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The elusive goal for freedom

  • Published at 02:00 pm March 3rd, 2020
Transgender community hijra
File photo of some members of third gender community during a campaign in Dhaka Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

The hijra community is still deprived of a standard quality of life

I distinctly remember my first encounter with a group of Hijra women in my adolescence. 

I was sitting in an auto-rickshaw next to my father. In the midst of the traffic, I saw a group of hijra women strolling down the crowded roads, begging and dancing in front of men and women, dressed in a sari, with their faces full of extravagant makeup. 

I had sensed a feeling of agitation from the crowd whenever there was a presence of a transgender individual. As a child, I mirrored the behaviour and grew up with the thought that it was normal to disregard hijras as the outlaws of society. 

It wasn’t until my teenage years that I detached myself from the notorious thought-process and started to absorb the unequal parameter of socio-economic power affecting the lives of hijras in Bangladesh. 

Bangladesh has made gradual progress to recognize the rights of the hijra community. Recently, the transgender community has been granted voting rights with their preserved identity as third gender in the society. 

However, the community is still deprived of a standard quality of life and privation. Majority of the members are out-casted from their families due to religious and societal tensions. 

This urges these individuals to build their own family within its community where they share a familiar work culture and lifestyle -- a realm of safe space that allows them to be themselves without any fear of judgement. 

That being said, their unfortunate circumstances often predominantly lead them to begging, dancing, and sex work in order to have a source of income. 

It puzzles me to see the contradictory level of freedom transgender women possess in Bangladesh. To unfold the other dimension of reality, I follow into a slum in Moghbazar where I looked closely into the lives of Hurum and Nishat apu: The lives of two hijra women in our struggling economy. 

In my short interview with them, I ask them what kind of freedom they are seeking for. 

Hurum Apu

When I say freedom, I don’t mean the extent of freedom where people think of it as something bad. When the conversation of freedom occurs, as a citizen and registered voter, I want the same freedom as my fellow Bangladeshi citizens. 

I want to live freely as the men and women of the society. I wish for the privilege to visit my family whenever I want, and to freely attend family programs with no fear of judgement. 

It’s very challenging for our community to have access to basic health care till this date. We are often neglected and not treated well by doctors which puts our health at great risk. 

I would also appreciate a reality where I can have the freedom to just walk on my street with no signs of harassment.

Such basic necessities are not accessible to our community. Maybe 10 out of 100 people can accept us, but other 90 people see us as the odd ones.

We have to resort to begging on the side of streets. Majority of the people see it as street harassment, but more often we don’t get any other sorts of work. 

Due to lack of necessities, it is rather challenging for us to break the stereotypes. That’s why people don’t even want to rent us a good apartment. Just like other citizens here, I want to live with my parents, my sister and my brother, but we are conditioned to be outlawed due to our identity. 

The government has given us many rights for education and work, but the society can’t accept us yet.

Our life is filled with a lot of obstacles. We have many media encounters with journalists and photographers who interview us regarding our rights, but at the end of the day, we have to go back to our rusty reality. People don’t go further to protest for our rights as members of society. 

As a result, we are usually left in the dark after many interviews. I don’t see why. Don’t we have the right to know what happens after? I want that freedom, too. 

Nishat Apu

We are deprived of the same freedom next to men in the society. 

It is very difficult to even look for a house as a hijra. Most landowners don’t want to rent apartments to our community.

Moreover, even if they rent out the room, they will charge us twice as much as the given price.

In the process, we have been left behind from progress. 

On November 13, 2013, Bangladesh passed the law to provide us with education. However, till this day, we couldn’t utilize and implement education into our lives. 

And we aren’t able to find a way out from this tunnel because society has hindered us from progress. 

I have an ambition to become a well-known beautician. When I work in parlours, I want people to trust my work because of my skills and abilities. 

I am a hijra woman but I don’t want people to judge me based on my identity -- only by my competency. If someone wants me to do their makeup, I don’t want them to discriminate me because I am a hijra.

Moving forward, the community has highly praised the Bangladesh-based NGO Uttaran Foundation for providing them a platform to pursue their passion. It is an attempt to bring an extent of transformation into the socio-economic structure in Bangladesh. 

Afra Nuarey is a freelance journalist.

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