Gender bias discrimination is an unfortunate reality in Bangladesh. It becomes worse when children are born with an extra chromosome making them neither a man nor a woman. That “other” gender is one of the most marginalised groups in our society.
Growing up poor and transgendered in Bangladesh is not easy with the immense societal pressure to conform to the norm. Parents are forced to desperately seek controversial “solutions,” like taking their transgendered children to shamans who promise to “cure” their “illness” with lotions and potions.
Parents in particular play a pivotal role in bringing up transgendered children. They have the power to refrain from infusing toxic notions of “normalcy” in children who have no hand in how and what gender they are born as.
Meghla and Asha, both 17, have found a home with a guru ma - a guardian - who has taken them under her wings to educate them in the ways of the transgender community.
The duo have similar stories: they both ran away from home five years ago when they were just 12 years old. Asha ran away from Faridpur and Meghla from Kishoreganj.
Asha's mother died when she was just three years old. She soon moved in with her grandmother but trouble began when she hit puberty and the hormones began to change a little boy into a teenage girl.
She said: “Although I was born a boy, when I turned eight I noticed something changing in me. I could not find any interest in things boys liked to play with. I liked playing with girls and playing dress-up.
“When my maternal uncles and aunts noticed this, they began to rebuke and insult me because people in the village found me odd and told them I was 'bad.'
“When my body started to change and everyone started calling me names, I could not take it anymore. I decided to leave for good. I think I was in Class 4 then,” she said.
She left her home and got on a bus to a shrine.
“I stood in line with the others with no money to offer. When I had the chance to meet the resident pir [a religious leader], I asked him to give me food and shelter. He kindly granted my request and I lived there for two and a half years. No one bothered me there. It was a place of pure religious devotion,” Asha reminisced.
“One day a transgendered woman visited the shrine with whom I found myself bonding. She and I were alike – neither man nor woman – so I moved in with her and she is now my guru ma.”
Asha's guru ma taught her the tricks of the trade of the transgender community like dancing, their special claps and their own secret language.
Asha, now 17, has moved in with her boyfriend in a rented flat and works as a 'Badhai Hijra' - transgenders who collect money by dancing and singing when a newborn arrives at a home.
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Asha with her boyfriend Photo: Adil Sakhawat
When she first joined the transgender community in the Manda area, she was afraid. But it did not take her long to realise it allowed everyone to live freely having accepted their identity.
She too realised that she had finally found a home.
"Society does not want to accept us as fully-fledged human beings, which is why we live in groups. We could not earn a livable wage on our own, but as a group we can.
“I know some transgenders commit crime, but I understand why they do it. It is to survive. Had our families and the society along with the government accepted us, and gave us rights and the dignity like the transgender communities in India and Pakistan, then some of us would not have to turn to a life of crime to survive,” she said.
Meghla, who seemed rather quiet and shy, is also a Badhai Hijra, famous for her dancing and singing skills in the community.
Meghla was a madrasa student when she left her home in Tarail of Kishorganj about five years ago. She now lives in a rented house with three female garment workers who have accepted her as a woman.
Meghla's roommate Nasrin, a garment worker, told the Dhaka Tribune: “The three of us live in this room together and we know that Meghla was born a boy but she really is a woman and we are completely accepting of that.”
From an early age, Meghla loved to wear dresses and play with dolls.
“I remember when my father took me and my brother to the village market one day. My brother asked to buy toy cars and pistols and I asked to buy a doll.”
Soon her family realised she was a transgender, and things only got worse from there.
“My mother died when I was seven. Soon after her death, the situation at home became very tense with my father yelling at me when my body changed. He sent me to a madrasa to ‘rid me of my evil ways.’
“My father and my uncle took me to a local pir to find a cure for me. They thought I was possessed by a demon,” she said.
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Meghla, left, with her guru ma at their home Photo: Adil Sakhawat
But when nothing helped and Meghla progressively became more feminine in her appearance, she realised her existence would negatively affect her family.
Meghla had her first sexual awakening at the age of 12 when she shared a bed with a boy at her madrasa.
“Nothing happened between us sexually, but when I touched him I felt very happy, and that boy never complained,” Meghla said.
Meghla ran away from home when things became unbearable.
“I took the first train going anywhere. It took me to Dhaka. When I arrived at Kamalapur, I was lost and terrified. A kind person could sense my fear and asked me where I was going. The kindness was not limited to plain queries; I was also given some money for food.”
She got out of the station and started walking aimlessly. A station guard took pity on her and offered her a place to stay. "I lived there for three days before I met my guru ma," she said.
Meghla has been living with her guru ma since then.
She gives the money she makes to her guardian and in turn gets a stipend of Tk10,000 per month.
She has a boyfriend who works and gives her some money at the end of the month as well.
Meghla tried sending some money home but her father refused to accept it as she is a hijra.