Beyond Binaries: An Ethnographic Study of Hijra in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Snigdha, Rezwana Karim
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Hijra, a category often considered to be beyond the woman/man binary, has been officially recognized as a separate gender in Bangladesh since 2013. However, there has been little research exploring the lived experiences of hijra. This Ph.D. explores what it means to identify as hijra. To do this, I adopted a postmodern framework and conducted 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork. During this year, I got to know twenty hijra who lived in Dhaka. I also conducted two focus groups among NGO workers and undertook four in-depth interviews with government officials. Such an exploration allowed insight into the complexity of hijra categorization, sexuality, gender, and government perceptions of hijra. To assist in the analysis of this primary data, I drew on Foucault's concept of sexuality as discourse and Butler's idea of gender performativity. Based on field data, this Ph.D. has four key findings. First, I found that hijra in Bangladesh are not a homogenous category. Instead, understanding the complexity of hijra identity needs an intersectionality lens. Second, I found that hijra sexual acts and practices can be fluid and, in some ways, are less regulative than heterosexuality. Here I trouble the popular understanding of hijra as 'sexually disabled' or 'asexual' or as having sexual desire only for men. I found that hijra can enjoy a variety of sexual partners and that this does not preclude them from identifying as hijra. Third, I found that for many hijra in Bangladesh, gender is performative, as Butler suggests. Further, gender can involve fun and play and a variety of code-switching from performing as a man to hijra, then hijra to woman, and as hijra to a man depending on what is most strategic for accessing certain rights, and as the situation, context, and circumstance demand. Fourth, I found that hijra is dehumanized in contemporary Bangladesh society and that this dehumanization is, in part, an outcome of the lack of understating of hijra, which has antecedents in Bangladesh's colonial past.