Bangladesh tax rebate offer for hiring transgenders sparks cautious hopes

By Azad Majumder

Dhaka, June 11 (EFE).- Born as a boy in the old town of Dhaka, Ananya Banik stayed with her family until she turned 20 when she decided to live openly as transgender in the face of growing stigma and discrimination over her gender.

“It was a very emotional decision for me to leave the family. My family always faced a question about my gender. But I could do little as I felt I am more of a woman than a man,” said Banik, now 42.

Banik found a job with a nonprofit working with sexual minority people before she finally decided to leave.

“I studied up to Class 12 and learned classical dance from an art academy. So I was confident I could make a living. My family never accepted me back,” she told EFE.

In 2017, Banik launched a beauty parlor in Dhamrai, some 35 km north of Bangladesh capital, with the help of a police officer. Eventually, she employed four other members of her community.

“Setting up this parlor was not easy. I always live with fear,” Banik said, recalling how Islamist extremists killed two of her LGBT activist friends, Xulhas Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy, in 2016.

“I feel a similar threat. Some hijra (transgender) gurus also do not like me because they want our people to beg and remain engaged in the sex trade,” she said.

Job in her Uttaran Beauty Parlor also changed the life of Tanisha Roy, a transgender woman who previously worked as a sex worker in Dhaka after her family evicted her at the age of 12.

“When I met Ananya (Banik), I started going to a different program with her. I saw people giving us respect. I quit my profession as a sex worker and took a job,” said Roy.

“Earlier, I could earn around 1,500 takas ($18) per day. Now my income got halved. But I am happy because I am living with dignity.”

Bangladesh Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal on June 3 proposed a tax rebate for employers with 10 percent of their total workforce, or more than 100 workers, from the transgender community in the Muslim-majority country.

Transgender activists hailed the move as “commendable” but expressed caution, fearing that it would fail like similar attempts in the past.

“It will create an obviously positive image for our country. But as an activist, we want to remove transphobia first,” said Tashnuva Anan, a rights activist who became the first transgender newsreader on a Bangladesh national TV channel in March.

“This is something that the government cannot enforce. It has to be voluntary. Being a transgender activist, I would rather say, the government should appoint transgender people by itself,” she said.

Bangladesh officially recognized transgender people as the third gender in 2014. Last year, it granted them the right to vote under this separate category.

Khalid Saifullah, an assistant director at the Department of Social Service, said the country has officially 10,300 transgender people.

But transgender groups reject the figure, saying there could be as many as 1.5 million transgender persons, who are usually into begging, ritual performances at ceremonies, and sex work.

To integrate the group into the mainstream society, the Bangladesh government in December 2014 invited them to apply for government employment.

Banik said she was among the applicants for a job but ended up being humiliated.

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