On November 11, 2013, the ruling party’s cabinet in its last phase, granted official recognition to transgendered individuals commonly known as Hijras or members of the third gender. They will be officially known as Hijra on their passport or identity cards and also on English documents. There are at least ten thousand Hijras in Bangladesh, according to the report published in bdnews24.com on that day. The measure is aimed at ending their discrimination in all spheres including education, health and housing.
While our neighbours India, Pakistan and Nepal have already granted state recognition to Hijras, granting official recognition to the third gender is regarded as a landmark victory for human rights organisations in the country who have been raising their voices for the recognition of the rights of Hijras for a long time now. At least one organisation called Bondhu which is the biggest platform for LGBTs (which is an acronym for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders) in the country has definitely cause for rejoicing. Bondhu was formed in 1996 with the aim of empowering and protecting sexual minorities in 1996. The organisation’s particular aim has been to provide basic (sexual) health care services to sexual minorities. At present, the welfare society is able to provide its services to a wide range of sexual minorities in 21 districts of the country. The present law will largely facilitate Bondhu to realise its vision now that state support will back up the sexual minorities.
At the same time, this law also raises concerns and issues some of which have been reflected on the readers’ comments section of bdnews24.com. One reader reflects the national sentiment that Hijra is not really a respectable term for this type of sexual minority in Bangladesh. The reader proposes not to discriminate them biologically but a counter-opinion attacks this idea by stating that Hijras are neither men nor women and that they ‘tend to behave like women’. This writer argues that the identification is necessary in order to transform this hidden ten thousand or so into a potential workforce of the country, thereby enabling them to enjoy basic human rights. We all know that work and quality of life are closely related. Employment generates income and income in turn can buy health services, education, housing and so on, thereby enabling the unemployed to break free off the vicious circle of poverty. In the context of transgenders, breaking free off poverty has a special significance because coming into the mainstream economy will grant these people a human status as they have continued to live a life which is less-than-human. However, sheer granting of rights is not enough. The cultural attitude towards sexual minorities needs to change.
It is relevant to mention that homosexual people in the country have also started slowly to come out. Boys of Bangladesh (BoB) was formed in 2002 and it claims to be the largest platform for gay men in the country. While there is no such official platform for Bangladeshi lesbian women, socio-cultural as well as religious factors are responsible for not officially granting rights to homosexuals in the country. One of the visions of BoB is state recognition of gay men’s sexual rights, i.e. the right to marry other men. To what extent BoB will be able to realise its vision is debatable and something that only time can tell because given the country’s conservative attitude, gay rights will not be achieved overnight.
Bangladesh is in the process of achieving complete democratisation. The country is going through a huge transition, economically, politically as well as socially. Economically because there is the generation of more employment opportunities than ever in the country’s history since its creation-work in the country as well as abroad; politically because despite the unstable current political situation, both the major parties have encouraged the fostering of new and young leadership at the central as well as the grass-roots level; socially because the forces of globalisation have created corporate jobs which in turn have created a newly affluent class of consumers which has immense buying power. Amidst all this hustle and bustle, homosexuals of Bangladesh-as in any other country- are slowly trying to make themselves heard and thereby attempting to break the cultural silence that often mystifies the concept of gayness.
In fact, May 17 has been commemorated as the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (known as IDAHO in short) since 2005 in celebration of the World Health Organisation’s decision to remove homosexuality from the organisation’s list of diseases in 1990.
While the visions or goals of gays, lesbians and transgenders are not exactly the same, they are similar because I think more than anything, it is dignity and acceptance as normal human beings that both the groups want. While that might still be a long way off, state recognition of transgenders is a short but significant leap towards the realisation of that dream.
Pratiti Shirin is a lecturer at the Dept. of English, Dhaka University.