Tag Archives: UN

Emma Watson’s speech was remarkable, but nowhere near game-changing

THINKING OF FEMINISM, how many see women marching in the streets compared to performing in TV shows and conferences? Feminism has usually been a bottom-up movement, its arguments brought to public attention by grass-roots activists. However, recently an increasing amount of celebrities have become spokespersons for the feminist cause. Beyoncé brought the word and its definition to the houses of millions of Americans (especially young Americans) during the VMAs last August, and last week Emma Watson delivered a powerful speech at the UN.

Given the hostility that many self-proclaimed feminists face online and in real life, the British actress recent speech at the UN was remarkable. Even if she did not speak for everyone, she spoke candidly and openly to everyone. Her speech was significant not just for the way it put feminism even more in the (positive) spotlight, but also because it touched upon a crucial, often debated issue in feminism, the role of men: “Gender equality is your issue, too,” she said.

Celebrities’ involvement does not fail to raise criticism, as they are accused to portray a more “mainstream” version of feminism than the one advocated by “radical” feminists. To some, Watson’s speech was diluting the essence of feminism, to others the idea of “HeforShe” reiterates the idea of women needing men’s support and protection. Yet, showing that men suffer from gender stereotyping does not necessarily mean prioritising their issues or putting them at the centre of the movement, it simply means showing that feminism is a movement that men too can and should embrace. Watson firmly called for ceasing to see gender as binary, and appreciate it as a spectrum instead.

Her words are fair, her intentions are good, and she should receive the media attention that she has, but she’d probably be the first one to reject the idea of being a “game-changer.” In fact, many of what some magazines consider her “best quotes” are things that a lot of people have been saying for a lot of time already. Given the audience and the attention receive, Watson actually missed an opportunity to properly discuss the issue at the heart of the fight for gender equality worldwide: the idea of privilege, both in terms of gender, and also in terms of social class.

Watson started one of her sentences with the words “I am from Britain…” and went on to explain how lucky she was to grow up in a society that valued her development as much as that of a man. The emphasis on her country of birth was problematic because it suggested that the Britain, a developed, Western country, was somewhat of an oasis of equal opportunities. Having access to equal opportunities though, is often not a matter of where you are born, but of which family you are born into.

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In fact, while many so-called developed countries, including the UK and the USA, face gender inequality issues of their own, high barriers to good education, health services, and good jobs hardly allow the same opportunities to all citizens. Ms. Watson comes from a background that allowed her to attend private schools and receive the best and most exciting possible education. Actually, children born out of prosperous families in developing or less developed countries also share these same privileges. If Ms. Watson had been born from a family of a different social background, this may not have been the case, or her path to success would have likely been steeper.

The acclaimed “genius response” of the 15 year old boy who wrote a letter to The Telegraph in support of Watson’s speech is no better in this sense. Its opening sentence is “We are lucky to live in a Western world where women can speak out against stereotypes.” Granted, he’s only 15 years old, but even then, he should consider what happens to those women, in the West as in everywhere else in the world, who speak out against stereotypes. They get bullied, they get harassed, they suffer violence. Some women in fact are not that free to speak out to begin with. Not everyone is a Beyoncé, or an Emma Watson.

The recognition of privilege and the fight against it is essential in moving towards a more equal society, one that truly grants equal opportunities in the sexes and within those sexes, too. Emma Watson’s speech is a timid step in that direction, but hopefully one that will encourage more and more people to look at these issues, and to move on from there to dismantle the ubiquitous system of inequality together. That, is what feminism is all about.

Written by Sofia Lotto Persio
Picture Credits: UN Women Gallery 

Emma Watson, not everybody needs to be a feminist

OR SHOULD I say, feminism doesn’t need everybody. We have recently seen an overwhelming push to get anybody and everybody to adopt this label. We cheer when a celebrity comes out as a feminist. The internet went absolutely mental when Emma Watson said to the UN, in quite simple terms, that she subscribes to ‘feminist’ ideology in its simplest, whitest, most capitalist incarnation:

“I am from Britain and I think it is right that I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body, I think [applause break] … I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and the decisions that affect my life. I think it is right that socially, I am afforded the same respect as men.”

 

We nevertheless applauded Emma’s simplistic claims, as if they were novel or exciting – ignoring the fact that feminism has moved on from this basic ideology. Intersectional feminism, transgender feminism, queer feminism, Laurie Penny’s “feminism that challenges”, etc. are now staples of the online feminist’s diet.

Feminism as a movement has accepted that empowerment isn’t about cheerleading from the sidelines, or about teaching women how to succeed in a white, capitalist men’s world. It’s about creating a new system and environment that’s conducive for all types of people to obtain fulfilment. Feminism is (or should be) intersectional, and it should question the systems that have led to inequality, rather than viewing the issue as a numbers game.

But for some reason, we still don’t consider these points as essential components of feminism as it applies to the public sphere. This becomes apparent whenever a female celebrity insists in public that she is not a feminist. The response is an assumption that the celebrity in question doesn’t “understand” feminism as basically “equality for both the genders”. But as always, over-simplification is the enemy of precision.

In all likelihood, celebrities do understand that feminism is essentially about “equality”. However, having already achieved basic “equality” in the West (the right to vote, the theoretical ability to do what they like with their bodies, the ability to pursue whatever career they choose), they don’t believe there are any battles left to fight. They prefer their gender lines binary and defined. They want to feel like “women”, so that males can feel like “men”, and they are satisfied with the status quo.

When these celebrities finally adopted the label, as soon as it became en vogue, their justifications often left something to be desired. Katy Perry said something to the effect of “not having realized that feminism was about loving men”. Not that feminism is incompatible with loving men, but it might be a stretch to say that that’s what it’s about. We accepted this lacklustre definition nevertheless, but perhaps we shouldn’t have.

There is nothing essentially wrong with having people like this – but we absolutely must stop diluting the definition of feminism in order to get them on board with the cause. We similarly need to stop compelling men to join the movement by appealing to their protective natures (“protect women because every woman is somebody’s daughter or wife!”) Feminism doesn’t need to be stretched and re-shaped and over-simplified to include everyone. Feminism is complex and difficult – anyone that is unwilling to grapple with this complexity should get off board.

No movement has ever needed everybody on board in order to be successful – feminism is no different.  Nay-sayers, as well as people happy to perpetuate the status quo, will always be present. Inevitably, despite these people, the world will progress and move on. There is no need to water down a powerful message in order to get more people to sign up to a cause that has already got a substantial amount of manpower and brainpower behind it.

Written by Sahar Shah

Picture credit: ursulakm 

Palestine and Israel – has Europe sided with the executioners?


IT HARDLY COMES as a surprise when European and other Western countries in general fail to oppose the destructive use of force by one state against another. It does, after all, feed into the same reasoning people once used to justify colonialism: those with power should use it, simply because they can. The European powers and Ireland all abstained from voting this week on a UN Resolution to conduct an inquiry into the alleged war crimes taking place through what has been translated into English as “Operation Protective Edge” (although some sources suggest that a more accurate translation denotes a more offensive nature – “Operation Mighty Cliff”) – an ongoing military assault on Palestine by Israel, resulting in the deaths of 697 Palestinian civilians (256 of whom were women and children).

Let us make no mistake – war crimes have been inflicted by both Hamas and the Israeli state on one another. However, in the context of Palestine and Israel, we see a nation with a vastly superior military capacity reacting to provocations (sometimes intentional, sometimes inadvertent, and sometimes merely perceived) with a disproportionate level of force. Throughout this recent battle, the damage and loss of life on the Palestinian side substantially dwarfs the loss suffered by Israel – standing, on July 23rd, at 32 IDF soldiers and 2 civilians) with three quarters of the over 700 Palestinian fatalities (and growing) being civilians. Figures of those injured in Gaza exceed 4000.

Even former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright – a woman that once gave her whole-hearted support to the U.S blockade on Iraq – has criticized Israel’s ‘disproportionate military response in Gaza’. The conflict can be seen in almost an infinite number of lights – how we choose to view it depends entirely upon the sources we consult and the interpretations we believe.

However, when a state inflicts a destructive and inhumane level of force on the civilians of another region, our choice perhaps becomes clearer. As Howard Zinn once said, “in a world of executioners and victims, it is the job of thinking people not to side with the executioners”. Whatever Israel’s justifications for its actions are, and however valid they may be, we (as objective third parties) should be on one side and one side only: the side of humanity. It is not necessarily our position (as third-party bystanders) in this age-old conflict to be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. But when confronted with devastating loss of life and unspeakable war crimes, we must choose the side of humanity and take action to put an end to the forces that threaten it. If we are to take at face value the reasoning of the countries that abstained from voting on the UN Resolution, then we could accept that they held reservations due to the inquiry’s lack of impartiality. They believed the inquiry’s wording was heavily biased against Israel before any investigation had actually taken place.

Considering both Hamas’ and Israel’s role in the current segment of conflict, this would seem fair. However, many sources claim that there was nothing in the language of the Resolution to exclude Hamas from investigation . An explicit statement in the Resolution assuring Hamas would also be under scrutiny would not have hurt, of course. However, its absence does not seem sufficient to exclude any inquiry at all from taking place (particularly given the scale and nature of the crimes committed). Thus, the reasoning of the European and Western countries in withholding their support might better be explained by other factors.

Israel is a power to which Europe and the West can relate. In addition to its Western-friendly attitude and economy, its current position is one that might bring a touch of nostalgia to the diplomatic tables of Europe. Responding to resistance in occupied territories with brutal, debilitating force is a familiar trend in history textbooks. It was a rationale that characterised European powers in their imperialist and colonialist pursuits in the rest of the world. It is the same logic often deployed by habitual abusers: killing a fly with a sledgehammer is acceptable, so long as you possess a sledgehammer.

This line of reasoning fits well into a natural-selection view of the world – the fittest will survive, and the fittest deserve to survive. However, as independently thinking people, we should perhaps rise above the primitive nature of this reasoning. As laypeople not encumbered by national and historic prejudices to certain modes and habits of behaviour, we should begin attempting to develop a healthier and more balanced mentality towards excessive exertion of military force. We should also condemn Europe’s abstention from the vote on the inquiry (regardless of the fact that its indifference failed to stop the inquiry from launching forward).

Following the bloody and bitter history of colonialism and imperialism, Europe’s attitude towards this kind of dynamic should be one of shame, remembrance and regret, rather than one of implicit endorsement. After all, as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The bitter conflict in which the region has been embroiled for essentially as long as history can remember rages on – and it is unclear how exactly it will continue to unfold. Marwan Bishara of Aljazeera makes a startling observation: that “not one great power possessing superior firepower has won a war against a weaker, less organized, less professional resistance against occupation”.

However, in comparing the Israel-Palestine conflict to this fact, he may have underestimated Israel’s stake in the situation. Throughout history, most colonial powers did not fight their uprisings on home turf and thus had substantially less skin in the game. Israel, on the other hand, has everything to gain or lose in this conflict.

Can weak truly trump strong when both sides are fighting for all their lives? It remains to be seen.

Written by Sahar Shah
Picture Credit: Leftmedia

Sexual Violence: A Weapon of War?

Conflict has changed dramatically since the turn of the 21st Century but as Tessel Stabel explores, one recent resolution of the United Nations Security Council could just be another empty gesture in a sea of disillusion 

‘As many here are aware, for years there has been a debate about whether or not sexual violence against women is a security issue for this body [United Nations Security Council] to address. I am proud today we can respond to that lingering question with a resounding ‘yes’. This world body now acknowledges that sexual violence in conflict zones is, indeed, a security concern’.

Condoleezza Rice

 

With these words, then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice opened the day-long ministerial-level debate on Women, Peace and Security: sexual violence in situations of armed conflict on the 19th of June 2008. The session resulted in the UN Security Council defining sexual violence as a threat to international peace in the unanimously adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1820.

Some say the resolution signed that day is a historic milestone, since sexual violence is now recognized as a weapon, a substantial threat and from that point became punishable. A lot of this kind of violence even continued in post-conflict resulting in a  setback on sustainable peace on the long(er) term. UNSCR 1820 especially addressed the sexual violence committed by men on the bodies of women and girls: the first follow-up resolution after UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) signed in 2000.

From this moment, the United Nations Security Council acknowledged the changing nature of warfare – especially affecting civilians and women to be excluded from peace building processes. It addressed the impact of war on women and the key role of women in conflict management, conflict resolution and sustainable peace. It was seen as a landmark  in the international legal framework addressing the need of the participation of women in conflict management.

However, ‘UNSCR 1820’ was the first  to be adopted as a response to the weak sections concerning sexual violence prevention: the first to frame conflict related sexual violence as a matter of international security, a threat to international peace and to acknowledge the need for a specific security response to protect women and girls during and post conflict.

On paper, UNSCR 1820 indeed seems a historic milestone within conflict management. However, civilians and especially women and girls have been victims of sexual violence during and post armed conflict through history – Reality did not particularly change. If else, it did around the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda when the world was confronted with rape camps and ethnic cleansing-rape.  The framing, however, did change in 2008. This was a start.

But then why did the Security Council decide at this particular time and place to securitize the specific framing of sexual violence as a threat to international security?

Since the establishment of the United Nations Security Council’s agenda through the adoption of UNSCR 1325, the Security Council gathered to celebrate its anniversary every October. In March 2008, the Security Council broke this pattern and released a Presidential Statement on the occasion of International Women’s Day. From here, A resolution on the Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of sexual violence against women was adopted and in April the first UN-wide Organization UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict was established.

In 2008 dynamics eventually really sped up. In February, another resolution called for eliminating rape and other forms of sexual violence in all their manifestations, including in conflict and related situations. A month later UN entities set up UNITE to End Violence against Women to eliminate violence against women and girls in conflict and in times of peace. In May 2008, the UN Security Council started an investigation on the alleged ongoing  sexual exploitation of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo by UN Peacekeepers. Media all over the world accused the Security Council of running behind the facts and being too bureaucratic and passive on the matter. Thereafter, the conference Women Targeted or Affected by Armed Conflict: What role for Military Peacekeepers? was held. Here it was decided that the Security Council’s agenda for June 19 2008 would be set on the matter. For the first time since 2000 a WPS official Security Council meeting was to be held apart from the anniversary meetings. The draft-resolution was adopted anonymously although several states emphasized that sexual violence is not a matter of international peace but rather of domestic politics. However, the meeting on the occasion of the (openly disputed) future of peace operations in Africa the day before seemed to have changed their minds.

Hence, the final punch to UNSCR 1820’s adoption, after a radio-silence of nearly 8 years, seems to have been the (future) of the openly criticized UN peace operations combined with the prominence of the atrocities in the DRC. UNSCR 1325 & 1820 got 4 more WPS UNSCRs. Despite of their unanimous adoptions only a limited number of UN member states, major UNs agencies and departments have prompted action. Taking into account the circumstances UNSCR 1820 got adopted one can only hope, not only for the sake of women and girls in war torn countries but for the credibility of the UN (Security Council) itself, that these were no empty gestures.

 

 

 

Israel: An Army of Kids

During the last 60 years of conflicts and wars, the Israeli military has gained a significant position in Israeli society. As Sofie Ejdrup Larsen explores many Israelis have come to perceive the military as an inevitable part of their youth.

In November 2012, the conflict broke out between Israel and Hamas once more. For about a week rockets were fired, bombs were dropped, and as a result more than 150 civilians lost their lives.

This time, the violence was triggered by an increased number of rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas into southern Israel, killing 3 Israelis. In response, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) launched ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ attacking Gaza in an air offensive and killing Hamas militant chief, Ahmen al-Jabaar. This only lead to further attacks; Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were, for the first time in more than 20 years, targets of Hamas’ rockets. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to this with more aggression, calling in 30.000 soldiers from the reserve force in a ground offensive. A few days later, as the Hamas continued firing rockets into Israeli territory, an additional 45.000 soldiers were demanded to the borders of Gaza. An Israeli invasion of Gaza was alarmingly close to becoming a reality.

Called to the front
It was about this time I got a disturbing message from my Israeli friend, Ori: He had been called to the front. Like any other citizen of Israel, Ori had to serve in the military for three years after graduating from high school. As a soldier in the Engineering Corps he specialized in bombs and mines; disarming, planting, detonating etc. During the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008, known as ‘the Gaza War’, he was stationed in Gaza for some weeks. Back then, the Gaza War was sparked off by rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The IDF answered with attacks on targets in Gaza; the Palestinian militant groups continued firing rockets; the Israeli forces increased their attacks, and so on. Sounds familiar? After three weeks of this, the madness finally came to an end. Under international pressure, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire and  Hamas followed suit shortly after.

Today, four years after he finished his military service, Ori is 25 years old and studies Geometry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, southern Israel. A few days before the IDF called him in, he and I had been writing back and forth on Facebook, since I wanted to know whether he was alright. Raised in Ashdod and currently living in Beersheba, Ori is quite used to the rockets. Both cities are relatively close to Gaza and especially Ashdod is often a target of Hamas. When I asked him how he was doing, he replied: “I am ok, chilling at the bomb shelter and having a beer… All will be good if I don’t get called to the reserves…” He described how quiet the university campus had become since the rocket fire had increased and called Beersheba a ‘ghost town’. Friday morning the 16 November, a very short message from Ori was in my inbox; “They called. Wish me luck.”

‘Doing One’s Duty’
I met Ori last year while carrying out a fieldwork in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Four other anthropology students and I travelled around the country for a month doing interviews, visiting military bases, and recording a short ethnographic film. All of this in the attempt of understanding how young Israelis combine ‘being young’, while serving in the military for several years – most of them in their teens.

After graduating from high school, all 18-year old, Jewish citizens must enter the IDF, unless they are occupied with fulltime religious studies. Women serve for two years and men for three years. After this, all men and some women become part of the reserve troops and are called in for training 3-5 weeks a year until they turn 55. This is why the IDF could suddenly phoned Ori, demanding him to get to the border of Gaza immediately.

Since everybody has to do it, doing one’s military service is generally perceived as a ‘collective duty’ by the Israelis and has become a more or less integrated part of most people’s lives. Like one of our informants, a soldier in the Marine Corps, stated: “I feel like it’s my turn to watch over the other’s backs. They did it for me then, now it’s my turn. I can defend myself with my gun, but how are the old people gonna defend themselves?”.

The institution of the IDF is characterized by a complex hierarchy. Most posts of higher rank are possessed by soldiers serving their military service selected to do a ‘commander course’. This way, a 19-year old can have the rank of a commander and be responsible for platoons of as many as 200 people. Above the commanders are the officers; soldiers that have chosen to serve an additional year, often in their early 20’s. One of Ori’s flatmates put it this way: “Your officer and commander is one year older than you. The army, you can say, is run by kids”.

Creating a nation 

Due to the massive immigration of Jews from all over the world throughout the last century, the population of Israel is characterized by a large amount of heterogeneity. In the army everyone wears the same uniform and obeys the same rules, no matter what social background one has. This way, social and cultural differences are less obvious and instead a feeling of equality is created. The IDF helps integrate different groups of people and to some extend ‘shapes’ them. Surveys show that most people leave the military more right-wing than they were before entering.

In short, the military is deeply rooted in the Israeli society and understood as an integrated part of life and self-conception for the majority of the Israelis. It functions to homogenize a highly multi-cultural population , ‘shapes’ the Israeli youth, generation after generation, and by doing this transforms the people of Israel into one nation with a common mission: Protecting Israeli citizens and preserving the Israeli state.

Truce
Last November, truce negotiations took place in Cairo. In the presence of United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, representatives from Palestine and Israel finally talked in diplomatic ways and decided on ceasefire. An actual war was once again averted and Ori has returned home to Beersheba to continue his studies. At least for now.

After more than 60 years of fighting, peace seems like a utopian dream for both Israelis and Palestinians. With the support of the radical, orthodox Jewish minority, Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government continue the aggressive military strategy launched by Ben-Gurion back in the 1930’s.

An army of kids is indeed convenient in times of war.

Why our role in climate change is a violation of our human rights

It may be unthinkable, but heavy pollution is a violation of human rights argues an Australian scientist in the Netherlands. As Lotte Kamphuis explores, current generations are therefore being called upon to take rigorous action against climate change.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every human being is entitled to the protection of his or her basic human rights, independently of where and when he or she was born. Take for instance, the right for food and shelter however, owing to climate change these are at stake. If we do not take decisive action on this matter, basic human rights of future generations are being violated. It is this premise that the Australian scientist Peter Lawrence argues in his new thesis at Tilburg University, according to Dutch student newspaper Universe.

It is therefore alarming that environmental crime such as the dumping of and illegal trade in hazardous waste; is the most profitable and fastest growing area of international criminal activity, writes Universe in another article. In 2010 trading company Trafigura was convicted of illegally exporting the toxic waste to Africa and fined one million euros. Illegal wildlife trade in endangered species by smugglers is also seen as environmental crime. That’s before we even get onto the more widespread littering that occurs every day across the globe. It is the lack of cross-border legislation and the logistical problems any such action would cause that means governments struggle to take firm action against these illegal acts to harm the environment. In addition, environmental criminals often take advantage of situations where government and consequently law enforcement are at their weakest.

Needless to say, environmental crime isn’t going away and if we want to protect the basic human rights of the next generation, it needs to be tackled. In addition, new ideas, theories, methods and findings are necessary in research and applied areas related to the environmental law enforcement. In Folia, a Triodos Bank chairman put forward the idea that banks should focus more on sustainable development, for instance by investing in wind farms. This is just one of the many initiatives that have arisen as a consequence of the United Nations work on the matter. Yet, it is up to international community to agree on the combination of legal principles in achieving an effective global treaty on climate change and environmental development. This is essential to ensure that agreements are respected and protected for this generation and the future.

Hijras and Bangladesh: The creation of a third gender

Adil Mahmood looks into the background of the new gender category in Bangladesh and investigates its repercussions on a national and international scale.  

On November 11, the Bangladesh cabinet passed a law which declared the 10,000 ‘hijras’ (transsexual people) a separate gender. Hijras will be given similar rights as any other man or woman residing in the country, in terms of education, job facilities, housing and health.

This decision of the government was passed days before their term was about to end, and one worth appreciating. At present, there are 10,000 hijras living in Bangladesh. Hijras already have voting rights and now they can get passports as well.

This groundbreaking decision is important as for some time Hijras have been objects of ridicule or sometimes looked at with fear. They can earn a living by performing in private shows at people’s houses, but with the advent of technology, this is also a dying phenomenon. As such, prostitution amongst Hijras has been on the rise. The death of a Hijra also proves to be a difficult situation, as up until now, they have not been given proper burial rights. As they did not belong to either the male or female gender, burial ceremonies became cumbersome.

Hijra: A History

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the term “Hijra” itself. While some are born this way, others emasculate themselves — through castration — which according to them emancipates them. In most cases, they are sent away from their homes right after birth, and receive no formal education. While it is common in Bangladesh to hear people complain about the rough behaviour of the Hijras and their constant begging, do we at all take notice of the hardships they go through in their lifetime? Can we begin to understand what life must be like for them? If not properly educated, how can we expect them to earn a decent income any other way? Have we ever offered them jobs or made any other effort to help them? This group is one that is rejected firstly by their parents who give birth to them, and then by the entire society. Consequently, they have no one other than those like them to rely on.

It is important as a nation, perhaps we need to be more accommodating to change, to break free of conventional thinking, and actually work to establish equality for all. What can be the next big step then? For Bangladesh, it could definitely be accepting and addressing the rights of the LGBT community, groups whose presence are completely ignored.

In an interview in one of the leading TV channels, a journalist asked a few Hijras what gender they would want to be born as in their next lifetime. One of them said male, the other said female, while another said male or female, but not something in between. Let’s stand up together and make them feel like a part of our world, so that they too can become first class citizens of Bangladesh and not struggle constantly for mere survival.

Definitions of transsexual, transgender and intersex

Transsexuals are those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. A transsexual person may or may not undergo medical procedures to change their sex organ.

Intersex people are those whose reproductive organs cannot be identified as either male or female.

Transgender people are those who change their gender roles like the transsexual people but do not undergo medical procedures to change their reproductive organs.

The simple way to point out the difference between transsexual and transgender is that in almost all cases, the former group seeks to modify their bodies through hormones, sexual reassignment surgery or both. The latter choose not to change their sex organs.

A well-known American transgender activist Virginia Charles Prince spells out the difference between transgender and transsexual in a simple yet concise way in her book titled “Men Who Choose to Be Women.” She explains that: “I, at least, know the difference between sex and gender and have simply elected to change the latter and not the former.”

The debate on hijra or transgender matters

Although the term “transgender” has many definitions, it is the term which is most frequently used as an umbrella term to refer to all people who move away from their assigned gender at birth or move away from the binary gender system.

The term includes transsexuals, cross-dressers, drag kings and queens, two-spirit people, and so on. A point to be noted is that there are many transgender people who do not feel that they exist within one of the two standard gender categories. Rather, they believe they could be somewhere between, beyond or outside of those two genders.

What international organisations say

On March 7, 2012, United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon said: “We see a pattern of violence and discrimination directed at people just because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender …”

The speech was made after the UN recognised such people’s rights as human rights. In Geneva on June 17, 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The UN’s press release opted to simply use the term “trans” to refer to both transsexual and transgender people.

I had the chance to talk with a high level official at the Passport department in Bangladesh regarding the recent “Hijra” initiative. He expressed his concern and said: “I am worried – how would other countries know what Hijra is if we have to refer them with the suggested term that came from the cabinet?”

We can obviously appreciate the fact that the government took a stance in favour of those who neither identify as being male or female. However, in choosing to only allow the term ‘Hijra’ they are not thinking about the international perspective. Now, the choice is whether people would prefer a flawed term in law or policy which will undoubtedly bring more sufferings, or would rather point out the flaws and give the government the chance to correct those.

I would prefer to criticise the government regarding this step because it is not criticism for criticism’s sake, but constructive criticism. We need to think about and debate each and every definition in which there are flaws, even if it brings good to just a few people. Ultimately, we want recognition for all, not only a few.

Lastly, we also have to respect the fact that there are some trans-people who identify with the word “Hijra” more as they feel that they are reclaiming a word which has historically been used to disrespect them. It is important however, that we should use an internationally recognised umbrella term which is understandable to all, both nationally and internationally.

Then, those who want to be recognised as Hijra, are given the option on official documents to specify their gender and thus not be excluded from any government decision.