When Love Is a Crime

The murder of an LGBT activist and what it means to be 'different' in Bangladesh

The horrendous murder of the founder of Bangladesh’s only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) magazine Roopbaan in late April highlights yet again how little the rights of certain groups in the South Asian country are regarded. Xulhaz Mannan, age 35, was hacked to death in his apartment, together with another young gay man (Tanay Mojumdar), in a brutal attack that also left two others seriously injured. In their case, responsibility was later claimed by a group affiliated to al-Qaeda, while the government blamed the opposition and allied armed groups. Tragically, these deaths are just two in a series of attacks on (secular) activists and bloggers in the past months. Outrage and protests have followed these criminal acts. In 2015 alone, “suspected militants killed five secular writers and a publisher, including a Bangladeshi-American activist”, and just recently, on April 6th, a 28-year-old atheist liberal blogger was killed in the same way. Sadly, this senseless and despicable violence has now reached the already vulnerable LGBT community, which has been and is suffering from assaults and rapes already.

This picture shows Bangladeshis protesting the recent murders of bloggers and activists in their country.

Life as a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person in Bangladesh is not only incredibly hard and dangerous – it is outright banned. Homosexual activity is forbidden in the predominantly Muslim country where Islam is constitutionally recognised as the official religion. The current status of the illegal activity – a penal code called Section 377 which has not been changed since 1860 – is that ‘[w]hoever voluntary has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with man, woman, or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine” (this sentence includes women, though other sources claim that the rule does not apply to them, but only men). Understandably, this has caused many LGBT activists to choose exile over staying in such a perilous environment, especially when trying to report threats to the authorities only resulted in warnings by the police and the statement that they should act less provocatively. The same taboo naturally goes for same-sex marriage, which is just as prohibited and socially not accepted. Being bisexual or transgender in Bangladesh is equally problematic and generally rejected by society. The government’s strict stance on this issue was pointed out several years ago, in 2008, when Bangladesh was one of 59 countries that signed a statement opposing LGBT rights at the United Nations General Assembly.

However archaic this may be, some changes have since taken place. A ground-breaking new law that was passed by the cabinet in November 2013 made the country’s transsexuals (the hijras) a separate, ‘third’ gender. Under the law, they technically have “similar rights to any other man or woman residing in the country, in terms of education, job facilities, housing and health” and they are now also able to get passports. This was an enormous step towards equality for LGBT persons, even though its implementation, which involves quotas and strict gender testing, has received some criticism.

This picture shows hijras march through the streets during a rally to mark the first ever nationwide program to observe ‘Hijra Day’ in Dhaka on November 10, 2014.

One of the platforms for the LGBT community is Boys of Bangladesh, which as it states is “the largest network of self-identified Bangladeshi gay men from home and abroad”. Its self-proclaimed vision is “[…] a world free of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation enabling every LGBT individual to enjoy the blessing of life, love and companionship”. This group is not only open to gay men, however, but welcomes everyone from the queer community. Members of the group communicate on there anonymously, and one of them was the murdered activist who posted pictures under his real name, being one of the few (if not only) openly homosexual Bangladeshis.

It is unclear if Xulhaz Mannan’s death will ‘wake up’ the nation and raise the much needed awareness in this conservative and traditional country. Some do publicly speak up, or have done so in the past. A carefully worded opinion piece by the Dhaka Tribune in 2013 addressed the issue of Section 377 and its impact on the LGBT community and called for the law to be repealed. The article underlines that “we do believe that even most people […] do not want to see people put in jail for it […], and do not want to create an environment that allows for persecution and immiseration of homosexuals”. This is much needed, though still widely ignored or opposed.

A tiny yet powerful glimpse of hope is the story of Sanjida, a young Muslim woman from Bangladesh’s countryside who fell in love with a Hindu woman and secretly ran off and ‘married’ her in a Hindu wedding ceremony that was held by just the two of them. Although they were discovered and separated after only a few days together, and their relationship ended as result of that, they changed a few minds through their actions. The landlord of their ‘honeymoon’ apartment said that, “[the relationship] is not in our religion and is not acceptable. But personally I thought it was great love. I’d never heard of anything like this before, but when I saw two women so much in love I had to accept it”. Additionally, and more importantly, Sanjida’s family accepts her now for who she is. Her younger brother had the following to say: “I have come to terms with it, so has our mother… even our father is OK with it – his love for his child is stronger than his conservative views. I have never seen a case like hers before, but have now read on the internet that there are others like her and not just in Bangladesh”. This development is a significant one, and many of those that participated in last December’s World Human Rights Day rally in the country’s capital, Dhaka were gender and gay rights activists who demanded equal rights for sexual minorities and an amendment of Section 377.

It can only be hoped that Bangladesh’s society becomes more accepting of those that are in the minority, and that legislators take proper legal steps to protect the many minority groups and other vulnerable individuals in the country, including the LGBT community. Additionally, they need to abolish the outdated laws that currently criminalise certain people’s way of life and harshly prosecute those that commit crimes such as the ones against Xulhaz Mannan and fellow activists.

Human Rights
Sarah Bialek

Sarah graduated from Maastricht University’s Graduate School of Governance/UNU Merit with a M.Sc. in Public Policy and Human Development, specialising in Trade and Development Law. After working at the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) External Relations department in Geneva she now lives in London and works in the Higher Education sector. She is passionate about International Relations and Development, as well as Trade Law and (forced) Migration.
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