Bangladeshi photographer Shahria Sharmin grew up believing that Hijras — individuals who were designated male at birth but adopted feminine gender roles later in life — were “less than human.” Their physical appearance, their behavior and their general way of life, she explains, set them apart in her country’s conservative society.
The Hijras constitute a community referred to as the Third Gender, a minority group that faces discrimination in many parts of South Asia, including Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. In societies that span Hindu and Muslim traditions, Hijras were once imbued with a sacred reputation as bearers of prosperity and fertility. But today, they “hardly get an opportunity to have a normal life.” Private and public organizations often refuse to employ hijras, and though the Bangladeshi government granted a third gender status, individuals who often identify as neither transgender nor gay experience obstacles to legal assistance and health care.
Sharmin’s project, “Call Me Heena,” aims to challenge the persisting social stigmas attached to the Hijras community by releasing images that the artist believes convey a different reality to the world. “I hope my work will help the Hijras to find a breathing space in a claustrophobic society like ours and it will help them to find new friends in their friendless world.”