The other day I was wondering why none of the Corona infection reports mentions anyone infected from hijra or trans community. Maybe, there are none from those communities or none we know of. How do we really know about them? What are the easy ways for the reporters and/or feature writers to reach the poor, socially and culturally vulnerable and stigmatized groups of trans people?
Sometimes, the slum-like shanty (dera)they live in, sometimes the traffic signals or the local bazaars where they beg for alms (tola) from the car-owners or sometimes the brothels they (are forced to) work in. Some newspapers including The Business Standard and Dhaka Tribune have already published reports on this hard-hit community whose visibility and earning ability largely depend on the visibility of people in general. Hence, a lockdown is a direct blow to their lowly subsistence, their shaky and inconsistent means of survival.
A group not socially integrated, politically and economically marginalized (though hijras are constitutionally accommodated as third gender in 2013 and as voters in 2019) and culturally considered to be the 'other' suffers the most in crises like a pandemic.
While social-distancing is the new norm of the society, we are doubly distancing the hijras sometimes as the 'unnatural' children, sometimes as the potential carrier of coronavirus as our general cultural conception frames the idea that the poor are more vulnerable and hence more contagious in spreading diseases. Well, such a mindset is nothing unusual considering the wretched health condition these people live in- the slums, the shanties and the like.
When in normal times, we come across the reports of social and medical segregation of the trans communities, crisis moments just add to these perils. World Economic Forum published an outline of the health concerns the LGBTQ communities face during any public health crisis.
These issues were unanimously summed up by 100 LGBTQ organizations across the globe. They, though mostly in American context, pointed at some key factors which make them prone to any health hazard. These issues include poverty, poor immune system as they have higher rates of HIV and cancer, common respiratory illness, inadequate medical support and so on.
While asking a journalist friend regarding the condition of trans people during corona pandemic, he waved me off saying there are NGOs who are working for them. True that NGOs like Bondhu Foundation are reaching out to them for their social integration and helping them out in tough times. However, just helping out does not ensure the agency.
Hijras and other people from trans communities should be 'allowed' access to social, educational and cultural sectors. Helping them to be heard or making them eligible to raise their voice are two different things.
As a consequence of systematic silence and invisibility that the trans communities face all over the year, it becomes even more difficult for them to survive in times of national crisis such as Covid-19. As we, in general, have very limited medical access for our 'third' gendered people, the access even gets rare in pandemic time.
Social norms have made us think everything heteronormatively; anything beyond the so-called normal leads us to social amnesia and unlearning. We don't even want to hear from, see or reach out to the so-called gender-outlaws in times of crisis as we are too busy with the 'normals'. This is, unfortunately enough, the common truth about our collective attitude towards the 'different' people, be it the people of third gender or 'differently able' people.
Shwapno's (super-shop chain) decision to employ the transgender people in their different sale and distribution outlets is a very positive response in a time of our collective forgetfulness of the trans people. Such an effort will work in integrating the trans people socially and professionally, thus giving them an agency. We need to remember that invisible entities get more invisible and hence vulnerable in times of crisis.
Within the broad framework of human rights and equal gender rights, the hijras of Bangladesh (official account says there are more than 100,000 hijras in Dhaka) deserve the equal social attention from the government and their case should be dealt with more empathy considering their fragile existence in the urban map. While common prejudiced notion about the trans people (as the disease-hotbeds) is quite strong among mass people, our concerted human and humanitarian efforts can help to alleviate the invisibility of the marginalized people.
Our hijras are like any other citizens deserving their basic human rights from a democratic state. They are not the expendable 'bare life' (Giorgio Agamben's concept) deprived of any basic rights who can be let die without any concern or care.
We hope the social taboo about the so-called gender deviants will henceforth be removed and we all start to work for an inclusive society. Our government, entrepreneurs, universities, NGOs and different other voluntary entities should come together to ensure the equal health care and financial help for the trans communities of Bangladesh.
The author is an associate professor of English, Jahangirnagar University