Third gender: In search of recognition
‘Boy or girl?’ tends to be the first question asked when a baby is born. And a cursory look at the genitals usually provides the answer. But it is not that simple. Hidden gender or the third gender, known as Hermaphrodite or eunuch (hijra) is something one would laugh when talked about. This is something almost everyone will do but not many of us will take the pain to sit back and think that the topic we are laughing at are human beings like us.
People with this hidden gender are mostly overlooked at each and every step of human rights. Nor the society and neither their families are ready to accept them. Hijras in Bangladesh have virtually no safe space, where they are protected from prejudice and abuse. The prejudice is translated into violence, often of a brutal nature in public places, police stations, prisons and even their homes. One of the main factors behind the violence is that the society is not being able to come to terms with the fact that hijras do not conform to the accepted gender divisions. And in addition to this, most of them have a lower and lower middle-class background, which makes them susceptible to harassment by police. There are hijras of upper class as well, but with the power of money they are able to go for proper treatments and survive in the society. The discrimination based on their class and gender makes their community one of the most helpless groups of our society.
Hijras are unique forms of gender. Some are hijra by nature and some are pretenders. They can be categorised as follows:
1) Individuals who are born with sexual deformity (hermaphrodite or intersexed) are known as Khusra (a genuine hijra). This is an identity which hijras strongly portrait.
2) Then we have cross-dresser or transgender, who love to identify them as hijra. Cross-dresser is called Jananay and those castered are called Narban. They are also taken equivalent to Khusra; after attaining asexuality through castration claim that female soul is enclosed in their bodies since birth. This prompts them to behave like women.
3) Then it’s the homosexuals and the bisexuals (only men) who are also known as hijras. Some of them love dressing up like females. But there are some as well who dress up normally, not exposing themselves to society.
It may be mentioned that it is only the fist category, which are genuine hijras. The latter two categories are essentially pretenders. In fact, all hijras are not homosexuals and vice versa. Men involved in sex business and homosexuals tend to join Hijra community, in order to provide cover for their sexual acts and remain disguised in the society. They cross dress and hence are categorized as Jananay too.
Hijras in our country are not given their deserved rights. They are being restricted from enjoying and practicing rights, which other citizens are allowed to practice and enjoy. 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 and/or women. Hijras are left with no choice they are to identify themselves as either male or female in those documents. As a result, hijras do not enjoy equal rights to vote, marry, own a passport or a driving licence, claim employment or get health care.
When A.K.M Nurul Islam was the Chief Election Commissioner (1977-1985), a step was taken to allow the hijras to vote but as a Male. Later In the year 2000, when the voters’ list was in process many members of the national and foreign hijra community did contact the election commission to request for allowing them to vote as Hijra. In reply to which the commission did console them that the hijras” will be allowed to vote in the gender they feel comfort to be”. But till now no work is done on it.
In absence of proper recognition, Hijras are not being able to find themselves a suitable job. Earlier, the Hijras used to sing and dance when a new baby was born. This was one of their major earning sources. However due to lack of social awareness about the hijras, these things are now stopped. Hence the Hijras are losing livelihood in an increasing rate. As an alternative, the Hijras are choosing the option of being sex worker. One of the problems that arose, as a result of getting into this profession, is lack of security. Everyone around them, starting from police, common people, hooligans etc, is torturing them, both physically and mentally. They have nowhere or no one to go and ask for help.
Now-a-days there are some NGOs who are working for the Hijras. For example: Badhon Hijra Shongho, Shocheton Shilpi Shongho (SSS), Social Advancement Society. Apart from these, there are some NGOs who too worked a bit for hijras, but their main aim was health issue of HIV/AIDS and Gays. But only these numbers of NGO are not enough to take care of the Hijra community of Bangladesh. The cooperation of our govrnment is also required along that of the private individuals. The government needs to work harder to create awareness among the common people of Bangladesh.
We all need to appreciate that the hermaphrodites are not curse of nature. The Hijras do not have any other defaults other than only one. 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? Hijras must be suffering from psychological problems or genuine handicap, beyond their control. We should understand them and abridge the prevailing state of doubts and mistrust. This will help in solving the psychological and financial problems of Hijras and make their life comfortable and productive for the society at large. Above all, Hijras should enjoy proper recognition not as man or woman but as human being with a third gender.
The author is the Law Programme Officer of LawDev (Bangladesh) a law and development policy research institute.
Law Programme Officer
LawDev (Bangladesh) a law and development policy research institute.