In Bangladesh, how you define your sexuality can depend on class, education and family circumstances
There are many in Bangladesh who inhabit a grey area that is neither public nor private, where things that are illegal or socially and religiously taboo are permissible so long as they are not discussed openly. Drinking alcohol, falling in love and disbelieving in God are areas where people rarely disclose their thoughts or activities except in like-minded circles.
Living in such a way protects them from conservative elements of society and allows them to maintain cordial relationships with family and friends. Suleman, an imam at one of the largest mosques in Dhaka, lives with this kind of contradiction every day. None of his family or colleagues suspect anything about his relationship with his male partner, who is publicly acknowledged as “just a friend”. This is not so difficult to comprehend. A few years ago Suleman married a woman. Having fulfilled his social and religious obligations in both public and private matters (they have two children together), he is free to continue his relationship with his “friend”.
Suleman is well aware of the consequences if knowledge of his “friend” became public. He could be thrown out of the mosque or physically punished; there are many who think a man loving another man is among the worst sins a person can commit. Suleman himself believes it is very important that gay Muslims be allowed to marry, as a way to avoid promiscuity. Called upon by gay friends to bless their relationships, he performs readings from the Qur’an and prayers at such ceremonies.
In this regard Bangladesh is hardly any different from other conservative societies around the world, but new ideas are cautiously surfacing. The Bandhu (“friend”) organisation provides healthcare and support for men who have sex with men. It says that 7%-15% of Bangladeshi men over the age of 15 (that is between 2.5 million and 5.25 million people) have sex with another man at least once a month (most will do so while they are single and stop once they get married).
Saleh Ahmed, who runs Bandhu, stresses that the people it works with are not “gay” but fall within the looser category of “men who have sex with men” (MSMs). According to Ahmed, there are two main differences between the categories: MSMs have sex just for “fun” or “physical release”, without the emotional and identity implications of a gay relationship. The second difference between being gay and MSMs is that of class. MSMs generally have low-paid, menial jobs. Gay men come from a middle and upper class background; they tap into a wider, global gay identity and its trappings.
MSMs have very few choices in life, hemmed in as they are by poverty, social exclusion and threats from STIs including HIV/AIDS. This is exacerbated by marginalisation at the hands of their wealthier brethren, and has even spawned terms such as “LS” (low status) to refer to working class gay men and “HS” (high society) to indicate the more affluent.
Although Bangladesh’s anti-sodomy law (section 377 of criminal code) seems to have fallen into disuse, the police regularly stop, harass and even arrest working-class MSMs under other laws, according to Ahmed – so repealing Section 377 will not prevent any of this. For Ahmed, it is more important to focus on fighting for access to healthcare and educational services. Education at the grassroots levels is the key to this. Bandhu holds “sensitisation workshops” where the police, local elected bodies, journalists, doctors and lawyers are educated on the problems MSMs face. It also provides training on HIV/AIDS, and international and human rights laws.
“Our kind of work is far more crucial to the everyday lives of men who have sex with men than attempting to repeal this outdated law,” Ahmed says.
While most MSMs are poorly educated, the internet has become a crucial resource for the middle and upper classes. Boys of Bangladesh (BOB) is an online group with 1,700 members who explicitly define themselves as gay. The forum allows people to make friends, meet potential partners and disseminates information and advice.
Shakhawat Hossain, the group’s “moderator”, is typical of the young Dhakaias that BOB appeals to: in tune with international fashions and technology, privately educated, taking foreign holidays and preferring sushi to shutki (the traditional Bengali dried fish).
BOB’s aim is to develop a lifestyle first and then discuss rights and equality. Hossain says “MSM” refers just to sexual behaviour – which he finds insulting. To be gay on the other hand refers to sexual attraction, emotions, partnership and love, “far more complicated and less palatable for the orthodoxy”. He wants section 377 to be repealed, since from the offset it considers gay people to be criminals.
Whatever the result of BOB’s coming-out or Bandhu’s efforts to stay in the grey area, this will not stem the tide of educated, middle-class gay people leaving Bangladesh. One reason for this is for simple economics. Attracted to wealth, status and a particular kind of consumer-obsessed lifestyle, middle-class gay people are no different from their heterosexual counterparts.
The other reason is the perceived freedoms western countries offer homosexuals. At the turn of the 20th century gay men from the west, writers such as William Burroughs and Tennessee Williams for example moved, ironically by today’s standards, to Muslim countries where they found the atmosphere to be much more liberal towards homosexuality. Now, the movement is in the opposite direction.
The problem with this rainbow exodus is that the very group of people who are in a position to confront the issue of inequality in Bangladesh, to bring about change by using their influence, are the ones leaving.
I ask one gay man leaving for Australia whether he is willing to publicly declare his boyfriend in Bangladesh. His answer is frank. “I’d die if my parents and friends knew I was gay. Not because they’d kill me, but because of shame. I’m leaving so that I can do what I want without anyone here knowing about it.”