At the second LSE-UC Berkeley Bangladesh Summit Adnan Hossain (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) discussed his research on the place of Hijras in Bangladesh. Here he explains the place of the Hijras historically in Bangladesh, the significant of recent legal changes to their place in Bangladeshi society, and their status in across the region.
How have Hijras historically been viewed in Bangladesh?
Historically hijras were viewed as sacrosanct beings with special power to bless and curse the mainstream. Specifically, they would visit the houses of the new born and the newly wed to confer blessings. They were simultaneously revered and feared. Hijras were believed to derive such power because of the genital sacrifice they would make i.e. they would rid themselves of their penis and the scrotum which in turn would empower them. They also had the role as cultural performers on special occasions including weddings in which they would entertain people with songs and dance. Beliefs about hijra special power have tapered off from Bangladeshi society. Older generations of Bangladeshis still recall the special status enjoyed by the hijras in Bangladesh. With modernisation and the rise of technology, the traditional cultural role of the hijra as entertainers and performers on special occasions have also fallen into disuse. Today hijras are viewed primarily through the lens of bodily defect and disability. This is however not to suggest a romanticised view about a gilded hijra past but to state that there were special roles set aside for the hijra which do not exist anymore in Bangladesh.
Does this differ from across South Asia?
Indeed, it does. But before I address the question of differential treatment of the hijra across South Asia, it is useful to describe the category of the hijra as it is understood in South Asia today. Hijra is a publicly institutionalised subculture of people typically assigned a male gender at birth who may later rid themselves of their penis and the scrotum and identify as either ‘not male’ or a woman. In every day settings, hijra is used as a pejorative term to refer to anyone who digresses from the normative protocols of masculinity or someone who is not ‘man enough’. Hijra as an organised institution is mainly found mainly in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. These groups are also concatenated through a transregional network of hijra. From this perspective, hijras transcend the categorical boundaries of nation-state and religion in South Asia. For example, conventionally hijras in India have tended to display a special bias for Islam despite being born Hindu while the hijras in Bangladesh practice certain Hindu-marked rituals while being Muslim-identified.
Hijras in India are said to derive the special ritual power in exchange for the removal of their penis and the scrotum. These acts of genital excision are read as a form of sacrifice at the popular level. Hijras consequently become a source of universal fertility despite being infertile at the individual level. In contemporary Bangladesh, such beliefs about hijra power emanating from the sacrifice of genitals does not exist. Rather people read such acts as signs of one’s inauthentic or artificial hijra status. Rather people consider hijra to be born with missing or ambiguous genitals, an image hijras too often reinforce in their encounter with the mainstream across South Asia.
Why did the recent legal change of the gender status of Hijras come about?
Hijras have always been a culturally recognised third gender category. However, the legal recognition of this long-running category of hijra as a third gender needs to be understood in relation to the wider intervention into the field of male to male sexual health from the late 1990s. At that stage, hijras were also considered to be a variant of men how have sex with men often truncated to the expression ‘MSM’. Soon enough, separate interventions followed targeting the hijra as it dawned on the sexual health activists that hijra represented a distinct constituency with specific needs that could not be addressed within the framework of men who have sex with men. Gay groups emerged in Bangladesh from 2000 mainly as an underground movement but slowly as they gained limited publicity, they also became very critical of the narrow health-focused approach and intervention of the NGOS working with men who have sex with men. In response to such criticism, there was a gradual shift to a rights-based approach and adoption of rights-based language among the NGOs concerned with men who have sex with men. However, rights were understood narrowly in relation to the existence of Bangladesh Penal Code 377, an infamous anti-sodomy law that Bangladesh inherited from British colonialism. What is interesting here is that 377 did not pose a threat to the existence of the NGOs working with male to male sexual health or interfere with operation of these NGOs. Given that, 377 was not on the agenda for this growing sexual health focused activist groups working in Bangladesh.
It was against such a backdrop that the legal recognition of the hijra as a third gender was adopted as a rights agenda. It is important to note here that the hijra-focused NGOs and interventions were often under the direct supervision of NGOs working with men who have sex with men. Furthermore, from the onset, the campaign for the legal recognition of the hijra as a third gender was seen by the mainstream to be a morally and culturally legitimate demand since the public saw the hijra as an innate Allah-given physical condition in contrast to homosexuality popularly seen to be western-fabricated and non-local in origin. Several government departments also actively ran campaigns for the legal recognition of the hijra as well. Both the civil society and the government viewed the legal recognition of the hijra as a third gender as a mainstreaming magic bullet. The regional and transnational campaigns for the recognition of third gender in several countries within South Asia and beyond also stimulated the local enthusiasm and activities for the legal change of the third gender status of the hijra.
Since Hijras received legal recognition in Bangladesh, has the way they are viewed changed?
Following on from my earlier point, as the campaign for the legal recognition of the hijra went on, so did an attempt by the government to mobilise a definition of the hijra as disabled. In fact, hijras in Bangladesh were discussed in parliament in 2011 and a special package to rehabilitate them was initiated under the ministry of social welfare on the ground of them being disabled. The legal recognition came about through a policy decision in November 2013 that the Government of Bangladesh adopted. The cabinet also decided that there should be no translation of the word hijra into English. This is intriguing as the retention of the word hijra works to guarantee that the recognition is granted to those who the government understand to be sexually disfigured rather than any other subject position that may inadvertently recognise alternative sexual desire. It needs mentioning that hijras were always seen by the people to have genital disfigurement in line with the lexical meaning of the word hijra in Bengali but this trope of disfigurement was not incorporated into the discourse of disability. Today hijras are officially recognised to be born with missing or ambiguous genitals and anyone digressing from such a definition disqualifies to be a real hijra under this new regime of recognition. So, with the legal recognition, hijras are viewed as a form of disability and therefore as subjects in need of commiseration and social rescue.
How does the way Hijras are viewed in Bangladesh differ from how others around the world think of a third gender?
It depends on how third gender is understood in any given context. As I mentioned earlier, hijras have been an established presence across South Asia for a very long time. Long before the legal status, they were already considered a cultural category of third gender. Many see the presence of third gender category as an example of South Asian tolerance and accommodation of gender diversity in contrast to the West where only, until recently a two sex/gender system prevailed. While thinking about a third gender as a concept, it is important not to romanticize this concept as those who are assigned a third gender position or those who take up a third gender status are not necessarily on an equal footing with the so called first and second genders. In other words, a third gender may be seen as a subject position occupied by those who may be insufficiently and/or defectively masculine or feminine. It also needs emphasising that hijras as a third category in Bangladesh is a class specific subject position as those who enter the hijra group emanate from the working class. So, the socio-cultural production of a third gender as a subject position needs to be understood in relation to other forms of social difference including class, caste, transnational movement etc. In the west, the employment of third gender as a concept served various purposes at various points of time. Non-binary gender activists often used examples of third gender and gender variant role, practice and culture in the global south as examples of how the western two gender/sex system could be challenged and destabilised. More recently, a third gender has come to index intersex subjects with an emphasis on bodily difference as a marker of third gender in the west as a consequence of intersex rights movement which is different from how third gender was historically understood in South Asia. So all thirdness is not alike.
What do you think the future is like for Hijras in Bangladesh?
To understand what the future is like, we need to first recognise that hijra is an occupation or what the hijras in Bangladesh describe as ‘hijragiri’. In the aftermath of the legal recognition, there is now a concerted effort from both the civil society and the Government to eradicate the hijra as an institution. The idea is that hijras should move away from the traditional activities (for example, collection of tolls from the bazaar and conferring blessings on the new born) that constitute the hijra occupation. While the hijras deem these practices as sacrosanct, the mainstream society views these activities as devoid of any ritual or religious significance. There is now an attempt to rehabilitate and mainstream the hijra, meaning hijras should take up jobs and be part of the productive workforce. Clearly there is a movement at the policy level to put an end to the traditional hijra occupation. There is now a tiny minority who are taking up these jobs instead of being in a hijra group undertaking hijra occupations. There are also those who are doing both.
The other important aspect to consider in this connection is the transnational movement and activism in the field of sexual, gender and transgender rights and HIV/AIDS. For example, although people in Bangladesh conventionally understand hijra to be asexual and above desire in line with the lexical meaning of the word hijra, such conceptualisation of hijra’s asexuality started to be challenged with the advent of HIV/AIDS and the emergence of NGO interventions that I already alluded to earlier. This is a significant shift that may lead to a change in how the public view the hijra and may have implications for how hijras are socio-culturally accommodated in Bangladesh. Additionally, the increasing encounter of the hijra with the transgender activism is also transforming the way hijras understand themselves. While people in Bangladesh view the hijra as an indigenous subject position, the international community see the hijra through the lens of LBGTI (lesbian gay bisexual transgender and intersex) movement.
Now what the future will be like depends on the changing perception of the Bangladeshi mainstream about the hijra as well as how the hijras in Bangladesh will navigate and negotiate some of the developments described above.
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Adnan Hossain recently published: The paradox of recognition: hijra, third gender and sexual rights in Bangladesh in Culture, Health and Sexuality. Read his article here
Adnan Hossain is a socio-cultural anthropologist with interest and expertise in gender and sexual diversity, masculinities and transgender studies, race/ethnic relations, nationalism, cricket, bodies, decoloniality and epistemologies. He is currently a Research fellow in the department of Social and cultural anthropology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and an Affiliated Researcher with the Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality (ARC-GS) at the University of Amsterdam.