No place called home
The gay community in Bangladesh is in despair. Brutal attacks on the editor of Bangladesh’s sole gay magazine and an activist have prompted gay people to go into hiding or leave the country, finds Sonia Sarkar
- Published 29.05.16
Dhee, the curly-haired small-town girl, is in love - with a girl in her class. As she grows older, her parents urge her to marry a suitable boy. She doesn't know what to do - should she get married to a man or take her life? Should she leave her country or stay back to speak for gay rights?
Dhee is the protagonist of Bangladesh's eponymous first gay comic strip.
Like her, the 24-year-old gay activist Sharif Hasan Bappy of Sylhet, some 240km from Dhaka, is unsure about his future. Islamist radicals have threatened to kill him for his sexual orientation.
"The caller asked me to have my last meal and say my last prayers because they would kill me soon," Bappy says. "If I have to be safe, I have to leave Bangladesh."
The threat is real, as most gay people in Bangladesh know. Last month, 35-year-old Xulhaz Mannan, who edited Bangladesh's only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) magazine, Roopbaan, and fellow activist Mahbub Tonoy, 25, were killed in Dhaka. A member of the banned Islamist group, Ansarullah Bangla Team, was arrested for the murders.
Homosexuality is a crime in Bangladesh, as it is in India. But what worries the community is the attack by radicals, who see homosexuality as un-Islamic. After Mannan's death, most gay rights activists have gone into hiding. Some have left Bangladesh or are preparing to leave.
International human rights groups say they have been getting requests from activists in Bangladesh seeking help to flee the country. "Over the past year, we have been helping a range of activists in Bangladesh, including from the LGBT community, who are in need of protection - some of them have been forced to flee the country. It is a sad indication of how dire the situation is that these requests for help are becoming more frequent," says Amnesty International's South Asia director, Champa Patel.
Help has been sought from gay rights activists in India, too. "Gay people from Bangladesh have been contacting me to understand if India can be a safe haven for them," says Harish Iyer, equal rights activist and advisor for the think tank, Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment. "I have been telling them that if people are unsafe in a small town in India, they can go and live in any big city. Nobody is running after gays with a machete in their hand," he adds.
But threats to life stalk members of groups such as Roopbaan, Bandhu and Boys of Bangladesh. The warnings, they say, come from Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh Islami Chhatrashibir, Bangladesh Awami Olama League, Ansarullah Bangla Team and Hefajote Islam. Most threats are on the phone or conveyed through anonymous letters or the social media.
After Roopbaan came out with its first edition in 2014, Mannan received a death threat. The printer of the magazine was also warned.
A close watch is being kept on the work of academics dealing with gender rights, too. Sources in Dhaka University and Rangpur's Begum Rokeya University say students affiliated with radical organisations record lectures on gender rights in classrooms and threaten their teachers later if they feel that the lessons are "un-Islamic".
The situation has worsened with the killing of atheist bloggers, teachers and Sufi leaders in the last one year. "A fear psychosis has been created to ensure nobody dares to think out of the box," says Saikh Imtiaz, chair, department of women and gender studies, Dhaka University.
It is this climate of fear that prompted Riamoni Chisty, 22, to move to Munster in Germany in January. He claims that he received threats from various Islamic groups for working for gay rights in Comilla. He says that he was sexually assaulted by a group of radicals in 2010. In 2012, the youth wing of a fundamental group said he would be paraded naked if he continued with his activism.
"Either you choose to leave the country or you remain confined to your house," Chisty says.
Visual artist Xecon Uddin, 29, moved to Paris five years ago. Uddin's paintings depicting male nudity angered the fundamentalists, he says. "Bangladesh is a country for those who remain silent about sexuality; not for those who choose to talk about it," he says.
But Islamist organisations stress that they will continue to oppose anything un-Islamic. "In a Muslim-majority country like ours, how can we allow a handful of homosexuals to damage our culture and society," asks Hefajote Islam secretary-general Junaid Babu Nogori.
Police, however, say gay rights activists have nothing to worry. "We are prepared to give full security to anybody from that community," assures Muhammad Abdul Batin, joint commissioner (detective branch), Dhaka Metropolitan Police.
Gay rights groups have been active in Bangladesh for the past 17 years. In 1999, a Bangladeshi known just as Rengyu started an e-group called GayBangladesh. Later, other closed online groups - Teen_Gay_Bangladesh and Boys of Bangladesh - came up.
In 2012, a film on homosexuality in Bangladesh, titled Amra Ki Etoi Bhinno (Are we so different?), received the award for best documentary film in the Mumbai International Queer festival. The same year, Boys of Bangladesh participated in an LGBT festival organised by the Goethe-Institut in Dhaka.
There is encouragement coming from within Bangladesh, too. When transgenders were officially recognised as the third gender in Bangladesh in 2013, gay rights activists gathered strength. In 2014, the first gay parade was organised. "The parade was the first sign of defiance and also a public appeal to decriminalise gay sex," a gay rights activist says.
Online dating sites such as gaydatingbangladesh.com and somoprem and blogs on gay relationships such as somopremkahani.blogspot.com and somoprem.wordpress.com have become popular, too. Light humour on gay relationships is a hit on social media. A video by a Dhaka-based comedy collective ShowoffsDhk, titled "If Gay marriage is legalised in Bangladesh", went viral on YouTube last year.
Some gay rights groups have been discussing issues at meetings, or bringing them up through poetry, storytelling, photography and paintings. In 2014, Roopbaan was launched and in the same year, Bangladeshi photographer Gazi Nafis Ahmed held a photo exhibition "Inner Face" on gay relationships. A year later, Dhee came out as a comic strip, circulated among gay groups.
" Dhee gave voice to many lesbians in Bangladesh, who were under-represented," says Rizwana Rahman (name changed), who was part of the team that conceptualised the character.
Dhee's fate remains undecided - just like that of thousands of homosexual people in Bangladesh. "The first part of the comic ends with Dhee's dilemma. In the second part, we will sketch out her journey but that will be decided by the people of the community through workshops. Workshops are now stalled because of these threats," Rahman says.
For many activists, the future lies in continuing the battle at home. "Once you leave the country, you close all doors of return," Chisty says.