No space for love in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is currently suffering from, perhaps not a wave but more of a persistent flood of extremist attacks, manifesting in the form of assassinations of various free-thinking, secular or atheist bloggers, publishers, writers and journalists. While this trail of blood may be linked to a point of origin with the murder of blogger Avijit Roy in February last year, this is something that has existed under the surface of Bangladeshi society for much longer. Conservatism, the quashing of more progressive ideals, rising belief in Islamic homogeneity, and a vicious intolerance for anything that does not fit the Sunni, Bengali Muslim identity. As mysterious men, armed with machetes chip away further and further at all opposing ideologies with violence, the space for liberal and progressive ideals in my country is disappearing. The latest in this bloody spree of “divine” executions came on April 25, when gay rights activists and editor of the country’s first and only LGBT magazine, Xulhaz Mannan, along with his friend, colleague, and fellow activist, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were brutally murdered by unknown assailants, linked with larger, global Islamic terrorist outfits.

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The two murdered activists – Xulhaz Mannan (left) and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy (right)

(Source: Dhaka Tribune)

Mannan started the magazine, Roopbaan, to promote LGBT rights in Bangladesh. This by itself is an amazing achievement in such a conservative country. In the face of such disapproval and adversity, Roopbaan took off in 2014. Long an advocate in the development sector, especially working with LGBT rights, Mannan’s work went from strength to strength. In fact, on 14 April 2015, when Mannan successfully organized a “rainbow rally”, Bangladesh’s version of a pride parade, during the Bengali New Year celebrations, for a second, Bangladesh’s liberals believed again that the country was moving forward and for the LGBT community, especially the gay and lesbian communities who are legally oppressed, it was a landmark achievement – an announcement that these people not only exist, but are unafraid to stand up and be counted, as people, in Bangladeshi society. For me as well, long having been frustrated by regular news of tragedy, misfortune, oppression and intolerance, reading about the “rainbow rally”, during the New Year celebrations no less, brought me immense pride, and in one of those rare moments, I may have felt something akin to patriotism.

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Pride parade in Dhaka, 2015

(Source)

I could swell with pride for how far my country has come, and like the rest of Bangladesh’s liberals, once a proud tradition in its own right, feel hope for the future. Mannan’s murder feels like a nail on the coffin for a dream that I once thought could be reality.

This dream now seems a long way away. This year, the second “rainbow rally” was cancelled due to death threats and intimidation from a section of society that cannot bring themselves to respect (or even tolerate) other human beings. And the worst part is, this seething hate is winning. And we, Bangladesh as a nation, are allowing it to win. A Buddhist monk had his throat slit earlier this week. University professors, a profession held in such high esteem in my society, are being hacked down for no good reason. The violence is more senseless than usual. The government refuses to acknowledge that we have a terrorist crisis on our hands for fear that we start remembering that their role in how we got here. So they tell us that these murders are unrelated. That we should stay quiet. They tell us to be silent and let hate win. But for Xulhaz, for the LGBT community in my country that have now had to flee for their safety, we cannot. The pride parade is a symbol of love triumphing over everything else, and I hope, for our sake, I see it next New Years. Only then will I remember the dream that me, Xulhaz and everyone that looks forward and looked forward in my country once dreamt.

-Bareesh

Cover photo source: Wikipedia Commons

Mindful Consumer: Where do my clothes come from?

“Where do your clothes come from?”

“Is it made of cotton from a farm, wool from a sheep, or silk from silkworm?”

“Have you dug deeper into that?”

You may have never imagined that before coming to your hands, your clothes have passed through the hands of many people from all around the world: ones that you have never even met or known. At the beginning of the last century, most of our clothes were made in the United States. However, by the early nineties, apparel manufacturing moved to Latin America and Asia. Looking at your clothes’ tags, you will probably see “Made in China”, “Made in Vietnam”, or “Made in Bangladesh.” [1]

Because labor and production costs are so cheap in these countries, clothing stores like H&M and Old Navy can sell incredibly cheap outfits. Clothes nowadays are far cheaper than they were in the past. We have seasonal fashion lines for a few months, and then a whole new inventory is out the next season. It is hard to deny the temptation to buy a $5 T-shirt, or $15 jeans, when something new is out. The average American buys 64 items of clothing a year and 7 pairs of shoes [1]. The effect of fast fashion has not crossed their minds. Somewhere along the lines of production, something has to make up for the low cost. As Mathew Green points out in this article, “There is no way the fast fashion model could exist without the army of extremely low-paid workers to quickly turn massive orders around.” [2]

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Labor and production cost between Bangladesh versus the U.S. (Source)

The more you buy, the more you create the demand on those workers, and indirectly push them into the endless cycle of selling their lives on the sewing machines. UNICEF found that, “There are about a million children aged 10 to 14 working as child laborers in Bangladesh, but the number is far higher when the age band is expanded” [3]. These employees do not have time to go to school. They sleep, eat, and wash in these sweatshops.  However, what they get is only around 68 USD a month, roughly 2-3 dollars a day, not to mention their working conditions [3].

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Monthly minimum wage of Asian countries in garment industry (Source)

Worker rights are few, rules are harsh, and most importantly, the machines and buildings are unsafe. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 is the worst accident ever in the garment industry. It killed over 1,100 people, and left thousands more injured. Although it brought awareness about the safety condition of labors, the accidents in the workplace did not end here.

Elizabeth L. Cline also mentions in her book “Over-dressed: The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion” that cheap fashion does harm to charity thrift shops and textile recyclers where our masses of clothing castoffs end up. If you can buy a new T-shirt with $5, then why would you go to the Clark Thrift Store to purchase a used one? There are some benefits when you buy clothes at the thrift store: you buy inexpensive things, and you protect the environment by reusing things in a way so they are not being wasted. You cannot get rid of your clothes just by not wearing it, or putting to the dumpster. Your clothes are not going to disappear, but they are going to be turned into something else that can be harmful to the environment. Your big junk is still somewhere. So think next time before you decide to buy something. Will you need the item or you can still use your old one? You are not only helping the environment, but also doing good for the human rights so people are not selling their labor for a low price.

-Anh

Reference

[1] Franzese Heather. Changing how you think about clothes. 20 Oct 2011. Tedx Talks. 18 March 2016. (Link)

[2] Green Matthew. Who Made Your T-Shirt? The Hidden Cost of Cheap Fashion. 17 May 2013. News Article. 18 March 2016. (Link)

 [3] Hunter Isabel. Crammed into squalid factories to produce clothes for the West on just 20p a day, the children forced to work in horrific unregulated workshops of Bangladesh. 30 November 2015. News Article.  18 March 2016. (Link

(Cover image source) 

Senioritis… Senioritis..

Dear Senior,

I know..being a senior is… like hanging by a thread in its most literal form. You thought you had Senioritis during senior year of high school? Wait till you’re a senior in college. And to my fellow international students, who no longer know which country they’ll be in the next six-months- hang in there! We’re all in the same boat.

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Applying to almost every job that does not have a ‘Must be U.S. citizen or permanent resident’ in the eligibility criteria and going through graduate schools that provide large scholarships to international students, I’ve scavenged it all. I am still here without a job offer and absolutely no idea where I will be after this May or what I will be doing. The nerves have kicked in and the uncomfortable butterflies in my stomach refuse to leave. With five classes, senior year bucket-lists and planning to host quite a large number of family members during graduation…24 hours a day is truly not enough time to be surviving right now.

To top that all of, I decided to go home this winter after 1.5 years and well..it was quite insightful. As someone who was carrying the proud badge of never having experienced ‘reverse culture shock’, this was the worst time for it to set in. Somehow, picturing a future back home in Bangladesh was harder than I first imagined.Not how I thought I would be feeling at this point in my life. Somehow I no longer felt at ease, as if I had changed too much to come back here. I slowly realized that I was now a victim of the infamous ‘reverse culture shock’.

With the U.S. STEM extension in limbo and the immigration policy getting tighter, it’s ok to be nervous about your future as a non-resident alien in the U.S. I genuinely feel your pain and I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I have been freaking out about this every single day. And I feel even worse because I can no longer imagine a life back home as I am sure many of you feel too. Somehow all the plans and dreams I had weaved for myself no longer add up and it seems like this uncertainty will never end.

12596264_1115957375102575_337824303_nSo how do I make it through each day? Because I tell myself I can. I remember feeling like this as a senior in high school. Roundabout this time now, I was waiting for college decisions and everything felt just as uncertain. I can laugh about it being insignificant now that I have lived in the future and wonder, “why I was so worried back then anyways?” It all turned out fine. It was hard, just as many segments of life is. It gets better. Somehow life and evolution have enabled us to adapt to increasingly difficult situations.

We often don’t give ourselves enough credit for doing so, but we make it through each day and we find our happiness in ordinary moments of life. Just as the moments that tested our faith in ourselves and our strength to keep pushing forward years ago, this too is a test. Yes, maybe it is a scarier one. But what chance do we have of overcoming these obstacles if we don’t keep trying?

Through all of these, I have come to know that the point of it all may not be to achieve your career goals and have everything go according to plan. What we must teach ourselves is how to be happy with our efforts and make the best of every situation. Senioritis is hitting us all, but let’s not get sucked into it. Keep trying and you will be successful. And even if you aren’t, at least you know you tried. And if you really are thinking about the future, resilience should be the long-run goal. We live through our failures in the short-run to get to what really matters in life: happiness and being content. And just for this second, let’s just believe that this too shall pass.

-Stuck in limbo
Suaida 

Censorship by Machete : Silencing Secularism in Bangladesh

In February, Avijit Roy and his wife walked through the bustling stalls and the shadows of foliage in the Dhaka University campus. Because it was February, the annual book fair was taking place, and they had, like thousands of others, come out to experience an event tied quintessentially to the country’s national identity. Sixty odd years ago, the first big spark of the nation, of independence had been lit under the bullets of police when students had taken up the charge for their right to speak in their own language. Sixty odd years later, Avijit Roy, a noted atheist blogger, a US citizen, on those same streets that had once been awash with the blood of those who wished to speak, was hacked to death by religious extremists slighted by his writing.

As a child growing up in Bangladesh, I had gone to mosque on Eid just as I had gone to Hindu temples on Durga Puja, celebrated Buddha Purnima and had Christmas dinner. Religion to me had always been part of my culture, with its varying beliefs and traditions, and I had always looked on all of them with warmth. But while it appeared that these diverse religious practices were accepted, or more precisely, tolerated, atheism was not. I chose to not be religious when I was 12. And soon after, I chose to be an atheist.

This choice was not always liked by people, even parts of my extended family, but they would always tolerate it. I wrote a blog when I was younger, mostly ridiculous nonsense, yet I would openly exclaim my lack of faith. I was never afraid that someone would hurt me for it. I wasn’t living in an intolerant society such as Saudi Arabia or one of those other countries that had blasphemy laws. Today I worry that someone will find my teenage ramblings in some corner of cyberspace and promptly murder me in cold blood.

Avijit has not been the first, nor the last, in this rampage against secularist voices. In 2013, Rajib Halder, a blogger tied to the Gonojagoron Mancha (National Awakening Platform) was killed by similar machete wielding assailants. The Gonojagoron Mancha had been calling for the banning of the Jamaat-E Islami, the largest Islamic political party. Since Avijit’s death, at least three more bloggers, Oyasiqur, Ananta Bijoy and Niloy Neel, have been murdered in similar fashion. The latest was an attack on Avijit’s schoolmate and publisher, Faisal Arefin.

This spate of bloody murders offer a few different interpretations, but they require delving into the intricate cluster of factional, vindictive and populist politics of the country, especially its recent history, which is still by any measure a sizeable tome of information. What has struck me personally however, as a secularist, as someone who has rejected religion like these victims, is the intolerance that has been on display throughout these murders. I have always tried to understand the roots of radical Islam, the roots of fundamentalism in general and have defended against the xenophobia that is prominent in the typical Western response. “Not all Muslims” was the message splattered on my social media after the Paris attacks. “ISIS does not represent Islam” someone piped up. And I agree.

Radical Islam is not the same Islam that I saw in my country. This brand of intolerant Wahabbi Islam is not what I had seen in the mosques as a child. In fact, to speak to this, Islam in Bangladesh had never even resembled so closely the Islam of the Arab states, just as Islam in Indonesia had never resembled the Islam of the Indian subcontinent. Islam in the Bengal delta came with Sufis, many emigrating from what is today Turkey and others from Persia. Sufiism is an offshoot of Islam that is a lot more flexible, more musical in its traditions. To see that brand of tolerant, accepting Islam be replaced by this hateful breed of Wahabbi Islam is hurtful. To see it being used to silence people with differing points of views, is repulsive.

However, as nice as it may be for me to whimper about a tolerant, cultural religion that I witnessed, the reality is that there are militants in Bangladesh hunting down secular and atheist writers and bloggers. The murder of two foreigners, a Japanese and an Italian, over the last few months has brought to question that these assailants, who have claimed ties to Al Qaeda and ISIS, may soon start mobilizing against others, including Hindu and Buddhist minorities. A shootout at a Shia mosque last week is another ominous sign. In fact, the latest issue of the ISIS online publication, Dabiq, highlights Bangladesh as the next hotspot of ISIS activity.

But while these elaborate, intricate political game of spies happens, there are still those who would dissent, who would speak out, not even just about their religious views, who must now hide for fear of losing their lives over their opinion. And isn’t that exactly what these attackers want? Regardless of my own views, no one should ever have to die for stating what they believe, or for that matter, what they don’t believe. To balk in the face of such adversity would be to concede, would be to give in to radicalisation. And it is not just secularists or atheists that must act to hold on to the ideals of secularism, it is the diverse religious communities in Bangladesh. I stand for free speech. I stand for tolerance and acceptance of all faiths. And maybe, that’s why I’m writing this article.

-Bareesh 

For further reading: http://shunyastan.org/2015/11/27/blogger/

(Cover image source)

Bareesh Chowdhury (Clark ’17) is a new writer on our blog, from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Welcome, Bareesh! 

Malaysia > Bangladesh > Louisiana > Worcester: Lunch date with Shan Yi Koay

“In 5 years? I’d be open to working anywhere in the world if I get a job that I like. I thought most people would think the same way, but I’m realizing that a lot of people are more concerned about the risks of moving to a new place rather than the experiences and opportunities it would open up. I think the flexibility that I have comes from our background.”

This is Shan Yi Koay, a recent Clark graduate (IDSC ‘2013), who is now enjoying her young professional career as the Community Programs Manager at Ivy Child International. Ivy Child is a Worcester based non-profit organization that works to improve the social and emotional well-being of children through mindfulness-based health education programs such as yoga and mindful art. Their vision is based on Positive Psychology and mindfulness based learning (MBL), and the founder and CEO Rose Pavlov explains their approach in her TEDx talk titled, “Unlocking children’s potential through mindfulness”.

Shan is a Third Culture Kid – a term you probably have heard of by now if you are a Clarkie, or have been reading this blog. She is from Malaysia, but has lived in Bangladesh for eleven years before coming to the states for college. After spending four years at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, LA, where she received a B.A. in Sociology, she moved to Worcester to pursue a graduate degree in International Development and Social Change at Clark University.

A fun fact is that Shan and I graduated from the same American International School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We are four years apart so we never actually overlapped in high school, but the social web of our school is so tight and small that we knew of each other through a handful of mutual friends and teachers. I met her at Clark four years ago as a first-year undergraduate student when she was a first-year graduate student, and I felt as though it was like meeting an old friend for the first time.

So I’ve known her for a long time, and I decided she would be a perfect person to interview for an article, as an example of what the “life after Clark” could look like – in Worcester – for an international student. (Just in case you were wondering, we went to a Thai restaurant called Basil ‘n Spice on Shrewsbury Street for lunch. Great food, reasonable pricing, and clean and classy interior design. I would definitely recommend it!)

Spicy Drunken Noodle, Basil 'n Spice (Photo by Michino)

Spicy Drunken Noodle, Basil ‘n Spice    (Photo by Michino)

Covered by the GoLocalWorcester magazine as a “Central MA Up + Comer” in 2013, Shan’s first job after graduating from Clark was the Executive Assistant to the President at Ivy Child International. She was not expecting to stay in Worcester, she tells me as we dig into the spicy noodles. “The opportunity just fell in place. After completing my OPT with them for a year, they were willing to sponsor my work visa. I decided to stay because the opportunity of being part of the behind-the-scenes operations for a start-up non-profit organization was such a unique learning and professional experience.”

As the direct assistant to the founder of a small but growing organization, Shan took on a variety of roles from her very first year including basic administrative and support duties, marketing and event coordination, and onboarding and managing interns and staff.

She spoke about two aspects of her current position that she enjoys. The first is the space that Ivy Child has for growth and change. The organization was basically kicking off when she joined. “I felt like I got to first-handedly experience the process of starting a non-profit, without actually being the Founder or CEO,” Shan says.

Located in Worcester, a city with great needs and potential to really seeing some results, Ivy Child allows Shan to get creative and bring her ideas to life. Yoga in the Park and Mindful Happy Hour are two examples of community programs that Shan created and helped develop, both of which are growing popular amongst Clarkies, as well. (Check out the recent albums for Yoga in the Park and Mindful Happy Hour!)

The second aspect of the job that she enjoys is the community connections it has opened up for her. “This job has allowed me to meet amazing community leaders and so many different people from various organizations and groups that are working towards similar goals in Worcester. This is something that has made me feel more ‘at home’ in Worcester.”

Grinning because it’s a little bit of a funny question to ask a friend over lunch, I asked Shan, “What inspires you?” The first word she said was, “family.” She has two younger siblings, who are equally motivated. She said, “We’re the kind of people who need to be doing things all the time. Otherwise, we get bored.” Shan for example is also a self-taught freelance graphic designer, on top of everything that she does. “I like to keep myself busy. I’m curious, and I love learning new things. I don’t know if I’ll ever see or learn enough.”

Needless to say, it was a delightful experience to share a good meal with such a friendly, bright and driven person. If you ask me – people like Shan are what inspire me.

– Michino

The Underdogs of the Cricket world have risen

The thunderous roar of the Mirpur (town in Dhaka city, the capital of Bangladesh) crowd rises into the hot Dhaka night as the 19-year old youngster merely smirks at the carnage in front of him. Hashim Amla, the most consistent batsman in One Day International (ODI) Cricket history, takes one shocked look at the uprooted stumps behind him before turning his back to the jubilant green-and-red huddle forming around the nubile teenager. These were the scenes at the Sher-E-Bangla Stadium last week, as Bangladesh subdued an otherwise-dominant South Africa side for the second match in a row. Bangladesh, long known as the minnows of the cricket world, displayed their newfound mastery of the game to overcome a side they managed to beat only once in the past decade. This is not new to them anymore.

They rounded off the most successful season of ODI cricket, adding the scalps of the Protease to those of the Indians, Pakistanis and Zimbabweans – the fourth home series they won in a row. The last 8 months truly saw the “Rise of the Tigers,” a bout of success that 150 million Bangladeshis around the world had been waiting for, for almost 20 years.

Instrumental to this amazing success have been the youngsters that have stepped into the big shoes from the youth teams. Debutante fast bowler 19-year-old Mustafizur Rahman nabbed a record 13 wickets in the three games that left the full-power Indian side –  widely claimed as the best batting lineup in the world –  completely beaten and lost for words. Newbie opening batsman Soumya Sarkar, only in his first few months of international cricket, saw Bangladesh through to victory both games against South Africa, displaying a barrage of sweetly-timed strokes reminiscent of the legendary Sachin Tendulkar. The side has rallied around the fighter captain Mashrafe Bin Mortaza, whose kneecap (that has seen 13 surgeries in the past 8 years) juts out tough his trousers every time he runs in to bowl, who embodies and instills the attacking mindset that Bangladesh have confidently displayed.

The raucous Mirpur crowd and the entire cricket-crazed nation beyond the stands have been living the dream. For Bangladeshis like myself living abroad, staying up nights to watch the matches that begin in the dead of the night, trying desperately to stream the matches on the morning commute, and keeping an eye on the Cricinfo scoreboard have been a regular part of our lives for the past 8 months. I lost count of the number of times I whooped on the morning Boston subways the past month, drawing strange stares, as the Tigers routed their opposition. A nation that has been divisive in politics, culture and religion in recent times, that has been racked by violent murders of children, has been given these precious moments to unite behind. The immense pride we all feel for the Bangladesh Cricket Team never fails to bring a smile to the faces of the farmers, rickshaw pullers, school students, professionals, and expats like myself, who is grinning right now as I punch these words into my computer.

The Bangladeshi team, like many others in the past, has now become an inspiration. Every team that is currently known as the stars of the cricket world has worked days and nights to get where they are. Often times we see successful beings and we are amazed by their accomplishments and are in awe of them.  We don’t highlight their failures or the bruises they’ve had to endure to come where they are. The truth is, we often end up thanking all those that made it possible to achieve our dreams but we don’t thank ourselves for trying and failing and then trying all over again. It takes determination and will power to overcome our greatest losses and become someone who people can look up to. It takes even greater determination when they hold an entire nation’s faith and hopes on their shoulders.

Let it be known, the Bangladeshi Cricket Team till today was an ‘underdog’ barely qualifying for international tournaments. And today, it has moved past it all and is carrying its scars and bruises of failures as it keeps moving forward. We as Bangladeshi Cricket fans take pride in its accomplishments today, but are also prouder because it has come a really long way.

Want to learn what Cricket is? Check out this YouTube video:

– Suaida

Image from: http://www.icc-cricket.com/cricket-world-cup/news/2015/media-releases/86718/bangladesh-and-sri-lanka-qualify-for-icc-cricket-world-cup-2015-quarter-finals

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