Investigations Into the Murders of LGBT Activists in Bangladesh Must Not Be Disrupted

The premeditated murders of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy are a huge loss for the LGBT rights movement in Bangladesh, and need to be investigated impartially.

Murdered LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan. Credit: Twitter.

Murdered LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan. Credit: Twitter.

This was probably a story from a small town in the US. A group of people got together and lynched a person. There was something about the way she walked; as far as I can remember, she used to swing her hips while walking. People used to make fun of her. But the tragedy struck one day when the group of people just went ahead and lynched her. I came to know about this incident from either a written account or an interview of Judith Butler, an influential philosopher and writer of our time. This incident had a deep impact on Butler, as it would have on any sensitive person. In one of her famous books, Gender Trouble, Butler argues that gender is a performance or a matter of construction. People are not divided between man and woman from the very beginning, or to be precise, gender is not written on our bodies. Rather, gender is constituted through continuous practice. This practice depends on discourses, and this discourse is what the culture or history of a society is. Talking us through this, she intended to dismantle the assumptions of the naturalness of binary divisions between men and women that often guided people.

A profound and deep understanding of gender has been gained around the world in contemporary times. Instead of referring to a gender binary – gender as just male and female – there is increasing talk of a gender galaxy and gender plasticity. Research has shown how, through a historical process, this gender plasticity has been reduced to gender binaries of male or female. Many have tried to embrace various gender and sexual experiences within the term transgender. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) movement is also one such movement, which, although having its beginnings in the 1970s, has travelled the seven seas and developed a language in our country in the 1990s.

The LGBT movement in Bangladesh

The death of Xulhaz Mannan  – who was a key organiser  – and his friend Mahbub Tonoy were blows to the LGBT movement in Bangladesh. All over the world, from the 1980s, the tendency towards embracing difference had begun to take shape. Difference can have many aspects and layers. This may include linguistic, ethnic or gender differences. In a broad sweep, this is what is known as identity politics.

Sexual orientation is an arena where differences can take place. This too has a long history. Although the position of the Bangladeshi state is stuck within a colonial law on the question of homosexuality, on the issue of the hijra community, the Bangladeshi state is very much on the path of recognition, following other South Asian countries. In the case of homosexuality, however, the state has not taken a clear stand yet. On the other hand, the existence of the colonial law helps to preserve the impression that homosexuality is seen as a crime in Bangladesh. The LGBT movement had been working on a very small scale on these issues. The main aim of this movement was to expand the communication of the homosexual community with people of different sexual orientations, and by combining the experiences within, to create a space of trust and confidence.

It is true that the people of Bangladesh, much like people from many other countries of the world, do not support such sexual practices. In Bangladesh, Islam is shown as a cause behind this lack of support. It is often said that homosexuality is not allowed in Islam. But this is a very partial view. On the other hand, it can be said that this ideology exists in countries where there is no influence of Islam. In many countries across Africa there is a negative view about this. In many of the religious scriptures it is believed to be said that male and female are the only two God-bestowed genders. A relationship between a man and a woman is believed to be ‘normal’ based on these religious scriptures.

The impact of technology

Recently, I viewed a BBC documentary series named Identity where a girl from an African country felt from a very young age that she had more masculine characteristics in her (that she was trapped in the wrong body), and she returned home from Britain ten years later, after having gone through a sex-change surgery using modern technology. This is the experience of an transgender person. Although at first this change hurt his sister and parents, they eventually could not deny that he was their child. It may be mentioned that the family I am talking about here belonged to one of the Christian denominations.

As a result of technology, humans have managed to apply their hands to many things divine. Many societies of the world, many communities and people of different religious groups have been the beneficiaries of this. Sometime during the mid-1980s, I remember seeing a lot of clamour over the space mission of the Saudi prince. The country runs on the Shariah law, the names of the kings are automatically associated with ‘the custodians of the two holy mosques’, in other words, the king is the custodian of the two holy mosques in Mekkah and Madinah. But there was no end to the exhilaration in the country over the space mission of the Prince. Even at that school-going age I remember thinking, but the prince hasn’t been to the moon! Why is there so much celebration around accompanying a group of expert astronauts on a space mission? The celebration went on for a month on Saudi national television. Very few societies have been able to evade technology and new knowledge. Today’s thoughts about transgender and transsexual people have become possible through the development of technology and knowledge. That is why whatever thoughts we previously had on these issues, whatever may have been our social understanding or ideology, has begun to change.

Here we have to remember that none of us are outside the realm of technology. Even reactionary thoughts are beneficiaries of technology. Needless to say, tele-evangelism is said to be responsible for the rise of the American right-wing (neoconservatism), and Islam too is not lagging behind in this regard in South Asia. These opinions and disagreements may continue, and through the flourishing of technology these may appear in front of us in a bigger way. I don’t see any objections to that. An acquaintance of mine received the news of seeing Sayeedi on the moon through a mobile phone and even tried to take a peek at the moon in the sky. If only something could be seen! I have no objections to this endeavour. This epistemology of knowing is not totally unknown in the west either. Therefore, enjoy your respective epistemological performance!

The ‘new normal’ of premeditated murders

The objection arises when I see that people become victims of murder because of their sexual practices. That is what has happened in the case of Xulhaz and Tonoy. But these premeditated murders are being carried out on a regular basis in this country since 2013. A lot of people are saying that this is the ‘new normal’. We still don’t know much about who are behind these murders. The investigations have not proceeded too far in most of these cases. There is a tendency from the side of the government to lay blame for all these murders on the opposition party. After the murder of Xulhaz Mannan when a minister said in a comment that homosexuality is not compatible to our society, it seemed that he had gone one step forward and in effect expressed his support for the murder.

Such a comment from a high official seems like a way to disrupt the investigation. For the sake of an impartial investigation, it is important for everyone to keep quiet in order to facilitate the investigation. Instead of that, to make such a sweeping comment, one may succeed in gaining political mileage (although I am not entirely sure whether this political mileage will go in favour of the government!), but the number of fishermen in the turbid waters will also increase. Instead of making these comments I request the government to bring the murderers under the trial process. If the common people don’t have the scope to seek justice from the state, then the need for a government will also end. So bring the killers to the dock of justice.

For raising this demand, please do not portray me/us as the ‘Others’!

This article was first published in Thotkata.net in Bangla and has been translated by Hana Shams Ahmed.

Mahmudul Sumon is an associate professor of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Hana Shams Ahmed is currently doing a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.