Things that make you to Think

Third gender, a non-mainstream community

A community in the shadows

Photos by Abid Azad

What is usually the first image that comes to our mind about the Hijras? It is almost sure that it is about people with confused gender asking for money and displaying different behavioural pattern or even misbehaving with people if anyone refuses to fulfil their financial demand. It is just a first sight image of most of the people but it is sure too that the history of Hijra is largely unknown to all.

It is definitely much easier for parents to identify the sex of a newborn baby but what will parents do if they find anything different? This is really a very tough question for parents when they find their offspring bearing symptoms of both sex or are simply confusing. Are they male or female? Brother or sister? Sir or Madam? He or She? Still there is no specific or universal or special word or taxonomy in the world to identify those human beings who are neither men nor women. These people lacking definite sex identities are generally termed as hermaphrodite or third gender/sex in English. Besides these, in Bengali they are commonly known as Hijra, Chhokka in Hindi, Khusre in Panjabi, Khunsa in Arbi, Ali in Tamil, Banjaro in Rajsthan etc in the South Asia region.

It is the reality that they are not honoured as human beings; rather are sometimes treated as worst animals.  People underestimate them, hate and assault them as if people with indistinct sex are the curse of God. Being a Hijra in our society is a very painful reality – one of being labelled as ‘different’ and always struggling with their psychological agony and dilemma.

However, from the beginning of their birth with such identity crisis, they are struggling with their psychological agony which later more twisted by social deprivation, political tyranny, economical dispossession and cultural rejection in the course of time while country to country their religion is also seen influenced by the majority. Such depressing, discriminations and diverse situations make them united as a ‘different’ community from which they attain their own different society, economic system, law and regulations, culture and psychology for their survival.

A psychologist from the Dhaka University (DU) says, “It is a colossal psychological problem pertaining to from which gender point of view they think: while a male looks at the problem from a masculine point of view and a female sees it from her feminine one.”

The lifestyle of Hijra community is much worse in Bangladesh compared to that in India and Pakistan; because, higher courts in both the countries ordered for protecting this community while they are still deprived of citizen rights and social acceptance in this country. Experts believe that lack of proper awareness about this community is the main reason behind their sufferings and miseries.

‘Even an animal has a specific identity but, despite being human beings, we are considered as much inferior to them only because of the freak of nature’, says Kushum, a Hijra from the Moghbazar area where some members of the Hijra community have been living since long with no house of their own.

Unfortunately this community lives almost in complete isolation from the mainstream population and as such its history, rituals, tradition, language and social relationship among themselves are totally unknown to the majority of the people.

Struggles for survival of these people start right from early childhood in their own families. Many of them joined this community at 8 to 16 years of age, they informed.

Rajani (not her real name) says, “When I came to know that I am neither a male nor a female, it raised many questions in my mind as to who I am. I never found any mental support from my parents who gave birth to me; rather I started thinking myself as cursed”, she added.

In Bangladesh they are not provided with employment opportunities alongside the mainstream people only because they do not have proper identity; even they are not listed as voters due to confusing gender. Moreover, the authorities have no accurate statistics about the hijra community members as they have not been covered by the Census 2011.

Many hijras said that they had to fill up the ‘sex’ column in the census sheet as being both male and female.

Hijras are hardly found in any job sector in Bangladesh. It is learnt from them that many of them were somehow able to enter jobs in different sectors but due to people’s teasing, misbehaviour and social discrimination they were forced to quit jobs.

An anthropologist from Jahangirnagar University says, “The hijra community is being deprived of basic rights at every step of their life compared to the indigenous people in Bangladesh. They could not get any kind of human rights from anywhere.”

What medical science says?

Dr. Mizanur Rahman, an associate professor of Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) says, “Such biological factors are more complex than the typical one.” However, it still could not be ascertained which genetic factor is responsible for this abnormality. It is learnt from experts that a child is born mainly through five biological processes namely external sex, internal sex, Gonadal sex (male gonad and female gonad), chromosomal sex and hormonal sex. According to urologists, if normal interaction among these factors is disrupted the child may be a hermaphrodite. They are termed as true or born hermaphrodite. In such cases, the hermaphrodites get both male and female sexual organs but with no well developed shape; some of them may have no sexual organs at all but a narrow perforation for urinating. As their organs are not fully developed, they become sexually incapable and unproductive. Four types of masquerade hermaphrodites are found in our society namely Akua (Eonism, Transexualism), Jenana, Chhibri and Chhinni (Eunuch).

However, the number of true hermaphrodites around the country is very small.

Socio-economic barrier

This community, however, is also ignored by the state, for which they themselves have to take care of their own safety and earn livelihood in their own way. Thus they need to live jointly and move together. “We could not go far from our community due to security problem”, says Kushum, another member of the community.

Even if they wish to visit their families they need to dress up either as male or female just to conceal their identities.

Some NGOs are working on them but they do not have any dependable statistics about this community around the country. Some members of the hijra community claimed that around 4,000 hijras live in Dhaka division. Meanwhile, some newspapers, experts say their number is estimated to be ranging from 25,000 to more than a million.

“We are so separated from the society that it does not need us. Many reporters came to us but what has been done for us? Nothing at all. Many of you now are using us in television programme for entertainment and we accept it for the sake of earning money” this is how a Guru Ma who is considered as the mentor, guardian and leader of the community says to this reporter. Every group of this community is led by Guru Ma who guides new Chelas or followers in accordance with their community norms and life style.

“We are like animals in a zoo, where you come for entertainment. I think, you people should keep us in a zoo, you will come and we will entertain you” she added and left declining to say anything more.

A teacher of DU Woman and Gender Department said, “In our social structure we are used to think only about two genders – male or female. But we always skip that there exists another gender featured human beings. It is for this failure of the society to think about them that hijras are deprived of all legitimate rights.”

NGO’s activities

Some NGO organisations are working on hijra community in Bangladesh but experts and sociologists opine that the activities of these organisations would not be able to remove the sufferings of this community until social awareness is developed.

Bellal Hossain, an assistant professor of DU says, “The main target of these organisations is to prevent HIV/AIDS rather than to socialise the hijras. They do not work on the community to make them socially recognised and reduce their economic vulnerability.”

“Actually the activities of NGO are conflicting and confusing. They are using the hijra community in order to get fund in the name of HIV/AIDS prevention but the fact is that nothing has been done to improve the lot of the hijras” says Bellal.

How they are

It is found that members of this community belong to a different society where they have formulated their own laws, economic system, culture and rituals. While talking to several hijras, it was found that they prefer to portray themselves as and behave like women though they are aware of the fact that their appearance and behaviour are basically different from those of the mainstream women.

Bellal Hossain says, “The reason behind such appearance is perhaps the need for their survival. With such appearance they attract people just to earn money. Again, as they are involved in prostitution, they would not be able to attract clients if do not take female appearance.”

Most of them are Muslims while there are some Hindu hijras also. Some hijras from the city said to this reporter, “Many of us are being converted to Islam due to predominance of Muslim hijras around us but in areas inhabited by Hindus you will find some Hindu hijras.”

“All of us abide by our respective religious instructions. Those who are Muslims maintain their regular prayer including recitation from the holy Quran, while Hindus follow their religious rituals properly by attending services in temples and saying prayer” they add.

In Bangladesh, most of the hijra community members observe their traditional religious festival during the Hijri month of Rajab dedicating to Hazrat Khaja Mainuddin Chishti.

“We are all devotees of Chishti. On this occasion, all hijras across the country observe the day with great solemnity while many mainstream people also join us” says Shopna Hijra from Moghbazaar in Dhaka.

Unfortunately, “We cannot go to mosques as people think that it will be a sin to let us enter mosques” she adds.

On the other hand, the senior members among them suffer the most because they cannot take part in money collection or prostitution. They have nothing to do other than waiting for a call from the after world. Sometimes, even after death, the leaders of the respective religion denied performing their funeral rites.

It has already been mentioned that a group is led by a Guru Ma who controls her own territory while the chelas collect alms as they call it ‘Bazaar tola’ from every shop and bazaar under Guru ma’s area and divide the money among them in two different ways. First, Guru Ma is given the half of the entire collection while the chelas share the rest of the amount equally. Second, Guru Ma divides her entire area into two divisions between her and her chelas. Thus, chelas will get amount from their area and Guru Ma will get from hers. But the collection is conducted by the chelas. Besides these, another earning source is by singing and dancing for the newlyweds or the newborn babies.

The chelas never do anything without their leaders’ permission – wherever they move, what they do, or how they do is fixed by the Guru Ma.

The entire community maintains their rules and regulations strictly and if anyone breaks the laws, Guru Ma then sets a court and award punishment. Sometimes, in some exceptional cases, several Guru Mas from different areas sit together to mutual any conflict among them.

“In India they have good demand as they sing and dance for new couples and newborn babies. But in Bangladesh sometimes people refuse to pay, for which we forcefully get our due from them because without this we cannot survive.”

“Now in our country people are not interested to pay us for our performances. They consider us as annoyance and think our singing and dancing will bring curse upon the newlyweds or the babies” they add.

Dhol is a very important and honourable part of their life. It is a tradition that before moving out for collection they honour their Dhol by singing and dancing. It is seen in their residence that the A Dhol is hanged at a special point on the wall.

On the other hand, the hijra community claps in a mysterious way which sounds differently. All new comers to this community are trained in such claps, use of Dhol and other rituals and traditions.

It is found by this reporter that, the hijra community sometimes adopts orphan children and takes care of them until the latter ones become self-supporting.

The hijra community uses among them the ‘Ulti’ language which means symbolic language or ‘Arakan’ language. They use it outside and in front of outsiders.

Many questions regarding their identity, education, rehabilitation and economic upbringing, medical facilities and human rights are yet to be answered as no research work has been done. Experts think, “In our social structure we can think only about man and woman. In broader sense, we treat human beings only under two broad gender divides. It is for this wrong or partial concept that this third gender is always in darkness in every society and out of social mind and rights.”

“I think, it is really good that our Constitution considers all human beings, including the hijras, as equal but what is more important is to implement the article 28 (1) and raise social awareness. If there is a separate quota for them then it will be easier to implement the relevant provisions of the Constitution,” Bellal Hossain concludes.

The article was published @ Morning Tea, a weekend magazine of Daily Sun

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