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The Bangladeshi government recently granted a third gender status to the approximately 10,000 Hijras living in the country. Hijras are a broad community encompassing transgender men and women, eunuchs, transvestites, and hermaphrodites. Traditionally, Hijras held important societal roles in South Asian culture, particularly in ancient Hindu traditional. They are believed to bring good luck to newborn children. During the time of Muslim rule in the Indian subcontinent, they were used as body guards for royalty and holy buildings. Sadly, this is a far cry from the current social standing that they experience today.
The Hijra community often identifies itself as an alternative gender, rather than as transsexuals or homosexuals. Over the past few decades, Hijras have suffered persecution and ostracism from society and their families. While Bangladesh has passed legislation to protect Hijra’s rights, the government simultaneously continues to uphold laws that punish citizens for being homosexuals, with prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life. Though Hijras do not always identify as homosexuals, they are sometimes persecuted as such.
The new law does more than just give Hijras a third gender option to put on government issued IDs. Further benefits and opportunities include access to equal schooling, employment, and social programs. Third gender status also provides hope for reducing discrimination against Hijras. Social units in Bangladesh, like families, will often shun Hijras, leaving them to beg or find work as prostitutes. With the acknowledgment of citizenship and granting of civil rights for the Hijra community, this trend appears to have at last been challenged.
If these new legal advancements regarding the status of Hijras are upheld, they may offer hope that a more progressive human rights movement is possible in other Muslim dominated countries. As Shah Abdul Hannan noted, with reference to the Quran, “As long as Hijras are human...the objective of Shariah, which is to do justice to all humans, definitely applies to them.” Hannan even mentioned that if Hijras suffer from physical challenges, such as disabilities with sexual organs, they are granted special priveleges under Islamic law. It is reassuring that some within the Muslim-dominated country are open to the supporting of LGBT rights and directly cite religious text despite criticism from fundamentalists. In recent decades, hard-line Muslim leaders have routinely denied such progressive movements and, despite their presence in Bangladesh, it appears some steps are still being taken in an attempt to advance the rights of the Hijras.
The biggest push for protection and advocacy for the rights of Hijras and other LGBT communities is coming from two groups - The Bandhu Social Welfare Society and Boys of Bangladesh (BoB). They are the only organizations within the country that have managed to organize and advocate in face of societal discrimination. As Ahmed Shale of the Bandhu Social Welfare Society noted, “Sexuality is about freedom – that of dignity and equality.” His voice is a small, but important one in Bangladesh.
While many neighboring countries, particularly Thailand, are experiencing degrees of social unrest, some citizens are simultaneously mobilizing LGBT communities to voice their opinions against discriminative governments. Groups like Phuket Loves You (PLU) in Thailand and Desi Boys in India are pushing for LGBT equality in times of socio-political deamnds. Organizations like the Bandhu Society and BoB in Bangladesh are crucial for organizing the citizenry to address oppressive regulations and discrimination among the people, particularly those who are banished and abused like the LGBT communities.
Simply having the new and progressive legislation on paper is not enough. It is pivotal that the government now see through its promise to enforce the protection of the Hijras. The failure to do so could occur for two reasons, as Nazmus Sakib Nirjhor notes-- either governance failure or the continuation of the cultural and social stigma in Bangladesh. The exiting government could lead the way to a more liberalized one, signaling hope for continued protection of LGBT communities.
In neighboring India, Hijras gained third gender options on government documents in 2009. However, they still are unable to attain driving licenses or receive many benefits from government social programs. Similar to Bangladeshi culture, Indian society often banishes Hijras, resulting in a lack of education and thus limited job opportunities, as noted by the United Nations Development Program. India is a clear case of a government producing progressive legislation yet falling short in the implementation and continuous push for equality among the LGBT community. This trend is one Hijras in Bangladesh hope to avoid.
At the same time, in Pakistan, Hijras also have been granted third gender options on government documents. Similar to India, though, they face persecution by conservative elements and, at times, police officers. Conservative Muslims within the country view Hijras as sinful, although some themselves are Muslim. Many Hijras note that they are not homosexual, instead identifying as a gender opposite of the one they were born into. While conservatives view this standpoint as morally wrong, many Hijras note that they, too, wish to obey God and his laws, despite their opposition suggesting otherwise.
The traditional social stigma against Hijras is the biggest hurdle in the group’s acceptance into mainstream Bengali society and overarching South Asian culture. Real societal change occurs over a long span of time – much longer than the rule of any elected government. With a long history of ostracizing, abuse, and denial of civil rights, Hijras appear to have a long road ahead of them. Despite these challenges, the Bengali government has taken small steps towards fostering a culture of equality and fairness. By utilizing support groups like the Bandhu Society and BoB, along with the continuation of progressive government policies after the departure of the current administration, these long-persecuted citizens of Bangladesh may someday soon experience full equality.
Patrick Balbierz is a graduate student at Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations.
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