Image Credit: UK celebrates ruling on Section 377 by British High Commission / Flickr; Licence: CC BY NC ND 2.0

Written by Ibtisam Ahmed.

The current state of queer rights in Bangladesh is extremely precarious. We have lost activists to Islamist violence, which the government shrugged off with a bout of victim-blaming. Others have had to go into hiding. Trans and non-binary recognition has been achieved, but at the cost of invasive medical recognition instead of self-determination. Arrests on suspicion of homosexuality, which had been a constant threat but one not previously acted on, have also taken place, with the extant Section 377 (only recently repealed in India) being used to suppress the community.

In a recent book chapter I contributed for Sexuality and Translation in World Politics (2019), I argued that there is still much to hope for despite such stark challenges, precisely because activists are quick to recognise the contextual challenges that are unique to Bangladesh. Instead of trying to fit into a global model of largely neoliberal, middle-class oriented LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning)+ rights, Bangladeshi queer activists have forged a path forward that is based on reclaiming narratives based on South Asian heritage and history.

From Rabindranath Tagore’s anti-colonialism to Lalon’s spiritual secularism and Kazi Nazrul Islam’s anti-authoritarianism…writers and creatives have been at the forefront of minority politics in Bangladesh

In doing so, they are actively creating a space of radical hope akin to what José Esteban Muñoz described in his seminal theories on queer utopia. By tapping into the knowledge and vibrancy of the community itself, instead of trying to assimilate it into other models of rights or resistance, here are some of the exciting – and utopian – ways in which Bangladeshi queer activists are empowering themselves and the community.

Making Pride Bengali again

One of the most visual global markers of LGBTQ+ activism and celebration is the Pride parade. Its global and often Eurocentric capitalist perception, however, means that it can be viewed as a Western import that is eroding more traditional forms of existence. This is certainly a challenge that is faced by queer communities in socially and religiously conservative societies. Yet it is also an important way to be part of a global platform of solidarity.

In Bangladesh, such celebrations have been banned by the government since the rise of Islamist threats following the murders of leading rights activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, both of whom were also organisers of Pride in previous years. Nonetheless, the model they created for the Rainbow Rally was powerful because it incorporated popular Pride celebrations with traditional Bengali culture.

Instead of hosting a purely queer event, the Rainbow Rally was made part of the Bengali New Year celebrations held in 2014 and 2015 (on 14 April of the Gregorian calendar). During the mangal shobhojatra (mass procession) that is central to the commemoration of the New Year, many different groups march through the capital city of Dhaka.

In 2014 and 2015 there was a specific contingent of queer marchers who celebrated wearing the globally recognised colours of the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag. Their presence was a bold proclamation that queer identity has always been a part of Bangladeshi culture, even as the vibrant nature of the wider procession provided a level of anonymity and security. Although the rally has not been revitalised since Mannan and Tonoy were killed, especially after the exodus of other leading activists, it was an exciting space of hope that merged radical potential with traditional celebrations.

Hijra awareness

South Asia is home to several forms of local and indigenous queer identities, and Bangladesh is one of the many countries that has a large and visible hijra community. Referring to themselves as the ‘third gender’, hijras are a vital component of activism and change, with their overt queerness simultaneously defying incorrect ideas that LGBTQ+ rights are a foreign import, while also making them the most consistent targets of abuse and social stigma.

In 2013, hijras were formally recognised as a separate gender by a government directive. A year later, on 10 November 2014, the community organised a unique Hijra Pride event. With an estimated population of 10,000 people, the event aimed to shine a spotlight on hijra rights and achievements. Alongside festivities, there were also awareness sessions held in local schools.

A key aspect of this Pride event was the active highlighting of the existence of hijras throughout Bangladeshi history. Looking at their role in intersex children’s rights, anti-colonial dissent and in spearheading the wider queer movement, it was a powerful reminder that this community has always played a key part in moving the country towards a more egalitarian future.

Given the subsequent increase in hijra representation in the civil service and Parliament in 2016 and the ultimate recognition of voting rights for hijra in 2019, it is no exaggeration to suggest that raising awareness was a vital step towards gaining rights. Even though there are still significant problems faced by the community, there is a through-line of hope in their activism and dissent.

Telling queer stories

Another example of mixing queer politics with Bengali heritage is the increase in queer literature. While there is heavy censorship in media such as film, radio and television, Bangladesh prides itself for having a rich history of literary freedom. Although religious extremism has severely curtailed such free speech, there is still a sense of defiance in how literature continues to be lauded, especially through such events as the Ekushey Book Fair and the Dhaka Literary Festival.

In amongst this vein of cultural representation, queer publications have made a small but impactful indent in the popular conscious. Roopbaan was launched in 2014 as the country’s first-ever print magazine dedicated to discussing and exploring diversity in gender and sexuality. It eventually remodelled itself as a community-based platform in 2015, and continues to run an online blog for discussion, fiction and news. Other related publications included Roopgonti (2015), a collection of queer poetry, and Iti Roopbaan (2019), a book consisting of letters written by various queer Bangladeshis.

Another important project was the setting up of a lesbian comic book character in Dhee, launched in 2015. Centring feminist and female queer voices is a rarity in Bangladesh, so launching a graphic comic using flashcards that are printed in Bengali was a radical act that not only challenged structural silences but did so in an accessible way for the masses.

All of these projects are part and parcel of Bengali identity, which has always relied on literature as a way to challenge oppression. From Rabindranath Tagore’s anti-colonialism to Lalon’s spiritual secularism and Kazi Nazrul Islam’s anti-authoritarianism, which was a huge inspiration for the Bangladeshi Liberation Movement, writers and creatives have been at the forefront of minority politics in Bangladesh.

Building a queer utopia

Hope can be seen as a counter-productive goal when there is such large-scale oppression of the kind that the Bangladeshi queer community faces. Yet creating moments of joy is a rebellious act which can be used to empower marginalised groups by creating a positive trajectory on the horizon. In this regard, there is nothing more powerful than the idea of a utopia, and the queer utopias of Bangladesh are an important testament to this strength.

Ibtisam Ahmed is a final-year Doctoral Research Student in the School of Politics and IR at the University of Nottingham. A member of the Asia Research Centre, his thesis aims to be a decolonial killjoy which deconstructs the utopia of the British Raj and refocuses the narrative on anti-colonial and indigenous utopias instead. He has been actively involved with queer activism in Bangladesh and the Commonwealth and has published extensively on the topic.

Author’s note: I use the term queer in preference to LGBTQ+ because the former allows for a wider understanding of identity that is more appropriate to how Bangladeshis conceptualise gender and sexuality. While queer has a history of being a pejorative term in the UK, it is also a term of empowerment that has been reclaimed by the community.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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