Being hijra: Gender identity in the South Asian context

I just finished reading an op-ed piece published a few days ago in the New York Times, which discussed the brave actions of one Labannya Hijra, who as an eyewitness managed to apprehend two of the three Bangladeshi Islamist radicals who brutally hacked to death secular blogger Oyasiqur Rhaman. There are a number of angles to this story – the religious intolerance that motivated this barbaric murder and the courage of Labannya Hijra being the most prominent. While the fate of Oyasiqur Rhaman is grievous indeed, and warrants mobilization and discourse around freedom of speech and tolerance in über-conservative societies, Labannya’s involvement in the matter has sparked interesting developments in Bangladesh.

What you should know is that Labannya is a hijra, which is a term used in the South Asia to signify a person assigned male at birth who later goes on to identify as female. While some hijras are intersex, a broad majority of them are assigned male at birth. It is interesting to note that hijras have long been mentioned in recorded history of the region, such as in Hindu and Jain texts, as well as in the Kama Sutra. It was the arrival of British colonialism in the subcontinent that enforced the gender binary and outlawed hijras into the fringes of society.

In 2013, Bangladesh made history by recognizing hijras as a third gender. Nepal, Pakistan, and India are the other countries that have legally recognized the existence of a third gender, including on passports and other official documents. While this may seem rather progressive of the South Asian subcontinent, one must not be too quick to assume true equality in these societies. As a South Asian myself, I understand the ability of our cultures to embrace contradictions. While the concept of a third gender exists, hijras have very little beyond that recognition. They operate within a close community, which serves as both a support system and a prison. They have little autonomy in a hierarchical structure that places their guru in charge of their order. Despite what their governments might think, the citizens in these countries are yet to fully recognize hijras as their equals. The societies in our countries still employ inflexible, impermeable gender norms to police behavior, and hijras must either conform or be shunned. What generally occurs is both. Due to the socio-economic isolation that hijras experience, an overwhelming number of them face a lifetime of begging or prostitution. While heterosexual men in these countries utilize the sexual services of hijras, it is done largely in secrecy, a shameful secret that none are willing to admit. Comparable to the status of trans communities in the U.S., hijras face discrimination in employment, healthcare, housing, education, immigration, law, and bureaucracy. HIV prevalence among the hijra population is 276 times that of the entire adult population in Pakistan.

Reading this account aroused mixed emotions in me. On one hand, I was struck by the western-centrism of social justice narratives in our world today. It is worth noting that the West is not the only part of the world that rejects binaries and hierarchies of oppression. From examples of grassroots feminist movements in Latin America to the celebration of homosexuality in Ancient China, all cultures have their own takes on equality. The historically-rooted concept of a third gender in the Indian sub-continent is yet another example of this. This is important to keep in mind when we consider fighting for equality globally. The western definitions of identity are not a one size fits all approach, just like western liberal democracy has failed to take root in other parts of the world in its purest form. Similarly, the hijra identity does not translate neatly to a western equivalent. For instance, there is no natural association between gender and sexuality that occurs with hijra identity, for some go onto renounce sexuality altogether. There is an element of the sacred to hijra identity, despite the low status granted by society (remember what I said about contradictions?), with a belief in the bond between sexual and spiritual energies. It is important to be culturally competent when espousing the cause of a particular population, as opposed to blindly transplanting the beliefs of one group and imposing it upon the other.

On the other hand, I am struck by how far our South Asian cultures must progress to be truly equitable. Identities may be relative and subjective, but perhaps all of us can agree that one of the objective standards in this world is to ensure that all people enjoy the same freedoms and privileges. Well then, I wonder if those who are assigned female at birth have the same capacity to transcend their identity as hijras do. I consider the injustices heaped upon the hijra community. I think about how homosexuality is a criminal offense in all countries in the region except Nepal, which affects the hijra population as well as all sexual minorities. While the western approach to rights and recognition may not suit these cultures completely, it is important to embrace the fundamental principle that lies at its heart, which is recognition of all people and the struggle for the rights of everyone.

Labannya has become an overnight sensation in Bangladesh. As a South Asian Caitlyn Jenner, her bravery has led to the government’s announcement of hiring hijras as traffic police and the Central Bank requiring financial institutions to devote a portion of their corporate social responsibility funds on the hijra community. Thanks to those like Labannya, times are changing in this part of the world. Let us hope that it spells change for everyone.

– Themal


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