Earlier this month, Bangladesh hosted the largest trans pride parade in the nation's history. The festivities occurred November 10, the one-year anniversary of the government's decision to recognize hijras — a term that refers to transgender, intersex, eunuch, transvestite, or transsexual members of South Asian societies — as a third gender.
Hijra pride rallies were held countrywide in six regions, featuring parades, henna painting, and a talent search. The festivities culminated with a huge parade in Dhaka, the country's capital. Organizers said the objective was to highlight the community's progress in securing rights, and remind government stakeholders of the need for a comprehensive law addressing ongoing discrimination against the estimated 10,000 hijras in Bangladeshi society.
"Our government protects us, our police protects us, our country protects us," cried Mou, a hijra who offered only her first name as she danced jubilantly at the main parade in Dhaka. Others around her shouted, "Joi hijra! Joi Bangladesh!" — "Long live hijra! Long live Bangladesh!"
Around Dhaka, hijras in multicolored saris danced exultantly in the streets, while others sat atop horse-drawn carriages tied with blue and pink balloons, flanked by stone-faced policemen. In a strong signal of support, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police banned cars along the parade route and dispatched approximately 50 officers to monitor security at the event, which was organized by the Bangladesh Ministry of Social Welfare, the Bandhu Social Welfare Society, and UNAIDS Bangladesh.
When the azaan — the Muslim call to prayer — pierced the air, the dancing and drumbeats halted in deference to the moment. The sari-draped hijras stood still, quietly holding pink banners that read, "Now the stigma, discrimination and fear are gone," "We are humans too," and, "We got our recognition as a third gender." A few minutes later, the azaan ended and festivities resumed.
For the first time in Bangladesh's 43-year history, Rakesh, a hijra going only by her first name, said she felt embraced — rather than spurned — in a public space. She had traveled nearly five hours from her home in Rajshahi to attend the festivities in Dhaka. Like others, she came to bear witness to the inroads made by her community and issue a call for the extension of more rights.
Bangladesh has slowly adopted more inclusive policies toward hijras, but progress has been gradual. In 2009, Bangladesh allowed hijras to vote for the first time. Now the government organizes everything from job training programs for hijras to healthcare services to screen for HIV and STDs. To reduce transphobia toward hijras, plans are also underway to spearhead mass hijra awareness campaigns in public schools. The government is also offering subsidies to promote school attendance, since dropout rates among hijras are among the highest in the country.
Elderly hijras — who are often unable to work and lack support from their families — are also eligible for allowances. Perhaps most significantly, hijras are now included under the National Social Protection Strategy (NSPS), which offers employment opportunities and a social safety net for the most vulnerable members of society.
According to Fosiul Ahsan, the deputy director of programs at the Bandhu Social Welfare Society, a human rights group that supports the health and wellbeing of sexual minorities, Hijra Pride 2014 had three goals: sensitizing civil society, celebrating recognition, and working with stakeholders to issue a new agenda.
Last year, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced at a cabinet-level meeting that the country would recognize hijras as a third gender. Hijras would receive equal access to healthcare, education, and employment. Government IDs would also allow citizens to select from male, female, or hijra. Before they received legal recognition, most hijras simply affixed "Hijra" to their formal name to mark their gender designation.
Despite the reforms, hijras in Bangladesh continue to face significant discrimination and exclusion from society. To earn money, Hijras often solicit alms on the street or bless newborns, a practice known as "challah." Many are forced to leave families, schools, and jobs that do not accept their third gender status.
"Society doesn't give me shelter, security, or money," Annoya Banik, a hijra who organized the Dhaka parade, told VICE News. "People say to me: Oh, you are hijra, why do you come here? People shout abuses at me."
Although she's grateful the government recognized hijra as a separate gender, she has yet to see last year's recognition impact her life in a practical way, referring to it as nothing more than "a fake law."
Hijra Pride 2014 began with what organizers called the Dhaka Declaration — a statement to the government and law enforcement demanding a comprehensive law to address the issues still faced by trans people in Bangladesh. Although the country has made progress, hijras face widespread social exclusion, labor discrimination, harassment, educational inequality, and stigma. Most hijras are abandoned by their families during childhood because they fail to conform to a strict gender binary.
Hijras often supplant traditional familial structures with a guru-led support system. According to activists at Hijra Pride 2014, the economic marginalization of hijras is rooted in isolation from their families. They often lose inheritances, property, and safe shelter. Most employers fear hiring hijras will scare away customers, leaving them with few employment options outside of the entertainment industry or sex trade.
"Human rights must be inclusive, not exclusive," parliamentarian Tarana Halim said, addressing a crowd of hijras before the parade.
In an interview with VICE News, Halim admitted that previous governments stigmatized politicians that rallied for the rights of sexual minorities, leaving many afraid to express support for fear of alienating their constituency. She said legislation on hijra rights is in the works, but would require more time.
"I don't think this will move within four or five more [parliamentary] sessions," Halim said.
Halim also called for a census of the hijra population, which is currently estimated to be about 10,000 people nationwide. That figure is likely much higher, however, and officials say getting a more accurate figure is a key step to allocating funds and designing social welfare programs.
Even though hijra is now recognized as a gender on government IDs, activists are still waiting for lawmakers to take similar steps with other types of official paperwork.
"It will be a long way to go until all government documents mention a third gender," Mohuya Leya Falia, a program manager at the human rights NGO Manusher Jonno Foundation, told VICE News. "For example, when hijras get a passport, there are still only two options: just male or female. There is no other option. At the applied level, so much needs to be done."
Though the atmosphere at the parade in Dhaka was often jubilant, many people told VICE News it was only a small step toward ending trans discrimination in Bangladesh.
"I think the parade is just a start," parade attendee Anbid Zaman said. "They have a long way to go. It's a great thing that our government has formally recognized them as a third gender. And it's our turn to accept them as human beings."
Follow Sabrina Toppa on Twitter: @SabrinaToppa