Framing Queerness Authentically in ‘Decolonising Queer Bangladesh’

Ibtisam Ahmed – PhD Candidate (Nottingham University)


In 2019, I was fortunate enough to have been published as part of a collection of essays on global queer experiences in the context of International Relations. Entitled Sexuality and Translation in World Politics, [1] the book brought together practitioners and academics from various nationalities to discuss the importance of how queer experiences vary depending on location, and how terminology and translation play a significant role in how these experiences are told.

As an interdisciplinary historian – as well as being a queer person of colour – I am distinctly aware of the dangers in attributing modern concepts to the past. There is a real risk in erasing context when this happens, especially when the topic being discussed touches on fundamental social norms and morals. At the same time, it is imperative to embed our understanding of the present (and the future) in the past, as long as the present does not colour our views of the past.

In writing the chapter ‘Decolonising Queer Bangladesh: Neoliberalism Against LGBTQ+ Emancipation’, I was interested in applying that same historiographical principle of respecting context to queer Bangladeshi activism. There is a worrying prevalence of metropolitan queer communities (usually cisgender, gay, middle class men) centring a Western narrative of what constitutes queerness to create solidarity with those same privileged queer communities, especially with the increase in global connectivity in the age of the internet. [2]

By creating a false narrative of common struggle, it becomes easier to gain sympathy – and more practical support such as funding and media coverage. This is part of the reason why, for example, early entreaties to the World Health Organisation to recognise rights of the Hijra community used the English medical terminology for transgender identity, [3] thus erasing the complex and unique nature of Hijra as a historic ‘third gender’ in South Asia while also conflating wider trans issues in Bangladesh with specific Hijra struggles. [4]

Thus, it was crucial for me to reclaim and centre local histories as authentically as possible. There is a decent availability of existing resources on South Asia more broadly, [5] [6] [7] [8] and I was able to use these to frame the wider conceptualisation of queerness in gender and sexuality. This includes a rich vein of study of how identities understood in the modern world as non-cisheteronormative were understood and received in pre-colonial India. [9] [10] The acceptance and tolerance of such lives varied greatly depending on the region, but it is possible to understand the case in what is now Bangladesh is to explore the queer history of Bengal.

Literature provides an excellent resource for such analyses. Various novels, novellas, essays, spiritual treaties, and popular fiction include explicitly queer content. Purano Dinguli (Days of the Past) has passages of romantic liaisons between people of various genders as part of its descriptions of an idealised Muslim society. [11] Indira explores an intimate encounter between two women that criticises ideas of chastity, patriarchal expectations of romance, and social conservatism. [12] Meanwhile, Shri Ramakrishna Paramahansa centred practical experiences of sex in his spiritual arguments, which included descriptions of acts between two men and between two women. [13]

The lack of many first-person accounts of queer lives in the physical archive means that it is not possible to draw a definitive conclusion on what these types of writing implies, not to mention the lack of historical sources available on indigenous queer identities that would have been passed down orally and were, therefore, not considered vital in early historical records. This is made even more complicated by the fact that later colonial authorities removed various sources from the archive that were deemed unworthy or impure.

Nonetheless, it is possible to suggest that the wide availability of sources that described queer relationships hints at a minimum level of tolerance of such identities as part of everyday life. Importantly, this included the unequivocal commitment to non-judgemental equality under Sufi Islam, widely practised in East Bengal, the present location of Bangladesh. (As a side note, this is also a powerful rebuttal to modern queerphobia under Salafism in Bangladesh, which tends to frame homosexuality as a corrupting Western influence.)

Ironically, the lack of a coherent ‘Other’ identity for queerness played a role in how it was weaponised and criminalised under British colonial rule. After the Crown took full control of India as the British Raj in 1858, Victorian moral norms were applied in how laws were created. [14] This meant a wholesale rejection of the various ways in which queerness – and, indeed, masculinity and femininity – were experienced in the Raj.

By creating one unified narrative, in which the “carnal desire” of queerness [15] was immoral and impure, it was easy to criminalise such relations under Section 377 of the imperial penal code. An appeal to biological essentialism, where same-gender relationships could not produce an heir, strengthened such a categorisation. Additional propaganda which attributed Indian military losses to their supposed intrinsic ‘effeminacy’ helped to narrowly define acceptable roles for masculinity and femininity, [16] ignoring the material realities of technology and wealth.

Gender diversity was an altogether different battlefield. Hijra had always existed as a visible part of society. The community played key roles in rural life, officiating over occasional weddings, blessing pregnancy and childbirth, and providing a safe haven for unwanted intersex children. [17] Early urban industrialisation chipped away at the social spiritualism that ensured they had significant roles in the communal fabric, [18] but they still continued to exist as a distinct group, albeit one that was increasingly segregated and reliant on less desirable jobs such as sex work. [19]

Sexuality could be made a brand new ‘Other’ under Section 377, but existing gender identities needed to be challenged in a different way, especially as they could fall outside the purely intercourse-centric remit of Section 377. [20] By tapping into the growing self-segregation of the Hijra community, combined with the social stigmas associated with their protection of intersex children and their sex work, Crown authorities were able to include them under the auspices of the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act. [21]

What made queerness such an easy target for discrimination was its visibility. Hijra communities already stood out due to their own creation of safe spaces and communal living quarters. Queer sexuality, meanwhile, was the easiest target of Section 377. The law technically outlawed all forms of sexual intercourse that was not strictly penile-vaginal, including oral and anal sex between partners of different genders. However, this was impossible to police in any meaningful way, which meant that the individuals targeted under the law were exclusively couples of the same gender. Specifically, the relative lack of social mobility and openness for women at the time led to Section 377 only being applied to harass men who came under initial suspicion due to their effeminate nature.

It is no coincidence then that, of the three instances of Section 377 being used in colonial India, the two that resulted in convictions targeted Indian men. The lone acquittal came in Queen Empress vs Khairati in 1884, which resulted in the defendant being censured for “dressing ornamentatively” but did not result in any imprisonment as she was not caught in the act of homosexuality. Emperor vs Noshirwan in 1934 saw two men (Noshirwan and Ratansi) being arrested for sodomy and both were judged to be “a despicable specimen of humanity”, although the charges were later dropped as there was no proof of penetration. Emperor vs D. P. Minawala in 1935 was also against two men (D. P. Minawala and Taj Mohamed), arrested and charged for sodomy in public, spending at least four months in jail. [22]

In the period immediately following independence from colonial rule in 1947, queer liberation was not high on any group’s agenda. During this time, Bangladesh was formally a part of Pakistan (known as East Pakistan) until final independence was gained in 1971. From a Bengali nationalist perspective, the two biggest struggles were linguistic and cultural autonomy, working against state-building through pan-Islamism. There are no protests on record that were explicitly about queer rights, nor were there any openly queer members of the liberation movement. (It should be noted that the religious conservatism of Salafism became more pronounced in this period, taking a sharp turn away from the original egalitarian Sufi roots of Islam that used to be present in Bengal.)

Thus, the queer movement was all but absent until the early 1980s. Even then, early protests were not calls for an end to any direct oppression or social ostracisation, but attempts at tackling wider systemic injustices that prevented meaningful steps towards legal equality. For example, the Hijra community – always the most visible part of queer Bangladesh – advocated for their decriminalisation mostly because it prevented equal access to security, healthcare and job opportunities rather than arrests for actually being Hijra. [23] While harassment of the community was high and there remained a strong level of social stigma, the focus was on trying to counter that through valid state mechanisms. [23]

The gay male community began to organise around cosmopolitan areas and international markers of queer culture, especially after 1990. Many preferred the term MSM (men who have sex with men; making the focus on practice of sex rather than identity of sexuality), which allowed them to maintain heteroromantic relationships and marriages. The earliest form of community organising focused on the creation of spaces for leisure rather than overt activism. At the centre of this were attempts to create a ‘gay scene’ based in the urban middle class. [24] A handful of these groups would, of course, later take on the need for more overt political action and activism, but this would not take off until the turn of the century.

As for queer women, social conservatism made women as a whole more likely to be relegated to the domestic sphere rather than the visibly political or activist sphere. Paradoxically, this created a specific and limited space of safety for unmarried cisgender queer women, as living with another unmarried woman was socially acceptable, unlike living alone or with an unmarried (or, indeed, married) man. Thus, queer women were able to explore their sexuality with some security and discretion. This safety ended at their front door, however, and the persecution of queer women continued as with the broader queer community. [25]

Since 2000, there have been genuine attempts at creating a more conscious solidarity across class and gender. Central to all of this has been a reclamation of queer history that is specific to the Bangladeshi context rather than trying to fit in with global trends. Pride has been restructured into two events. The now-discontinued Rainbow Rally was held as part of Bengali New Year celebrations in order to connect queerness with wider Bengali identity. [26] Hijra Pride, meanwhile, focused on letting Hijra voices speak for themselves and spread awareness. [27] Literary activism, a long-standing aspect of Bengali and Bangladeshi rights movements, has been adapted by creating magazines to share stories and queer news [28], poetry collections about the queer experience, [29] as well as share the first ever Bangladeshi lesbian comic book. [30] Meanwhile, the reading down of Section 377 in India provided a strong legal precedent on how to undo toxic colonial legacies.

There has been a recent surge in violence and persecution against the queer community. This has been carried out both through the murders of activists by Islamist extremists [31] and the arrests of men accused of being gay. [32] The struggle for emancipation is far from over and, in many ways, has become more violent and dangerous now than it had been in the years of relative quiet. Yet, the open celebration and defiance of queer identity is heartening, and central to all of it has been a renewed appreciation for how queer Bangladesh first truly came to be.

References

[1] Ahmed, I. (2019), “Decolonising Queer Bangladesh: Neoliberalism Against LGBTQ+ Emancipation”, in Cottet, C., and Picq, M., Sexuality and Translation in World Politics. E-International Relations: Bristol. Pp. 101-111. Available as a free e-book at https://www.e-ir.info/publication/sexuality-and-translation-in-world-politics/
[2] Karim, S. (2014), “Erotic Desires and Practices in Cyberspace: ‘Virtual Reality’ of the Non-Heterosexual Middle Class in Bangladesh”, in Gender, Technology and Development, 18 (1). P. 53.
[3] Khan, S. I., Hussain, M. I., Gourab, G., Parveen, S., Bhuiyan, M. I., and Sikder, J. (2009a), “Not to Stigmatize But to Humanize Sexual Lives of the Transgender (Hijra) in Bangladesh: Condom Chat in the AIDS Era”, in Journal of LGBT Health Research, 4(2-3). Pp. 132-133.
[4] Hossain, A. (2017), “The paradox of recognition: hijra, third gender and sexual rights in Bangladesh”, in Culture, Health and Sexuality, 19(12). Pp. 1,418-1,420.
[5] Loos, T. (2009), “Transnational Histories of Sexualities in Asia”, in The American Historical Review, 114(5). Pp. 1,309-1,324.
[6] McClintock, A. (1995), Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. Routledge: London and New York.
[7] Baudh, S. (2013), ‘Decriminalisation of Consensual Same-Sex Sexual Acts in the South Asian Commonwealth: Struggles in Context’, in Lennox, C. and Waites, M. (eds.), Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change. Institute of Commonwealth Studies: London. Pp. 287-312.
[8] Rangayan, S. (2015), Breaking Free. Solaris Productions: London and New Delhi.
[9] Vanita, R. and Kidwai, S. (eds.) (2000). Readings From Literature and History: Same-Sex Love in India. Palgrave Macmillan: London and New York.
[10] Vanita, R., (ed.) 2002. Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. Routledge: London and New York.
[11] Anonymous Sufi (1812), Purano Dinguli (Days of the Past). Archived at the Bangladesh National Archives.
[12] Available in translation in Vanita and Kidwai, Readings.
[13] Available in translation in Vanita and Kidwai, Readings.
[14] McClintock, Imperial Leather. Pp. 15-28.
[15] The Indian Penal Code, 1860.
[16] Sinha, M. (1995), Colonial Masculinity: The “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali” in the Late Nineteenth Century. Manchester University Press: Manchester.
[17] Hossain, “The paradox of recognition”. Pp. 1,425-1,426.
[18] Hossain, “The paradox of recognition”. P. 1,427.
[19] Khan, S. I., Hussain, M. I., Gourab, G., Parveen, S., Bhuiyan, M. I., and Sikder, J. (2009b), “Living on the Extreme Margin: Social Exclusion of the Transgender Population (Hijra) in Bangladesh”, in Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition, 27(4). Pp. 441-442.
[20] Gust, O. (2014), “Hyperbole and horror: hijras and the British imperial state in India”, in NOTCHES. Available at http://notchesblog.com/2014/01/06/hyperbole-and-horror-hijras-and-the-british-imperial-state-in-india/
[21] Gust, “Hyperbole and horror”.
[22] Rangayan, S. (2015), Breaking Free. Solaris Productions: London and New Delhi.
[23] Hossain, “The paradox of recognition”. P. 1,427.
[24] Karim, “Erotic Desires”. P. 62.
[25] Mortada, S. S. (2013), “Acceptance of Lesbian Love: Too Much to Expect?”, in Alal o Dulal. Available at https://alalodulal.org/2013/08/11/acceptance-of-lesbian-love/
[26] Roopbaan (2017), ‘Roopbaan Rainbow Rally (2014, 2015)’, in Roopbaan Online Blog. Available at https://roopbaan.org/2017/09/23/roopbaan-rainbow-rally-2014-2015/
[27] Bandhu Welfare Society (2014), Hijra Pride 2014. Bandhu Hubs: Dhaka.
[28] Roopbaan (2014), Roopbaan Magazine. Independent Press: Dhaka.
[29] Roopbaan (2015), Roopongti. Independent Press: Dhaka.
[30] Boys of Bangladesh (2015), Dhee. Independent Press: Dhaka.
[31] Ta (2017), “One year after the murders of Xulhaz Mannan and Mabhub Rabbi Tonoy”, in Amnesty International. Available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/04/one-year-after-the-murders-of-xulhaz-mannan-and-mahbub-rabbi-tonoy/
[32] Mahmud, T. (2017), ‘28 suspected homosexuals detained from Keraniganj’, in Dhaka Tribune, 19 May 2017 edition.

Ibtisam’s paper was one of several submissions we accepted from our Call For Participation at the start of the 2019-20 academic year. We received some fantastic responses for both seminars/sessions and blog posts – keep an eye out for these across the rest of the year! And, if you would like to put forward an idea, keep an eye out for future Calls For Participation or email us directly: queerhistory@warwick.ac.uk

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