Tag Archives: UNESCO

Why do Catalans want to be independent?

Demonstration in Barcelona on the 11th of September 2012.

Demonstration in Barcelona on the 11th of September 2012.

While it is undeniable that the separatist fervour in Catalonia has been enhanced by the economic crisis, it is also true that Catalan independence claims are not a new movement in the region. Economic, historical and cultural reasons have always pushed a part of the Catalan society to fight for independence. However, Adriana Díaz Martín-Zamorano will try to explain where the secessionist demands come from and why they have significantly increased in the last two years, reaching a 59.7% of Catalan society in favour of an independent Catalonia.

The demonstration that marked the difference
A turning point in Catalonia’s struggle for independence was the 11th of September of 2012. According to Barcelona’s Municipal Police and Catalan Ministry of Home Affairs, 1,5 million people demonstrated during the National Day of Catalonia across the city of Barcelona demanding the independence for Catalonia and its consolidation as a sovereign state under the slogan ‘Catalonia, a new state in Europe’. Taken that Catalan’s population is around 7,5 million people, the event marked the Catalan, and consequently the Spanish, political agenda and the debate about the right to hold a referendum on the independence of the region was re-opened in both public and private spheres. After the protest march, the ruling liberal party in Catalonia, led by the President of the Generalitat de Catalunya, Artur Mas, officially started to push for independence, especially bearing in mind that a couple of months before he had failed to obtain a better financial pact for Catalonia in a meeting with the central government.

Since then, the struggle for Catalonia’s secession has been more recently observed on different levels. On a symbolic level, Catalan society organised on its National Day in September 2013 the Catalan Way towards Independence, inspired by 1989’s Baltic Way, which consisted in a 480 kilometre-long human chain crossing Catalonia in support of the region’s secession. On a political level, the next milestone took place on December 2013, when the Catalan government announced that Catalonia will host a referendum on independence on the 9 November 2014. It will contain a question divided in two sections: ‘Do you want Catalonia to become a State?’ and ‘In case of an affirmative response, do you want this State to be independent?’. On January, 87 out of 135 Catalan members of the Catalan Parliament voted in favour of the referendum proposal and the request has been sent to the Spanish Congress of Representatives to debate about it.

As a response, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly said that the referendum would be considered illegal because it is anti-constitutional since Spain’s 1978 Constitution doesn’t envision anything but a unified Spanish state and mandates that referendums affecting Spain must be held nationally and not regionally. Rajoy’s party has an absolute majority in Spanish parliament that ensures that his vote will prevail, but at the same time, the main opposition Socialist party also opposes the poll.

Considering the current political scenario, the main question that might emerge in outsiders’ minds is: why now and not before? What has always pushed Catalans to fight for independence, but especially what has moved them to struggle for it now more than ever before? The answer is indeed complex, but it can be drawn around two main reasons: economics and identity.

A region unfairly treated in financial terms
On the one hand, Catalonia is the main contributor to the Spanish economy nearly contributing 19% of the country’s GDP and it has always felt unfairly treated financially speaking. For instance, the Ministry of Economy and Knowledge of the Catalan government, Andreu Mas-Colell, estimated that in the past years the so-called ‘espoli fiscal’, fiscal plunder, has varied from 11,000 million to 16,500 million euros per year. Between 1986 and 2010 the Spanish administration has obliged Catalonia to give away an average of 8.1% of its annual GDP per year. Mas-Colell, also former Harvard and Berkeley Economics Professor, stated that with a fairer fiscal balance ‘we would not have to undertake budget cuts’ because the Catalan government would not have a budget deficit.

In addition, Catalonia is considered to be a very open economy, whose exports and imports are greater than 60% of the Catalan GDP. However, Catalan trades shows a high dependence on the Spanish market since about 50% of Catalan exports go to the rest of Spain while European countries similar to Catalonia in terms of size show greater trading diversification. A relevant factor that explains such dependence is the infrastructure policies followed by the Spanish government, which have refused several times to finance essential infrastructure projects that could facilitate trade between Catalonia and the rest of Europe, such as the reinforcement of the Mediterranean Corridor. All these numbers and data indeed seem even more sensitive to Catalan society while the country is going through a severe economic crisis and acclaimed economists, such as the Wilson Initiative, have proved that a sovereign Catalonia would be economically viable. Updated data claim that Catalonia would be ranked 10th in the European Union (EU) in terms of GDP per capita and 15th in terms of population.

Catalan identity
Yet taken this brief economic analysis, it seems reasonable that in Spanish eyes, Catalonia’s claims for sovereignty look like a greedy and egoistic approach when currently Europe needs solidarity instead of selfish economic nationalism. Nevertheless, this behaviour can be explained by the other core of motives that have pushed Catalan society to remarkably struggle for independence: identity. A distinct language and traditions have always played a crucial role in defining the Catalan identity. The fact that Catalan language is as equally used or even more used as Spanish in Catalonia in all societal, cultural and political arenas or unique regional traditions, such as Saint George’s Day or Saint Stephen’s Day, have always fostered the creation of a Catalan identity. At the same time, it is true that not all regions in Spain follow a homogenous cultural pattern at all; every community has its own exclusive traditions, but Catalans have never felt identified with what could be considered commonly widespread customs in the country. For instance, Catalonia is the only region in Spain that currently forbids bullfighting.

Historical background
However, it seems plausible to admit that this stubborn will to feel different from the rest of Spain wouldn’t have gone this far if it had not been historically prosecuted. The first time Catalan society and culture were significantly oppressed was at the time of the first Bourbon King of Spain, Philip V, who implemented what he called the Nueva Planta decrees (1707-1716) shortly after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. In order to establish a centralized Spanish state, Philip V suppressed the institutions, privileges and ancient charters of all the areas that were formerly part of the Crown of Aragon (Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands) and forbid the use of Catalan as a language.

The second relevant prosecution came with Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship (1923-1930) who applied a radical anti-Catalan policy. This willingness to dismember the backbone of Catalan culture was intensified more recently during Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975). The dictatorship meant in Catalonia the same as in the other regions in Spain, the suppression of democratic freedom, but it also came together with a repression against Catalan culture. The totalitarian character of the dictatorship eliminated all Catalan rule-of-law and institutions, prohibited the use of Catalan in both public and private spheres and forced Catalan intellectuals and politicians to exile if they did not want to be criminally persecuted. Such repression has indeed shaped our grandparents and parents’ generation mind-set, who now feel proud to openly express themselves in the language that they could not be taught in school or freely use in public places.

Spanish government’s aim of unity
Considering this historical background, it seems natural to fight for every right you have been taken out, especially since the current Spanish conservative government seems to follow that old-fashioned trend and is constantly approving political measures trying to blur differences and imposing the unity in Spain. An example of that is the approval of the new educational law, Ley Orgánica para la Mejora de la Calidad Educativa (LOMCE), which has been controversial all over the country but significantly more in Catalonia for its anti-Catalan nature. Catalonia has had since mid-eighties an educational model of ‘immersió lingüística’, ‘language immersion’, which teaches all subjects in school in Catalan except Spanish language and literature and which has guaranteed the pupils’ excellent command of both languages. The educational model has been praised by UNESCO and the European Commission (EC) as a best practice example fostering a true bilingualism. Recently though the Spanish government has approved the LOMCE, only with the absolute majority of the ruling conservative party in the Spanish Parliament, which aims to guarantee that Spanish is the language of instruction in Catalonia, among other objectives. For instance, the law forces the Catalan government to pay for a privately-owned school for those families who would like their children to study in Spanish. According to the Spanish Minister of Education and Culture, José Ignacio Wert, the goal of the new law is to ‘Hispanicise Catalan students’.

In sum, nationalism and separatist regional movements are both a matter of the mind and the heart. While a pragmatic stand, such as focusing on the region’s economic viability, can be broadly logically understood, the emotional approach is purely subjective and debatable, a polyhedron that can be observed from several points of views. Currently, Catalonia is going through a remarkable time in its history since it is the first time in the democratic era that a majority of the population seems to be in favour of independence. The massive demonstration on the 11th of September of 2012 was the first proof of Catalan population standing together for the same cause, other than Futbol Club Barcelona (FCB) winning titles. Pandora’s Box has now been opened, what the future holds for Catalonia only demands time, patience and a lot of political action.

Gender in the land of the Pharaohs

Having been ranked as the worst country for women’s rights in the Arab world, Egyptian women are certainly not having the time of their lives, especially in the post-revolution period. Shorouk El Hariry showcases a few illustrations and photographs from Egypt that actively capture the status quo.

Egypt is a country where a girl on a bicycle is considered inappropriate and unladylike, where getting catcalled is the nicest thing an Abaya-wearing female can hear on Cairo’s streets, where it’s more common to hear of mob-raping in Tahrir Square than of the cabinet’s plans to rebuild the nation.

A chant for justice

Women Holding Flags


The revolution was built upon the shoulders of its women. If we follow the trail of mass protests, from January 25th, 2011, to June 30th, 2013, the female scream for justice was the loudest. Yet sadly, the scream for justice transformed into shrieks for help that go unheard on a daily basis.


With the groping hands of men, there is zero safety

Esraa Mohamed


Esraa Mohamed, the average Egyptian young Cairene, was sexually harassed in broad daylight. Her derrière was chemically burnt by an unidentified corrosive substance, disfiguring her body. And what is being done about it? So little; not to undermine the efforts of the strong women behind these initiatives, but to say that the society is rather irresponsive.


HarassMap: Creating an Egypt free of harassment?

harassmap logoRebecca Chiao has lived in Egypt for around ten years. What she witnessed everyday in Cairo’s streets was that women were being increasingly annoyed, whether by catcalls, comments, facial expressions, indecent exposure of male genitals, comments, ogling, harassing phone calls, sexual invites, touching, stalking or following, all the way to being raped, amounting to 98% of Egyptian women admitting to have been harassed by any of the forms above. Using the Ushahidi mapping technology, Chiao cofounded HarassMap.org, a tool for anyone who has been harassed or assaulted and for witnesses to harassment and assault all over Egypt to anonymously share and report their experiences.


Being forced to take virginity tests is okay, but a willingly nude woman isn’t 

Aliaa El Mahdy


Samira Ibrahim: 35 years old. She was forcefully stripped off of her clothing and was tested for her virginity before police and military officers. Refusing to not stand up for her dignity, she filed a lawsuit in Egyptian criminal courts. No media attention, no public support, and absolute silence.

Aliaa El Mahdy: 21 years old. She willingly modeled, naked, and posted it on her personal blog. Her nudity gathered public attention like mosquitoes over blood, with over 3 million views on her blog post, around fifty news articles and numerous television talk shows with her as the topic.

The situation speaks for itself.

And what’s even worse…


Women circulating ads that reinforce sexual harassment

lollipop ad


The scariest and most complex side of this is justification. A large percent of Egyptian women themselves justify sexual violence against their own gender, blaming it on the girls’ attires, rather than the sick attitudes of psychologically-challenged men who give their hands the rights to touch what is not theirs. With lollipops being the girls, the flies being the men, these women find that covering up a lot more is the answer.

The truth is nothing like that. I personally recall hearing a teenager stalking a woman in a burka down the street, audibly saying “I wish to see what’s beneath that”.

Egyptian women are locked beneath the ruins of a patriarchal society, one that neither defends them nor lets them be. Perhaps there is a lot to be fixed about the Egyptian society, before the revolutionaries actually start reaping benefits.

(Images Courtesy of Ahmed Hayman, Las Vegas Guardian Express, Wikimedia Commons and HarassMap.org)



Breasts are worth a thousand words

Using the female body as a symbol of protest is an ongoing debate among feminists worldwide. The controversial case of Femen, an exhibitionist feminist protest group, brings into question the impact of provoking society using topless practices. 

Ana Escaso Moreno translates Andreyna Valera’s work on this case from Spain’s La Huella Digital for Pandeia.

Femen was set up in 2008 in Ukraine. Its founder — and the leader of the movement until few months ago — is, surprisingly, a man who stated in a documentary he chose ‘the most beautiful and docile’ women to take part in this feminist movement.

Several feminist groups have criticised this practice. They argue mostly that the girls that integrate Femen and act in its performances represent the stereotype of beauty imposed by society nowadays. For centuries, the female body has been associated with some kind of sexual drive. Women were considered as objects for men’s entertainment and thus they consider these ways of protesting as unhelpful in disassociating from this sexual drive. For Femen, on the other hand, it is just a way to use women’s bodies objectified by patriarchy to spread their message.

Femen’s first appearance in Tunisia was lead by Amina in March 2013. It was the first time the movement went to a Muslim country. Amina, a local woman, was driving the protest and she became the focus of all restraints and critics of her society. She was very confident about taking her clothes off writing on her body everything she wanted to express in front of her patriarchal society. The very first words seen by the public were a direct message against women’s oppression in some Muslim countries (Not Safe For Work link), who bear the brunt of their entire family honour on their bodies: ‘A woman’s body is hers and nobody else’s’. Immediately afterwards, a woman claiming to be her aunt said in a youtube video that ‘Amina had embarrassed her family, her father can’t stop mourning and she is not longer considered one of us’. Later her father belied this statement to the press and declared to be proud of her daughter and her compromise with her ideas even if they were a little excessive in his eyes.

The importance of a picture

Tunisia and Egypt have the oldest and most active feminist groups in the Middle East. Nevertheless, women are still under men’s authority to be seen as ‘proper women’ within society. Amina’s photo showing her breasts gives her some sort of power:  there is a certain experience of freedom and vigour within it. For her it was easier to get out there and express herself in the same way the Femen followers do in the West, through social networks. This was the beginning to claim for Tunisian womens liberty.

Femen is an example of a very original way of protest. They know that their ‘renewal action repertoires and advertising tactics are required to increase efficiency’. Amina was alone in Tunisia; some other women posted topless pictures on social media but they didn’t have as much impact as Amina had. She knew that the worldwide coverage that Femen usually obtain, safeguarded her. The feeling of belonging to a large group makes people do things they would not normally do if they feel they are alone with the consequences of their actions.

A few days after her first topless photo shoot, Amina was arrested by the Tunisian authorities. Her Femen fellow organised demonstrations worldwide calling for the release of Amina. Indeed, several feminist groups declared April 4 as the “day of the hijab and topless” to show the government that if they are forced to cover their faces, they will continue showing their breasts, in support of Amina’s release. While her trial was held, a group of people demonstrated calling for an end to this wave of toplessness in Tunisia arguing that this practice did not represent Tunisian women. Once again, Femen stoked passions for and against.

It could be said that Femen use the ‘performing arts’ as a tool. Sometimes they protest wearing flower crowns on their heads as Renaissance female gods coming out from Botticelli’s paintings. Their acting repertoire is quite unconventional and there is a political and ideological background to it.

According to the book “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler, we can deduce that Femen uses the female body as a means of subversion, “the category of sex is neither unchangeable nor natural; it is a specifically political use of the category of nature that obeys the purposes of reproductive sexuality. In other words, there is no reason to classify human bodies in male and female sexes except that this classification is useful for the economic needs of heterosexuality and to provide a naturalist shine to this institution.”

Femen use femininity that has been imposed on women since they were kids to hand their message through the “female model” created by society, this makes their message more shocking.

The dark side of the story

It is important to mention how Amina’s story ended. There are many incoherencies in the story that allow people to think she succumbed to Ennahda’s regime threats.

While she was imprisoned, all cells of Femen worldwide mobilized to demand her release. One of these performances was particularly striking. It wasn’t ‘the usual’: showing bare breasts against mosques, churches or government buildings. In this case they went a little further and imitated the way of Muslim prays, who at the beginning of the prayer repeated “Allah akbar” while they repeated “Amina Akbar” again and again. The majority considered this performance as heretical.

Weeks later, Amina posted her last picture as a member of Femen in her twitter account typed on her body ‘we do not need your democracy’ (NSFW Link), in concurrence with the feminist movement’s philosophy. After her trial was held and to everyone’s surprise, Amina left Femen calling them Islamophobic in relation to some acts they committed: to repeat her name during Muslim prays; to burn a flag with the shahada (the faith profession for Muslims); and she also claimed to doubt the sources of funding used by Femen. Days later, a Tunisian newspaper published that Amina had declared via Skype she had been mistreated by her family, who thought she had a mental illness. She also accused  her family, particularly her cousin, of stealing her mobile and keeping her locked up until she criticised the organisation in public. She was forced to read the Koran despite being an atheist and when she refused to read it, her family took her in front of an Iman who, with his hand on Amina’s head, forced her to read the Koran, the act of an exorcism!

Amina’s story is not over. This young controversial activist has now given us more to talk about and will test the government of her country once again.

Image credit: Altruisto


Gender Equality: Let us not forget about the men

Oslo University is spending more money on gender equality – but the money, as Ingunn Dorholtis investigates, is not always being spent the right way.

Let us rewind to 2004: For the first time women are dominating higher education in Norway. It has been 89 years since women got the right to vote. The same year the University of Oslo makes a two-year plan of action for gender equality, and specifies that a substantial part of their budget will be spent on projects promoting gender equality. The University of Oslo will be “the world’s first gender-equalised University” by 2011. The University’s director for equality at the time, Long Litt Woon, is happy that there is finally a plan of action for equality, but is worried that the money is not going to be spent according to the plan of action.

The plan of action for gender equality at The University of Oslo forgot about one factor, argues Helle Gannestad, in an article for Universitas: time. To become the world’s most gender-equal university you need the gender ratio amongst the University’s employees to be 50/50. A report from the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU) in 2006, showed signs that this was an unattainable goal by the end of 2011. In 2004, 78,4% of the employed were men. To achieve the goal of a 50/50 ratio of men and women,  99% of all new employees would have to be women until the year of  2011, and that would mean that the University would have to discriminate against men significantly, in order to achieve gender equality.

According to the head of the department at the equality and discrimination commission, Arnfinn Andersen, it would actually be a breach of the Norwegian Gender Equality law, and EU legislation. So, the University simply had to continue their hiring process where they are weighing the qualifications of the applicants,higher than their gender.

Now, fast forward to 2013: The money has been spent according to the laws and another 3 million kroner is placed in the budget for 2013, a number that will increase with 400,000 kroner next year.  At the Institute of Informatics (IFI) men are the dominating gender, while the number of women is decreasing. The institute has opened a new room that can be used for an extra day of teaching – for women only. But can it be true, that the original purpose of this extra money was to see them being spent on rooms for women only? It is unlikely.

 Giving the female students their own room to stop the development of a decreasing number of female students might be the right thing to do, if the social environment is not good for them. But money that is supposed to secure gender equality should not be spent on projects that are pushing the genders further apart – it is not the right place to focus. One thing is certain; Oslo will not have the world’s most gender-equalised university by opening pink rooms that smell of tea and girls perfume. To give special treatment to one of the sexes means upholding the differences in academia and if the goal is gender equality, the University should not forget about its male students.

Original article written by Helle Gannestad        



Greece: Does the crisis create violent men?

The economic crisis in Greece has had obvious repercussions on the socio-political climate, however as Myrto Vogiatzi investigates, it’s the hidden consequences that may point to an even darker future.

It is possible to view the consequences of the economic crisis in Greece everywhere. My university’s closed gates, the journalists commenting on the dysfunctional health system and the hundreds of homeless people in the streets of Athens. However, what about the ones that cannot be heard nor seen? Those, that won’t be exposed during the 8 ‘o clock news, debated in parliament or fit into future history books?

I am directing your attention backstage, where the crisis is being reflected in less obvious or documented ways. Following these same consequences would take you to households where victims become offenders, laying their undeniable burden on their close ones.

Since last year there has been an increase of 47% in domestic violence against women in Greece, according to a new study by the General Secretariat for Gender Equality. Verbal abuse was seen in most of the cases, followed by economic blackmail, sexual humiliation, beatings and rapes. The findings were presented during the opening ceremony of a new women’s support and consultation center in Kavala. “These cases are not happening in countries with no regard for human rights. They are happening in modern day Greece and not in an old Greek movie”, stressed the general secretary, Ms Kollia.

A similar study, entitled “Greece of the Crisis and the Memorandum”, was carried out by the Hellenic Society for the Study of Human Sexuality (EMAS) and the Andrology Institute of Athens, last spring. The results, which were based on a sample of 600 men and 400 women interviewed over the phone, showed the same increase in violent behaviour by men towards their sexual partners, attributing it to intense job stress, pressing financial obligations and low sexual activity. Most of the interviewees said that the frequency of their sexual relations had been reduced by 34% and seven out of ten men said that the Memorandum signed by the government had affected their sexual life in a ‘very negative way’. “The economic crisis is automatic social and cultural, batting mostly male gender who has identified his strength, money and sex as absolute forces of masculinity”, explained K. Konstantinidis, head of the Anthropology Institute. “A man without money, without a financial basis loses his stereotype, his manhood, his ability to say that he is strong”, he added.

Compensating for ‘a manhood in doubt’, is often the excuse for abuse of power and extreme behaviour.  The type of behaviour that is officially condemned but still tolerated by some social groups or even (far)-right political parties, such as the now infamous Golden Dawn. Their aggressive rhetoric (using words like “saviour”, “warrior”, “heroic patriot”, “inexhaustible power”, “secret voice of the blood”…) associates chauvinistic behaviour with patriotic resistance to the crisis, thus removing the guilt from those who are already prone to violent behaviour.

We cannot deny that the drastic deterioration of the economic situation of the country has led to an increase of domestic abuse. However, factors such as poverty and unemployment do not cause violence, they exacerbate it. If we take a moment and picture the offender, we quickly realize how easy it is to fall into stereotypes where alcohol, poverty and illiteracy play the dominant role. We don’t suspect that middle class men with a university education are violent to their partners or that successful women suffer it. Anyone can fit the profile. Class or status is irrelevant and suggesting that the financial climate generates domestic violence merely provides another excuse for this silent crime. According to Elena Apostolidou, consultant at the General Secretariat for Gender Equality, “we can only blame the economic crisis for intensifying the incidents and increasing their frequency, but not for creating violent men”.

Reporting the crime

Traditional stereotypes that reinforce notions of women’s inferiority and accept patriarchy as a form of asylum are deeply ingrained in Greece. They are often reproduced by the media, tolerated by judicial institutions and, most importantly, by the victim’s own social environment. As a consequence, women find themselves unable to rationalize their abuse or see themselves as worthy of seeking help, believing they deserved it. “The cases of family violence presented by the mass media are just the tip of the iceberg. Man is still considered the head of the family. Women are reluctant to press charges against their husbands, because there is the question of who will feed the children if the man is convicted and jailed”, explains Konstandinidis.

Very few women, indeed, take the decision to go to the police (especially when they are financially dependent) and if they finally do they are often stigmatized, treated with suspicion or are even sent back home. “Police see these women as poor little creatures and helping them is often only a matter of choice. But it’s their obligation to investigate the slightest psychological abuse even if there are no signs of mistreatment”, says Elena. According to her experience, police officers, judicial officials and investigators ask humiliating questions to the victim, who must endure a series of endless interrogations in order to prove that “it was not my fault”. The whole process can last several years (up to 9 years for rape), during which the offender is free to meet other partners and repeat his violent behavior.

Women’s stigmatization for reporting domestic violence isn’t of course something new, since violence and rape were always rarely discussed publicly in Greece. However, these last years of insecurity, people tend to underestimate most of the issues that aren’t directly associated with the financial crisis, ignoring – as an act of emergency – the rights of vulnerable social groups. As a popular saying goes, “why deal with this now when the world is on fire?”

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.