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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 June, 2005, 02:47 GMT 03:47 UK
Fighting for sexual tolerance

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Dhaka

Hizras in Bangladesh
Hizras bear the brunt of prejudice in sexually conservative Bangladesh
They have been ostracised for generations but now they are campaigning for equal treatment from society and the law.

They are the hizras of Bangladesh. Hizra literally means "impotent ones". Many hizras in Bangladesh say they are born hermaphrodite, of indeterminate gender.

Others are men who want a sex change, though few can afford to have the operation.

All dress as women in saris or the long flowing blouses and trousers known as shalwar kameez. They wear jewellery and make-up.

"We used to feel that we were the most humiliated creatures in the world," says Miss Pinky Sikder, the president of Badhon Hizra Shangho (the United Hizra Organisation).

"Now at least we know we are human beings like everyone else and we can have rights."


Non-traditional sexuality of any kind is deeply frowned upon in Bangladesh which, although a relatively tolerant Muslim country, remains conservative in sexual matters.

During an exam I wore a shirt with a bra underneath. A friend of mine saw it and I was beaten severely by the teachers

Laws dating from the British Raj era making sodomy a crime punishable by life in prison are still on the statute books.

In reality they are rarely enforced. The condemnation from society of anyone found to be gay is deterrent enough for most to remain very firmly shut in the closet.

As the most visible group with a differing sexuality, hizras say they bear the brunt of the prejudice.

"It's beyond imagination that I could get a job," says Khuki, who is from the capital.

"Whenever we go out we get lots of bad comments and catcalls. It is impossible to get a job."

Saima says she was forced to abandon her education.

"I was doing well in my studies but one day during an exam I wore a shirt with a bra underneath. A friend of mine saw it and I was beaten severely by the teachers. I stopped going to school after that."


Hizras have a long tradition in the subcontinent.

Some see themselves as the cultural descendants of the eunuchs who worked in the harems of the Mughul emperors centuries ago.

We were tortured by the police and the mastaans (local gangsters), they took our money and forced us to have sex with them for free

In India they are considered auspicious. They often turn up unannounced, in a group, at weddings or a house where a baby has been born to bless the family.

They dance and sing, refusing to leave until they are given money. They are seldom disappointed, a hizra curse is believed to be as powerful as a blessing.

But that tradition has largely died out in Islamic Bangladesh, leaving them little alternative but to turn to prostitution to make a living.

After nightfall they congregate in the parks of Dhaka with other prostitutes to look for customers.

It exposes them to great dangers, but members of Badhon Hizra Shangho say, thanks to the organisation, their work has got safer.

"In the past we used to feel very insecure," says Moni, another member of the 180-strong organisation.

"We were tortured by the police and the mastaans (local gangsters), they took our money and forced us to have sex with them for free.

"We couldn't assert ourselves as human beings because we were sex workers. But now we have a position and if one person gets tortured or attacked we all go to help them.

"Now we have a community to share our pain."

Third gender

Badhon Hizra Shangho has also turned its attention to Bangladesh's laws. The hizras say they face harassment from officials because of their indeterminate status.

Miss Pinky Sikder
When you are united it is easier to survive, says Miss Pinky

"I have had real problems in government offices, hundreds of questions," says Appely Mahmud.

"They said to me, 'your first name, Appely, is a lady's name and your second name, Mahmud, is a boy's name. So which are you?' When I replied I was a lady boy they were very angry. We want a conclusion to this."

The hizras also claim they are routinely denied a vote during elections because they look like women but are registered with the names of men.

So they are campaigning to get themselves officially recognised as a third gender alongside men and women. They want three boxes on official forms, male, female and hizra.

Badhon Hizra Shangho has held rallies in the streets to push for a change in the law.

The hizras also tried to hand in a petition to the home ministry but were held back by police.

Still, the members of Badhon Hizra Shangho hope that eventually they will succeed in getting the rights they demand.

"We will get there." says Pinky Sikder. "When you see the Pinky of today and the Pinky of 10 years ago there is a huge difference.

"If you are alone it is impossible to fight but if you are united it is easier to survive. We believe our lives will get better."

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