The LGBT community present in South Asia is among the most closeted in the world with routine attacks and checks on their existence. Much like India, the queer people in Bangladesh are restricted in their speech and expression by Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (2006) imposes a penalty of a minimum seven years and a maximum 14 years of imprisonment for those that published “obscene” material which will be viewed as an ‘offence’. In a space like this, a group of Bangladeshi queer persons collectively named Oboyob are coming out with a book that catalogues the experiences of the community in Bangladesh.
Q. What is the need for queer narratives in a country like Bangladesh?
So far there is no narrative of the queer community here as a published version. If someone wants to learn about the community and their living reality, there is no resource that they can access. Secondly, the book will also preserve the oral history of the community which will motivate the future generation to move forward. The anthology will talk about how did the older generation used to connect when there were no facebook or mobile phone, how did the movement look like before the brutal murder in 2016, what were the smaller initiatives that helped the community to think ahead etc. Besides we believe the process will also engage many members which is utterly important for healing and community mobilisation in our current political context where we see the prosecution against freedom of speech for photojournalists, free thinkers, bloggers and others. The initiative will also help to identify and create safe spaces were the members can be the way they want to be as a space for critical dialogue is dissolving day by day.
It’s for these reasons that we at Oboyob are writing a new chapter in Bangladesh’s social history. We are a group of diverse individuals in Bangladesh working to increase awareness of the diversity of sexual and gender identities. As a virtual organization, we aim to demonstrate how visual art can be used as advocacy campaign material. As a part of this aim, we have recently initiated a campaign called ‘Love That Connects People’ represented in a series of short stories to celebrate love, life and worldview of queer individuals in Bangladesh. We believe this campaign will help change minds in Bangladesh by promoting a level of understanding and awareness of our community, which in Bangladesh currently, is desperately missing.
The book will hold many stories from people of different sexualities, gender expressions, and identities. These stories will be about life, and our everyday. There will be texts, drawings, photographs, and things we haven’t even discovered yet. Because queerness itself is a lot about making discoveries every day, about all the ways in which our bodies can push limits, all the ways in which we can threaten normalized oppressions.
Q. What are the themes covered by the book?
We are initially considering the following things to cover in the book: myself, Cities, Family, Friendship, Memories, Belonging, Identity, Community, Dream, Marriage, self care, Relocation, Religion etc. These will be discussed in several workshops where diverse group members will write and draw their mind by creating a safe space.
Q. Where do you think queer rights are headed in the nation? What are the conversations like in the public?
Not only queer rights, in general human rights situation is not making us very hopeful when we see the arrests or law reforms such as ICT act etc. In Bangladesh the threats against those from the LGBT community are real. On 25 April, 2016 a group of men hacked Xulhaz Mannan, the co-founder of the country’s first LGBT magazine and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, a fellow activist to death. On a daily basis LGBT people face intimidation, harassment and prejudice. There are many reasons for this ingrained prejudice in Bangladesh, but part of the reason for this is legal- like the ICT act. It was the legal climate that contributed to Mannan and Tonoy’s deaths. It also legislates for a maximum fine of Tk 1 crore for those found in violation of the law.
Any person updating a status on social media, writing a blog or running a news portal is in violation of this of this section. ICT Act also allows a third party to file a case against a person in violation of it. Anyone may file a case against a Facebook page or blog if they feel like the content has even a remote possibility of hurting someone else’s image or upsetting religious sentiments. Although its authors may have intended for this part of the law to be used sparingly, it is now routinely used to suppress freedom of speech and harass writers, activists, and journalists, often for their comments on social media. Whilst there is talk of removing the section from the ICT Act, the draft Digital Security Act contains a very similar provision. Experts have pointed out repeatedly how removing Section 57 would be useless, if the same threats to press freedom are reintroduced through another law which too disproportionately penalizes similar “offences.” The LGBT community in the face of such violence and restrictive laws is stuck between a rock and a hard place. While international instruments like the ICCPR or the ECHR emphasize the freedom of expression, the queer community in Bangladesh still struggles to identify the line between independence and the possibility of committing an offence.
Legislative change is so important and we need to fight against a government who is legislating oppressively. But there is also the social fight: against idea of intolerance and discrimination, against notions of exclusion and harassment. These ideas can be changed through culture, and that begins with the introduction of new narratives, narratives from those with a different, diverse set of identities in a country where singular, binary, narrow notions of identity rule.
People who identify as queer are more than just a statistic, or an alphabet in an acronym, or a policy, or a minority group that you place behind a comma. We are members of your community, of many large communities. The idea of different sexual and gender identities across a diverse population has been traditionally ignored in Bangladesh.
One may state that it might be difficult for a heterosexual individual to understand the worldview of a queer individual. Some would argue that it is nothing but an excuse to elude the willingness to understand diverse identities. However we also have to entertain the fact that a heterosexual person may find it difficult or different while trying to understand the worldview of a queer person.
So, we all request to our communities that at least try to give effort to understand rather ignoring or humiliating a human being. Every individual has their own way of interpretation of life and different nature of worldview. We hold great knowledge, radical stories. And nobody can tell these stories like we can. Over the next year, we will build this book. And all we ask of you, is to let us speak, and to hear us.