Neither men nor women, the hjira are a 2,000 year-old transgender community.
Last November, the Bangladesh government approved a change in policy for recording personal data at registry offices, a change that could prove to be a watershed for the country’s sexual minorities. As announced by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the new policy introduces a third gender that may be used on all official documents. Along with “male” and “female”, Bengalis may now identify themselves as “hijra”, an Urdu word commonly, if misleadingly, translated as ‘eunuch’ in the West.
The term indicates membership in a transgender community of roughly eight million transsexuals, eunuchs and hermaphrodites across Southern Asia. It refers to individuals who were born with a male genital apparatus, but later developed a pronounced female identity.
Due to the stigma imposed on transgenderism by Hindu culture over the last two centuries, these individuals are often kicked out of their homes when they are young and wind up as beggars and prostitutes in the slums, banished to the very fringes of society.