Survival in Shrinking Space

Recently I attended a rooftop barbecue organised by my colleagues in Kalabagan. I remember the blue sky and the clouds slowly drifting apart. The mesmerising smell of fish on the grill began to fill the air. I looked over and saw the eyes of the fish staring back at me, its whole body on fire.

Our cook moved the charcoal slightly so the heat could lap at its body more easily.

I turned away from it and towards the view. From on high it seemed that little had changed in the past three years. Only the buildings had grown taller. But things are different.

The newspapers do not publish editorials on queer rights anymore. Our civil society shies away from words that call to mind the LGBTQI+ community.

In January 2018 police arrested one of the prime suspects in the murder of LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan and his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy from Gazipur.

Asadullah alias Fakrul alias Faisal is 25 years old.

After his arrest he confessed to law enforcers that he, along with four other members of banned militant outfit Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), carried out the murders on 26 Apr 2015.

Xulhaz Mannan, the Bangladeshi LGBT activist who was killed in a machete attack by Islamist extremists in 2016.© Xulhaz Mannan/Facebook

“I was one of the two Ansarullah Bangla Team men who stabbed and subdued the security guard at Xulhaz’s home in Kalabagan while the other three hacked the victims to death in the apartment,” Asadullah said in his statement, court sources said.

Asadullah said the attack was orchestrated by ABT operation commander Major Syed Ziaul Haq.

Several others were involved with the double murder, he said.

Asadullah is one of four ABT men arrested in connection with the double murder so far.

How have things changed in the years since the attack?

The UN and other organisations have offered a lot of training and leadership programs. But has that helped to rally and mobilise the LGBTQI+ community in the country?

The memory of the attack still lingers. One of my fellow activists, who posts videos on YouTube, recently received a comment that read:

“You deserve a machete strike for spreading homosexuality online.”

Social media is no longer a space for us to express our thoughts and feelings freely. Now we face the Digital Security Act of 2018, which says:

“If any person in any website or through any digital medium intentionally or knowingly sends such information which is offensive or fear inducing, or which despite knowing it as false is sent, published or propagated with the intention to annoy, insult, humiliate or denigrate a person or publishes or propagates or assists in publishing or propagating any information with the intention of tarnishing the image of the nation or spread confusion or despite knowing it as false, publishes or propagates or assists in publishing or propagates information in its full or in a distorted form for the same intentions, then, the activity of that person will be an offense under the Act.”

Any person who posts a status on social media, writes a blog or runs a news portal is under the jurisdiction of the section. The Digital Security Act allows a third party to file a case against a person who violates it. Anyone may file a case against an LGBTQI+ Facebook page or blog if they feel the content has even a remote possibility of hurting someone else’s image or upsetting religious sentiments. I am reminded of the fish on the grill, slowly turning over the flames, cooking slowly.

Although authors of the law may have intended for this section to be used sparingly, it is now routinely used to suppress freedom of speech and harass writers, activists, and journalists, often for comments on social media.

The amount of safe space for discussions on sensitive issues and free thinking has grown alarmingly small. And it isn’t just a matter of finding acceptable physical space.

© Living Large In Little Boxes

Few are willing to publish a book on LGBTQI+ issues. None are eager to do so. The same is true for other media, both traditional and online. Even virtual safe spaces are dying out.

Self-censorship has become the biggest challenge, something the community has adopted as part of its everyday life.

The community is stuck between a rock and a hard place. While international instruments like the ICCPR or the ECHR emphasise freedom of expression, the queer community in Bangladesh is forced to walk the line between free expression and ‘criminal offence’.

The pre-existing social stigma and the lack of security is the main obstacle to the queer movement, a community activist living in Bangladesh told me. To them, the various labels used for the community are irrelevant compared to the basic need to exercise rights and to be treated with respect.

“I want to live like a human being. I no longer want to consider the tags ‘straight’, ‘bi’ or ‘queer’ anymore. I want to receive the respect I am due as a human being. That is my only identity.”

They believe the only way to move forward is for people from the community to reach prominent positions from where their perspective will be heard.

“I think community leaders should help and train people to reach these positions – mainstream offices – so that their voices are not ignored any longer. Without that, I don’t see any hope.”

Another member of the community was more direct in their demands:

“Respect my existence or expect my resistance,” they said.

Recently Awami League Deputy Office Secretary Biplob Barua said that eight members of the hijra community have filed nominations to run as candidates for the party. Will a hijra person run as an MP candidate for a major party?

A few years ago the government attempted to improve opportunities through the ‘official recognition’ of hijras as a third gender, but the initiative has since derailed. There was even a Hijra Pride celebrating this official recognition. But has anyone seen a document confirming this recognition? Has a gazette been issued on the matter? Have any hijras actually received any documentation that officially recognises their gender identity? Has anyone seen any passports or ID cards with this recognition? Or is it simply a fable to pacify us?

© Living Large In Little Boxes

But the spirit of the LGBTQI+ community in Bangladesh remains undaunted. Our activists are not giving up. Despite the animosity they face, queer activists in Bangladesh have developed creative strategies to raise awareness, educate the public and carve out spaces to express their diversity.

A group from the community raised funds to publish an anthology of their coming of age stories. In 2015, they began a cartoon series called ‘Dhee’. Activists have used the cartoon series since then at various private events across the countries to discuss diversity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and acceptance.

The success of ‘Dhee’ has led to an initiative to pen an oral history of members of the community. The younger generation has little idea about the history of public gatherings, recitals and theatre that were an integral part of queer lives and experience, or what communication within the community looked like before social media and mobile phones. This book will tell the true life stories of community members that have been intentionally removed from history.

But while these initiatives slowly work to change hearts and minds, more must be done to fight the continued hostility of the government of Bangladesh to sexual and gender diversity. Political action remains key.

The grilled fish is served, interrupting my thoughts. Everyone gathers at the table, eager to begin the feast.

I look down at the fish.

For Bangladeshis the fish is an image heavy with meaning. A symbol of the rivers that nourish the land of Bangladesh and sustain its people. As the old saying goes, “a Bangalee is made of fish and rice”.

The fish was dead. But by eating it I could draw strength and sustenance. The power to fight for the rights of all. A difficult undertaking, but even more so on an empty stomach.

I took a bite. It was delicious.

Written by Living Large In Little Boxes


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