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Hijra: The Third Sex

Earlier this month, the Bangladeshi government followed the example set by neighbours India and Pakistan in recognising hijras as a separate sex in official documentation. Hijras are people who are born male but do not identify as such. Some of them choose to identify as female but the vast majority are considered ‘undefined’. Although the term can also apply to those with intersexual physiologies, hijras are traditionally seen as male ‘sexual deviants’ and the term is loaded with social prejudices and negative connotations.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

8th December 2013 03:26

Alessia Valenza

Hijras traditionally live in segregated communities – sometimes voluntarily, usually by lack of choice – which act as safe havens under the leadership of elders. Boys are sometimes even left there by their families, both to ensure a safer future for them and to avoid the shame associated with them. Despite the security afforded within the communities, hijras lead difficult lives, often resorting to unprotected sex work and facing harsh discrimination in the outside world.

Given this intolerance, the move by the government has largely been seen as a positive move by rights groups. In many ways, it is a revolutionary decision – even with the precedent of other South Asian nations doing the same – in a country that is extremely conservative with regards to sexual rights. It is the first time in Bangladesh’s history that legislation has explicitly gone against heteronormative expectations. By contrast, homosexuality is still illegal and can often have violent repercussions.

It is difficult to say how this will work out in the larger equality debate. On the one hand, allowing for a separate sex means that hijras who do not self-identify as either male or female now have the legal right to do so. It also means that intersex individuals who either cannot afford surgical procedures or choose not to pursue them are theoretically afforded equal standing as single-sex citizens.

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