To cheers from colleagues, Bangladesh’s first transgender news anchor breaks down in tears, but only after her word-perfect debut was beamed to the nation and the cameras were off.
Tashnuva Anan Shishir, a rights activist who previously worked with NGOs supporting transgender people and migrants, read her first three-minute daily news bulletin for a private television channel on Monday, International Women’s Day.
“This could be revolutionary and create a new dimension in people’s thinking,” said Shishir, 29, who received several weeks of intensive training at Boishakhi TV after being selected for the job in auditions.
“The biggest problem is that people are not sensitised … I hope this can do that, and urge them to look after the many ‘Tashnuvas’ around them,” she said.
The government estimates that there are about 11,500 transgender people in Bangladesh, but LGBTQ rights campaigners say the true figure is likely to be at least 100,000 in a country with a population of about 160 million.
They face rampant discrimination and violence and are often forced to live by begging, the sex trade or crime.
‘Bullying was unbearable’
Shishir’s experience was typical.
Born Kamal Hossain Shishir, she discovered in her early teens she was trapped in a man’s body. She says she was sexually assaulted and bullied for years.
“The bullying was so unbearable I attempted suicide four times. My father stopped talking to me for years,” said Shishir, now aged 29.
“When I couldn’t cope with it any more, I left home… I couldn’t stand the neighbours telling my father about how I should act or walk in a masculine way.”
She fled her home in a southern coastal district to live alone in the capital Dhaka, and then in the central city of Narayanganj.
There she underwent hormone therapy, worked for charities and acted in the theatre, all the while keeping up her studies.
In January, she became the first transgender person to pursue a master’s in public health at the James P Grant School of Public Health in Dhaka.
The LGBT community faces widespread discrimination in the South Asian country, with a colonial-era law still in place punishing gay sex with prison, though enforcement is rare.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has since 2013 allowed trans people to identify as a separate gender. In 2018, they were allowed to register to vote as a third gender.
Shishir’s broadcast on Monday coincided with International Women’s Day and follows a series of steps by public and private firms to overcome deep-seated prejudices against the community.
In November, a religious charity opened Bangladesh’s first school for the transgender community.
Tanvir Islam, who works for the Bandhu Social Welfare Society, a charity that supports transgender people, said putting Anan on air would inspire other members of the community and have a “positive impact”.
“We’ve heard of transgender news presenters and lawyers in other countries, but we could rarely give such examples from Bangladesh… But now, times are changing. These achievements are the result of a lot of hard work,” Islam said.
‘I was shaking inside’
Boishakhi TV’s chief editor, Tipu Alam, said Anan was the south Asian nation’s first transgender television newsreader.
“I hope that this will bring greater acceptance and change the way people view the transgender community,” he said.
Julfikar Ali Manik, a spokesman for Boishakhi TV, said the channel was determined to give Shishir a chance to shine despite the risk of backlash from some viewers in the Muslim-majority country.
Her debut marked a “historic step,” he added.
Shishir said she auditioned for other channels but only Boishakhi was “brave enough to take me in”.
Ahead of going live for Monday’s broadcast, she confided, she was terrified but managed to get the better of her fears.
“I tried to think of stage dramas I have performed in and follow techniques I have learned there. But I was shaking inside,” she said.
Once it was all over, her supportive colleagues clapped, cheered and hugged her, and only then did the tears burst out.
“I don’t want any members of the (transgender) community to suffer. I don’t want them to live a miserable life. I hope they will find work according to their skills,” she said.
Bangladeshis may be seeing a lot more of Shishir on their screens soon. This year, she signed up for two movies, including one where she will play a female football coach.