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Call Me Heena: Hijra, The Third Gender by Shahria Sharmin

Looking closely at gender norms, young photographer Shahria Sharmin who completed her studies in public administration from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh unveiled her series “Call Me Heena: Hijra, The Third Gender” looking at The third gender “Hijra,” a term of South Asia which have no exact match in the modern Western taxonomy of gender, designated as male at birth with feminine gender identity and eventually adopts feminine gender roles.

They are often grossly labeled as hermaphrodites, eunuchs, transgender or transsexual women in literature. presently a more justified social term for them is the “Third Gender.” Transcending the biological definition, hijras are a social phenomena as a minority group and have a long recorded history in South Asia. However, their overall social acceptance and present conditions of living vary significantly in countries from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Perhaps the Hijras in Bangladesh face the worst situation, which forces a good number of them to leave their motherland and migrate to India.

Instead of coming from various social and family backgrounds, Hijras feel the strongest sense of belonging to their own group—fellow Hijra. These groups give them the shelter of a family and the warmth of human relationship. Outside the group, they are discriminated and scorned almost everywhere.

Traditionally, these individuals earned their living based on the cultural belief that Hijras can bless one’s house with prosperity and fertility. Because of the shared geographical and cultural history of the subcontinent, this particular Hindu belief slowly made room in the Muslim culture of this land. Times have changed and Hijras have lost their admired space in the society. Now they make a living by walking around the streets collecting money from shopkeepers, bus and train passengers or through prostitution.

I, like almost everyone else in my society, grew up seeing them as less than human. Their habits, way of life, and even looks marked them as different and deviant, as if a living testimony of biological aberration. Then I met Heena, who showed me how wrong I was. She opened her life to me, made me a part of her world and helped me to see something beyond the word “Hijra.” She made me understand her and other members of her community, as the mothers, daughters, friends and lovers that they actually are.

In today’s world, Hijras hardly get an opportunity to have a normal life. They do not have any schools where to study, no temples to pray in, no government and private organizations who would want to see them on their employee list. They have no access to legal systems and health service providers do not welcome them.

I started this self-financed, ongoing project in the beginning of July 2012. My work has won the hearts and trust of many Hijras which I hope is evident in my photo essay. To know the full story, the work must go on.

Through my work, I am hoping to give a voice to the voiceless. Photography has always been an extremely effective tool to challenge social stigma and help reveal a different reality to the world. I hope my work will help the Hijras find a breathing space in a claustrophobic society like ours and find new friends in their largely friendless world.

—Sharhia Sharmin

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