The need to understand gender as a spectrum must include non-Western identities and a move towards decolonising queerness. Ibtisam Ahmed explores the history of the Hijra community in Bangladesh.
Ways of exploring and experiencing queerness are extremely diverse, and this is being accepted by a growing number of people in recent years. It is an encouraging development but it still carries its pitfalls. One of the biggest challenges that is still being faced is a false equivalence of conceptualising all types of genders and sexualities through a strictly Western lens. In particular, there is often a misconception in cisgender activist circles of misunderstanding non-Western third gender identities.
In Bangladesh, the third gender identity is known as Hijra. The community is an indelible part of not only queer culture but of the national social fabric. Centuries before Bangladesh was even conceived as a modern nation state, and even before the advent of colonialism and its associated impacts on defining queerness in the region, the Hijra community played a key element in local communities. Many different sources have made note of the role they have played in aspects of religion, land ownership and as gatekeepers of female institutions (ranging from boarding houses to brothels).
It is unfair to try and explain Hijra using English LGBTQ+ terminology. Broadly speaking, they are individuals who identify outside the gender binary but typically present as female (in almost all cases wearing saris or similar local garments). They include people who are intersex or were assigned male at birth before self-identifying as Hijra, but rarely include people who were assigned female at birth. They mostly live in segregated housing communes and, for decades, were entrusted with raising any unwanted intersex children in a safe environment. All communes have a Hijra “mother”, an elder matriarch who is responsible for the group’s welfare.
In particular, there is often a misconception in cisgender activist circles of misunderstanding non-Western third gender identities.
When the British Empire began to consolidate its control over the Indian Subcontinent, consisting of modern-day India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as parts of Myanmar, the Hijra community was caught up in an oppressive top-down model of enforced social reform. All forms of non-cisheteronormative interactions were either outlawed through legislation and policy, or made an undesirable “Other” through propaganda. Sodomy and homosexuality were banned outright, helped by a lack of definitive labels used for them pre-Empire. Since their criminalisation in 1860, the region has grown to become one of the most homophobic in the world.
Hijra were harder to eradicate, largely due to their visible presence and clear definition. Since they were already a part of local society, they could not be completely removed. They were also not just in Bengal (modern-day Bangladesh and some bordering Indian states, including West Bengal); look through the Subcontinent and it is easy to find narratives of Hijra across the territory. At the same time, due to their segregation, it was possible to demonise them. This was aided by the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act, which included Hijra as a group that was inherently “immoral and corrupt”.
It is unfair to try and explain Hijra using English LGBTQ+ terminology. Broadly speaking, they are individuals who identify outside the gender binary but typically present as female
In the years since 1947 (the end of colonial rule) and 1971 (the year of Bangladeshi independence), Hijra have developed a difficult balance. On the one hand, their historical legitimacy has allowed them to carry on as a recognised group, often at the forefront of LGBTQ+ activism and as a tolerated, if not accepted, part of mainstream society. On the other hand, their visible queerness has made them a target of discrimination often avoided, comparatively speaking, by closeted sexual minorities, and they have had to resort to sex work or begging to earn money.
A milestone in Hijra emancipation was a 2010 Bangladeshi Government ruling that legally recognised the community as a separate third gender, which not only constitutionally embedded their rights and protections but was also an implicit reversal of the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act. Since then, public sector jobs such as the police, the civil service, and public hospitals have initiated legitimate but usually underfunded initiatives to hire Hijra personnel. In 2014, Dhaka saw the country’s first ever Hijra Pride, a protest and celebration march that was aimed at community engagement and education, with many Hijra visiting local schools to talk about their identities and life experiences.
The recent upward trajectory should definitely be praised, but it should not give way to false complacency. Many Hijra have pointed out that they continue to be harassed and subjected to humiliating sex determination tests when applying for paperwork like birth certificates or passports, both of which should theoretically include the third gender option since 2010. The upsurge of anti-queer violence, which peaked with the murder of two LGBTQ+ activists in 2016 (one of whom was non-binary but not explicitly Hijra) has also affected the community, with many forced underground.
Complicating matters further has been a conflation of Hijra with transgender rights outside of South Asia. Though Hijra may be understood as trans due to their rejection of the gender they were assigned at birth, equating the two is a massive disservice to both communities. Importantly, trans men and women exist in Bangladesh, and assuming that transness and Hijra are the same thing is a rejection of agency and self-determination that needs to be at the heart of any queer liberation movement, especially any that claims global solidarity.
Hijra have been a fundamental part of the Bangladesh queer community. In order to fully intersectional approach to greater rights, it is imperative to recognise their role in the community. In particular, privileged cisgender queer individuals in Bangladesh need to step up and pay our dues. It is time we gave back the support the Hijra community has given us from day one.
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