Bangladesh’s government announced that it would create a third option for gender on its voting list forms. Previously the only two options were checking the “male” or “female” box. As a result of this government decision, now people will be able to choose male, female, or third gender on the form.
“The new amendment in the Voting List Law is truly an inspiration for this underprivileged group to live with new hope,” said Shale Ahmed, the executive director of Bandhu (meaning “Friend”), an NGO that works on behalf of hijras in Bangladesh.
Hijra is a term used in South Asia to refer to people who were male at birth, but identify as female. Some of them identify as transgender or intersex, while others prefer the term third gender, regionally known as hijra. In the Indian subcontinent, hijra culture is thousands of years old. In Bangladesh, hijras have 200 years of rich history. They have different code words and maintain own a closed society, and consider themselves a bit different than the Western concept of transgender.
Bangladesh’s largely Muslim society is fairly conservative; being neglected and looked down on is a fact of life for many hijra. The last few decades have been critical for the group, as societal changes have raised new challenges. A lack of government recognition was a particular stumbling block, allowing hijras to be taken advantage of.
After a long, slow but steady movement, the group won its first recognition from the state in 2013. It was then announced that the right to vote with a hijra identity would be accommodated soon, but it took almost four years to bring about the necessary changes to the law.
The government also undertook an initiative to hire hijra people. The initiative was not very successful, however, as relevant laws, rules, and policies were not ready.
The country has kept to a “go slow” policy on hijras but progress is now visible. Cooperation between NGOs and the government became stronger and as a result the community benefited.
The new rule to list “hijra” as an option on voting list forms came just after a December 2017 Rangpur city council election in which Nadira Begum, a hijra, was a contestant. Begum had been forced to leave her family but later obtained a master’s degree for a public university. Her decision to face heavyweight mainstream politicians created waves in the city and brought huge media attention. “I took hope from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recognition of the hijra community in 2013,” Begum told the local media. She did not win, but her candidacy clearly signaled to society that change is underway.
The election commission was watching and then made the decision in December to execute the changes to the voter list form. EC sources said that the hijras will be able to put their name on an updated voter list starting from July 2018. EC also said that from now hijras will be eligible to get smart national identity cards (NIDs).
The latest voter list shows the number of total voters in Bangladesh at around 100 million, 50.37 percent men and 49.63 percent women. As of yet there are no statistics on the hijra community. Government estimates say there are around 10,000 hijras living in the country, but rights groups say the number is closer to 100,000.
Shakil Bin Mushtaq is a Bangladeshi-born freelance journalist and author.