What it means to be a hijra in Bangladesh
“My life is very different from your life”, says Aishwarya, a hijra who survives on money collected by intimidating people at traffic lights and in public parks. Aishwarya is easily distinguishable from the swarm of beggars who wait eagerly at the signals every day. Clad in shades of reds and pinks, with a large bindi on her forehead and kohl smeared eyes, she stands out (not always in a positive way though).
She explains, “I know they (public) mock me, most of them shrug me off but it’s okay. It’s not so easy to sleep on an empty stomach in the night.”
Aishwarya lives in Palam in northwest Delhi, a cold locality that looks like a cobweb of gullies, uninhabitable to a stranger’s eye but is home to many like her. She (as she likes to be identified as a woman) is one among many others from the hijra community that mostly feels at odd with the society. Living under the constant scrutiny of the public eye, they feel vulnerable in their own skin.
I know they mock me, most of them shrug me off but it’s okay. It’s not so easy to sleep on an empty stomach in the night.
The term ‘hijra’ is widely used in South Asia and refers to the transsexual and transgender community. It is derived from Semitic Arabic hjr meaning ‘leaving one’s tribe’ (understood literally as deflecting from the society’s conventions of the body, sex and sexuality). Most members of the community identify themselves as men born with souls of women and owing to their openness about their sexual orientation face marginalisation in every aspect of life.
Guided with an ambition to tell stories of the hijra community, Shahria Sharmin, a photographer from Bangladesh is capturing their emotions and vulnerabilities for the world to see. In an exclusive conversation with Shahria, where she opens up about developing a strong bond with the hijra community, breaking prejudices and the time-consuming process of taking artistically challenging photographs.
They feel vulnerable in their own skin but are proud of their own bodies, not ashamed like most of us think (Credit: Shahria Sharmin) (Others)
Shahria narrates her first encounter with the subjects of the photo series titled Call Me Heena: “I have never really physically experienced how it feels to be a part of an actual minority group. I grew up in Bangladesh, as a woman. Sure there are limitations and restrictions which I had abided by but what real struggle can be, when the question of identity and emotions come into the picture, is something I had wondered about and working with the hijra community came from that general curiosity.
"When I started working with the community, after hearing hundreds of stories, similar or otherwise, it became apparent, this is the community which I wanted to focus on and learn about. I also hoped to photograph in a way which represents them as an individual without the obvious superficial biases. That hope and curiosity helped me pursue my project.”
Taking a photograph of an intimate and natural expression is always a slow and time-consuming process and knowing that, I never rushed. Interestingly hijras are good cooks and I spent hours with them while cooking and sharing thoughts without taking any photos.
Belonging from Bangladesh, Shahria, did not always want to be a photographer. She pursued an education in Public Administration from the University of Dhaka and while studying, in several instances she recognised the art of photography. She felt that the medium “enables to tell stories and explore humanity”.
She thus knew that she “had found her path”.
She then graduated in photography from Pathshala South Asian Media Academy, Bangladesh.
During the early years of her life, she had seen her father taking family photographs. It became a thing in the family for her to take photographs keeping her "two daughters in focal points”.
Shahria says, “Years later I found myself fascinated with movies. The frames of the films that I studied intrigued me and I wanted to go deeper into the dynamics of frames. Slowly I found that as I move my lens towards a new face, I discover an astonishing new world and that is when I fell in love with photography more deeply and got into the journey of discovering new worlds.”
Fascinated with the world of photographs and narrator’s story behind each photo, she did a three years photography course at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. While studying she had to choose a photography project where she chose to work with Bangladesh’s famed garments factory workers. This changed her life in a way.
The stigma of expressing one's sexuality
Shahria remembers that while approaching her project honestly, she stumbled upon the hijra community of Bangladesh.
One day I was taking a walk with her and she mentioned how she desired a handsome husband and her wish to be his bride. Possessing a male body with a female psyche drew many questions and curiosity inside me.
She says, “It was the personality of an individual (named) ‘Nayan’, a transgender garment worker who I accidentally discovered while working. One day I was taking a walk with her and in the course of our conversation, she mentioned how she desired a handsome husband and her wish to be his bride. Possessing a male body with a female psyche drew many questions and curiosity inside me and I started to dig deep into the hijra community, forming deeper connections and solid friendships with them.”
While embarking upon a task to document the lives of a misunderstood community, she witnessed how “they are poorly labeled, with a lower status in the social structure of Bangladesh”.
“They are put in a box marked for invalids. I want to show the person behind that label, the lives and dreams behind those superficial assumptions. Maybe these stories will give them their real identity and some voice, as humans like you and me and not just as the still widely unaccepted third gender”, she adds.
Shumi (left) and Priya’s new life is subject to the rules of a guru – in exchange for a new home (Credit: Shahria Sharmin) (Others)
Individual governments of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh identify them as the ‘third gender’ or the ‘other gender’ as they are neither fully male nor fully female. But this has happened just recently. Ostracised by the society for a long time, hijras, however, enjoyed a time of reckoning thousands of years ago when they were a part of the close-knit societal structure of Southeast Asian countries.
In ancient Hindu texts such as Mahabharata and Kama Sutra, they are celebrated as third sex. During the rule of Mughal empire, they served as protectors and guards of the women of the royals called “kwaja sera”, meaning guards of the harem. But their status took a hit when during the British rule in India, hijras were deemed as criminals. Due to years of discrimination, most hijras face a low social standing in South Asia. They find claims of equal access to education, healthcare, and employment a sham.
The modern-day India opened its doors for hijras but with a sceptical eye considering their presence auspicious on several occasions like marriages and birth of children. However, with Indian society's evolution and an upscale movement towards urbanisation, hijras find themselves less invited than before.
Kajal and gang are a group of four hijras who stay together at all times. They come in groups asking for money at a popular hangout place in Hauz Khas. She says, “My sisters and I come here every day. Young couples come to this fort to spend some time together and end up giving us money. I don’t harass, no. It’s easy to be preachy but difficult to step in my shoes. Don’t say that I sell my body or use it to make money. What alternative do I have? My sisters have tried getting employment, nobody hires us but.”
But it’s not just so in the Indian context.
Shahria who took the time to live the life of an average hijra, reiterates, “There is definitely a strong negative connotation to the word hijra in the Bangladeshi community but I wouldn’t call it utter discrimination. They are now officially considered as the third gender. However, they are yet to be given due rights. They are still subjected to strong prejudice and stereotyping.
"Bangladesh is generally considered a friendly and hospitable country where all religions are welcomed. I would say our problem with discrimination and negligence is as prominent as the next country. There isn’t a specific formula that would make this discrimination go away but the first step towards it would be to facilitate their rights from the state, including, but not limited to voting rights, a social ID, medical facilities, education and public safety. This would be the first step towards treating them the same way as the next person.”
Heena (51): “I feel like a mermaid. My body tells me I am a man and my soul tells me I am a woman” (Credit: Shahria Sharmin) (Others)
As a photographer, Shahria feels that “meeting new people, approaching the unknown and their responses varying between rejections and acceptances” is the most challenging aspect of her profession. Like every other work, she made a point to get familiar with her subjects before capturing them in her camera.
Shahria explains, “Taking a photograph of an intimate and natural expression is always a slow and time-consuming process and knowing that, I never rushed. Normally I spend a considerable time with a particular subject and most of the times I don’t even shoot. I hang around with them for the whole day, have meals with them. Interestingly hijras are good cooks and I spent hours with them while cooking and sharing thoughts without taking any photos. Trust level evolved when we argued and justified different social issues. I tried to identify with their values. Slowly, I tried to figure out what expressions they wanted to share with others and in what form.
“Normally I would discuss with them about the photograph I wanted to take and the way I would like to represent (them) to others. In most of the cases, they gave me some ideas or guidelines as to how they would like to be represented. I never noticed much anxiety among them for the way of their representation, rather I found them quite confident on what they are looking for. I did not deviate from their intentions. I had proven (myself) as a trustworthy person among their community.”
Tina (21): “I am giving an exam. I don’t know what the result will be…” (Credit: Shahria Sharmin) (Others)
Shahria says, “Amidst all hate and rejection from the society, hijras have happened to make a fruitful life out of what little they have and to me, this is what makes them unique. Perhaps media perceives them through a different lens because of this very reason. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. They are unique in their own way and that what makes them so beautiful, inside and out. This is what I try to portray through my photos.
“It is not fair to assume that all are seeking empathy. Why are they expected to act normal when it is so difficult to earn a living because society simply won’t accept them? What exactly is ‘normal’? Perhaps they are just reaching out.
On my question of why all photos of hijras are centred around the body and are always seeking empathy from the public eye, Shahria speaks with a hint of defence, “It is not fair to assume that all are seeking empathy from the audience. They like to think they can live a self-sufficient life just like anyone else. Because they didn’t exactly fit into the very specific gender expectation, they are most often subjected to strong stereotyping. Why are they expected to act normal when they don’t receive the same rights? Medical facilities? Safety? Why are they expected to act normal when it is so difficult to earn a living because society simply won’t accept them? What exactly is ‘normal’? When we are photographing them, perhaps their act of reaching out is often mistaken for them seeking empathy.”
On another note, she mentions that she is the narrator of the story. She says, “I never had them click themselves. Perhaps it would have been a completely different perspective. However, I never clicked the pictures without a reason or a story. I spent a day or two with them without my camera, getting to know them, feel them and once I thought I had done so, I presented them in a way that they I thought they would embody themselves through the pictures. It was a mutual understanding.”
Breaking myths, Shahria says, “It might appear they hide their body because society expected them to be and act a particular way. They don’t exactly fit into the strict formula that society has created for each gender. I would say they wish not to hide but celebrate their body. They are forced to act like something they are not simply to be recognised worthy or capable by the society.
Hijras typically dress like women, but no physical transition or change is required to be inducted into the community. In fact, many identify as neither men nor women, but rather as a “third gender,” a status that has received legal recognition in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Shahria does not expect things to change overnight but is hopeful that people would start responding to her photograph and the subsequently the community in due time. She adds, “I believe we know what we have to know about them but we simply choose to ignore it, because of our convenience. We are too selfish to step outside our box and celebrate changes.”