A little over a year ago, on 8 March, Tasnuva Anan Shishir, went live on Boishakhi TV to mark International Women's Day. She was the first transgender news anchor to do so. In terms of recognition and visibility, this singular event set a precedent.
Instantly, Shishir's triumph became the emblem for the country's transgender community.
For a few years now, Bangladesh has been making noticeable progress in terms of trans rights. Just last year, the government announced an incentive for companies that hire transgender employees in an attempt to promote inclusivity.
We reached out to four trans women who are currently working full time jobs in different sectors, including RMG, banking, outsourcing and consultancy. Shuvo, Ankita and Riya moved to Dhaka from Rangpur, Tangail and Mymensingh, respectively, for their jobs, while Raeeda was born and raised in Dhaka.
"Some avoid me, but others are friendly and supportive"
Call Centre Agent
Shuvo moved to Dhaka nearly two years ago from Rangpur, her home district, where her family still resides. For approximately six months now, Shuvo has been working as a call centre agent at a private limited company called Getco Business Solutions.
Her job is to take calls and speak to traders, and inform them about discounts on products; also to respond to marketing queries. "I have to make sure that I sound clear and cooperative, that is the basis of my job," said Shuvo.
"I felt extremely supported and welcomed [in Getco]. I was greeted with flowers and everything [on the first day of the job]," she said. "Of course, there are some who avoid me or snicker at me at the workplace, but there are also those who are very friendly and supportive. I am happy with the company I have," she explained.
Shuvo is not the first transgender employee hired by Getco, but she is the first to work in the trade careline department - which primarily handles calls that come in on Unilever helpline and deals with queries from shops trading with Unilever.
"There was an adjustment period, sure, but the office is already more or less accustomed to working with transgender identity," said Riyad Hasan, Shuvo's team leader.
Hasan spoke to his team in advance when his boss informed them about Shuvo's recruitment. "The team functions well and we are happy to have Shuvo in our team," added Hasan.
Shuvo first found employment as a picker at a Panda Mart warehouse in the city through Transend, a trans-rights non-profit organisation.
"When a better-paying job with better work hours came along, I took it," said Shuvo, explaining her switch from Pandamart to Getco. This was also enabled by Transend.
Shuvo left her home in Rangpur for Dhaka city because she sought a better life and acceptance. She now has a good relationship with her sister and mother, however, she remains estranged with her father.
"People think we will raise funds or beg, and will live by doing just that, because people think of our gender identity as abnormal. If the perception changes, then there will be scope, and we can show society that we are capable of doing all kinds of jobs in the formal sector.
Many drop out of school out of fear of harassment from classmates and teachers and then they feel bound to join the hijra community. The value of education is paramount, and this is why I make sure to continue my studies regardless of the challenges and how thorny the path is," she added.
Shuvo finished her HSC exams and is preparing to get admitted in an honours programme. So how will you manage work then?
"I will be sure to find a way, and I know that I won't get a big job that I want just like that, I have to prepare myself."
"For my parents, even a bank job does not cut it"
Private Bank Employee
Back home, Ankita wanted to dress a certain way to represent her true gender identity. But her family did not understand.
"I protested a lot," recalled Ankita, when it came to conform to society's expectations. "And I realised, my schooling was [gradually] coming to a stop," said Ankita.
Like Shuvo, Ankita too realised the value of education in her fight for independence. That is when she devised a plan because "I knew I had to finish my education," she explained.
"I planned to move to Dhaka city and live by my gender identity, which was in no way possible in my home district," added Ankita.
Ankita finished her HSC and SSC in science and then earned her bachelor's degree from a National University in Tangail. In October last year, Ankita made the journey from her village town in Tangail to Dhaka after she had already secured a job at a private bank as an officer in the learning and development department.
Her primary job responsibilities include coordination of training workshops and enrollment of trainers and trainees.
"It was emotional and full of joy," said Ankita, describing the first day of her job. Everyone was very welcoming, and the supervisor makes the effort to 'sensitise' other employees at the bank of Ankita's gender identity.
Along with Ankita, four other trans women started their first days at the bank too, albeit in different departments. "This is my first full time job," said Ankita, "I mean, I used to do tuition before this, but I don't consider that as a full-time position."
In Dhaka, she started to express her true identity. "When I first started to look to rent, it was extremely difficult. No one wanted to give me tenancy. Ultimately I had to have my bank employer call the landlord to get rent," recalled Ankita.
With each passing week, she started to feel more and more at home in the city because of her job and her rented apartment. Ankita sounded content, accomplished in her own right, during the phone call conversation.
"I was very alone, I felt very alone [in Tangail]," she explained, "here [Dhaka] there is a certain level of acceptance." However, "my parents still cannot accept it. I don't know what we can do, what good job can we secure - if even a bank job does not cut it - to be accepted by our parents," said Ankita.
Ankita aspires to secure a job position in policy making so that she can work to promote transgender rights in the country.
"I remember facing problems entering our factories"
Riya has been working at Fashion Theory, a buying house for nearly two years now. Currently, she holds the job title of a merchandiser and works in a team of five.
In the very beginning, Riya faced harassment and difficulties at her workplace. "It took nearly a year, but things are much better now," said Riya, "others are used to me I suppose."
Riya was part of a recruitment drive by a project named ZEproject jointly founded by Bandhu (an NGO) and Fashion Theory (a fashion house) in late 2020.
"Yes, there definitely was discomfort, an adjustment period at first [in terms of getting cis-gendered employees on board]," said Jamal Hossain Sheikh, Riya's supervisor at Fashion Theory, "but I am happy to say now no one treats Riya any different than other colleagues.
It is all about [our] mental set up. And [even now] when and if [Riya] faces problems, we are there to listen and resolve," he added.
Riya said she was called in for several interviews when she started looking for a job in Dhaka. However, she was met with rejection until she came across Fashion Theory.
I remember facing problems entering our factories [Fashion Theory's factories are based in Savar and Gazipur]. The security personnel would ask 'what I am doing here? I would show my work ID and that's when they would allow me in," said Riya.
The takeaway is, "if given the scope for work, we can do it. There isn't anything we cannot achieve," said Riya.
Born and raised in a village town in Mymensingh, Riya's mother remained supportive of her gender identity, "she did as much as she could," said Riya. But other family members and village town people were not so accepting.
Riya moved to Dhaka in September 2020 after securing a job at Fashion Theory. When she needed a place to live in order to work in the city, Riya also had to mitigate the predicament of convincing Dhaka landlords to rent her a flat.
And there still continues to be a lot of harassment on Dhaka streets and social media, "But I am grateful for my friends and well-wishers who speak up for me on social media," said Riya, who is currently pursuing her bachelor's degree in textile in a private university in Dhaka.
Any advice to pre-teens and teenagers who identify as trans? "I would definitely say hold on, you have to carry on. Regardless of how ruthless it all seems," said Riya, "there will come many moments when you will feel like dropping out of school, don't!
You need to finish your studies. We already lag behind others in society [in terms of rights and living standards]. We have to realise that, and the way forward is to remain strong, focus and continue studies, or any kind of skills like art or painting.
Do not break down, hold on and persevere. Or else the next generation will be trapped in a vicious cycle of darkness" said Riya.
"There are many incidents that no longer faze me"
Raeeda went to a private English medium school in Dhaka and found "better friends later in life." She is currently studying at a private university in Dhaka and plans to pursue a master's degree.
At the age of 19, Raeeda secured her first job as a radio jockey on her third time submitting a job application.
"The CEO herself was present at the time of the interview," Raeeda recalled, and after securing the job, she learned from others that she was rejected earlier because of the producers' transphobic judgement.
"The interviews went really well and I was told I sounded perfect for the job role," she said, "only much later I understood why I didn't get a call back."
Raeeda is now a junior consultant at JOAG, a consultancy firm, which works with corporate companies and NGOs to devise social media marketing solutions, among other services.
"It is a very high performing job," said Raeeda, contrary to what people think of consultancy firms "it is not just advice, I am learning every day on the job," she added.
Raeeda started working at the firm in September 2021. "Dynamic, I would say [to describe Raeeda's strengths]," said Tawhid Rafiel Bakhtiar, Raeeda's boss at JOAG, "I met her when she was hired as a model for one of my other firms, and I was impressed by her attitude."
Bakhtiar later offered Raeeda the consultancy job, "you can say JOAG started with Raeeda," he added, because in a firm of four employees, Raeeda was hired first. "And her gender identity was never an issue," he said.
To stay true to the firm's ethos, Bakhtiar ensures that the clients they work with share the same views and vision. Additionally, during interviews, candidates for hire are handed questionnaires which ask them of their views on diverse gender identity. "I am thrilled to have Raeeda on board," he added.
"After transitioning for more than a decade, I am no longer bothered. I can't help you if you have a problem" she said, in regards to people's transphobic beliefs and behaviour, "There are [now] many incidents that no longer faze me," adding that coming from a privileged background definitely helped her journey.
Raeeda said she was offered the job as a news anchor in the recent past but turned it down. When Tashnuva Anam Shishir became the first television news anchor in March last year, "I felt very happy for her," said Raeeda, "looking back, I don't think I would have been able to handle that level of attention."
Over the years, Raeeda's relationship with her family improved enough that "they have reached a point of acceptance, rather than just tolerance," she said. And while "it was a long struggle to reach this point," Raeeda seems to be moving full steam ahead.
Numbers and misconceptions
The country's population of the transgender and hijra community is numbered at 10,000 in official government statistics. However, trans-rights organisations estimate it to be between five lakh to 10 lakh.
One such organisation is Transend, founded in 2018 by Lamea Tanjin Tanha, which started to work on more direct employment schemes in early 2021. The organisation contacts companies and connects them to eligible transgender candidates for hire.
"So far, we have secured jobs for over 200 individuals," said Tanha, "however many drop out [for different reasons]. We are planning ways to expand this initiative."
"Tasnuva Shishir definitely made a huge positive impact on the transgender community," said Tanha, "she was featured worldwide, from The New York Times to The Guardian. This made ripple effects across the community."
Despite the progress, the difference between gender identity terms such as hijra and transgender is often lost on people. From "effeminate" to derogatory terms, labels are thrown around on the streets and during dinner conversations, mostly as interchangeable terms.
The term hijra has a long history in South Asia since the Mughal era, a respectable one at that. It is also an umbrella term that includes transgender, cross-dressers, hermaphrodites, and others explained Tanha, while transgenders are, specifically, individuals who do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth.