By Avinaba Dutta:
About a month ago, the brutal murder of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy in Dhaka rattled the entire queer community in South Asia and elsewhere. And two weeks before that unfortunate incident, we horrifyingly yet helplessly witnessed how one Facebook page, followed by thousands of people, called for humiliation and violence against Xulhaz and others if they were seen appearing at ‘Mongol Shovajatra’ in Dhaka. Due to these threats, queer individuals were banned from participating in this year’s event. But nothing could save Xulhaz and Tonoy – like many secular bloggers, writers, intellectuals, publishers who had been the victims of Islamist violence in the past, Xulhaz dared to preach something these religious fundamentalists consider ‘un-Islamic’.
After the vicious attack on Xulhaz and Tonoy, while individuals had been trying to figure out our priorities in order to ensure the safety of others, we received an open letter positioned as representing queer-trans voices from Bangladesh as a whole. While the letter has reminded us of a few important points which we must reflect on for ourselves and I also understand that, sitting in India, I do not have moral high ground, I think I should remind the authors of that unnamed letter of a few other important points which, I think, they accidentally, if not deliberately, missed out.
1. The authors seemed to be appalled at the idea of calling Xulhaz the face of the LGBTQIA movement in Bangladesh without explaining the rationale behind their claim. However, whether they like it or not, Xulhaz Mannan was the face of the entire LGBTQIA movement in Bangladesh. In countries like Bangladesh, where few among the population even know what LGBTQIA stands for; where the word ‘gay’ either freaks them out or reminds them of an extremely effeminate guy dancing; where we hardly have articles covering the daily struggles of hijras – in the midst of all the adversities, one person had created an online magazine for building awareness, empathy and acceptance, who used his real name, not a pseudonym. That one person had influenced several others to embrace visibility. Later those volunteers had risked their social status, lives, and went to great lengths to create the human rainbow, ‘Rangdhanu Jatra’, on the Mongol Shovajatra where they shared the space with the so-called mainstream society while keeping their queer identity intact. Yes, that makes him the face of the LGBTQIA movement of Bangladesh – by all definitions of it. And we cannot afford to deny this fact.
2. At several places, the authors had expressed their concern over how articles covering the brutal murder of Xulhaz and Tonoy might create a false image of Bangladesh – an “Islamic fundamentalist nation” not safe for its minorities. But then the authors went on to express their unwillingness to embrace visibility because it is dangerously unsafe for the queer folks. So, if it is “hella violent” for them, why can’t others point that out? I think by offering humanitarian help, nobody is willing to impinge on the glorious democracy of Bangladesh.
3. And immediately after enlightening us about the ramifications of what making this news viral might result in, the authors’ refusal to acknowledge Bangladesh as a secular democracy and recognise freedom, diversity, tolerance as Bangladeshi values shocked me. Because indeed these are Bangladeshi values. Let’s not forget what those freedom fighters of the Bangladesh Liberation Army (‘Mukti Bahini’) fought for? Those thousands of freedom-loving, peaceful people of then East Pakistan, who were brutally tortured, raped and murdered by the oppressor – why in the first place they had built up resistance against the Islamic state of Pakistan? This is because they wanted to defend those fundamental values and that’s why Bangladesh was born. Also, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court’s 2010 verdict restoring secularism as one of the four fundamentals of the Constitution of Bangladesh (it was altered in the past) and Shahbag movement in the year of 2013 could be seen as Bangladesh’s very own war against religious fundamentalists.
4. But then, the authors accused the international media of being vocal about the attack on freedom of speech but allegedly silent over-exploitation of the labourers and poor, i.e., land and/or power-grabbing politics – are we really that powerless? The answer is yes, indeed, Western imperialism exists, but so does the intense fight against this politics. I will give a few examples of how Western imperialism continues to be fought by activists, researchers and millions of individuals in a number of different ways.
To counter Western hegemonic tendencies, post-colonial scholarship that includes several notable theoreticians have helped shape influential post-colonial literature. The protest over Keystone and other tar sands pipelines in Canada or the agitations at Singur, Nandigram, Niyamgiri and elsewhere are the living examples of this continuous fight. A Canadian (Ontario) court will be hearing a lawsuit case against Loblaws, a Canadian company, for the death of more than 1,000 labourers at Rana Plaza. And the international media do cover these stories quite sincerely. I felt that authors’ West and media bashing rant went too far to consider it as unbiased and unprejudiced.
5. However, while we are fighting against Western hegemony, I must remind the authors and others of this dangerous trend of Western imperialism becoming a convenient smokescreen behind which the perpetrators hide their faces. Feminism, the queer movement, sex-workers’ rights movement and many other movements for ensuring individuals’ rights have been seen as Western imperialist plots by our so-called moral guardians, thus upholding the inequality that exists in our society. And nobody is above criticism – from Marxist-Leninist politicians like Fidel Castro terming gay men as “agents of imperialism”; from the tokenistic approaches taken by many liberal political organisations towards ending gender and sexuality-based discrimination, to right-wing organisations (like RSS or Jama’atul Mujahideen) who do not leave any occasion to term homosexuality as a “western disease” or “western import to pollute our culture”, etc. – everyone contributed towards institutionalising oppression.
6. I found that the letter is full of misplaced priorities where the authors seemed to have a misguided and utterly romanticised notion of intersectionality but failed to own up the fact that something is terribly wrong with certain misinterpretations of Islam. Perhaps, they could have spent few words explaining how, lacking popular mandate and successfully creating a political void, Smt. Sheikh Hasina has become increasingly obsequious to religious conservatives for running her government.
Yes, as mentioned by the authors, political violence in South Asia, deaths due to crony capitalism, persecution of religious and ethnic minorities (be it in Dadri in India, Dhaka in Bangladesh or Oka in Canada) in order to establish majoritarian brute force are indeed matters of concern for all of us. And they are right, these incidents are taking more lives – but don’t we have to hold the government, which swears in the name of a secular constitution, accountable for letting the perpetrators go? It’s also absolutely wrong to say that since more people are getting killed due to the failure of the government, corruption and whatnot, we must sit back and watch our people die in the name of “protecting religion or ‘mother nation (occasionally mother cow)’ from its offenders” and feel a sense of achievement by blaming the West.
In my opinion, it is pretty nonsensical to blame Western imperialism for this shifting of democracy in Bangladesh because let’s be honest here – right now it is not Western imperialism which is treating every dissenting voice as traitorous and entering into peoples’ houses and unleashing violence. And, for a moment, let’s assume that the queer movement is against the evil West – but who do we have against the evil West? Good Bangladesh? Good India? Or good South Asia?
7. While the authors argued how “awareness calls for visibility” which might further endanger the lives of millions of queer individuals in Bangladesh. As a matter of fact, many queer activists/individuals in Bangladesh do want visibility for the sake of LGBTQIA rights’ agendas and are utterly disconcerted by your claim of representing their voice. They feel that to defy power politics and further marginalisation of individuals within the queer space and beyond, we must keep the awareness programme alive. Many of them were also disappointed at the lack of public solidarity with them, be it after the murder of Sejuti hijra or Xulhaz Mannan. They think that the international queer community should consider symbolic shows of solidarity which might create immense pressure on the Bangladesh government to follow their constitutional duties and save those dissenting voices from being silenced one by one. This would also be a morale booster for them. Of course, we must ensure that it doesn’t get patronising or Islamophobic. After all, the queer movement is about making an egalitarian society.