When it comes to the rights of individuals identifying as hijras, Bangladesh has been taking significant strides forward in strengthening them in the last couple of years.
However, the loopholes and lack of awareness of the community stand as obstacles to the equality we expect.
In January 2014, the Bangladesh government officially gave recognition to hijras as the third gender.
To add more into the bargain, on June 3, 2021, the government included a special five percent tax rebate for companies if at least 10 percent of their entire workforce comprises members from the third gender or transgender community.
It is commendable that our government is taking responsible actions to mend the gap between hijras and other members of society.
But, after a closer look, I wonder whether it is enough when millions of people in our country still do not have a clear understanding of the differences between transgender and other intersex identities.
Between 2015 and 2016, the Human Rights Watch conducted a report that revealed the harassment endured by a group of hijras.
The ministry of social welfare sought 40 hijra applicants to fill in for low-level government jobs in 2014.
The interview process turned out to be a humiliating experience where officers criticised and harassed the group based on their choice to wear makeup.
After six months of waiting, there came an even more traumatising medical examination in 2015. The officials ordered the selected participants to take 60 mandatory tests at a government hospital.
One of such tests was a physical examination placed to spot out the 'fake' hijras. The applicants were asked to remove their clothes, only to be humiliated as the nurses kept on questioning their identities.
Such incidents not only highlights the widespread ignorance about trans identity among the general public but also the government.
Lumping trans and other non-binary identities under the term third gender is giving rise to certain confusions.
People who are transgender are individuals whose gender identity assigned at birth differs from the genitalia they have unless individuals decide to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.
Mita, a 19-year-old hijra, lives with her community members in a tiny apartment. In a conversation with her, I had the opportunity to discuss what she thinks of her identity.
"I did not know before whether I was a boy or a girl. After I started to get acquainted with people here I realised I am neither a male nor a female", she says. "But in terms of my soul, I feel completely like a girl."
When asked about what she feels comfortable identifying herself as she said that she preferred the term third gender mostly due to its official recognition by the government.
Mita's words were a reflection of her internal trauma and agony caused by the constant need to fit according to society's needs and expectations.
However, the term third gender is a problematic doctrine dictated by a patriarchal authority than the individuals themselves.
In return, it erases trans and non-binary identities by lumping them together under one constructed category - perhaps one of the most notorious by-products of the patriarchy fueled by centuries of colonialism.
During the colonial era, the draconian 1871 Criminal Tribes Act declared gender diverse communities such as the hijras as immoral and corrupt. Centuries later, the laws have changed, but its ideology seems to be more or less stuck with the people.
In a Dhaka Tribune article, Jaya Sikdar, a prominent activist of the transgender community said, "We still see a lot of confusion regarding our identities - we want an alteration. Hijra is a culture. Many transgender men and women live within this culture."
"There is a tendency to label us as a part of the 'third gender'. If we are the 'third gender', who are of the first gender? Men? If that is the case then, we are reinforcing the same, age-old patriarchy."
Yet to this day, the government has not clearly defined the meaning of a hijra, transgender, or intersex person. Without establishing the rightful definitions of their identity, the community is at risk of protecting themselves outside of their official title.
We are not yet sure if our government acquired a better understanding of identities. But its lack thereof instead perpetuates social abuse. Unfortunately, its impact extends over transgender adolescents from lower socio-economic classes.
Since the country is so entangled in trauma itself, these ultra-marginalised individuals rarely reach a point of self-actualisation. They are usually happy being recognised as a member of the third gender because, at the end of the day, some recognition is better than none.
For the benefit of the general public, they continue to live with an identity crisis.
Nevertheless, it is praiseworthy that our government is continuously working on bettering the policies regarding the lives of the hijra community. Its ongoing process to draft the Hijra Protection Act, which intends to secure the rights of transgender children to their family inheritance is another commendable step.
But, it also stands to be equally paramount that the government puts the effort to distinguish transgender and non-binary identities. If the public or the government does not have a clear grip about gender identities then harassers will always find a way to stigmatise or abuse.
The author is a research associate at the Bangladesh Forum for Legal & Humanitarian Affairs (BFLHA). The Bangladesh Forum for Legal & Humanitarian Affairs (BFLHA) is a non-profit organisation that works in the field of social justice by promoting human rights, providing pro bono preliminary legal aid, fighting for rule of law, conducting extensive legal research, and organising humanitarian campaigns.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.