The Rights of Hijra in Bangladesh: An Overview
In Bangladesh transgendered people are looked down upon as though they are not human beings and
are treated brutally only because they do not have the gender identity approved by the society or the
government. Although the government of Bangladesh has recognized this transgendered group of
people as 'third gender' it is not implemented even in their national identity cards. The phenomena are
not the same everywhere. Even some Asian and South Asian countries have laws to protect the rights
of these people and they are recognized as the third gender group. Bangladeshi society have taboo that
bounds these people either to assimilate and hide their gender crisis or to live the life of the most
marginalized group. This paper will attempt an overview of the life of transgendered people living in
Bangladesh, who are commonly referred to as ‘hijra’ and offer a few suggestions that might help to
bring about some changes.
Key words: Hijra, Transgender, Third Gender, Hate Crime Law.
Kabir (anonymous) is a citizen of Bangladesh and in the national identity card the name is
written as ‘Kabir Hijra’. Though in a landmark decision, the government of Bangladesh has
approved a proposal of the social welfare ministry to identify ‘hijra’ as a third possible
gender identity, these individuals like Kabir had to choose to list their gender on the national
identity card as either male or female. I start with this story of hijras not to portrait the
misery of hijra life, but for a life which is ignored under the framework of fundamental and
basic human rights. Article 28-1 of Bangladesh constitution has protected the rights of
individuals by stating that “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds
only of religion, race caste, sex or place of birth”. But still we could not ensure the human
rights of hijras with our policies.
2. Definition of ‘Hijra’
The word ‘hijra’ comes from Semitic Arabic root through Urdu-Hindustani word means
‘leaving one’s tribe’ (Alhawary & Benmamoun, 2005) and has been borrowed into Hindi.
This Indian usage of the term ‘hijra’ has been translated into English as ‘eunuch’ or
‘hermaphrodite’ which mainly means irregularity of male genitalia. Basically they are born
with male physiology; some of them are born with male intersex variations (Nanda S. , 1999).
Hijras are considered as ‘third gender’, ‘third sex’ or in the language of their most widely
known ethnographer, Serena Nanda, “Neither men nor Women”. A generic description of
Hijras might read something like this: they are socio-biological males who present women-
like within a shifting constellation of meaning. The frequently derogatory use of the term
Hijra and its synonyms has contributed to the circulation of regional terms such as aravani
and kinnar; especially around the Chennai area, aravani is the preferred term and kinnar is
fast gaining popularity in northern india as a form of self-identity (Puri, 2010). ‘Eunuchs’,
‘transsexuals’, ‘effeminate men’, and most recently ‘transgenders, these are mobile identities
of Hijras around the world. In two most celebrated epics (The Mahabharata and the
Ramayana) that are accepted as scriptures by Hindu people, two different notions of hijras
The Rights of Hijra in Bangladesh: An Overview 1
are found. In the Mahabharata, one of the heroes Arjuna takes up a disguise of a hijra or
eunuch transvestite when he was in exile and performs dancing to amuse people of a royal
palace. It is also found in the same scripture that Ahiravana offers his life blood to goddess
Kali (the goddess of power) to ensure the victory of the Pandavas and was granted the boon
but as his last wish wanted to marry. As no woman would marry a man who is going to die
within a few hours, Lord Krishna assumes the form of a woman and marries him. The hijras
of south India claims that Ahiravana is their progenitor and call themselves aravanis. In the
Ramayana, hijras are granted a boon by Rama as a reward of their devotion and possessed
the ability to confer blessings to newborns and newlyweds. In Islam, no different rules are
found by which hijras can practice the religion. In this subcontinent hijras incorporate
Hinduism or Hindu culture. Nevertheless, these hijras do not hold lower status as Muslims
than the Muslim men and women (Reddy, 2005).
3. Objective of the study
The aims and objectives of this study are twofold. Firstly, this study will take an attempt to
observe the socio-economic and legal status of hijra community in developing countries with
special emphasis on Bangladesh. Secondly, it will critically evaluate the current situation
human rights of hijra in Bangladesh.
4. Research Methodology
This study employs documentary research as well as qualitative research to achieve the
objective of the paper. For documentary research data from national policies, laws,
regulations and case studies related to hijra issues were examined. Various Programs and
movements of hijra community were studied as well. Data were collected from official
documents such as reports, previous researches, newspapers, judicial proceedings and the
Qualitative research was conducted to enhance the outcome of the research. In-depth open
ended interview were used for the sample of the study. The sample includes two policy
makers form the hijra rights protection organization, ten hijra from different level of the
society, two human rights lawyer and three human rights activists were interviewed.
Human rights based perspective was used for analysis and evaluation of the collected data.
Being a hijra how an individual is suffering and being deprived from various social and
legal rights was the main point of study. At the end of study some suggestions are proposed
for the improvement of current situation of hijras.
5. Social and Religious Contexts of Hijras In Asian countries: Literature Review
‘Hijras’ comprise of some of the most marginalized and most vulnerable groups within
societies in the Asia- Pacific region and the issues that affect them can be vastly different
from other sexual identity groups. Some Asian politicians have argued that a right-based
approach to homosexuality is an inappropriate imposition of Western concepts which
The Rights of Hijra in Bangladesh: An Overview 2
conflicts with Asian values. Sexuality is seen as more fluid in many Asian and Pacific Island
cultures than in the West (Sanders, 2005) there is a paucity of laws and policies in this region
which protect and promote the rights of hijras as citizens with rights, their access to services,
although they may find social acceptance within the communities they live in. Within the 12
countries in Asia-Pacific there is a range of attitudes and perceptions about them and how
they are treated within countries. In some societies they are more easily accepted than in
others (Doussantousse & Keovongchith, 2004). Thailand is the most progressive country with
regards to the third gender and has had a history of recognizing three gender rights where
they are known as ‘kathoey’ (Jackson, 1997). Recently separate restroom for this group of
people with an intertwined male and female symbol on the door was allocated in the Ching
Mai Technology School. Even the sex reassignment surgery is comparatively easier in
Thailand. It is said that there are factors like the ethical principle of Buddhism along with a
non-interventionist state that contribute to this type of attitude of Thai people (MSNBC,
2004). Kathoeys are hoping for a new third sex to be added to passports and other official
documents and in 2007, legislative efforts have begun to allow kathoeys to change their legal
sex if they have undergone genital reassignment surgery (Cabrera, 2009). In the Philippines,
where transgendered people are referred to as ‘bakla’, there is no legal recognition to same
sex marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership benefits (International Gay and Lesbian
Human Rights Commission, 1999). In Malayasia things are more difficult for transgendered
people who are referred to as ‘mak nyah’. Since cross dressing is illegal over there, these
people are often arrested and sent to prison for wearing female attire, impersonating women
or taking part in beauty pageant. The Sharia law is applied against these people for the
wrongdoings or violating the rules of Islam (Teh, Understanding The Problems of Mak
Nyahs(male transsexuals) In Malaysia, 1998). The Islamic religious authority can carry out
raids among the Muslim community to identify wrongdoing against the Islamic law section
21 Minor Offense Act 1955 (Teh, Mak Nyahs In Malaysia: The Influence of Culture and
Religion on Their Identity, 2001). In south Asia too there are differing attitudes towards
transgendered people. In some parts of South Asia, in India for example, hijras and their
activities are culturally accepted, in Tamilnaru the state government has offered to reimburse
money for sex reassignment surgery for ‘aravanis’. But the basic human rights could not be
ensured (Sitapati, 2009). In Pakistan there is also a large community of hijras. They tend to
be extremely poor and are subject to much discrimination and exploitation, especially sexual
exploitation. They may also engage in sex work. In 2013, transgender people in Pakistan
were given their first opportunity to stand for election (BBC News, 2013). Sanam Fakir, a 32-
year-old hijra, ran as an independent candidate for Sukkur, Pakistan's general election in May
(PinkNews, 2013) . In Nepal, the third gender is called ‘methis’ and the phenomenon are
comparatively better. Nepal seems to be the most progressive country in the region having
decriminalized laws that control sexuality and having recognized sexual minorities as citizens
with equal rights regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. Transgendered people
are now able, through a Supreme Court ruling to amend the Constitution, to obtain citizenship
with the identity of third gender. A government committee has also been set up to review the
marriage system to amend it accordingly with this new ruling (Nanda S. , 2008). It is
The Rights of Hijra in Bangladesh: An Overview 3
apparent that nowhere is the struggle between the private and the public so apparent as it is in
the case of diverse sexual and gender identities. There are some interesting examples that
have emerged which demonstrate that the region is beginning to open up on these issues.
However, it must be noted that in some countries conservative and religious forces are
extremely strong in holding the fort against the tide (Tan, 2001)
4. Status of Hijra Community in Bangladesh
4.1 Legal status of Hijra community in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is a signatory to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and
the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of diverse sexualities.
The National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh is positioned to play a significant
role in addressing human rights issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
According to the Department of Social Welfare survey, there are around 9,285 Hijras in
Bangladesh. Due to lack of laws recognizing hijra status in Bangladesh, these people have
often been excluded from basic rights associated with citizenship such as property rights,
inheritance, employment, education and health care. There are recent examples of laws
aiming to remedy this situation through recognizing the legal status of Hijras. Bangladesh
government has offered an “other” gender category on passport applications since 2011 and
granted a ‘third gender’ status to the approximately 10,000 Hijras living in the country in
2013. While Bangladesh has passed legislation to protect Hijra’s rights, the government
simultaneously continues to uphold laws that punish citizens for being homosexuals (Though
Hijras do not always identify as homosexuals, they are sometimes persecuted as such) with
prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life. Article 377A of the Bangladesh Criminal
Penal Code provides: “Whoever has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any
man, woman or animal, shall be punished with (imprisonment for life), or with imprisonment
of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to
fine”. No hate crime law exists in Bangladesh to address crimes committed by a perpetrator
motivated by the sexual orientation or gender identity of a victim. Bangladesh has no anti
discriminatory laws that specifically protect sexual minorities or laws that recognize the
diverse gender identity. Though Hijras traditionally earned their living by singing and
dancing, many now supplement their earnings by begging or selling sex (Nag, 2005). A study
on Bangladeshi Hijras describes the vulnerability of sex workers to law enforcement abuses:
The Hijra sex workers were exploited by clients, mugged, and beaten by hooligans but never
received any police support. They hardly reported any incidents to police because of fear of
further harassments. The law enforcing agents either raped a hijra sex worker and/or
burglarized earnings from sex trade… hijra are not safe in sex trade. They are forced to have
unprotected sex with clients, local influential persons, and police free of charge (Khan,
Hussain, & Parveen, 2009).
4.2 Social Status of Hijra Community in Bangladesh:
Although the government of Bangladesh has recognized hijras as the ‘third gender’, this
The Rights of Hijra in Bangladesh: An Overview 4
recognition cannot ensure the social acceptance of these people. They cannot study in schools
as the fellow students and even the teachers do not treat them well; they do not get good jobs
because of the lack of education, even the jobs that do not require literacy are not offered to
hijras as the employers and other workers can not approve of their presence at the
workplaces. They do not get medical facilities for the doctors and staffs are uncomfortable to
serve them and sometimes maltreat them. The most pathetic fact is that they do not even have
the option to live with their families. The parents, siblings and other relatives are not
comfortable to disclose their identity. So they must either to hide the fact about their sex and
assimilate or to leave the family. Both are, undoubtedly, very hard options to choose from.
The hijras that are interviewed before writing this paper expressed how much they are
exploited and maltreated in every step of their lives. In childhood they are boycotted by the
children they want to play with, scolded by the teachers and elderly people in families and
neighborhoods. Most of the time they are forced to give up the feminine features they have,
over which, naturally, they do not have control. Sometimes, when they are adult, families
want them to get married without knowing the facts about the sexual and psychological
exceptions they posses. The hijras, commonly referred to as ‘magyapola’ (effeminate boy) by
the people around them know it very well that they would not be able to lead a normal sexual
life with wives if they marry. Consequently, they have to leave home. After leaving home,
they can live either with the hijra guru and do hijragiri or live individually, which is of
course, very tough in this country. And wherever they live or whatever they do, they are
never free from mental and sexual harassments. A hijra informant shared her experience how
she lost her job in a garments factory after the forced sexual intercourse with her supervisor
was revealed as though it was her fault.
In hospitals, the situation is almost same. The doctors and staffs treat them as if they are less
than human beings and are not inclined to serve them even if they can pay the fees in private
chambers of the doctors. Moreover, most of the doctors lack the knowledge of their cultural
and social state as such treats them as social outcasts. The STI/HIV infection may occur if a
hijra is involved in sex trade. But they do not have an option to seek for proper treatment. The
hijras are not safe in sex trade also. They are raped and forced to have unsafe sex by their
clients. As a consequence they are often infected by STI.
In every sphere of life, they are treated as though they are less than human beings. Most hijra
respondents said that they are not interested to be introduced as ‘transgendered’,
‘transsexuals’ or ‘third gender’. The word ‘hijra’ is not an offensive one for them. But the
society does not allow them to be called what they like, rather it imposes what it wants to call
5. Initiatives Taken By Bangladesh Government for Hijra Community:
The government has decided to recruit hijras as traffic police officials from the next fiscal
year, as part of an attempt to rehabilitate individuals of the gender and offer them new
avenues of employment (Dhaka Tribune, 2015). The government has taken different
The Rights of Hijra in Bangladesh: An Overview 5
initiatives for the betterment of the lives of Hijra community. In the 2012-2013 fiscal years, a
rehabilitation program was launched in 7 districts of the country that include Dhaka,
Chittagong, Bogra, Dinajpur, Patuakhali, Sylhet and Khulna. In the 2012-2013 fiscal years,
around BDT 7,217,000 was allocated for the program. Through this development program
135 Hijra student received stipend and 350 Hijras who are 18 above got training to improve
their skills. Total beneficiaries were 485. In the 2013-14 fiscal year around BDT 40,731,600
was allocated for the program. In 2013-2014 more 14 districts were included under the
development program. Areas include Dhaka, Chittagong, Bogra, Dinajpur, Patuakhali,
Sylhet, Khulna, Rajbari, Netrokona, Gazipur, Chadpur, Lakhhipur, Brahmanbaria, Comilla,
Jhinaidah, Kushtia, Pirojpur, Jaipurhat, Serajganj, Naogaon and Faridpur. Through these
development programs 1071 number of Hijra’s received the old age allowance, 762 students
received stipend and were benefited. And about 950 Hijras who are above 18 will be skilled
and trained. After training 10 Hijras per district got BDT 10,000 per head as rehabilitation
grant. Total number of beneficiaries is 2903. (Ministry of Social Welfare, 2015)
In the 2014-15 fiscal year around BDT 45,872,000 allocated for the program and 1300, 789
and 900 people were expected to receive the old age allowance, education scholarship and
HR related training respectively. After training 20 (twenty) Hijras per district will get taka
10,0000/- (ten thousand) per head as rehabilitation grant and beneficiaries will be 360
people. Total number of beneficiaries will be 3349 Hijras. (Ministry of Social Welfare,
6. Possible steps to overcome the situation
The recognition of Hijra as a third gender needs to be molded into a law in order to further
facilitate social acceptance and access to state-provided social services. The responsibility of
the state is to ensure equal rights for every citizen. The following steps could be proved
helpful to change the present adverse reality for hijra community:
•The constitutional recognition of transgender people must be established. Before
taking any decision the hijras must be consulted and asked how they wanted to be
recognized by the rest of the society.
•The government of Bangladesh can constitute a Hijra Welfare Board. The board
should be taking care of the issues related to this community in order to ensure their
•There is no exact database of this community. Government should immediately create
a database with comprehensive information to assess their numbers, needs and
demands so that the board can identify ways to resolve them. Government and non-
government partnership can also be a key factor in the progress of hijra community.
•Neither by the constitution people of the transgender community is barred from
getting family property, nor by any religion practiced in our country. A legal
The Rights of Hijra in Bangladesh: An Overview 6
framework must be established so that people of the transgender (Hijra) community
can inherit family property.
•Quotas for hermaphrodites to get admitted to educational institutions must be
introduced. More job opportunities and reserved quota for the transgender group
should be in set. Alike the seat designated for the women candidates, seats should be
reserved in the parliament for the Hijra members so that their representatives can
actively take part in the policy formulation process.
•The image of the transgender community is distorted by media, by a comical and
insulting representation which must be stopped and highlight the positive aspects.
Therefore, more promotional activities are needed for better social acceptance. Media
can play a vital role in changing the perception of the society and the family of a hijra
child by publishing articles written by the experts and telecasting documentaries.
They can build public awareness and opinion about sexual diversities.
•Slots in public/private forms or paper, such as banks, insurance companies, hospitals,
passports etc. separate box for the third sex could be arranged.
•Transgender community should have access to free medical services in government
hospitals/clinics with cessation of harassment.
•Organized accommodations for transgender people; allotted shares of property should
be prioritized to the elderly transgender people.
•Textbooks, scientific databases should contain the right information with justification
from science about transgender individuals, about their identity, existence, cultures
•Laws need to be more specific so that they are not interpreted to enforce
heteronormativity, for example, laws regarding indecent behavior, unnatural sex,
•Rape laws need to offer protection to all persons including the hijras and to recognize
the multiple dimensions of rape and sexual assault beyond the physical act.
The constitution of our state is committed to promote, protect and fulfill the rights of all
people regardless of sexual identity. It is really a very good step to recognize the hijra
community as another gender. But this recognition is in pen and paper. Still they are the
underprivileged among the underprivileged groups. State is required to create and implement
laws, policies and programmes that facilitate hijras’ rights as citizens, right to protection
against violence and discrimination, right to equality under law, right to vote and stand for
The Rights of Hijra in Bangladesh: An Overview 7
election, right to livelihood, right to fair portrayals in the media, and a life with dignity as a
social human being.
The Rights of Hijra in Bangladesh: An Overview 8
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