Bangladesh beauty queen brings 'dawn of hope' for trans women

Bangladesh beauty queen brings 'dawn of hope' for trans women

Sokal's triumph in one Bangladesh's most prestigious beauty contests was not only a personal victory but one that sent a message of hope.
Sokal's triumph in one Bangladesh's most prestigious beauty contests was not only a personal victory but one that sent a message of hope.

DHAKA: Bangladeshi trans woman Yasin Ahmed Sokal always wanted the freedom to dress like her sisters, but never in her wildest dreams did she imagine being showered with applause at a beauty pageant in her conservative homeland.

For 24-year-old Sokal, her triumph in one of the South Asian nation's most prestigious beauty contests was not only a personal victory but one that sent a message of hope.

Sokal, whose name means "dawn" in Bengali, was this month named second runner-up in Miss Evergreen Bangladesh 2023.

"I hope I've brought a dawn of hope for trans women in Bangladesh," Sokol told AFP in the capital Dhaka.

"It is a victory for thousands of trans women and thousands of Sokals out there."

Among Bangladesh's population of 170 million an estimated 1.5 million people are transgender, but they have long faced discrimination and violence.

Stories are common of transgender people being abandoned by families and communities, forcing them to beg or be driven into the sex trade.

- 'Beauty has no gender' -

"It sends a message of hope to all closeted transgender people that is: beauty doesn't remain limited to men and women," she said.

"Beauty is everywhere, diversity is beauty, and beauty has no gender."

Attitudes in the Muslim-majority country towards trans people are slowly shifting, although the LGBTQ community still faces massive legal and societal discrimination.

Homosexuality is criminalised under a colonial-era penal code.

Sokal, a fashion student in Dhaka, grew up in a hostile world where her wish to be a woman was mocked.

"I was born male, but I'd always realised I was growing up as a woman," Sokal told AFP.

Coming from a Muslim family from a rural village 60 kilometres (38 miles) east of the capital Dhaka, Sokal knew as a child she felt different.

"I was a victim of bullying so many times in school and college," she said, in a quiet voice.

She described how she was refused enrolment into an English course "because of my gender identity".

For the beauty contest, which was open to only women, Sokal was questioned as her name sounds like a man's.

"It was only after I was able to convince them about my identity that they called me for the audition," she said.

"Victory in the Miss Evergreen Bangladesh is a testament that I am a woman. Thanks to the contest, finally people have appreciated my beauty."

While Sokal identifies as a trans woman, many in Bangladesh would identify her as a "hijra" -- a South Asian term for a "third gender".

Traditionally in Bangladesh, hijras have held a unique cultural position, with the popular belief they can confer luck or good health to others.

In 2013, trans people were officially identified as a separate gender, and in 2018, they were allowed to vote and run in elections.

Two transgender candidates have since won mayoral elections, while employers have slowly overcome earlier stigmas to recruit them to jobs.

Islamic clerics have opened dozens of seminaries to trans students, expediting their social inclusion.

- 'Live as I love to live' -

Sokal said she "felt lucky" her family supported her, and felt "immensely loved" when she was flooded with congratulatory messages after her beauty contest win.

"They considered my achievement as their achievement," she said.

After graduation, she said she wants to become a model and host conferences and cultural shows.

"Many people praise that I walk well on the runway," she said. "My dream is one day that I will be a top model."

Her lesson for life is that she refused to let those opposing her define who she should be.

"I have always tried to live as I love to live," she said. "So, those bullying did not affect me."

She said she is proud of who she is.

"You may not like a colour of nature, but you can't deny that colour," she said. "I also consider myself as a colour of nature and I like this colour."

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