Aude Leroux-Lévesque and Sébastien Rist didn’t expect to fall in love with Bangladesh. Leroux-Lévesque had been sent there as a result of an internship with the social organization Alternatives in 2008. When Rist came to visit, they decided that their first documentary should be set in the South Asian country.
“I spent four months in Bangladesh and I really enjoyed being there. The country is fascinating,” said Leroux-Lévesque. “There are tons of stories you could tell.”
When they returned to Canada, the two graduates of Concordia’s communications program threw themselves into research about a mysterious population in Bangladesh: the Hijras. According to Rist, Hijras are “mainly this group of men who want to live in a certain way as women.” They do not only count the transgendered among their ranks; many are transvestites or even just gay men who have no interest in being women.
“In Bengali, there’s no word for gay. So if you say you’re gay, you’re a Hijra,” Rist clarified. “We’ve realized that there are men who are probably just gay or slightly effeminate who are forced into the Hijra culture.”
When they returned to Bangladesh, they ended up at one of the three community centres in Dhaka, the nation’s capital, teaching English to a group of Hijra. “The best way to know the Hijras is to offer English courses, or just to help them out,” said Rist. They fully immersed themselves in the culture of Hijras, and waited six months before starting to film.
Pinky, a group leader at the centre and one of the film’s characters, introduced them to Salma, the main focus of their documentary, appropriately titled Call Me Salma. “Salma, being the youngest, really stood out,” said Rist. “It was everything we needed. An attitude, she stood out from the others, and she had a crazy story too.”
Salma had been raised as a boy, but was born a hermaphrodite. She had arrived at the centre about a year earlier after having run away from her small village, where she was shunned and beaten by her father for wanting to be a girl.
The Hijras have to deal with a strange duality within Bangladeshi culture. They’re seen as disgusting and strange. At the same time, people believe they have special powers from God. They make a living by dancing in the market and blessing newborns.
According to Leroux-Lévesque, Bangladeshi culture is very traditional. “You don’t talk about sex, you follow those traditions that have been going on for hundreds of years,” she said.
Hijras are seen as strange because they represent the complete opposite of that culture. “They wear colourful clothes and they walk down the street and they strut their stuff, they smoke, they swear, they drink. They do everything that you’re not really supposed to do in the community,” stated Rist. Hijras are seen by many as a third gender. “We are neither men nor women, we are sexless beings,” explains Salma in the film.
According to Rist, many people are scared of the Hijras because of their association with “prostitution, stealing, [and] begging,” and because most Hijras are from the lower class. “There’s a big lack of knowledge in Bangladesh about their situation,” said Leroux-Lévesque.
Rist mentioned that every one or two months, a Bangladeshi will add him on Facebook to ask him questions about Hijras. Recently, he had been asked what doctors are doing to cure people of being Hijras. “People are miseducated, there’s a lot of gossip and people just want to propagate the wrong message for their own means,” he stated.
Despite the society’s perception of Hijras, Leroux-Lévesque and Rist see them “as these beautiful females that are super cool, super caring.” Rist said that after a few months, he and Leroux-Lévesque forgot that the Hijras were men in women’s clothing. “They have this feminine aura, it’s crazy…you can’t see it, but you feel it.”
Through Salma, Rist and Leroux-Lévesque hope people come to understand a little more about the Hijras of Bangladesh. As Rist said, “No matter what your race, colour, gender, orientation, class, whatever, at the end of the day we’re all the same people. We all fart, we all laugh, we all joke around with our family. We all love.”
Originally published in The Concordian.