Bangladesh's hijra community voiced outrage Thursday after nearly all those appointed to government jobs set aside for the transgender individuals were disqualified after an official medical test deemed them fully male.
The government’s social welfare department had planned to hire 14 hijras — a term in South Asia for transgender individuals who were typically assigned the the male gender at birth — in low-level positions in the country’s first quota scheme, designed to benefit the much-stigmatized community.
But the program is now in tatters after 12 of those who were selected for the jobs were in fact classified as "full-grown males," the department's director Parveen Mehtab told AFP.
"As a result, we have to halt the appointment of the 12. These jobs are meant for the hijras. And unless we are sure that they are hijras, we can't give them the jobs," Mehtab said.
The hijra community traces back centuries, with the concept of a third gender in the region dating back to the third century A.D., according to anthropologist Tahmima Anam in a New York Times op-ed. In 2013, Cabinet Secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told the Dhaka Tribune that there were 10,000 hijras living in the country.
“Traditionally in South Asia hijras were recognized as a community,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “There were certain traditions that hijras were associated with. They came to celebrate birth or marriage, so it’s a part of the culture.”
The transgender community, which has spent years lobbying for job quotas, reacted sharply to the news of disqualifications, saying all 12 were hijras and the medical tests were "an insult" to the whole community.
"We've testified that all 12 are hijras. They may have male genitalia, but they behave like woman," Joya Sikder, head of a hijra group called Somporker Noya Setu, told AFP.
"They are females trapped in males' body. In the West, they are called trans women or transvestites. Some of them have male husbands and partners," Sikder said.
Sikder said the government should have set out a clear definition of a hijra before conducting the medical tests.
"The medical tests alone can't conclude who is a hijra. They should have also hired psychologists and elders of the transgender community to identify a hijra," Sikder said.
Bangladesh officially recognized hijras as a separate gender in November 2013 in a move that enabled them to identify themselves as 'hijra' on all government documents, including passports. The Dhaka Tribune reported that they would get priority for education and other rights, and the first ever hijra pride festival in Bangladesh was held in November of 2014.
In recent months the government has unveiled a series of benefits and affirmative action schemes for hijras including jobs as traffic police officers and soft loans for members of the community.
Al Jazeera with Agence France-Presse