CULTURE & ARTS
09/22/2014 09:05 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Striking Black-And-White Portraits Shed Light On Bangladesh's Third Gender

“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.” -Heena

Bangladeshi photographer Shahria Sharmin grew up believing that Hijras -- individuals who were designated male at birth but adopted feminine gender roles later in life -- were "less than human." Their physical appearance, their behavior and their general way of life, she explains, set them apart in her country's conservative society.

But then Sharmin met Heena, the woman who inspired a gorgeous black-and-white photo series, titled Call Me Heena. "She made me see how wrong I was," Sharmin explained in a statement. "She opened her life to me, made me a part of her world and helped me to see beyond the word Hijra. She made me understand her, and others who live in her community, as the mothers, daughters, friends and lovers that they actually are."

sharmin

The Hijras constitute a community referred to as the Third Gender, a minority group that faces discrimination in many parts of South Asia, including Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. In societies that span Hindu and Muslim traditions, Hijras were once imbued with a sacred reputation as bearers of prosperity and fertility. But today, they "hardly get an opportunity to have a normal life." Private and public organizations often refuse to employ hijras, and though the Bangladeshi government recently granted a third gender status, individuals who often identify as neither transgender nor gay experience obstacles to legal assistance and health care.

Sharmin's project, "Call Me Heena," aims to challenge the persisting social stigmas attached to the Hijras community by releasing images that the artist believes convey 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 it will help them to find new friends in their friendless world."

"There are many perspectives to each story, and... photography should illuminate a story, not define it," she adds.

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