On the International Day of Transgender Visibility, let us really listen to what these communities have to say
Tashnuva Anan Shishir’s appointment as the first trans news anchor in Bangladesh received a largely positive response on social media earlier this month, and some deadnaming and mislabelling aside, was covered by print and broadcast media quite sensitively, too.
As is the case with any progressive-leaning news, however, it did also trigger a good number of extremist replies, focusing particularly on how the terms “transgender” and “Hijra” aren’t the same thing, and how people really ought to know one from the other before applauding them. It would’ve saved them a lot of work if they’d only paid more attention to professionals and organizations working in the field telling them the same thing for ages.
What they said is true, of course, though I vehemently disagree with everything that tended to follow the distinction: Yes, being transgender and being Hijra are not the same thing; no, this does not mean that trans people should be condemned or that they are somehow deluded about their own identity.
The general acceptance of the Hijra community, among fundamentalists and otherwise, comes from a conflation of the terms “Hijra” and “intersex,” and then further conflation of those terms with “transgender.” What most Bangladeshi people mean when they say Hijra or transgender is intersex ie having reproductive or sexual anatomy that falls outside the binaries of the male and female sexes.
The sympathy these people are theoretically shown comes from the belief that they were born this way, and thus have no control over the situation. Transgender people, on the other hand, identify with gender identities or presentations that differ from the sex they were assigned at birth.
When it comes to Hijra communities in Bangladesh, they do not solely comprise of intersex people, as is popularly and wrongly assumed. In fact, most of these groups consist of more transgender people than intersex people, which goes to show that their acceptance and recognition is reliant more on their presence and visibility in public spaces than any concrete understanding of who they are.
Because the copy pasta-style “research” that Islamists post as comments often lack any real engagement with these communities, they not only miss out on all of this nuance, but continue to propagate blatantly and often dangerously wrong misinformation. It is nothing short of hypocritical that they preach acceptance for only Hijra people while calling for the condemnation of trans people, when many Hijra people are trans themselves.
Not to mention, the acceptance that they’ve recently been preaching has only come about after Tashnuva Anan’s debut as a newscaster. So when they say they would only accept Hijra people, would they really? For the most part, their track record and Hijra people’s continued marginalization and harassment say otherwise.
These misconceptions have also made it into state legislation, which does not include ample research or community representation in the decision-making process. Failing to properly define who can and cannot identify as Hijra or “third gender” (a term most activists are not comfortable with using because of the idea of a hierarchy of sexes) has only led to more harassment.
For example, when the Ministry of Social Welfare attempted to generate employment opportunities for the community in 2015, the 12 Hijra people who were selected for interviews were made to undergo medical examinations, and were subsequently publicly humiliated in the media when they were refused the jobs because they had “male genitalia.”
Such insensitivity and lack of clarity exist not only in our legislation, but also in education, health care, and several other sectors, effectively limiting the resources that these communities have access to.
Having been associated with trans and Hijra liberation advocacy for a while now, another fundamentalist favourite I've seen seems to be the idea that transgenderism is a foreign concept ie it is imported Western ideology that the “liberals” are using to corrupt deshi society. We know already that Hijra communities have always contained trans people, and if that were not enough, several sub-continental deities and their tales have been recorded to exhibit androgynous and often fluid approaches to gender long before the era of modern globalization.
If anything is a Western import, it is the discrimination that Hijra communities face today on the basis of strictly labelled gender roles. The criminalization and marginalization of these groups have the same source as innumerable other problems the sub-continent faces today: The British Raj. There is yet a lot of colonial baggage we carry, from making excuses for our colonizers because they left us bridges and trains, to refusing to tackle or even talk about Section 377.
It is no surprise that we’re still sticking to the rigid boxes they tried to lock pre-colonial ideas of gender and sexuality into when we’ve barely moved on from romanticizing imperial ideas of our mainstream society.
It is true, however, that we must be cautious when trying to apply gender diverse theory based in the West to our local contexts. Not because it will magically make more people trans, but because our ideas of gender diversity and fluidity rarely have exact Western equivalents, and we risk erasing or alienating our own cultures by blindly following or trying to apply Western theory to ourselves.
Having hopefully debunked two of the major issues extremists seem to have with trans people, we come to what happens when a religion does outlaw certain identities as “lifestyles,” “mental illness,” or “acts against nature.”
What happens when sentiments are hurt at the mere existence of others, of difference? I don’t really have answers for you. Only more questions. How long are we to cower before talk of majority religions and threats of communal violence whenever we demand equal rights and empowerment? Have you considered that maybe your religious views do not and cannot limit life experiences for other free individuals? That they most certainly should not dictate or influence what resources and opportunities they have access to, and what rights the state must ensure for them? Why do you associate fear of your erasure with a more tolerant society?
March 31 is the International Day of Transgender Visibility. It is a day we take to celebrate all of the achievements that members of the community have made, understand that more individual success does not always make its way into community development, be wary of corporations with no regard for their rights trying to capitalize on their empowerment, and be doubly cautious of extremists trying to derail their narratives.
It is another day for us to keep trying to further our rights, and a day for you to reflect on what you have internalized, and listen to what these communities have to say.
Amreeta Lethe Chowdhury is Staff Sub-Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune, and an Editorial Head at TransEnd.