one thing for the hijra community – all doors were closed to them. Shops and homes denied to help them as they were perceived as unclean and obvious virus carriers. There were no clients for sex workers. Hence, the limited sources available to these people for income had vanished.

The community was facing food security in addition to various other issues. Those who were not being able to pay for rent, were being evicted and told to leave all their possessions behind as compensation. They were turned away from receiving the relief that was distributed by the local government because people like them were apparently not included in the list of recipients.

“Members of the hijra community and those affiliated with my organisation called me and said that I was their only hope for survival during this trying time. They requested me to help them, like I did in the past. And, how could I not?” says Joya.

Gathering support for the community through whatever means possible

Joya reached out to her friends through social media (Facebook) and created awareness of the hardships that were befalling the Hijra community during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Friends from all over the world donated USD 5000 through a GoFundMe initiative that was started by a few individuals who came forward to create an immediate solution to help the hijra community. In the past, Joya had assisted several international academics with their research projects, who also sprang to action and donated a further USD 5000 collectively. A Bkash (mobile banking solution in Bangladesh) account was set up by Joya, where friends and supporters from within Bangladesh donated BDT 100,000.

Joya single-handedly organised, coordinated and distributed the funds to 650 transgender people in Dhaka during the months of March, April and June. She continues her efforts for the plight of her community till date.

Despite no record of the virus infection amongst the community, Joya fears that social stigma has prevented the transgender people from seeking medical attention. “Often, transgender people are denied treatments in hospitals. Also, I must mention that there is no separate ward for us. Those who don’t undergo anatomical alteration, but identify as a man or a woman despite opposing sexual organs, feel uncomfortable in wards that are only for women or men,” adds Joya.

“We are, most importantly, human beings and we deserve the right to be who we are. We deserve respect, suitable employment, and not only for temporary publicity of diversity for corporate companies’ own agenda. We also deserve social acceptance. Neither do we want to change who we are, nor do we want to conform to societal expectations of who we should be,” Joya concludes.

Interviewer’s Perspective

At the time of the interview in June, when COVID-19 was at its height of uncertainty, Joya was busy tending to the needs of her community. It goes without saying that her journey will be a long and arduous one, given the society we live in, which is yet to accept heterogeneity when it comes to gender. In my opinion, to fight for equality and justice, we need radical, social change in the way our society perceives and treats minorities and those who are different from us. We must strive to create a world where individuals like Joya Sikder and those in her community can access basic rights without having to choose between authenticity and succumbing to societal pressures.

It is remarkable to listen to marginal voices that are working to empower and enable their communities during a crisis like COVID-19, and to know that nothing can stop their determination to attain justice.

About the Interviewee

Joya Sikder is a transgender rights activist, and is the founder and, currently the President of Somporker Noya Setu (SNS), an organisation that works to ensure rights of members of the transgender and gender-diverse communities in Bangladesh through advocacy, mobilisation, sensitisation workshops and policy dialogues.

About the Interviewer

Maheen Khan is a communications and a circular design economy specialist. She was initially the coordinator for the Voices from the Frontline initiative, and later contributed as a writer and co-editor. Maheen is currently reading her MSc in Sustainability Science, Policy and Society in Maastricht University, in the Netherlands.

*On 12 November 2020, Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has announced that the third gender population must be equally assigned rights to property inheritance from their parents. However, property laws are gender-specific under both the muslim and hindu law, hence it is complicated to find a legal solution around the gender and property issue.

Read here (in Bangla):