‘The queer fight is against Western hegemony, not by its side’: Queer activists of Bangladesh

Received through Meena Seshu

Anindya Hajra, a friend and Queer activist in Kolkata posted this on FB.

The following letter was sent to me very early this morning over WhatsApp by a queer activist friend from Bangladesh with who I have been trying to establish contact over the past few days (and was successful only yesterday) and who wanted this to be shared as widely as possible. They said this letter was a joint one written by many persons, specifically ‘their comrades’. I have kept the original spellings. On asking them as to what this letter should be called if anything at all, they said, “Naam naai” (There is no name). Hence that is how I am sharing this letter – Anindya

“…while the West has hand-picked extremist Islam as its enemy (with the banner of ISIS) – speaking out against the violence of labor practices and money-making in third world nations is not high on their agenda.”

Dear all,

I am writing to you from a rather desperate place in the hope that you will heed my plea. I am sure that this is reaching you because you have posted something or the other about the two murders of the gay activists in Bangladesh. We are all outraged,shaken and deeply saddened by their untimely brutal deaths. Having said that please read this carefully. Let us honor the dead but not forget the living. Please stop circulating any content containing the following, especially if you are from the North America, Europe:

Xulhaz Mannan as the face of the entire LGBT movement

Roopbaan, or any other organization associated with the term “LGBT”

Bangladesh as an islamic fundamentalist country unsafe for secular bloggers, free thinkers or gender deviants.

“Freedom, diversity and tolerance are Bangladeshi values”.

You see, when you sit on powerful land and demand justice from a government, whether you are well-intentioned radical queers or people of color or marginalized activists who want to demand justice alongside us, sharing these contents, or making this news viral will not help right now. Putting pressure on your local/national governments will not help either. However, what will happen is that this will create a false image of an “islamic” fundamentalist country out to kill queers demanding that international wellwishers (read: Europe and USA) come and save them from the brown men. The deviants and queers are hiding but the international call for justice is making it difficult to avoid being visible. People will be writing many falsehoods, searching for quotes, searching for queers to justify, give opinions, come out and protest. But you see, when the most powerful leader(Mannan) in the country was unsafe, think about what will happen not to the other rich folx, or even the middle class folx, but the lower income folx, or those who are isolated and not networked, or are disabled or ill have always been most vulnerable but now even more so. This makes them the most easy targets for any violent backlash that may include the media/society’s call for justice around the world.

If at this point you are wondering why I am talking about visibility at all it must be noted that it is a tendency among activists and social justice folx to think awareness will take care of most problems. Awareness calls for visibility. However, visibility does not ensure safety or security. Forcing visibility in unsafe situations like this might benefit those who can seek asylum or humanitarian parole (super expensive!), or have top-notch security but it will only make those without these options totally disposable.

You might be doing it with all the good intentions, but it’s hella violent right now for us.

Already, there has been a plethora of articles shared from international news outlets on the killings and they all link back to the same rhetoric- “a rising intolerance is gripping the secular democracy of Bangladesh”. Think about those words for a second. In the past ten years about 84 killings have been claimed by religious extremist groups (some of them are dubious as they come from SITE, whose reliability with facts has very little credibility). In those ten years, how many murders and deaths have taken place in the country due to the political atmosphere, either by the ruling party or its militant youth wing Chhatro League (Youth/Students League)? The number count exceeds the thousands. Add to that the deaths of laborers in factories (i.e. Rana Plaza, Tazreen Garments fire etc) and deaths through cold-blooded murder and through forcibly removing people from their own lands for “development” (four have died in Banshkhali in Chittagong protesting the setting up of a coal-powered electric plant) and the picture we see is not of a secular democracy. Bangladesh is not a secular democracy, nor has it ever been so.

Ask yourselves what is at stake when the international media focuses on some deaths and not others? Why “free speech” and “sexual and gender diversity” and not power-grabbing, land-grabbing and coercion? Because while the West has hand-picked extremist Islam as its enemy (with the banner of ISIS) speaking out against the violence of labor practices and money-making in third world nations is not high on their agenda.

I mean who benefits from this global division of labor and hence the exploitation of the poor here? You got it: the rich in the West!

But if we were to look closely, the silence on some deaths and the outrage on others fits very neatly into the West’s agenda of domination- for here is yet another example of a third-world country whose ‘free speech’ needs saving from backward Islam. For one, it provides the West with key bargaining tools with which it can ramp up military outposts in the third world to fight its own battles (let us not forget that Al-Qaeda was funded by the US to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan or that Saudi Arabia and the US have been bedfellows for years). And secondly, they can use these narratives to make third-world states bend to their will through aiding the investigations of only certain murders (such as Avijit Roy’s or Xulhaz Mannan’s).

Let us refocus our attention on the narrative of tolerance. What does it mean for a country to be tolerant or intolerant? As far as media portals in the West would have us believe it is related only to speaking out against religion or against the gay (sometimes lesbian) population. Note: gay people do not encompass all the other deviants who see gender in all the different combinations possible. And even here, only certain bodies are marked for grief and outrage and others are not. Is it not religious extremism that millions of Hindus are unaccounted for in Bangladesh, that Hindu villages burn and Hindu bodies are killed on a regular basis? Is it not violence enough when Bangali settlers forcibly remove indigenous folx from their own land and then exploit their bodies for labor? Is it also not news-worthy when queers are murdered on the streets as they go about trying to make ends meet (in February Shejuti Hijra was shot and it only warranted a small news piece)? Think, too, of the countless murders that happen which are only afforded a small column outlining name, location and manner of killing- how many of these bodies were poor, were queer and died that way?

When we are told what we need is tolerance we are only told that for certain bodies- middle class, mostly, or somehow aligned, however coincidentally, with the US ideology against Islam. This tolerance does not and will never equate to justice because those other bodies will continue dying as we push for some sort of liberal, middle-class tolerance.

To all of our queer and radical queer allies abroad and to our mainstream and/or liberal and/or left-leaning allies at home- please take all of the above into consideration. In your eagerness to help and be accounted for, you might be pushing us into a direction that benefits the Empire/West while simultaneously making life dangerous for the most vulnerable among us- those queers who do not even have the safety and mobility of the ones who were killed, those who are vulnerable due to their employment as sex workers, those who are reading all the hype on The Guardian and Buzzfeed and BBC and wondering how on earth this helps them get out of their homes because now even more people are looking their way- their battles are not with tolerance but economic justice, justice for rapes, coercion and displacement.

You all are concerned about your friends in Bangladesh. You have lost friends in Bangladesh and there are others you cannot connect with. You are feeling angry, frustrated, helpless, energized to act. Recently we had requested that people stop reaching out to the media, or embassies, or governments or posting pictures of vigils etc that might increase visibility. We do need your help, energy and rage. We are tired but grateful that there are so many wellwishers around the world but we need you to help prevent more harm. If solidarity is your aim, then help us gather resources to aid those in need, those who have now been thrust under the microscope of visibility and aid them in relocations or even economically in order to survive. The queer fight is against Western hegemony, not by its side.

Note: We use the word queer loosely since this is written in English, a language not our own. So queer is a place-holder for a deviant existence that is punished.

In rage,

অসভ্য মানুষজন (Reads as ‘Asabhya Manushjan’)

4 thoughts on “‘The queer fight is against Western hegemony, not by its side’: Queer activists of Bangladesh

  1. K SHESYU BABU

    Muslims are oppressed in India. In Bangladesh, Hindus are oppressed by Muslims, in the West, Christians oppress both. Atheists and secular activists are oppressed all over the world. The whole world has similar pattern! What’s new in Bangladesh?! It is aping the West — and the immediate West is India!!

  2. You want the rights of imperial citizens (wanting to be legitimate LGBTQ) but want to stay outside empire (since you’d fall on the labouring end). Franz Fanon said to build your own national culture otherwise you will fall into this trap again and again: nothing else will pacify your spirit. Turn away or turn in, there is no halfway position. Any halfway position is still a colonised identity.

  3. Sharmishtha

    This is a time to build alliances, not to micro-analyze every supportive gesture that comes your way, nor to try to fit these expressions of support into whatever rigidly ideological analytical framework you bring to the michil. And since this a leftwing forum, and maybe non-leftwing references don’t resonate, let me refer you to Mao Zedong. Remember his old prescription about war (because this *is* war) and figuring out what your primary contradiction is and making alliances even with people you don’t agree with? Be gracious, not dyspeptic. Jus’ saying.

  4. Nivedita Menon

    Response to this post by Avinaba Datta, of Kolkata:
    To Bangladeshi Activists: Please Stop Misrepresenting Your LGBT+ Movement

    After the vicious attack on Xulhaz and Tonoy, while individuals had been trying to figure out our priorities in order to ensure the safety of others, we received an open letter positioned as representing queer-trans voices from Bangladesh as a whole. While the letter has reminded us of a few important points which we must reflect on for ourselves and I also understand that, sitting in India, I do not have moral high ground, I think I should remind the authors of that unnamed letter of a few other important points which, I think, they accidentally, if not deliberately, missed out.

    1. The authors seemed to be appalled at the idea of calling Xulhaz the face of the LGBTQIA movement in Bangladesh without explaining the rationale behind their claim. However, whether they like it or not, Xulhaz Mannan was the face of the entire LGBTQIA movement in Bangladesh. In countries like Bangladesh, where few among the population even know what LGBTQIA stands for; where the word ‘gay’ either freaks them out or reminds them of an extremely effeminate guy dancing; where we hardly have articles covering the daily struggles of hijras – in the midst of all the adversities, one person had created an online magazine for building awareness, empathy and acceptance, who used his real name, not a pseudonym. That one person had influenced several others to embrace visibility. Later those volunteers had risked their social status, lives, and went to great lengths to create the human rainbow, ‘Rangdhanu Jatra’, on the Mongol Shovajatra where they shared the space with the so-called mainstream society while keeping their queer identity intact. Yes, that makes him the face of the LGBTQIA movement of Bangladesh – by all definitions of it. And we cannot afford to deny this fact.

    Read the rest of this response on Youth ki Awaaz

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