Since childhood, Shihab was raised and identified as a boy. However, as he grew older, he realised that this did not align with his true identity. He then transitioned and took the name Triana, embracing the identity as a woman.
Triana now lives as her authentic self, although she expresses regret about the years she spent living as a man, feeling that it did not reflect her true identity as a woman in her mind and heart.
There are many others like Triana, some of them even close friends or relatives -- but there is no end to controversies and confusion over the issue of gender identity.
The issue once again caught the spotlight after a teacher at BRAC University, Asif Mahtab Utsha, tore out an entry called the ‘The Story of Sharifa’ from a textbook.
The story, aimed at seventh graders, represents the lives of people from the hijra and third gender community. Asif claimed that the inclusion of the tale on transgender people in the textbook would promote ‘homosexuality’, tearing up the pages and urging others to do the same.
Gender identity and sexual preference are not the same thing. However, the emerging popularity of a number of terms like cisgender, transgender, intersex, non-binary, and others have led to some confusion on the topic.
RELIVING OLD TRAUMA AGAIN
Triana grew up in Khulna, studied at a public university and now works for a research organisation.
“I am transgender. These feelings don’t suddenly emerge out of the blue. It didn’t happen to me out of nowhere. I have felt this way since I was a child,” Triana said.
According to Triana, she felt different from other children from a young age. Her family noticed it too.
“I never liked boys’ clothing, and had no attraction to the sports boys were interested in. I liked playing with dolls with my sisters. Although I had friends who were boys, I felt more comfortable with girls.”
She did not have much trouble with these feelings until she was eight or nine. But once she entered primary school, Triana was subject to severe bullying.
“Other students and even my relatives used to call me hijra or ‘half-ladies’. They used to laugh at the way I walked,” Triana said.
Triana then tried to present herself in the ‘proper’ manner, but it never worked out, she said.
“Even when I tried to hide it, the way I spoke, behaved and walked were all feminine. Although I tried not to show it, I always felt that I was actually a girl. When you can’t even figure out your own identity, you face a heavy conflict inside yourself. And it’s not easy to feel embattled internally.”
Regarding the controversy over ‘The Story of Sharifa’, Triana said: “My old traumas crept back in. I have grown in confidence over the last three-four years. But now when I walk down the street, I feel that someone might come up and confront me with - ‘aren’t you a transgender?’.”
NOOR ALAM, INTERSEX
“I am biologically an intersex person. I was born with this identity and want to die with it as well. I don’t want the identity of either a man or a woman,” said Noor Alam.
Alam was born as ‘Shubhra’ at a village in Lakhsmipur but later their parents renamed them Noor Alam.
“I was born with both male and female organs. My father was in Germany [when I was born]. Everyone in the family blamed my mother saying ‘she gave birth to a hijra’. I was raised as a girl until the age of five. At six years of age, I learnt that I was not a girl, but rather a boy.”
Noor said they underwent seven surgeries. “I was regularly taken to the doctor until the age of 18 so that I could become a person of a specific gender.”
But no treatments were able to make them either male or a female.
“I spent 18 years of my life without any gender identity. I once tried to kill myself because I was unable to bear the pain. But now I own three restaurants in Savar and I live there.”
Noor, who was not able to complete their studies, works for the intersex people of the country and is part of an association called the Bangladesh Intersex Association. The association comprises around 350 people.
“We try to help people through the association, but in reality not much has changed. When I was crossing a footbridge in Mohammadpur, I heard someone say ‘look there’s a Sharifa who became a Sharif’.”
Hijra does not only mean intersex. The hijra community in Bangladesh is made up of both intersex and transgender people.
Although Triana is transgender, she has not undergone any gender affirming surgery yet. Not all transgender people undergo such surgery.
Triana said: “People have created a division between hijra and transgender. Hijra is not a gender, it’s simply a community, which may comprise transgender, intersex and people of other gender identities.”
“A single gender identity can’t form a community. When the third gender category was approved, it did not mention who would fall into that category. That is what is causing the confusion.”
GENDER IDENTITY AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION
Defining an individual’s gender goes beyond their anatomy at birth. Essentially, gender identity refers to the gender a person considers themselves to be.
As such, individuals may identify as cisgender (male or female), transgender, intersex or non-binary.
Sexual orientation, on the other hand, categorises the sexual attraction someone feels towards other humans – an attraction that is often purely instinctive.
Prof Shahjada Selim, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University associate professor of endocrinology, told bdnews24.com, “Hermaphrodites or intersex individuals have a mix of both male and female reproductive organs. As a result, some have voice typically associated with males and beards due to their hormonal balance. Others have more feminine characteristics due to the changes in the levels of their estrogen and testosterone in the body.”
A trans man is an individual who was assigned female at birth, based on reproductive organs and hormones, but identifies and lives as a man.
A trans woman is a person born with male reproductive organs and hormones, but who identifies as a woman.
According to Prof Selim, people should be accepted regardless of how they are born.
“We should also prioritise people’s emotional needs too. But our country has no laws on hormone therapy or sex change,” he said.
“If there is no physical risk, a person can switch to the gender of their choice. Many countries have such civil rights, but we don't have them here."
WHY THE RELUCTANCE?
Snigdha Rezwana, an associate professor of anthropology at Jahangirnagar University, has done research on the transgender community at New Zealand’s Auckland University of Technology.
Speaking on the recent controversy, Rezwana said that people tend to react when they come across something they are not familiar with.
“But the main issue is when people do not allow ideologies different from the dominant or mainstream one to flourish. Such a crisis arises from the thought of not accepting any practice that is contrary to the popular belief or dominant practice,” she added.
Rezwana sees lack of proper knowledge as the main reason for the tearing out of textbooks and confusion about sex and gender identity.
She firmly believes that anthropologists, sociologists, gender specialists and psychologists must be consulted before making sensitive subjects a part of public textbooks.
“If experts are not consulted on these issues, there remains the possibility of a backlash. That has been seen with 'Sharifa's Story'.”
According to Rezwana, instead of explaining the difference between genders, the fundamental rights of different genders could have been discussed in the story.
“It is very important for children to be educated on this. Children below the seventh grade should also be familiarised with these topics.”
“There is a considerable lack of consistency in the textbooks. Sensitive subjects should be included consistently in textbooks.”
Both boys and girls undergo various changes of their mental and reproductive health during puberty. Socially, there is no opportunity to discuss these issues in Bangladesh.
According to various studies, lack of proper knowledge increases interest in viewing pornography among this age group. Children who grow up watching pornography often have various misconceptions. Therefore, there is a need for reproductive health education, says Rezwana.
[Writing in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo and Ruhshabah Tabassum Huda; editing by Shoumik Hassin]