IN MARCH, WHEN Tashnuva Anan Shishir appeared on Bangladeshi TV screens, she made history as the country’s first transgender news anchor. A few weeks later a madrassa exclusively for khwaja saras opened in Pakistan. In India, “Phirki”, a television show that ran for 225 episodes last year, depicts in unprecedented detail the life of hijras.
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South Asia has a plethora of terms for people who don’t identify as male or female. Apart from hijra (which is the most famous) and khwaja sara (which is mainly used in Pakistan), they include aravani, kinnar, kothi and shiv-shakti. Many advocacy groups and NGOs favor “transgender”, while governments prefer “third gender”. Estimates of the number of non-binary people in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan range from 500,000 to several million.
Since 2014, all three countries have recognized the third gender as a legal category. In 2016, a small group of Muslim clerics in Pakistan set a precedent by deciding that hijras can marry and be buried with other Muslims. As of 2019, India and Pakistan both passed laws to protect transgender people. Bangladesh has implemented a hiring program hijras for government jobs in 2015, and earlier this year began offering generous tax breaks to the companies that employ them.
The creative and legislative energy, however, also brought to light the problems inherent in naming and defining gender identities. Many people who should benefit from the new laws are upset by what they see as the perpetuation by lawmakers of long-held misconceptions, such as the idea that hijras are intersex (of undetermined gender). More hijras are considered male at birth but feel feminine and are generally attracted to males. Other critics find the modern discourse on the genre embarrassing. They oppose the idea that “hijra “ and “transgender” are synonymous, and fear that foreign imports may decline hijras‘ status.
South Asia has a long history of gender diversity. Hijras figure in the mythology surrounding Ram, an important Hindu deity, who is said to have rewarded their devotion with spiritual gifts. 18th-century documents describe effeminate men, dressed as women, who offered blessings at births and marriages in elite society. In parts of the subcontinent, hijra communities led by gurus were granted rent-free land and the right to collect donations, says Jessica Hinchy of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, author of a book on hijras in colonial India. The belief in their power to impart blessings (and curses) is still part of the culture in India, as well as in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh and Pakistan.
In the 19th century, however, British colonial rule overturned their fortunes. Hijras were renamed eunuchs, a term normally reserved for castrated men. Around the 1850s hijras had lost their state patronage. They fell under new legislation, including section 377 of the Indian Penal Code of 1861, which prohibited homosexuality, and various versions of the Criminal Tribes Act, which required “eunuchs”, as well as ‘other groups considered hereditarily criminal to register. It also forbade them to dance in public, to dress in women’s clothes or to reside with children.
The declining status of hijras continued until the 20th century. Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Faraz Khan used to see khwaja saras invited to offer blessings for weddings and births. Now they would no longer be welcome at a private party, said Khan, whose investment firm, Seed Ventures, has a particular focus on businesses owned by trans people. He “wouldn’t be considered classy enough.”
Governments in the region are keen to defend the rights of hijras, who remain a very visible minority. It is also a politically acceptable way for them to show their progressive credentials, especially in Bangladesh and Pakistan, where homosexuality remains illegal. Many South Asian Muslims believe that if God created the body in a certain way, His followers must accept it. Being born intersex, unlike being gay, therefore does not break any religious code. Unsurprisingly, some hijras are reluctant to debunk the myth of intersex or to associate too closely with gay and lesbian groups. “We are talking about LGBTQ,Zerine (not her real name), a Bangladeshi lesbian and activist, says, but the term “doesn’t really mean much: the situations of each community are completely separate.”
Measures such as tax breaks are welcomed by hijras. Other efforts, however, are hampered by editors’ limited understanding of the people they wish to help. To benefit from the protection offered by the new law, India’s third sex must register as trans, a process that some say requires medical proof of gender reassignment, which most hijras do not suffer. Bangladesh’s government jobs program failed because hijras had to prove they were intersex.
Label change attempts hijras have also been shown to be dividers. “Transgender” arrived in South Asia after the term gained traction around the world, especially in recent years. Some activists and local organizations adopted it pragmatically: it was more attractive to international donors. Others have adopted it as a path to progress. Using a global term and being connected to a global movement is “empowering,” says Hochemin Islam, a nurse and transgender activist from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Governments and the media, keen to be seen as fashionable, are also increasingly using the term.
Yet transgender is also used to denote respectability. The “I am not a hijra“, organized by an advocacy group in India in 2016, showed trans Indians holding signs with statements such as” I earn a six-figure salary, I am not a hijra”. Whatever the intentions, it ended up stigmatizing hijras, says Aniruddha Dutta of the University of Iowa. Adnan Hossain from Utrecht University notes that hijra, unlike “transgender” in the West, is also a class identity.
Numerous hijras also describe themselves as transgender, like Saro Imran, who runs a vocational training center for trans people in Multan, in the Pakistani state of Punjab. Some undergo or aspire to sex reassignment operations. But many others, like Srabonti Srabon, a Bangladeshi hijra, avoid both. Hijra is an identity in itself: they come from poor families where they are neither understood nor accepted, she says. Leaving, or being deported, is a vital part of that identity. Thus is he initiated into a closely united clan of hijras and learn its traditions and rituals under the tutelage of aguru. “This culture is 2000 years old. Trans is a fairly recent phenomenon, ”explains Ms. Srabon. “They can’t be clubbed together.”■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Drop the Name”