Thumbnail image for this story (this will show up on the stories page of the site):
Relevant issues for this story, separated by commas (eg. war, race, gender):
Human Rights, Gender
Geographical region for this story (eg. Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia):
South Asia
Relevant key words for this story, separated by commas (eg. Africa, Hurricane Katrina, Mother Teresa):
Transgender Rights, Hijra, India, Bangladesh
A short summary for this story that will go on the stories page (1-2 sentences):
“Call Me Heena” explores the different responses Bangladesh and India have to Transgender Identity of the Hijra, a South Asian term referring to an individual born male, but who identifies as female, and eventually adopts the feminine gender roles. It will look at the lives of Hijra who have left Bangladesh, seeking the greater inclusion India offers. 
Shahria Sharmin

2014 — student runner-up

“I feel like a mermaid. My body tells me that I am a man but my soul tells me that I am a woman. I am like a flower, a flower that is made of paper. I shall always be loved from a distance, never to be touched and no smell to fall in love with.”

Hijra, a term of South Asia which have no exact match in the modern western taxonomy of gender, designated as male at birth with feminine gender identity and eventually adopts feminine gender roles. They are often grossly labeled as hermaphrodites, eunuchs, transgender or transsexual women in literature, presently a more justified social term for them is the Third Gender. Transcending the biological definition, Hijras are more of social phenomena as a minority group and have a long recorded history in South Asia. However, their overall social acceptance and present conditions of living vary significantly in countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Perhaps the Hijras in Bangladesh faces the worst situation, which forces a good number of them to leave their motherland, to migrate to India. 

Instead of coming from various social and family backgrounds, Hijras feel a strong sense of belongings to their groups. These groups give them the shelter of a family and the warmth of human relationship. Outside the group, they are discriminated and scorned almost everywhere. Traditionally they used to earn their living based on the cultural belief that Hijras can bless one’s house with prosperity and fertility. Because of our shared geographical and cultural history of the subcontinent, this particular Hindu belief slowly made room in the Muslim culture of this land. Times have changed and Hijras have lost their admired space in the society. Now they make a living by walking around the streets collecting money from shopkeepers, bus and train passengers or by prostitution.

I, like almost everyone else in my society, grew up seeing them as less than human. Their habits, way of life, and even looks marked them as different and deviant, as if a living testimony of biological aberration. Then I met Heena, who showed me how wrong I was. She opened her life to me, made me a part of her world and helped me to see something beyond the word Hijra. She made me understand her and other members of her community, as the mothers, daughters, friends and lovers that they actually are. 

In today’s world, Hijras hardly get an opportunity to have a normal life. They do not have any school to study, no temple to pray in, no government and private organizations would want to see them in their employee list. They have no access to legal system nor do even health service providers welcome them. 

I have started this self-financed on going project in the beginning of July 2012. My work has won the hearts and trust of many Hijras over the period of time, which I hope is evident in my photo essay. To know the full story, the work must go on.

After India, Nepal and Pakistan, Bangladesh has recently accepted the Hijras as the Third Gender. I am willing to seize this opportunity to highlight the fundamental aspects of social discrimination, which lead the Hijras to migrate into a foreign land. I shall follow individuals and the groups during the process of the migration. I shall work in Delhi and Kolkata in India, which has the biggest number of migrated Hijras. This grant will allow me to travel and to document the life of migrated Hijras in India. I would like to show how different religion and culture deal with issues like this differently and adds another dimension towards the social acceptance of Hijras. 

I wish to shoot this project in India over the period of 2015. I would like to make a larger edit of images for ipad/online e-book, a tighter edit for the magazines and news website publication. I am also planning to produce a multimedia piece with my work. 

Through my work, I am hoping to give a voice to the voiceless. Photography has always been an extremely effective tool to challenge the social stigma and help unleash a different reality to the world. I hope my work will help the Hijras to find a breathing space in a claustrophobic society like ours and find new friends in their friendless world. 

Read more
Knowing that Shumi,22, (left) & Priya, 26, (right) have no chance to return to their family ,they have adjusted themselves to live under a guru (the leader of Hijra community). Shahria Sharmin
Panna, 52, waiting for her client in a winter evening. Shahria Sharmin
"I feel like a mermaid. My body tells me I am a man & my soul tells me I am a woman" Heena, 51. Shahria Sharmin
Priyanka, 23, trying to make up her life with a new lover. Shahria Sharmin
Shawpna, 21, there is no way to get a sustained lover, she ends up burning herself. Shahria Sharmin
"Alway desiring to be a mother I have adopted Boishakhi. But I wonder what if she calls me father someday!" Salma, 27. Shahria Sharmin
Nishi, 21, waiting for the man of her dreams. Shahria Sharmin
“I prefer to define myself as the third gender” Chaiti, 23. Shahria Sharmin
"We had pen but no ink"... Shojib,24. Shahria Sharmin
"I am giving an exam, result is unknown to me".. Tina, 21. Shahria Sharmin