"It can be painful to keep significant aspects of the self hidden or to vigilantly separate aspects of the self from each other. Transparency, invisibility, losing ones voice and being stuck behind walls or other barriers are some of the terms used to describe the subjective experience of dissociative detachment." - Bandhu Social Welfare Society
The 'hijra' (transgender) people I have met in Dhaka are some of the warmest, most vibrant, creative and colourful people I have ever met in my life! I have spent most time with 'L' and 'K' who are 'gurus': Having worked their way up through the ranks of the 'hijra' community, they are now responsible for leading and guiding their 'chela's' (followers). 'L' is stunning. She wears a traditional 'sharee', she has a wide, open smile, and she speaks so passionately with expressive gestures about her role as advocate for the 'hijra' community - "because they have no-one else to speak for them" - everyone around us stops to listen. 'K' is no less engaging. I visit her house and sit and talk to her while she carefully applies kohl eye make-up, blusher and lipstick. A small girl, the daughter of her landlord, sits at her feet and gazes at her with admiration. Without warning, 'K' jumps up, switches on the huge stereo that she has in her one room living quarters, and breaks into an expressive dance to a Hindi love song.
It is hard to imagine that 'L' or 'K' have ever felt invisible or transparent. However, I know, through hearing their stories, that they have travelled a difficult road to get to this point, and many other 'hijra' are still travelling it. Perhaps 'L' and 'K' are so strong now because they have had to constantly challenge societies perceptions and expectations, and break down barriers for themselves and others.
'Hijra's' are assigned male at birth, but express feminine behaviour and characteristics, 'L' and 'K' and the other 'hijra's' I have met identify themselves as 'transgender' or 'third gender', not as 'trans women'. Female to male transgender people are not visible, not heard about and are generally thought not to exist here in Bangladesh, 'L' says "they are lesbians". But with no access to hormone therapies (apart from the oestrogen containing contraceptive pill used by some 'hijra') and no access to safe surgery, it is little wonder that this population remains hidden.
'L' and 'K' describe their lives and the difficulties they have faced as though these difficulties are normal. I suppose in a way they are, for 'hijra's' in Bangladesh. They tell me that no transgender person gets through life here without facing problems. Discrimination and violence starts from their family when they are young - as soon as they start to exhibit behaviour which is not seen as acceptable for their sex. Particularly, all the 'hijra' I have met describe (what could be thought of as 'honour' based) abuse and violence from their fathers and brothers. 'L' says,
"...My elder brother, my father, demand I am going to [be] a boy. Playing football, cricket. Not going to [my] sister or her friends, playing with dolls...Every childs life is similar in Bangladesh. They fight us, they dominate us - 'don't go there, don't do this, don't wear ladies clothes.'"
All the 'hijra's' report that the abuse is mainly from their fathers and brothers,
"...Because they move outside for their job and when they are gossiping with their friends and colleagues they tell them, 'Oh you have a disabled baby in your family, like a trans/ hijra. Oh this is so shameful for you.' Then father comes back to the family and pressures the mum." (L)
"K" described horrific physical abuse from her older brother, who chained her to the bed and beat her telling her she should not "go outside and mix with boys". He beat her so badly she sustained a broken leg. But she says that, even if she had not left the house, it is still bad for the families reputation to have a 'hijra' in the family. She reports that "almost 100%" of 'hijra's' in Bangladesh experience honour-based abuse, and often violence, from their families.
'L' concurs, that all transgender people here in Bangladesh experience problems related to family honour. She is only in touch with her family by telephone. She cannot visit as this will jeopardise her nieces marriage prospects (future husbands families will not allow them to marry into a family where there is a hijra in the family). One of the 'chela' (followers) I spoke to, left home when she knew she was transgender and came straight to Dhaka. She is also only in touch with her family by telephone, they know she is 'hijra' but do not know many other details about her life.
Abuse continues towards transgender young people throughout school, they are taunted by classmates and teachers usually do not know what to do so throw them out of the classroom. This results in many trans people not completing their education. 'L' and 'K' report many trans young people will discontinue education around age 11 or 12, when they start showing signs they are transgender.
Many trans young people commit suicide due to pressures from family and society. Those who can, escape, and many come to Dhaka where they find more acceptance and ways to make money. They also find a 'new family', within the close-knit transgender community here. The community is like a whole society within itself, with its own language (which is only spoken and understood by South Asian 'hijra'), and strict social codes. One 'guru', for instance, will have usually 10 - 50 'chela's' (followers). The guru provides support, some protection, and guidance in the 'hijra giri' - the traditions of the 'hijra' (songs, dances, how to make money). Most 'hijra' earn money through 'baksheesh' - tips they earn from performing their traditional songs/ dances for the birth of a new baby or for a newly married couple ('badhai'). Each guru has control of a certain area of the city, and they cannot venture into another territory to make money. 'K' admits that some transgender people make money through prostitution, but she is disparaging of this practice, saying that it gives the transgender community a bad reputation.
Despite there being more acceptance in Dhaka than in rural areas, trans people here still experience discrimination from every angle in society, in particular experiencing difficulty obtaining housing and accessing health care. 'L' describes previous experiences going to the doctor who kept asking "Are you a woman? Do you have menstrual period?" 'L' was forced to explain that she is transgender, and the doctor threw her out. 'L' also reported that transgender people particularly experience problems with anal fissures and rectal pain and bleeding and yet these problems are not understood by doctors here, as sexual practices 'against the order of nature' (i.e. anal sex) remains illegal. Despite the law, 'K' reported that some doctors and police men "...want to have sex with hijras because they know they won't get them pregnant. There will be no proof" There is also lack of awareness about transmission of STIs and particularly HIV - it's possible that some men believe that they are less likely to contract HIV through anal sex. In a 2007 study, 1/3 of urban males in Bangladesh did not realise HIV was transmitted through sex, and less than 1/4 thought anal sex was a risk factor for HIV/AIDs (1). Furthermore, the 'hijra' who reports sexual assault or other abuse/ violence is often ridiculed or subjected to further abuse.
Interestingly, 'K' is now accepted by her family, whom she now lives next door to. She reports this is since she had surgery, which has meant she is physically a woman. However, she still prefers to be legally 'third gender' and would not legally change gender to female, even if this was an option. 'L' is also very happy to be legally 'third gender' - she is very proud of the transgender culture and tradition. She is adamant that, although she looks like a woman, she is not a woman (it is a possibility, however, that the social stigma that unmarried women in Bangladesh face might be a factor in this attitude). She is keen to have surgery, but will not have it in Bangladesh as there is nowhere that performs safe surgery. Both 'L' and 'K' talk of many of their friends dying through botched backstreet surgeries performed by men with no medical training. 'K' went to India for her surgery, which cost approximately 2 lakh (just under £2000).
Both 'L' and 'K' have long term male partners ('panthi') (they have been together for 20 years and 17 years respectively). 'L' tells me she and her 'panthi' have had a hindu wedding ceremony. Both 'L' and 'K' receive financial support from their male partner. 'K' reports that both hers and her boyfriends family are aware of the relationship and accept it. The family know that if they did not that 'K' could be forced into prostitution.
I feel that these ideas about family 'honour' and how it can lead to abuse, violence, isolation, suicide and further social exclusion can also be seen in the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community in the UK. We know that a disproportionate number of young LGBTQ people are homeless (up to 40% of homeless people in the US are LGBTQ(2)) and LGBTQ people who are "rejected by their families" are possibly up to 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide (2) (and these are the attempts that have been reported). So how can we apply these ideas about family 'honour' to benefit people here, AND in the UK?
(Bandhu works across Bangladesh in 21 districts, acting as an umbrella organisation for smaller groups, often run and co-ordinated by community leaders chosen and developed from within the sexual minority communities. http://www.bandhu-bd.org/)
(1) S. Charnley (2007) Speaking up: Muslim views on HIV and AIDs. Asian Muslim Action Network: Bangkok, Thailand.
(2) Johnson R (2014) Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Youth Suicide Statistics. [Online] http://gaylife.about.com/od/gayteens/a/gaysuicide.htm [Accessed 15/12/14]