Just last Saturday, a Hindu man, Nikhil Joarder, was hacked to death in the Tangail district of central Bangladesh. Some reports have suggested that his killing may have been linked to a claim, dating back to 2012 when people complained against him for making comments about Prophet Muhammad.
Just days before this, Bangladeshi LGBTQ rights activist Xulhaz Mannan, editor at Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine Roopbaan, along with Tonoy Mojumdar, a fellow activist, were hacked to death.
It is clear that extremist violence is on the rise in Bangladesh, with at least 16 people killed in a spate of machete attacks and brutal murders in the past three years. The numbers are telling, and it’s clear that an atmosphere of fear and persecution is rising. As The Guardian reports, among the dead are six secular bloggers, two university professors, two foreign workers an Italian priest, and LGBTQ activists who live in a country where homosexuality is criminalized.
Indeed, as things look grim for many, it is important to look at Xulhaz Mannan’s killing in light of a larger narrative of individuals identifying as queer, constantly being pushed to lead lives of hidden identities, and facing very real threats across the world. Even in countries with more progressive laws for LGBTQIA+ identifying individuals, 22 trans women, in particular black and Latinx trans women were murdered in America in 2015. As of 2012, 20% of the homeless in America were from the LGBTQ community. If a country with legalized gay marriage is still so far from progress, and even as I type, currently has state level politicians embroiled in another incident over discriminatory bathroom laws for trans people, then what about Bangladesh, or for that matter even India, where colonial era laws like Section 377 continue to persist?
Bangladesh’s Criminal Penal Code decrees sodomy (and its advocacy) as a crime punishable by the law. Much like India’s own Section 377’s provisions, what happens in practice with a law that isn’t just about prohibiting gay sex per se, the Sodomy Act of Article 377 A has been utilized to generate an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, acting as a deterrent to homosexual people from coming out or seeking legal justice for same sex relationships.
While calls for collective action against Islamists have grown, many are still unsatisfied with the ruling Sheikh Hasina government’s response to growing intolerance and brutality. Today, NGOs such as Boys of Bangladesh strive to build a support system for Bangladesh’s gay community, and raise awareness through workshops, festivals and social gatherings such as picnics. Public health officials and NGOs such as the Bandhu Social Welfare Society have been and should continue to push for sexual health rights which would also encompass protection of and raising both awareness and sensitivity towards sex workers in Bangladesh, which includes a number of homosexual men facing health risks. As photographer Gazi Nafis Ahmed tells The Guardian, “The LGBT scene in Bangladesh is very, very underground. There are essentially two different social groups. The upper/middle classes. They refer to themselves as gay, they have access to the internet, they’re part of the global network of gay communities and have friends all over the world. This group set up an online Yahoo peer-networking group the Boys of Bangladesh (BOB) a few years ago, and help and support each other. And then there is the different social class who don’t refer to themselves as LGBT but as MSM. This is a public health designation which stands for Men Who Have Sex With Men. They are low income – cooks, dancers, rickshaw pullers – and there is huge stigma towards them. My work was with both groups.”
But the onus shouldn’t only be on the NGOs and persecuted persons to prove their humanity. Much like India, Bangladeshi media and press can and should play a role in challenging the status quo and introducing more narratives to represent the LGBTQ community positively in public mindset. Given press censorship and the risk of being killed themselves for voicing support for such a cause, it is of course dangerous. But a discussion needs to be had, and political leadership needs to be accountable to ensure the safety of every Bangladeshi, including the safety to engage and discuss homosexuality in the open. It is also vital to have a more honest discussion with the reality of political Islam and its influence in the daily lives of secular Bangladeshis. Even though Bangladesh’s constitution establishes itself as a secular republic, Islam continues to be the state religion. Following a 1988 petition made to drop Islam as a state religion, the country’s Supreme Court only recently turned down the claim within minutes. Given the fact that the government has yet to show accountability and persecute the killers of earlier attacks on secular bloggers, coupled with the failure to express dissent against an overwhelmingly Islamic religious status quo, extremists have managed to exploit a system of poor governance, Islam’s status and the country’s demographics to further their cause.
It is important to have a conversation, and push for change. Bangladesh’s scenario should also provide impetus for us as Indians to look to sensitize ourselves towards the vulnerabilities that LGBTQ youth in our own country face in their everyday lives. We need to have LGBTQ friendly cells across schools and campuses, a push for security of homeless LGBTQ youth, rising awareness through media and pop culture, and an ability to create an environment where we can challenge homophobia among friends, relatives and elders, for a better, safer and more inclusive society. The onus is on us to prove ourselves worthy of our non-heterosexual friends’ and community’s trust. #LoveWins, after all, but maybe a hashtag is not enough for societies like ours, which despite progress on legalizing transgender identity, still have a long way to go.