Shahnoor Rabbani and Rainer Ebert

Masud: “I am a woman”

September 16, 2013
Photo: Hassan Bipul

Photo: Hassan Bipul

For better or for worse, people think in boxes. They have boxes for things, and they have boxes for people: Bengali, westerner, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, Asian, White, Black… Curiously, one pair of boxes seems to play a particularly important role in people’s lives: Think about it… What was the first-ever question that anybody has asked about you? Likely, the answer is: “Is it a boy or a girl?” And, likely, that question was asked before you were even born. But does it really matter whether you are a man or a woman? And should it matter?

A day after being sentenced to serve 35 years in federal prison for leaking classified information, the United States Army soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning ignited a media firestorm by announcing that she considers herself a female and wants to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. “I want everyone to know the real me,” the 25-year-old said in a statement. “I am Chelsea Manning.”

Manning is a transgender person. According to the American Psychological Association, “transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behaviour does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else; gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behaviour, clothing, hairstyles, voice, or body characteristics.” Note that transgender people may or may not have a desire to alter their bodies hormonally or surgically, and that Manning hence only represents part of a wide spectrum.

Manning is not “pretending to be a woman,” or merely “acting as if she was a woman.” Rather, being a woman is an integral part of her identity. We respect that, as we believe everybody should, and hence refer to the soldier using the female pronoun. Being recognised as who we are is important, for our well-being, and for our self-esteem; just as it is important that we feel at home in our own skin.

If you are not a transgender person yourself, and if you are a woman, imagine you wake up one morning and have a male body: a body with male chromosomes, male genitals, and so on; if you are a man, imagine you wake up and have a female body. Imagine going through your daily routine in that body. Imagine going to school, university, or work. Imagine hanging out with your friends. Imagine having sex. Imagine having an organ between your legs that you feel does not belong there. Imagine the change in your body hair, skin and fat distribution. Imagine you had to spend the rest of your life in that body. How would you feel? Do you understand why Chelsea is seeking hormone treatment, why she is trying to get her body more in line with her mind?

bradley_chelsea_manningNobody knows how many transgender people there are, but we do know that there are transgender people in every community. Some are Muslims, some are Hindus, and some are atheists. Some are poor, and some are rich. Some hold doctorates, and some are illiterate. Some are Bangladeshis.

Masud (not her real name) lives in a small town in Bangladesh, located a few hours’ drive from Dhaka. Like Manning, Masud is a biological male who identifies as a female, in short: a transgender woman. Unlike Manning, Masud never talked about her gender identity in public and still uses the male first name her parents gave to her shortly after she was born, the same name that is on her National Identity Card, her school certificate and her Facebook profile.

“From a very early age, I realised that the body I was in just did not feel right. I did not have similar interests like the boys, such as in sports and outdoor activities. I realised that I did not talk or walk like the other boys and, as a result, would often get teased by many of my classmates and even random people on the street,” she says.

Even though Masud learned to cope with her predicament and the vices and difficulties that society would put upon her, she has always had a strong desire to express her gender identity. “I wanted to have long hair like the girls did, and I felt like I didn’t belong in this body!”

It took Masud many years to find her true self, and there was a time when she thought she was gay. “I didn’t feel attracted towards girls, but rather guys,” she recalls. Only later she started to identify as a straight woman. She becomes visibly angered, her voice shaking, when she talks about her past relationships with men who had given her “false hope, only to turn their backs when I wanted something more serious and meaningful.”

Masud has yet to tell her parents about her gender identity, but she realises that they “sense I am a little different. And they have come to terms with it.” She does understand that society is mostly to blame for what she is going through, and her biggest gripe is with how people generally perceive her as someone who is “mentally ill.” To be clear, that perception is wrong. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – often called the psychiatrist’s bible and widely used among Bangladeshi mental health professionals – does not list being transgender as a mental disorder.

“As I grew older, I did come to terms that this was not any illness, and that I was perfectly normal. But I had moments where I wanted to give up, after numerous failed relationships with men. I did contemplate committing suicide a couple of times,” she reveals.

Masud’s struggle and despair should be no surprise. In Bangladesh, as in many other places, both society and the state have little regard for the rights of transgender people. They consequently face discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives, resulting not only in material disadvantages, but also in a significant amount of psychological stress. Transgender people who are open about their gender identity often find it hard – if not impossible – to find housing, or a decent job. They do not get admitted to schools or universities. They are ostracised by their families. And they have limited access to legal services and adequate health care. According to the Sexual Rights Initiative, there is no legal stance on sex reassignment surgery in Bangladesh. Nor is there any medical establishment providing for the needs of transgender people. Clearly, Bangladesh has a long way to go, and so do many, many other countries for that matter, including those in the West.

Being transgender is just another way of being human, and transgender people deserve to be treated accordingly: as human beings with rights and dignity like you and us. Giving people the respect they deserve is the moral and decent thing to do, and that is not too much to ask for. Is it?

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Shahnoor Rabbani is a sub-editor at Dhaka Tribune, a freelance writer and a sports analyst at Radio Shadhin. Rainer Ebert is a graduate student of philosophy at Rice University, a founding member of the Bangladesh Liberal Forum, and an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

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57 Responses to “ Masud: “I am a woman” ”

  1. Alan Northover on September 18, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Personally I don’t understand the attraction of being transgender, but I won’t condemn those that are attracted to it. Besides, gender is an arbitrary social construct, and I suspect that “straight” people don’t like to have the arbitrariness of gender revealed to them. Perhaps the transgendered are doing us a favour, then, helping us on the path to self-knowledge.

    • Riaz Osmani on September 19, 2013 at 1:19 am

      Are you saying that transgender people are that way out of some cheap thrill of being different? Please read the above article more carefully.

  2. afsan chy on September 18, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    “I don’t think people are naturally intolerant.” Rainer Ebert

    I have been studying roots of social behaviour and evolutionary psychology for a while which says that we have many protective feelings/ elements in our brains that are hard wired. Our prejudices find a ready response because the brain is trained for thousands of years. It’s not the prejudice that matters but the brain that triggers response to perceived threats. Why would we behave that way unless the brain signals that we are under a threat from an attack by those who are not part of the food sharing cluster? Intolerance is a defense mechanism and it’s only when we learn to battle it with the learning of the food surplus societies that we can we end it.

    “Social needs? Survival? It can be argued that gays and lesbians and perhaps transgender people are not required for survival or procreation and hence have no social need. This is a dangerous argument.” Riaz Osman.

    Why should it be a dangerous argument if its factual? gays are born and not made and don’t actually fit into the principal objective of evolution which is continuation of the species. Gays can’t procreate so they are evolutionary wise irrelevant. This is not a new argument. They may have use but it has not been stated yet.

    But LGBTQ rights are another matter and everyone has rights but that is not the point. The concept of rights is a very late entry and the source of that is also survival of the species. Groups and individuals fighting over food and women need to accept each other and draw lines so that both can survive. Games theory has also done much work to explain the sources of rights and morality.

    The idea that we are all ready to be become good people is wrong and spreading such an idea is wrong too. We respond to threat and opportunities and everything we do fits into that. The love of a mother for a child is necessary for a child to survive. Maternal love is also an evolutionary tool.

    Society needs to learn about many threats and not one in isolation. Stronger a society, more tolerant it is but no society grants equal rights to the marginalized. They chose the group they wish to favour. Thanks.

    • Riaz Osmani on September 19, 2013 at 1:30 am

      While responses to perceived threats from “an attack by those who are not part of the food sharing cluster” are hard wired in the brain through evolution, prejudice towards members of the same cluster because of difference in skin colour or sexuality are not. That is why very young children of different races do not show prejudice towards each other. Prejudice is something they learn from adults as they grow up.

      The objective of evolution is not only the continuation of species but also population control. Having a certain percentage of the human population being born gay, nature has its way of keeping a tab on the size. What I was saying was that making the argument that gays and lesbians do not procreate and thus have no social need is a dangerous one because procreation is not the only purpose of evolution.

      • afsan chy on September 19, 2013 at 9:58 pm

        The only purpose of evolution is continuation is procreation. If you have found any scientific material do please refer.

        Intolerance is universal though what we are intolerant of will vary. Small children show enormous hostility towards each other and once they are aware of their social, physical and territorial sense, they will become intolerant. There are endless studies to support this. We learn specific objects of intolerance from our families and clan groups but hatred, hostility etc are essential part of our survival mechanism.

  3. Th on September 17, 2013 at 11:30 pm

    I am so scared of them.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 4:01 am

      Maybe your being scared of transgender people has more to do with your personal prejudices than with them being scary. Find a transgender friend and talk to him or her. You’ll learn that transgender people are human beings like you and me, and not scary at all.

    • Riaz Osmani on September 18, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      Comes from understandable ignorance.

  4. tokon on September 17, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    one day i was coming out of a market place and a group of hijras surrounded me, demanding money. they were teasing me, calling me names, threatening me even. and everyone else was looking at us and smiling while i was almost in tears. if i ever have nightmares, that will be of hijras. they are the monsters that mother tell their children about in bedtime stories.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 4:10 am

      You really shouldn’t generalize like that, Tokon. It’s unfair toward hijras who are hard-working, law-abiding, polite and friendly people who are in no way responsible for the experience you are describing in your comment. Hijras in general are not scary, and certainly not monsters.

  5. PP on September 17, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    write another piece on hijras. please.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 4:00 am

      Thanks for your suggestion. I’ll think about it. Hijras are certainly an important topic in Bangladesh.

      • Rezwana karim Snigdha on October 25, 2013 at 12:35 am

        Dear Rainer,
        yes they (Hijras) are became an important issues in Bangladesh but unfortunately they becoming a new target group in Development Discourse as u know once upon a time the women were samey treated. Beside these there are very lack of knowledge about them even if the government and ngos as well.

        I have a strong interest to work for them as i am a faculty in Anthropology but i find you very interesting, someone whom i can talk academically….

  6. how is it on September 17, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    we need to learn more about these people and they need to learn more on how to try to mingle with general people.

  7. bhito on September 17, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    They are unusual, abnormal and scary.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:58 am

      Maybe your being scared of transgender people has more to do with your personal prejudices than with them being scary. Find a transgender friend and talk to him or her. You’ll find out that transgender people are normal human beings like you and me.

  8. bulbul on September 17, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    I don’t know if transgender and hijra are same. but nevertheless, they are scary. and they like to (mis)utilize this and taunt people and scare them. They take money from others and the way the do that is very scary. to demand rights and respect, they too need to show respect to others.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:50 am

      You shouldn’t generalize like that, Bulbul. It’s unfair toward hijras who are hard-working, law-abiding, polite and friendly people.

      Transgender and hijra are two distinct concepts. Please read my response to Amina Ahsan.

  9. Erfan on September 17, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    I really feel sorry for transgender people and the danger and insecurity they face. Why have the government neglected them so far? These people can be as productive as any one else. Why do we not utilize that?

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:48 am

      That’s an excellent question, Erfan. You should ask your MP.

  10. Rashed on September 17, 2013 at 11:15 pm

    I have a question. Why do Hijra people scare others and demand money from others? They are not physically handicapped. They are not beggars. Why can’t they work? But most importantly whenever we think about hijra, all we can think about is how they scare people. Why is that?

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:46 am

      You shouldn’t generalize like that. It’s unfair toward hijras who are hard-working, law-abiding, polite and friendly people. As for your question why many hijras and transgender people don’t have typical jobs, that has more to do with social prejudice and discriminatory laws than with them.

    • Riaz Osmani on September 18, 2013 at 12:56 pm

      Why can’t they work? Because most places will not employ them out of prejudice. Simple. Most landlords will not rent them space. And you still wonder why they they demand money to live?

  11. zinia on September 17, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    Are transgender and hijra people allowed to vote?

  12. Nirbikar on September 17, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    Thank you so much for this article. It’s about time someone spoke for these people as no one seems to care.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:34 am

      Thank you, Nirbikar. We are glad you like our article.

  13. Rayhan on September 17, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    I would request the writers to write another piece precisely on Hijras. Only knowledge and awareness can remove the fear, loathing and misunderstanding in people towards the Hijras.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:33 am

      I agree, Rayhan. As Nelson Mandela once said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Thanks for your suggestion!

  14. Toukir on September 17, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    I feel so sad for these people.

  15. sen on September 17, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    Why isn’t there operation facilities for sex change in Bangladesh? We are such inhuman that we don’t even acknowledge their medical rights!

  16. chowdhury on September 17, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    Can transgender people give birth to children?

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:31 am

      Some transgender people can give birth to children, some cannot. Please read my response to Amina Ahsan, in which I list a number of different transgender identities.

  17. cant on September 17, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    What is the difference between transgender and hijra people?

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:29 am

      Please read my response to Amina Ahsan.

  18. Shamima Akhter on September 17, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    Can anyone tell me why parents discard transgender and hijra people? I don’t think any other unusualness in a child is treated like this by one’s own mother and father. Parents accept mentally challenged child, deaf-mute-blind child, physically handicapped child and even gay child. But why not transgender or hijra child? I have been searching for a long time to find an answer to it. Can anyone shed some light?

  19. Habiba Nahar on September 17, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    I have all my sympathy for Masud. I can imagine how difficult his life must have been.

  20. Bangali on September 17, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    I want to know if transgender people are the same as hijras.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:25 am

      No, they are two distinct concepts. Please read my response to Amina Ahsan.

  21. Nihar N on September 17, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    Of course they are human beings and must be treated with rights and respect.

  22. Tushar on September 17, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    I don’t think people mistreat transgender people as much as they hate gay people. Transgender people are just treated differently that’s all.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:14 am

      I don’t know which group experiences most discrimination and mistreatment, but I think it is clear that gay, lesbian, bisexual as well as transgender people generally don’t receive the respect they deserve, and that that needs to change. Transgender people are not only treated differently, but often also in an unequal manner. This inequality I think is both wrong and unjust.

    • Riaz Osmani on September 18, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      It is true that transgender people don’t receive as much hate in Bangladesh as gays and lesbians. This is because of such people being mentioned somewhere in Islam which have given the perception that God created them that way and thus must not be harmed. This does not extend to gays and lesbians however. But even though transgender people face less hate, they still face similar prejudices out of ignorance and fear.

  23. Kayes Ali on September 17, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    People here see transgender people in somewhat fearful manner. Where does this fear stems from is a mystery but people in general are indeed scared of them.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:03 am

      Sometimes, people fear what they don’t know or understand. I guess that’s part of human nature. Fortunately, in cases where ignorance is the root of fear, there is a straightforward solution: Education!

  24. Amina Ahsan on September 17, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    What’s the difference between transgender and hijra? Is there any difference at all? Or they same?

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 3:22 am

      Thank you for this important question, Amina!

      According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behaviour does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” This definition arguably includes

      * people who identify as a member of the sex opposite to that assigned at birth, and desire to live and be accepted as such (”transsexual”),
      * people who identify their gender as falling outside the binary constructs of “male” and “female” (”genderqueer”),
      * people who wear clothing that is traditionally or stereotypically worn by another gender in their culture (”transvestite”/”cross-dresser”),
      * people who feel they exhibit two or more genders (”bigender”/”multigender”),
      * androgynous, gender nonconforming, third gender, and two-spirit people,
      * and some, but not all, intersex people (see below).

      “A variety of conditions that lead to atypical development of physical sex characteristics are collectively referred to as intersex conditions. These conditions can involve abnormalities of the external genitals, internal reproductive organs, sex chromosomes, or sex-related hormones.” (APA) Intersex people are not necessarily transgender, as the gender identity, gender expression, and behaviour of some intersex people conforms to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.

      It is important to note that gender identity and sexual orientation are two distinct concepts. Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual.

      As far as I know, there is no generally accepted definition of the term “hijra,” so what I say in the following is controversial.

      Most hijras were born with the physical sex characteristics of a typical biological male. All other hijras, the minority within the hijra community, are intersex people. Hijras often identify neither as men nor as women (”third gender”), adopt feminine gender roles, and/or wear women’s clothing. Given the definition above, almost all hijras are transgender people. The possible exception, I guess, are intersex hijras whose gender identity, gender expression, and behaviour conforms to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Not all transgender people are hijras. A transsexual man, for example, who is assigned female at birth, but identifies as male, is not a hijra. Many hijras live in well-defined and organized hijra communities.

      • Riaz Osmani on September 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm

        Thanks a lot Rainer. This will take me some time to grasp :o )

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 4:04 am

      It’s not important but, for the sake of completeness, I should say that Masud does not identify as a hijra.

  25. afsan chy on September 17, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    People are naturally intolerant and the first thing we need to accept is that. Which is why laws must exist to protect the minorities and the vulnerable from it. The state and societies also don’t behave in the same manner.

    State laws protect minorities in societies but in weak state situations like Bangladesh, this arrangement becomes insufficient. Societies in general will find space for those they need or can afford to tolerate and if transgenders are required for social survival, they will be incorporated. So if one wishes to address social issues, its best to explore social needs and not just attitudes. It will help in planning for better laws and if possible their implementation because its the Sate which protects according to principles and societies behave according to needs.

    Thanks for writing.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 2:59 am

      Thank you for your comment, Afsan.

      I don’t think people are naturally intolerant. Children are not born as racists, sexists, homophobes, or transphobes. Prejudice is a result of lack of education, political manipulation, and the society we grow up in. You are right when you say that law, even though important, cannot by itself solve the problem. What we need is education, and people courageous enough to take a stand for tolerance and human rights, even if doing so is unpopular.

    • Riaz Osmani on September 18, 2013 at 1:20 pm

      Social needs? Survival? It can be argued that gays and lesbians and perhaps transgender people are not required for survival or procreation and hence have no social need. This is a dangerous argument. Social needs/survival are not important here at all. As long as people are born in these ways, they have every right to live as equal citizens, and attitudes of the society and the legal system of the state MUST adapt to provide inclusiveness and equality. They may or may not be needed for procreation, but they can certainly contribute to their society through their work and personal attributes. On a slight tangent, LGBT people are now able to procreate (certainly adopt) and have families in various different ways. But that is a different topic.

  26. Tahmina Habib on September 17, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    I appreciate that transgender people are expressing their feeling about identity yet thought many people hide it. The society in Bangladesh still not ready to accept the empowerment of women, the rights of transgender is really seems impossible. However, nothing is impossible. At first, people have to have the idea of humanity, human rights. The knowledge of transgender should spread thus people understand that we don’t have right to banned other identity or culture or other’s human rights. I am a social work and human rights activist. My research was with Hijra population. Through this research I realized their life, their feelings.

    No mater where am I from, What is my gender, what is my complexion…the most important thing is I am a human being.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 2:48 am

      I fully agree with you, Tahmina. Nothing is impossible. And education is the key! I wish you all the best for your important work. Thank you for your activism.

  27. Zeenat on September 17, 2013 at 12:59 am

    Life of a transgender person even in the 21st Century is very difficult to imagine. The stress of having to hide a part of oneself from the world must be a struggle unlike any other. This past August there was an article in the New York Times about a 21 year old transgender female student. She was beaten to death in Harlem, NY. In the US most state laws prohibit discrimination in employment, schools and housing against transgender people. US Constitution guarantees equality for transgender people, though so far the Supreme Court hasn’t taken up the issue. In Bangladesh to be a transgender must be the hardest thing one has to go through. They are typically ostracized by families and therefore people with good intention cannot provide support to the person in transition because of social stigma. It is encouraging to see that the two of you have written about this subject, and hopefully people will be more tolerant when they run into a transgender male/female.

    • Rainer Ebert on September 18, 2013 at 2:46 am

      Thank you for your comment, Zeenat. Shahnoor and I are glad you like our article. And we too hope that, after reading it, some people will rethink their prejudices about transgender people.

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