Neither a male nor a female, she is transgender. No matter how society perceives transgender people, she feels proud of identifying herself as a 'Hijra'. But she did not like or chose 'hijragiri'(making a living by extorting money) as her profession. Instead of doing what other transgender people are doing across the country, she took to a thorny path of doing something for the community she belongs to and also to transform herself into a self-reliant person.
She started bringing a large number of Hijras together who were engaged in begging or extortion and making them self-sufficient by training them and giving them jobs in making handicrafts.
Her name is Arifa Yesmin Muyari. She founded 'Siri Handicraft' in 2010 and now about 35 transgender people are working under her in her hometown Jamalpur. Being a transgender did not prevent her from becoming a successful entrepreneur. Indeed, she has proved that gender does not matter, but the spirit does.
She was reminiscing on her struggling past at the ongoing national SME fair. She participates in that fair every year.
"After completing a diploma course in electric trade from Mymensingh Polytechnic Institute, I applied for different jobs, but at the viva, I had to face questions like, 'you are a 'hijra', how would you do the job?" she continued.
She got the same outcome after applying for a position in the Power Development Board and sitting for a recruitment test at Mymensingh Judge's Court. By that time she was convinced that she was not going to get any government job.
This societal ignorance as also indifference taught her that she needed to be self-sufficient to succeed in life. The result was that she formed Siri Shomaj Kolyan Shangstha, with four other transgender friends at Jamalpur's Mukundabari in 2007. The foundation started doing voluntary work like blood donation, distributing relief materials to flood-affected people, helping the poor, et cetera. The foundation now has 83 transgender members.
After creating the foundation, she started knocking on the doors of every transgender around her, those who were engaged in begging or extorting. "I tried to convince them to work legally. At first, most of them turned down my offer, wondering how they would survive if they stopped extorting or begging. So I planned to create job opportunities for them."
At the time, most transgender people declined her proposals to work with her, even saying such endeavours were not going to work out.
But Arifa did not give up.
After three years, in 2010, she managed to convince some transgenders to work with her. It was thus that Siri Handicrafts began its journey and social worker Arifa became an entrepreneur.
Many ups and downs impeded her path, but then state minister of textiles and jute Mirza Azam and Faruk Ahmed Chowdhury, chairman of the district council, managed her initial funding of the business. She mentions them with due respect. "Except for them, no other persons helped me on my journey."
Now about 25 transgender people work from their homes under Siri Handicrafts and about 10 members work in her two-storey office. Every year Arifa runs training sessions in handicraft work.
Siri Handicrafts does not have any outlets, but those working for it always showcase their products in fairs, including various trade fairs, to boost their confidence, and resulting in successful registration with the department of women affairs, as well as the department of social welfare.
Her dedication to her community earned her the Dhaka divisional Joyeeta Award in 2016. She also received the National SME Entrepreneur Reward in 2019.
She spoke of some of her expansion plans in the course of the conversation. "I am planning to apply for a pond from BSCIC (Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation) for farming fish there with five transgender members of my foundation. I also have plans to buy five cows and give it to five members."
But at end of the day, she thinks, transgenders are the victims of discrimination across the country as they are not allowed to do government jobs. "Even when we want to go inside any government office, guards close the collapsible gates. I have faced such discrimination repeatedly," she lamented.
"I may have achieved something, but what about other transgenders across the country? I got strong family support, but what about other transgenders who didn't? Can't the government give us funds and stand beside us?" she questioned.