For Call Me Heena, Bangladeshi photographer Shahria Sharmin intimately explores the country’s Hijra community, composed of people who were assigned male anatomies at birth but identify as being internally female. Sharmin explains that the Hijra identity exists outside of Western definitions like transgender and is perhaps better described as a third gender. Hijras adopt traditionally female roles, becoming mothers and wives, although their marriages are not recognized legally.
In mainstream society, Hijras are met with prejudice and incorrectly labeled as hermaphrodites and eunuchs. Growing up, Sharmin herself was taught to see Hijras as aberrant and sub-human. She met a Hijra named Heena while pursuing project on garment workers, and as their friendship grew, she began to see the beauty of the the Hijra community. Heena shared her dreams of being a wife and told Sharmin that she felt like a mermaid, with her anatomy in disagreement with her mind’s feminine identity.
For the project, Sharmin photographs Hijra women in diverse circumstances; some are garment workers, while others make ends meet through prostitution. Some openly identify as female, and others have yet to tell their families. Still others have been disowned by their families. In black and white, Sharmin captures her subjects in soft, blurry tones. Amidst the portraits, she weaves untitled frames that subtly evoke feminine iconography. Here, the Hijras exist in a fertile landscape aglow with the light of the moon, their gestures imbued with an ineffable spiritual power.
“I feel like a mermaid. My body tells me I am a man, and my soul tells me I am a woman”- Heena, 51
Panna, 52, waiting for her client in a winter evening.
Shumi, 22 and Priya, 26, have no chance to return to their family. They have adjusted themselves to live under a guru (the leader of Hijra community)
“I like to see guys get attracted to me, like other women”- Jesmin, 24
“Always desiring to be a mother, I have adopted Boishakhi. But what if she calls me father someday?”- Salma, 27
Pinky Guru, 56, leader of a Hijja community, dancing with her follower in a Puja Party
Aporupa, 27, used to sell eggs. Now she sells her body dwelling under a Guru with ten others in a small room
A happy mother bathing with her son Mamun, 23, who does not know that he has changed his identity legally as a woman in the city
Nayan, 24, a garment worker. In daytime, she works in a factory, which is perceived as a legitimate earning to her family. But at night she goes back to her community.
All images © Shahria Sharmin