Sunday 2 April 2023

The Hijras of Shyampur

It took a little time to find Miss Bobby’s home. It was behind one of Shyampur's main streets, down a narrow, litter strewn alley on a raised platform with several other houses. All of them consisted of a single room constructed from corrugated metal. I later learned that the platform is to protect the homes from the sewage that sometimes comes to the surface during the monsoon.

Miss Bobby was not feeling well. She sat on her bed, arms folded. Her hennaed hair was swept back and tied into an austere bun. She is the guru or leader of a group of Hijra (third gender) living in Dhaka’s Shyampur neighbourhood. She is also the founder of Susto Jibon – an NGO that focuses on health and human rights for third gender people. She greeted us with an almost imperceptible nod and said “hello” in English. Like Munaji in Delhi, she was at first a little cold and understandably suspicious but began to warm when I asked her about the NGO. She said, “I started it in 2000. I could see that the community needed somewhere to go for help and information. We began by offering advice on safe sex and giving out free condoms, lubricant and medicines. Our work has developed over the years and now we also do blood tests, run community workshops and teach craft skills”. 

Sanjeeda and Meryl (holding her pet dog)

I asked her about her own story. She said “I am 60 years old. I joined the community about 40 years ago and have been leading it for the last 15-20 years. I realised I was not like other boys when I was seven or eight. I didn’t need to tell my family as they could see it for themselves. They were not pleased. My father, who was a government worker would become very angry and beat me”. She paused briefly and then continued “I felt very sad and lonely but then I saw a group of Hijra performing in the street, singing and dancing.  I wanted to join them. Now I am the leader of that community”.

 While we were speaking two of her followers came into the room and listened to our conversation which was conducted in a mixture of English, Hindi and Bangla and with the help of a translator. Meryl and Sanjeeda are two of the 3-400 Hijras living in this area. I asked Miss Bobby if the neighbours are accepting of them. She said “We have been here for ten years now, and our neighbours do not trouble us. It wasn’t like this in the past, but today we are accepted and sometimes we are called upon to make peace between couples who are fighting or quarrelling”. 

Meryl and Sanjeeda also shared their stories. Sanjeeda is 36 and was born in Shyampur. Like Miss Bobby, she understood that she was different at an early age and although her parents were accepting of her, the neighbours were not. She said, “they would come to our house and say to my father ‘we don’t want your son to play with our children, keep him away’”. She continued, “my father is dead now. My mother lives with me”. She eventually found her way to the Susto Jibon office, and received help and advice.

I asked about her experiences at school, but she said “I only completed class one. I cannot read or write”. Like the other community members, Sanjeeda collects donations from shops and people in the street and performs and gives blessings at weddings and on the birth of a new baby. I wondered how people respond to their requests for alms. “Some people are kind and give money, but others shout at us and tell us to get work. We sometimes get attention from religious people. They say very bad things to us”. She added “I usually collect as part of a group, so I am not afraid”. 

Meryl plays up for the camera

Meryl is 42. She is of striking appearance. Her hair was pulled back, emphasising her high cheekbones and she wore a large bindi between her eyebrows. She was born in Old Dhaka, one of ten children in a family where the father had two wives. “My family were very kind to me and wanted me to stay with them, but I realised I had to leave and live with people like me” she said. We stepped outside onto the platform to take some photographs and she immediately began playing up for the camera, spinning around, covering her face with a dupatta and picking up her pet dog and cat saying, “they are my babies”. Sanjeeda looked on, amused, clearly the more reserved of the two.

Meryl is known for her singing and dancing, and she wanted to perform for us. She prepared by brushing out her long hair and applying fresh make-up, all the time feigning shyness and laughing. She then stepped down from the platform into the narrow alley, picked up the neighbour’s baby and began to sing and dance in time to Sanjeeda’s tabla playing. The neighbour was unperturbed, and the baby seemed to enjoy the attention. At the end of the song, Meryl joined Sanjeeda on the platform and Miss Bobby re-appeared. I left a “tip” with her, and we made our way to another Hijra household.

Paakhi Islam and her friends were waiting in a room at the top of an unfinished apartment building. The room is accessed through a shared courtyard and a series of staircases lacking bannisters. Chickens roamed freely in the yard below and a woman was cooking on the walkway of one of the upper levels. Paakhi is 33 and has been a member of this group for 12 years. Her story is like that of Meryl and Sanjeeda. She said, “When I was ten, I thought ‘I am a boy, but I behave like a girl’. My parents couldn’t understand me. I know my mother loved me, but my father would beat me. The neighbours were also a problem and would say ‘you are half woman, don’t come around here’”. She eventually found her way to Miss Bobby’s NGO, made friends and received help. Her mother is dead now and her father lives in Spain, but she has no contact with him.

Paakhi is better educated than most of the other group members. She studied until she was 16 and completed class eight. She has also worked in the fashion industry. Her height and looks have attracted attention and she has appeared as a model in a professional fashion show. Bangladesh is one of the world’s major garment producers, but modelling opportunities are limited, and she still collects donations from shopkeepers once a week. She also gives blessings and dances to supplement her income. 

Paakhi Islam, model

While Paakhi sat on her bed talking to me, several members of her group, cross-legged on the floor, chatted and joked with each other. They were very different from Miss Bobby, Sanjeeda and Meryl. Two of them, perhaps in their twenties, wore male clothing, had short hair and had not shaved for a couple of days. When I asked about this, they explained that they only wear saris when they go collecting. One of the group, Imran (not his real name), had a full beard and a white topi or skullcap, as worn by some religious Muslim men.  When I entered the room, he - (I use the word “he” because Imran describes himself as “a man”. If I were able to write this in Bangla, this would not be an issue as the same word is used for “he” and “she” just as it is in Hindi)- gave a nervous laugh and covered the topi with a scarf in the way that some women wear hijab. Palash said “I began feeling different between the ages of eight and ten. My family understood what this meant and that it was not good. There were serious quarrels and I understood I needed to live somewhere else”.  

I asked about his religious appearance and if he faces extra difficultires because of his faith. He said “Yes, I am religious. I like to read the Koran. But I know I am different. I used to collect money and dance at weddings with my friends, but I didn’t enjoy it and so instead, I opened a small pharmacy to support myself. I hope God loves me and will help me with my business”. He continued “I opened a second branch of my business in my village, but the religious people give me problems. When I’m in the village I try to behave like a man but sometimes I cannot control it”. He told me that there is a madrassa (religious school) in Dhaka that caters for third gender people and takes students of all ages and said, “I haven’t had any trouble from extremists, but there are groups that threaten our community and some people have been killed”.

Imran has bravely tried to overcome a major problem for the Hijra community – that of earning a living outside of collecting alms, dancing and giving blessings, or working in prostitution. I told the group about a scheme in Karachi, Pakistan where Hijras are successfully employed to recover the tax arrears of small businesses. In India there have also been programmes to employ Hijras (and lesbian, gay and transgender people) in the Delhi Metro system. They listened with great interest but then cast doubt on such schemes ever being implemented in Bangladesh.

I was curious to know if there were any links between Hijras and gay and lesbian people. Homosexuality is illegal in Bangladesh. Although the laws are generally not enforced there is strong social disapproval of same-sex relationships and in recent years, high-profile gay rights campaigners have been murdered. When I asked about this, the mood changed and all denied any link, explaining that “to be Hijra is legal, but these things are not. It is very dangerous for those people. We are not the same. We don’t know them”.

As I left, Paakhi and her friends asked me to visit again. In the courtyard one of her group asked me if I would spend a few minutes talking to a girl who lived on the ground floor of the building. She had not met a foreigner before and was curious about me. I spent a few minutes talking to her and was impressed by her English – she was just twelve but spoke confidently and with good pronunciation before shyness overcame her and she went back into her home.

Miss Bobby in yellow with Sanjeeda and Meryl

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