11 February 2019

Bangladesh's Third Gender

11 February 2019 - Written by PhMuseum

Abandoning the veil of prejudice commonly felt in Bangladesh society, Shahria Sharmin sets out to represent the genuine virtues of a community of Hijras: the local term for the culture of men who identify as women.

"I feel like a mermaid. My body tells me I am a man and my soul tells me I am a woman” - Heena (aged 51)

Hijra is a South Asian term with no exact match in the English language. Hijras are people designated male or intersex at birth who adopt a feminine gender identity. Often mislabelled as hermaphrodites, eunuchs, or transsexuals in literature, Hijras can be considered to fall under the umbrella term transgender, but many prefer the term third gender. Traditionally, Hijras held semi-sacred status and were hired to sing, dance, and bless newly married couples or newborns at household parties. Earnings were pooled through the guru system, in which Hijras declare allegiance to a guru and submit to group rules, in exchange for financial and social security.

Growing up in Bangladesh, I was influenced by predominant prejudices and stereotypes about Hijras. Then, I met Heena, who opened her life to me and helped me get to know the other members of her community as the mothers, daughters, friends, and lovers that they are. I started this ongoing project in July 2012. Over the years I’ve noticed that mothers are generally more flexible with their acceptance than fathers. Fathers prefer their sons to be a dominant masculine figure.

Call Me Heena is my attempt to show the every day beauty in the lives of Hijras, despite the challenges and discrimination they face. The photographs are taken with a wooden instant camera where sitters are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, gurus or lovers.

Words and Pictures by Shahria Sharmin.


Shahria Sharmin is a freelance photographer based in Bangladesh. She studied at Pathshala South Asian Media Academy in Bangladesh where she became fascinated with the social history of photography and the evolution of identity, sexuality and gender in relation to material culture. Find her on PHmuseum and Instagram.


This feature is part of Story of the Week, a selection of relevant projects from our community handpicked by the PHmuseum curators.

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