একই প্রশ্নের ঝাঁপি নিয়ে চলে গেলাম আমাদের প্রতিবাদী একজন অধিকারকর্মী আপার কাছে যিনি নির্নিমেষ কাজ করে যাচ্ছেন সাহিত্যে ক্যুইয়ার নারী ও নারী চরিত্রের ভিজিবিলিটি নিয়ে।সেই আলাপের কিছু অংশ-
Editor: Thank you so much for making time today. I know you have been crazy busy with the workshop schedule from your organization. So, how have you been?
Queer Activist: I’m well, yeah, it was a bit hectic. But, I am back in town now, Thank you so much for arranging this too.
Editor: yes, absolutely, no worries. I have been meaning to talk to you about this publication for a while. As I explained in my email, this publication is slated to be the first ever queer women’s collective of Bangladesh and we are doing the best we can to ensure wide participation. So, we have talked to independent sex workers and women from the hijra community alike. And, several things have come up. Questions about visibility, equality, empowerment.
Queer Activist: Mm-hmm. That sounds interesting.
Editor: Yes, definitely. It was a very interesting process but these questions that have come up, they seem unanswerable by the common man, right? Someone working a day job might not how they can access their rights. So, my best bet was going to people from the legal arena, and people like you – activists! People who have been talking about these topics and working on them for years. So, I know you worked on the Original Dhee comics. How was that experience?
Queer Activist: Dhee was before 2016 and a lot of people still remember it because it was the first lesbian visual art piece. Before that I used to read all these books and I could never find my own representation. We got together, a team of queer people and developed the characters. And dhee kind of looked like me too, you know, she had curly hair. But it wasn’t just limited to a comic. Dhee was a really expansive project. Anyways, so not only within the community but also outside the community – and I think that’s why people still remember this, because there was, like, a high coverage but we also conducted like a series of workshops in Dhaka, in Rangpur, in Chittagong and in other areas. So – and the workshops were with civil society organisations, journalists, media and students of gender diverse identities, and we were supposed to get it done by 2016, and there were still some of the workshops remaining. But after the 2016 murders, we were not able to continue. So, the project was stopped right then and there. So, it did not see to its full completion. And later on because we had some funds remaining, in 2017 we did the card memorial event at the American Centre. We also launched the Dhee Blog but it’s not there anymore because it was – we lost access to it. So yeah, these are bits and pieces but I guess you understand how it looked like.
Editor: You are saying that you lost access to the Dhee blog. How long ago was that?
Queer Activist: It was 2018, and it was taken over by some Chinese people.
Editor: Also, there hasn’t been any follow-up on Dhee ever since?
Queer Activist: What, sorry? Any-?
Editor: There hasn’t been any follow-up on Dhee ever since – not on the blog, not on the comics.
Queer Activist: No, we actually are conducting another Dhee 2.0 and we are forming a material with ShareNet that has – kind of takes the story forward and shows forced marriages so this is going to get out soon by early next month so I hope I can share that.
Editor: Okay, uhm, Dhee is one of my first exposures to lesbian literature or lesbian art in Bangladesh – in general I haven’t seen much – so what’s your experience? Do you think there’s a lot of queer – especially queer women focused- literature in Bangladesh?
Queer Activist: No, not really. I mean, I think in the history of the country or even before the liberation, there isn’t much queer representation. I think the only – some work representation that came up in the last decade or so – there is no like – literature – I have not seen that. But I understand that there is a book on – probably written by a lesbian storywriter – but I am not sure if she is – I think she is Indian.
Editor: Which book are you talking about?
Queer Activist: I think I mentioned it in the last uh – oh yeah, a Bangladeshi-Irish writer, ‘the girls with the henna tattoo.’
Editor: Oh, yeah yeah yeah. I have heard about that as well and I was so excited but yeah.
Queer Activist: Right. I think – I mean I am sure it’s a good story but I am just saying that maybe it doesn’t depict the authenticity of Bangladeshi experience because she did live – her experience was being a queer Muslim woman in Ireland – so it should be very different from how we experience our realities in Bangladesh. But other than that, there are no mainstream literature.
Editor: So, even though it’s a story of a queer woman of Bangladeshi origins, it is a not a Bangladeshi queer story in essnce.
Queer Activist: Sorry?
Editor: Am I not audible?
Queer Activist: হ্যাঁ হ্যাঁ আবার একটু বলেন প্লিজ?
Editor: Yeah I was saying even though it’s a story of someone of Bangladeshi origins, its’not a Bangladeshi queer story in its essence.
Queer Activist: Right, I think, what we say “something is better than nothing” something like that But then again I mean what’s the point of literature – like why do you write things? Because we also want to connect to people, we also want to let them know that this is what is – this is my story. But if that’s the case, then I am sure that – like if you are talking about Bangladeshi queer case or Bangladeshi queer woman – it should be written by queer woman who has lived in Bangladesh for the entirety or depicts the story of Bangladeshi queer women or how the space looks like.
Editor: Hopefully someday – hopefully in our publication something will come up of that sort, that’s the goal ultimately to voice queer stories from here.
Editor: Going back to the point where you said Dhee had a huge coverage, do you think a lot of queer art in general – especially women who are structurally silenced – their work gets that reach?
Queer Activist: Uhm no, I think not because I am not sure how – like of course I understand structurally silenced but also because I think there are so many structures that I think that a queer woman has to take care of before they speak up so I think safety and security is a very big issue like because I think a lot of queer women, they do have the fear of being outed in the family and that’s because they are very different on them on some levels. And I think that these things – a lot of things are holding queer women back but even drawing experience from activism, I also do not see a lot of queer women in activism space too – not only in literature but also in activism space – that’s because the fear is still there. And there are also, I think that you know, the sense of belongingness, the sense of femininity or the sense of community, I mean they are more afraid of getting in touch with this bigger community because they don’t want this information to pass around that they are queer, and for that to have an impact in their office or within their families. For example, I do know a lot of queer women but they are not in touch with their communities – as we understand community in Bangladesh.
Editor: Oh yeah, I have seen that happening a lot too – like someone working on this project in a very prominent role told me that she is not very well connected with the community because she doesn’t feel safe here. Even someone who’s making an impact and is so involved in making something so queer is still so detached from the community and that’s sad but also so alarming to a really big extent.
Queer Activist: Yeah, it’s alarming, and when people are not really getting in touch with the community for example, because they are [unclear], because they do not really know about it because they are not in touch. So, all these things are leaving only a few people who are talking about queer women in Bangladesh but not a lot of this is coming up.
Editor: Mhm hmm.
Queer Activist: Usually it’s in urban Dhaka, we do see a lot of people speak up and things like that but what about the rest of the country and what about the diversity of queer women – even that’s not there.
Editor: Yeah so, going back to my question – the works of queer women, say for example, queer artists making art online or offline- even if they were depicting sexual identity and their gender expression through art, do you think that has a tendency of getting overlooked more than heteronormative art?
Queer Activist: I am not – I don’t think so. In Bangladesh – our space is pretty limited as a whole – I don’t think it gets enough exposure or enough attention by the general population – that’s what I think. So, I think as a whole – I am not maybe at the place to comment on this – I still see that this is pretty underground and these exhibitions are happening like we get to know about these exhibitions from personal friends and it doesn’t even matter if it is a queer artist or heterosexual artist but yeah. So, I think – this difference – we will be able to see when the art space itself grows and grows bigger. Then I think I will be able to comment, not right now.
Editor: You talked a little bit about the activism space so going to that whenever big movements happen and whenever the conversation of queer couples or queer love comes up, section 377 gets quoted a lot, right? The whole ‘anyone who’s engaging in sodomy’, so even that claim – even section 377 – that is very heteronormative in a way, because its only focusing on the penetrative part of queer sex. So, what’s your view of that?
Queer Activist: Yeah, definitely I mean I can see it in a good way because technically they cannot arrest lesbians because the definition of sodomy doesn’t cover that but yeah, I think this also depicts that there is a general understanding that female sexuality doesn’t exist and that, women don’t want to have sex – they just don’t want to have sex for pleasure and sex would be done to her and that they will only be engaging in sex when they have to reproduce. I think that’s the general understanding and I’m sure that women are mostly seen as a receiver like a passive agent or a passive – I mean she will not take any step to have sex and if somebody is a woman and she expresses her needs – you know to explore things and like that – she will be turned down. There are other repercussions for women who want to explore their sexuality, not even sex like even their sexuality as well. So I think that is – 377 is a very prime example of that – even I think within the community, I also see that a lot of men, they also do not understand- gay men, they do not understand how lesbians be together. They do ask a lot of questions – I mean I have stopped taking up on some of them – they do ask a lot of weird questions.
Editor: Very intrusive questions, yeah.
Editor: So, I have heard this before that 377 gives a loophole to queer women who are into women so lesbian women, bisexual women, how true is that – to what extent do you think? Because 377 does specify penetration – obviously in a very graphic way – but if we were to define penetration, it could be taken away from the fact that penetration doesn’t have to happen through a man’s penis right? So what’s the scope of that loophole for queer women?
Queer Activist: Yeah, if you see the – I mean I can give you examples like there have been cases with lesbian couples – one was where they eloped. So, one was adult, one was a minor – under 18 – and case of abduction and kidnapping was brought against the adult and in another case where lesbian couple was living together, I think the case was filed under public nuisance or something like that. In both cases 377 was not brought up, the conversation around 377 was not brought up because they do understand that the capability of 377 is not that high for these cases and this speaks for the loopholes too.
But in general, I believe that 377 was a bit difficult to be used against anybody because it does say that there has to be two witnesses who have seen that the penetration has happened. So that’s the reason why the 377 has not been ever used. I also understand because there’s a lot of pressure to – like for every universal periodic review like every 5 years the Bangladeshi government gets recommendations to repeal section 377 and I think – you don’t use 377 ever – that the in the international community their image is kind of maintained so – but there are like a bunch of other laws that people use to catch us – we also know how these false cases form.
Editor: How do you think the feminist movement of Bangladesh is impacting the overall legal reform in the country? The rage against rape protest, the rape law reform campaign – it’s been going on for a really long time and even still there is no reform – even in the evidence act, the character assassination section still remains – so what do you think its impacting the legal situation?
Editor: I mean we are all going to protests, we are all putting out our slogans, do you think it’s working?
Queer Activist: I think it’s not been a long time because we do also see that how Bangladesh is not an easy country to work in and it’s not like they are listening to us, but for example – a lot of reforms were brought after years of advocacy – like 5 years, 6 years of advocacy – and this is not – I think we are still in the incision process of that. But because this movement – not rage against rape, I think it has lost its momentum – but rape law coalition, they are doing some work with the law commission, I think. We will be seeing some of its impact soon – not soon like after a year or so – but that’s how the advocacy process works, it actually takes like a lot of time. It shouldn’t take a lot of time because sometimes it feels like it’s just common sense, it should be repealed as soon as possible but because of the bureaucracy, because of all these things where people in the government are not going to work if there’s no riot and things like that and legal things take some time so maybe we just need to wait and see like what happens.
Editor: We can wait and see how that happens and takes shape.
Editor: There’s also the 2014 gazette that legalized the term ‘hijra’ as a gender so now they can identify as man, woman or hijra. What’s your view on that?
Queer Activist: Of course, I mean who is actually a hijra? What is the definition of being hijra? I mean who can say they are hijra and somebody is not? If you don’t – I mean the gazette doesn’t speak about anything around that and it is also part of the ignorance of the government officials who are in charge of this because they do not have a clear understanding of what hijra is. I mean a lot of people still think that hijra and intersex people are the same and they are born this way.
I mean it is still somewhat of a progress but not as much as it could have been because it’s not just clear and you can’t have gender recognition without doing any research or without understanding these terminologies. I mean there are lot of conversation around transgender people too – just 2 or 3 days back I think, the prime minister talked about the property rights – property distribution – between men and women and talked including hijra people that everybody is going to get equal distribution but she continued saying that if somebody born as a male but she identifies as a woman needs to be treated like a woman and if somebody is born as a woman but identifies as a man, that he should be treated as a man given we should follow equal property distribution. So, I think some conversation about it are there but then again here, the prime minister has synonymously used hijra with transgender people. I am not sure how to take this misconception – it sounds good but if this falls – if the concept is not clear unintentionally or intentionally and maybe she is just avoiding getting backlash from the extremist groups, you know the far worse can happen.
Editor: I suppose that’s all we can do now for – even the rape law reform and situation with the hijra community. There’s some conversation – it’s not what we want but it’s at least a start.
Queer Activist: Right.
Editor: Okay we are almost at the end of our interview. So, you talked about how the next – how Dhee 2.0 is coming out – hopefully next month or next few months so how was it like working on the new issue?
Queer Activist: It was pretty nice, I mean I felt a bit nostalgic because the situation was so much different from the 5 years. But I still believe the comic writers did a very good job. We brought forth a lot of issues through the comic and yeah, let’s see. Maybe I will be inviting you too to the launching so that you can also see firsthand-
Editor: Oh my god, thank you so much!
Queer Activist: Yeah, so we are thinking about the launching on the 3rd but there are just a lot of things to cover so I think the invitation is going to go out soon like today or today, so I will be adding your name.
Editor: Thank you so much, that’s such an honor.
Editor: You’re probably in a very hectic schedule probably with the launch and everything so thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.
Queer Activist: Yeah, it’s fine, it’s okay.
Editor: Yeah, I also really wanted to talk about how the concept developed for Dhee in the first place for the original comic. What was the thought m process behind it? How did you come up with it?
Queer Activist: The objective was to build – to have a material that talks about diverse identities – and what we were thinking was we could have done this leaflet but we wanted to make it more exciting and creative and from there an idea of depicting all these issues through a story came up and we were thinking that even if you have to tell the story, the story should be told by somebody who is a woman because women faces a lot more challenges in Bangladesh than gay men – I mean lesbians would face a lot more challenges than gay men – and also because while we were there we understood that queer women representation was not there at all. Also, in the team of content creators, there were like four people and three of them were queer women like including me.
So, I think overall, all these kind of motivated us to write a story from the lens of a queer woman and we also got to begin our own experiences in the story and it was very exciting. After like Dhee was done, I kind of saw that Dhee looked like me so it was also very weird but I did for example Dhee to have curly hair, we wanted her to represent freedom and curly hair is something cannot be tamed so it kind of was like a symbolic thing as well but I kind of have curly hair so, kind of like – and wear glasses and Dhee wears glasses – so she kind of looks like me and it’s very weird for me to see.
Editor: Yeah, and it’s also very rewarding.
Queer Activist: Yeah yeah, definitely.
Editor: I am so excited that the 2.0 is coming – I didn’t know that, I knew the next issue of Dhee was in the works but I didn’t know it was so soon, really best of luck for that.
Queer Activist: Yeah, and always feels good talking about Dhee because it is like really close to me, it was very – you said the right word – it was a very rewarding journey. So let me know if you have any other questions surrounding Dhee and I will be seeing you on the launch hopefully. We are doing it somewhere in X, just to give you a heads up on the space.
Editor: even if it was being held in space, I would still try to make it.
Queer Activist: [laughs] Okay, that’s great. I would love to see you there.
Editor: It’s actually funny – my ex-girlfriend somehow managed to get her hands on a copy of Dhee and she doesn’t understand Bangla that well so one day on call, she was reading it out to me and I was explaining it to her and we bonded a lot over that and ever since Dhee has been a very close memory to my heart. It was the first representation that I saw and I just loved it so much.
Queer Activist: Thank you, and it is also very rewarding to hear and I think after Dhee was launched many other queer women came up to us and shared their experiences and going through the story, it also very – and you are saying it now – like I am very happy right now, my camera stopped working or I would have turned my camera on and showed you my smile, but it’s not working right now.
Editor: I’ll imagine it, I‘ll imagine your smile.
Editor: Okay so we are almost done with our interview. Thank you so much for coming today and-
Queer Activist: Yeah, thank you!
Editor: Okay, then thank you. Take care.
Queer Activist: Yeah, thank you. Bye!
First and Multidimensional Queer Women’s Collective of Bangladesh