who are the hijras, behind the first mosque for transgender people?

who are the hijras, behind the first mosque for transgender people?

A mosque for a transgender minority is being opened in Bangladesh. Located 100 kilometers north of the capital Dhaka, the modest building – made of sheet metal and on one level – has been welcoming hijras, excluded from a local mosque because of their transidentity, since the beginning of March.

Although present for a long time throughout South Asia, this minority remains the object of massive discrimination in this predominantly Muslim country, given the law which penalizes homosexuality, punishable by life imprisonment, since the colonial era.

► Sometimes respected

Hijras constitute the largest third gender community in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times. The sacred texts of Hinduism such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, where the Hindu hero Arjuna becomes a third gender, testify to their existence in Hindu society, recalls the faculty of theology at the American Harvard University. Their number is estimated today at three million people in India, and around 1.5 million in Bangladesh.

Hijras are mostly women born boys, whose appearance and dress are traditionally feminine. Often referred to as transgender, most hijras consider themselves third gender, neither male nor female, notes the American university.

This community has long been revered in South Asian history. The Muslim rulers of the Mughal Empire – which ruled the subcontinent from the 15th to the 19th centuries – were generous patrons of hijras. Many of them also rose to important positions of power under Hindu and Muslim rulers.

► A central religious role

A hijra leaves her home as a teenager to live in community with other hijras, in order to learn the ritual roles they assume in Hindu homes. They officiate for remuneration in birth ceremonies or weddings, to dance, sing and give blessings to newborns.

For many believers, the blessing of a hijra grants the child fertility, prosperity and long life. A religious power which is attributed to them by the very nature of the third gender, in particular by the sacrifice of their capacity to procreate.

► Muslim or Christian hijras

Although the hijra tradition is closely linked to Hinduism, not all hijras are Hindu; many third gender people are Muslims, some are even Christians.

Hijras can thus take a Muslim name and respect Islamic traditions such as Ramadan, while remaining integrated into the hijra community centered on the worship of the Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata. Hijras are neither limited by a binary vision of gender, nor a single religious tradition.

► From colonization to the present day

Despite their historically important role in Hindu culture, hijras were criminalized in 1871 under the British Indian Empire for “public indecency” and classified until 1952 as “a criminal tribe”.

The tradition survived persecution but not without consequences. Even after India's independence in 1947, hijras were marginalized and stigmatized, notably excluded from employment outside their ritual role. Many of them live in poverty, forced to resort to begging and prostitution to survive. They are often victims of violence, harassed by the police and denied treatment in hospitals.

Hijras, however, benefit from growing legal recognition in South Asian countries. In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court officially recognized their status as “third kind”. In Bangladesh, since 2013, hijras have had the right to vote as such, officially registered under the same status as in India.

A bill also proposes to allow hijras to inherit, and the government has handed over housing to hundreds of them, as part of a campaign to repair the injustices suffered. But radical Islamists stigmatize this beginning of recognition in national school textbooks. Thousands of people demonstrated against these works in January, calling on the authorities to demand their revision.

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