Hijras - generally known in the west as hermaphrodites or eunuchs - have been part of the South Asian landscape for thousands of years. Marked out because of their sexual difference, they are a despised and neglected minority, lower even than untouchables.
But even though they generally provoke horror or ridicule, they have traditionally had a role to play on the margins of society as entertainers and as bestowers of curses and blessings. People who are building a new house sometimes hire them to dance in each new room, to take away any potential bad luck. They are also hired to dance at weddings and to celebrate the arrival of new-born babies.
But the everyday life of Bangladeshi hijras is far from being a laughing matter. With the spread of modern forms of entertainment --particularly TV-- the call for hijras is drying up. Increasingly, hijras are compelled to earn their livings by collecting money from shopkeepers --a form of mild extortion -- and by prostitution.
Hijras face prejudice and discrimination at every turn. Marked out by their sexual difference, they are hounded out of schools, and hence lack the necessary qualifications to get proper jobs. Its almost impossible for them to vote, to get a passport, or even to open a bank account.
They may be different, but they are proud to be hijras - not lesser beings than ordinary men and women, but a mixture of both - members of the Third Sex.