Crossposted from Himal Magazine
By Delwar Hussein
Bangladeshis thrive in and work against the ‘grey area’ of subtle acceptance of un-discussed alternative sexualities.
From a very young age, Suleman (not his real name) has known that he was attracted to men. He would wear his mother’s saris when she was out of the house, and put on his sister’s makeup in the belief that this is what men found appealing. Suleman also knew that he wanted to be an imam. He sought to understand the creation of the world, to find answers to questions about life after death. At 13 he joined a madrassa, where he began the required rigorous training, which included memorising the entire Quran and learning Arabic and Persian. Small in stature but with an imposing black beard, he is today dressed in a white kurta-pyjama with a matching skull cap. “Imams have a lot of responsibility,” he says. “The Malik has chosen me, even with all my flaws, to follow him. If I can fulfil even the slightest of his wishes, then Allah is pleased.”
Now 32, Suleman believes his education is still not over, although he is a teacher at the same madrassa at which he studied, leading the five daily prayers and also the Friday jumma at one of the largest mosques in Dhaka. His dry, husky voice, a result of the fiery sermons about how to lead an Islamic life, has a cheerful tinkle buried within it. Suleman made the decision to become a religious leader partly in the hope that it would bring an end to the desire he had for men, something he thought at the time to be outside the bounds of religious acceptability. As with the other Abrahamic religions, the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom, used by some Muslims to condemn homosexuality, was a narrative with which he was intimately familiar. In earlier years, Suleman tried controlling his feelings by praying and fasting obsessively, in the process excelling in the eyes of the scholars at the madrassa.
But his urges only became more intense. “All night in the madrassa dormitory, my eyes would see no sleep,” he remembers. “I wanted to be able to care for a man, marry him and give him physical pleasure.” One day, Suleman hesitantly shared his yearnings with a fellow student. They ended up having sex. Afterwards, he was meticulous about following the guidelines set out by Islamic scriptures on fornication. He had already recited a prayer before they slept together and then, afterwards, he went to the bathroom to wash his mouth, hands and entire body. Only then did he go to sleep. In the morning, he prayed for forgiveness and read the Quran. This turned out to be a pivotal moment. For the first time in his life, it dawned on him that what he had done was not wrong. In his prayers that day, he remembers questioning the almighty, “My friend and I needed and wanted to do this. It gave us peace of mind and body. Is this so wrong?”
Suleman hardly represents the norm in the world of Bangladeshi Islamic orthodoxy. “As all the fingers on our hands are of different shapes and sizes, not all imams are the same,” he says with a smile. I ask him whether he believes what he did was gunah, a sin. He has clearly given this much thought. “Love has always existed between men, even in the days of the Prophet, and it always will,” he says. He asks me whether I can name the worst sin a person can commit. I cannot. He replies that it is to give koshto, pain, to another. Giving koshto is the equivalent of destroying a mosque. “He has said that we should love one another, give each other joy and happiness. The Sharia even says this,” Suleman says. “When I am with the person I love, I am giving him pleasure, joy, affection, my body. He is doing the same in return. So where is the gunah in this?”