Precise definitions of hijra and transgender are required: Shale Ahmed

Bandhu Social Welfare Society (BANDHU) has been working for the betterment of the lives of Gender Diverse Population (GDP) in Bangladesh through diverse ways since 1997. The organisation is the first of its kind in the country. Shale Ahmed is one of the founding members of the organisation and its current Executive Director. Recently he talked to Prothom Alo’s Shameem Reza about the lives and rights of the Gender Diverse Population in Bangladesh, the ways BANDHU is functioning and some other issues.


There are several terms, for example hijra, transgender, transmen, transwomen, bigender. Are these words just academic terms to mean one particular condition in different contexts or they actually refer to different conditions?

When we say Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), it has a different sort of clarification and explanation. This term mainly used by the UN. But if we focus on two words here – hijra and transgender – since the Mughal Empire, hijra people have been living in a customary way. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are the most common places where they live. Other South Asian countries do not have a hijra community or culture. Members of the hijra community want to express themselves as women, and the term hijra refers to the culture of a certain group. Hijra people are proud of their heritage and culture. They make a living by blessing new-borns and clapping their hands in traditional songs, dances, and rhythms to earn money.

A hijra gets introduced by a respected guru and becomes a disciple of the guru as part of their own culture. In society, members of the hijra group are known by the name of their gurus. Hijra culture is built on the ‘gurubad’ concept, which states that the guru is the sole owner of all decisions made in a certain hijra society. A hijra guru assists everyone in adhering to their own traditions. In their language, this usual behaviour is known as “hijragiri.” Traditional activities such as 'badhai' (clapping money), blessing a new-born infant, dancing, and singing provide a living for hijras. Some hijras become disciples through initiation, but they do not live in communities or participate in hijragiri.

Besides that, when a child is identified as male or female by a medical expert at birth and that identity differs with his or her perceived gender identity, they are known as transgender. For example, a doctor may identify a child’s genitals as boy’s at birth, but when the youngster grows up and believes he is physiologically a girl, she is referred to as a transwoman. It is not necessary to undergo a surgery, or hormone medication, or a wardrobe change to become a transgender person. A person is considered a transgender from the moment he or she introduces themselves as such.


Do you know the exact number of hijra and transgender people in Bangladesh?

It’s a travesty that, despite working for them for the past 25-26 years, we don’t know the exact number of such people in Bangladesh. Then, beginning in 2017, we started working on it with the assistance of NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) for nearly five years. We’ve had some success, since the BBS (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics) just gave us, a letter stating that the number of hijras in the country would be included in the upcoming census. The census was supposed to take place in March of last year, but due to the coronavirus outbreak, the date has been pushed back.

Q :

All kinds of transgender people have been given recognition of Third Gender …

This has to be clarified. The term ‘Third Gender’ was not used in the government gazette notification. Instead, the government has designated hijra individuals as “hijra lingo (hijra gender)”. Since then, there is a lack of uniformity in documents, as some use hijra and some other third gender. I applaud the government for recognising the phenomenon, but there should have been a clear definition of who the hijras are, and there is absolutely nothing that corresponds to the Third Gender.

Q :

This recognition came in late 2013. What steps have you taken in the last 8-9 years to clarify the point?

In this context, we participated in various conversations and consultation meetings with key government officials. I’d like to make two points here. For inclusion in the Anti-Discriminatory Act, we submitted definitions of hijra, transgender and other varied groups of people. We recently had another discussion with the NHRC. They assigned to us the task of drafting the Transgender Protection Rights Protection Act. We’ve adopted the term “Transgender” as an umbrella term to make the act more egalitarian.


Since when have you been working with NHRC? If you elaborate your engagement …

Our engagement with the NHRC dates back to the organisation’s inception. I am grateful for their assistance on all levels. ‘Ain Alap’ is our legal department. If anyone from the transgender community or other gender diverse person around the country contacts us for legal assistance regarding gender-based violence, familial oppression, or any other issue, we do our best to assist them. But every now and again, due to the sensitivity of the nature of the occurrence, we are unable to do anything. We refer those cases to the NHRC. For example, a transgender employee at a medical association was fired a few years ago “for her demeanour” on the job. He contacted us, but we forwarded the matter to the NHRC. The human rights commission fought the case for the individual and assisted him in regaining his job. The compensations were also given to the person.

Q :

Hijra people have been given the recognition through a gazette notification. Is there any implementation of this recognition?

The government announced in the last budget that any company that would employ transgender persons will receive a tax break. Following that, we received a slew of job offers from this community. There are still a lot of things to work on because the current working atmosphere isn’t very conducive. For example, a company hires a particular amount of hijra persons to work for them. However, the majority of their employees are from outside the neighbourhood. As a result, the issue of level of acceptance must be examined. However, such government actions are really beneficial to us.

Q :

But experts say the government is a machine that needs a push from outside …

I’d like to give two examples in this regard. In 1997, the Bangladesh government adopted its first health strategy, and shortly thereafter, another document, the National Strategy for HIV Prevention, was developed. On those two texts, BANDHU collaborated with the Ministry of Health to include health-related concerns affecting transgender and Hijra groups. Later, we began collaborating with the NCTB (National Curriculum and Textbook Board) to collect gender-related topics in textbooks. NCTB asked us to produce supplementary reading materials for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders about transgender problems. Around three years ago, NCTB aided us in piloting. The National Council on Transgender Issues has also included the transgender problem in the textbooks that will be used in the new curriculum. This is BANDHU’s most significant achievement to date.

In parliament a few days ago, the education minister highlighted the Shahana cartoon while discussing reproductive and sexual health issues. We submitted the segment of the cartoon that deals with the transgender topic. With the aid of UNFPA, BANDHU was able to do this.

Q :

Since our discussion has turned towards BANDHU, if you tell us about your work…

BANDHU primarily focuses on three areas: health services including SRHR (Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights), ensuring their legal and human rights, and economic empowerment. We are currently more active in the area of economic empowerment. If we can do it, others will be inspired to do the same.

Furthermore, as part of social entitlement through cultural activism and economic empowerment for the inhabitants of this town, we have developed a cultural group called ‘Essence of Soul’. The ensemble was invited by the Department of Youth Development (DYD) to perform at the recent National Youth Day, which was presided over by the honourable President. On 2 November 2021, the ensemble performed at Osmani Memorial Auditorium. In addition, we’ve been collaborating with the National Legal Aid Services Organisation (NLASO). NLASO has granted us membership so that we can participate as observers in District Legal AID meeting in all 64 districts around the country and challenge any discrimination in that forum.

Q :

Do you have offices outside Dhaka? Are you working with other organisations interested in the same task?

BANDHU has been implementing its programmes through 38 field offices in 23 districts and 40 partner organisation/ Community-based organisations (CBO)’s across the country. BANDHU strongly believes empowering the community is the most effective way to inclusion and acceptance. Toward this objective BANDHU emphasises partnership implementation most. Outside of partner organisations and CBO’s we are offering joint venture with community group, movements, platform, even individual enterprises who are keen to work for inclusive society irrespective of gender identity.

Q :

A few years ago we were hearing about recruiting hijra people as traffic police. What happened with the step?

Initially, 12 hijras were going to be hired as traffic police. However, there is still a significant lack of knowledge. Those who were chosen for the interview had to endure a humiliating “medical test,” in which all candidates were subjected to a genitalia test in order to certify their hijra gender. Actually, they were all transgender, which means they wanted to alter their gender. Their genital organ is linked with their gender - this is a misconception. You must comprehend how a person prefers to be recognised, regardless of genital organ. That is why I emphasised the importance of a precise description of hijra and transgender. You may recall that there was a dispute regarding “real hijra” and “fake hijra” after that incident. The point is that the entire recruitment process has come to a halt.

Q :

Has anyone from hijra community competed in parliament elections?

Several members of this community attempted to run in the 2018 general election. However, the constitutional provision to run in any election is solely for men or women. As a result, they must compete in polls as women, although the majority of their NID cards are registered with their birth names, i.e., male identities. Several hijra people ran for office in the last union parishad election, but as women or men.

As I have stated, there must be consistency in the documents - whether it is hijra, transgender, or third gender. However, keeping ‘other’ would be preferable. It would be more open-minded.

Q :

You said sensitivity of the issue. Can these people form family?

Any human being has the right to form a family. That right is guaranteed by the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) as well as our constitution. The topic is now a social taboo. However, I would like to emphasise one point: no religion has ever spoken out against a hijra creating a family. They have obstacles in society from time to time, but this is gradually changing. These days, many members of the transgender community are adopting children.

Q :

Is there anything you would like to add in the issue?

We’re doing things slowly because we’ve been working in a highly sensitive area. To clarify, when we first started working here, several of my close friends avoided using the road in front of our office for fear of being stigmatised. Even members of the hijra community were unconvinced of our motivations. But I believe our efforts have paid off. Many organisations and individuals, including lawyers, have expressed interest in collaborating with us in order to build a more inclusive society.

In response to an inquiry on BANDHU’s actions during the Covid-19 pandemic, Shale Ahmed produced a paper stating that BANDHU distributed relief to 14,548 people while providing relief to 12,631 people through networking and communication. It offered 3,848 people with health care services, including mental health counselling, and ran an awareness campaign through public service announcements, reaching an estimated 31,41,148 people. The organisation also distributed 31,837 pieces of personal safety and hygiene equipment to the public. BANDHU also established a doctor’s hotline for Covid-19 and undertook pandemic research and knowledge management.

BANDHU initiated the Covid-19 vaccine registration initiative in divisional cities. This was a particularly commendable step because the software used to register vaccine recipients had no categories other than male and female. To support vaccination for gender diverse persons, a committee comprised of staff from BANDHU’s head office, field offices, HIM centre, and other district-level programmes formed a countywide volunteer team. The team also aided Gender Diverse Persons in using the Shurokkha App to register for Covid-19 vaccine, provided required information, and encouraged vaccination awareness.