NAYAN WORKS AT A GARMENT FACTORY in Dhaka, where she spends her days dressed as a man. But when she goes home in the evenings, she changes into a sari, puts on makeup and waits for her boyfriend to arrive.
In 2012, the photographer Shahria Sharmin went to the factory where Nayan works, looking for a story about labourers in Bangladesh’s garment industry. But when she met Nayan, who was then 24 years old, Sharmin realised she wanted to depict her life, as well as those of the few other workers who were also hijras—five out of the 4,000 labourers in the factory. Of Nayan, Sharmin said, “I found her deepest desire is to be a wife. She dreams someone would come one day to marry her. Her immense ambition of becoming a woman is what drew me to her.” Soon after that, Sharmin began work on Call Me Heena, an ongoing narrative photography project that looks at the desires, struggles and triumphs of hijras in Bangladesh and India.
In order to determine the best way to represent her subjects, Sharmin spends hours with them without taking a single photo, often having conversations over meals about various issues. This time is vital for building trust and making collaborative artistic decisions with her subjects. Usually Sharmin talks with them “about the photograph I want to take.” After that, she said, her subjects “give me some ideas or guidelines on how they would like to be represented. I haven’t noticed much anxiety among them about the way of their representation, rather I found them quite confident on what they are looking for, and normally I do not deviate from their intentions.” Along with the images she photographs, Sharmin records quotes from her subjects that she feels capture the complexity of their experiences.
As a mother of twin girls, Sharmin is interested in the dynamics between her subjects and their families—both their original families and the ones that they make for themselves. Many of her subjects have been disowned by their biological families, and seek refuge in tight-knit, hierarchical communities. At the top of each community is typically a “guru”—an older hijra who protects the younger women and sets rules for the household. These can be safe spaces where hijras are able to freely express their fluid sexual and gender identities, allowing them to be “out” in society. However, the communities are often also plagued by poverty, abuse and violence.
Though many of Sharmin’s subjects yearn to return to their biological families, they are often unable to do so because their relatives—especially their fathers—cannot accept them. One father of a hijra with whom Sharmin spoke even said that “society comes before my child.”
Some of Sharmin’s subjects have told her about how they are moving on from painful pasts and building new lives for themselves. Mohona, one subject, was ten years old when her father, who was ashamed of her feminine nature, locked her up. She broke free, eloped and eventually ended up in Delhi. Poppy and Kesri, both of whom are in their forties, were disowned by their families decades ago. Now, they live as one another’s most intimate confidantes.
Many hijras experience life through dual identities. Like Nayan, they might don certain clothing or assume certain personalities to be accepted in society, but later adopt different ones, in accordance with their true identity. The title of the series subtly references this duality through a quote by Heena, one of the subjects to whom Sharmin has become very close. When Sharmin asked her name, she said, “Call me Heena”—an assertion of her chosen identity, as opposed to her given one.
In 2013, the government of Bangladesh recognised hijras as belonging to a third gender. But this formal designation does little to address the discrimination that the community faces in daily life. Hijras have traditionally earned a living by singing, dancing, giving blessings at weddings and conducting ritual performances at ceremonies for newborn children. But the frequency of these practices is declining in Bangladesh, and with opportunities for regular employment being rare, they often rely on gurus for protection, or turn to sex work.
Many hijras in Bangladesh migrate to India and join communities in Delhi and Kolkata. India generally presents them with more economic opportunities, including in the large sex industry. However, discrimination against them prevails in India as well, in colonial laws such as Section 377, which criminalises sodomy and several other sexual practices.
Given that both Indian and Bangladeshi societies are plagued by similar issues of discrimination towards hijras, the struggle for a mainstream acceptance of the community, despite whatever legal status it may be afforded, seems far from over.
Shahria Sharmin is an award-winning photographer based in Bangladesh.