"Words like torches in a sea of fog"

Written by Stefano Cisternino

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31 March 2021

The social exclusion of the Hijra community in Bangladesh

On the International Transgender Day of Visibility, it is worth remembering that the many steps forward towards greater social inclusion and gender equality, do not always include everyone. Gender-nonconforming people continue to struggle on a daily basis.

Hirja is a term used in South Asia to refer to non-gender-conforming people, including transvestites, transsexuals, intersex, and transgender individuals. Hijra has been officially recognised by the Bangladesh government as a third gender group, however despite the legal recognition, Aziz, Abdul & Azhar, Sameenas’ research outlines that social exclusion persists.

The Bangladeshi cabinet has approved a policy that allows hijra to identify as a third gender on all forms of government, including passports and national identity cards. However, in practice it remains near impossible for a hijra to complete the registration process as forms continue to lack a third gender option.

From 2013 until today, the situation remains unchanged. This upholds social and work exclusion of the Hirja community. It prevents them from obtaining employment and accessing health care – and there is no legal protection against these practices. Aziz et al.’s  interviews outline the consequences of these practices. Their respondents described to live in a perpetual state of fear and shame, and are forced to hide their identity in order to ‘feel part of society’ and access basic services without the risk of homophobic verbal and physical violence. 

The intersection of gender-based injustice and economic precarity creates a dominos effect. Social exclusion leads to a lack of resources, which leads to the inability to fully engage in relationships and social activities, and then to the lack of participation in cultural and political arenas. 

Furthermore, as the Bangladeshi culture values close family relations and the fulfillment of traditionally gendered roles and duties within the family, Hirja can feel forms of social exclusion within the family itself . This can start from an early age and can lead to serious psychophysical consequences (depression, isolation, use of hard drugs, neglect in the treatment of dangerous STD, etc.).

In this regard, Aziz et al. recommend concrete measures to build a foundation for effective social inclusion and acceptance by Bangladeshi society.

First, it is necessary to ensure that hijras do not experience discrimination in public medical settings by providing sensitization training to medical providers.

Second, it is crucial to increase collaboration between government and civil society in order to create real employment opportunities for Hijras, and not limiting them to being sex workers.

And finally, it is essential to implement strong legal advocacy to ensure protection of the civil rights of the Hijra.

In conclusion, I believe one’s identity should never be a cause of shame or fear, but the main source of pride. On this day, I hope that every person who feels or has felt excluded because of his or her identity, can raise his or her head and courageously shout “I refuse to live in fear!”


Read Aziz, Abdul & Azhar, Sameenas’ (2020) full paper here: http://mural.maynoothuniversity.ie/6626/1/HF-Distance-Time.pdf

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