Between invisible friends

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?"

Grey existence
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?"

Despite moments of clarity, the personal conflicts and anguish continued to haunt the young imam for many years to come. But today, after completing his Hajj to Mecca, Suleman has come to accept that his feelings for his lover do not contravene his understanding of the Quran. He is exasperated by the fact that, for many in his congregation, homosexuality is wrong simply because it has not been explicitly condoned in the literature. Suleman believes it is very important that gay Muslims be allowed to marry, both as a way to gain acceptance from wider society and to avoid promiscuity. In Bangladesh, while it is still illegal to be gay, let alone for same-sex couples to marry, he is sometimes called upon by gay friends to bless their relationships. At such events, he offers prayer readings from the Quran. "I really enjoy doing this," he says. "They see me as their imam. I always say to them, 'Stay in whatever line you want, but don't forget Allah in all of this.' "

In Bangladesh, much that is illegal or socially and religiously taboo, including homosexuality, is actually considered personally permissible so long as matters are kept away from public gaze and hearing. This grey area is neither public nor private, as both of these are carefully governed, and include their own sets of rules, obligations and ways of being. Drinking alcohol, falling in love, or a belief in atheism is rarely disclosed outside of like-minded circles. Paradoxically, living in such a way affords many a sense of privacy and security, and protection from the radar of 'mad mullahs' or other conservative elements. Such invisibility also allows people to carry out social and religious duties, evade state-sanctioned discrimination, remain a member of the wider society and continue cordial relationships with family and friends.

Homosexuality still remains a crime under the colonialist-era Section 377 of the Penal Code of Bangladesh. It is not discussed socially, and is generally considered unacceptable under Islam. Gay Bangladeshis, however, are not only meeting one another and falling in love, but they are also living together and even marrying one another. All of this takes place surreptitiously of course, well within the grey area. Imam Suleman is certainly an example of just the types of everyday contradictions with which citizens are forced to live. None of his family or colleagues suspect anything about his relationship with his partner, who is publicly acknowledged as "just a friend". This is not so difficult to understand. A few years ago, Suleman married a woman and they now have two children together. Thus, having fulfilled his social and religious obligations in both public and private matters, he is free to continue his relationship with his 'friend'. His wife has no idea about his dual life and he has no intentions of telling her. Though his wife, family and colleagues know nothing, the gay community of which he is a part are aware of his dual life.

As is true in much of the region, in Bangladeshi society heterosexual men hold hands in public, and are able to show affection for one another without having their masculinity called into question. This, too, has provided the Imam some cover. With regards to his vocation, though, Suleman is extremely aware of the consequences if his homosexuality became public. Those who are "literate", he says, referring to individuals who are more educated, may throw him out of the mosque, feeling betrayed that he had not shared this information with them. Those with "little understanding of Islam", meanwhile, may physically punish him. Such people, says Suleman, believe that a man loving another man is amongst the worst of the gunahs. Learning the rules and becoming agile with regards to living in this grey world is a lifelong endeavour for many Bangladeshis.

Gay caste
While Bangladesh is little different from the other societies of Southasia with regard to public homosexuality, recently, new moves are making inroads. The gays of Bangladesh are quietly but insistently demanding acknowledgement of their sexuality or, at the very least, decriminalisation. Movements are slowly gaining momentum to legalise same-sex relations. In Nepal and India, campaigns for lesbian, gay and transgendered rights have been highly successful in recent years. For the latter in particular, the issue was forced into the open because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Though there are no such causes for concern in Bangladesh (early intervention has meant the rate of infection is just 0.1 percent, with drug users most at risk), debates are nonetheless currently taking place as to the roadmap the nascent community should follow. At a more fundamental level, there are disagreements as to who exactly makes up the community of Bangladeshi 'gays', with lines only slowly being drawn along the different ways of being non-heterosexual.

A group called Bandhu Social Welfare Society (BSWS) is at the helm of some of these issues. For the last 12 years, the organisation has been providing health care and support to nearly 700,000 Bengali men who have sex with men. They distribute condoms and assist in finding work and safe spaces to work out social, health-related and personal problems. Bandhu's 12th Anniversary brochure, printed in pink, claims that seven to 15 percent of Bangladeshi men over the age of 15 (that is between 2.5 million and 5.3 million people) have sex with another man at least once a month, most while they are single, before marriage. The office walls are covered with posters of lipstick-smeared hijras (the so-called third sex) in garish outfits and matronly information on the importance of safe sex. Saleh Ahmed, who runs Bandhu, is keen to stress that the people Bandhu works with are not 'gay', but rather fall within the more abstract definition of 'men who have sex with men', a now widely used term commonly referred to in English as MSMs.

There is an important class issue here, as well. MSMs are generally working class and have low-paid, menial jobs, while men who identify as 'gay' are generally from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Language is also an issue here where those who self-identify as 'gay' speak English while MSMs generally do not.  The former also tap into a wider, global gay identity and its trappings, which incorporate ideas of rights-based equality for same-sex relationships. MSMs, meanwhile, have very few choices in life, often hemmed in by poverty, social exclusion, stigma and threats from sexually transmitted infections. This particular gay caste system has even spawned terms such as 'LS' (low status) to refer to a working-class gay men and 'HS' (high society) to indicate the more affluent.

This class issue has significant ramifications on how MSMs interact with the law and wider society, too. In Bangladesh, there has never been a single reported conviction under Section 377. Nonetheless, according to Ahmed the police frequently stop, harass and even arrest MSMs under other anti-'suspicious behaviour' laws. Such laws also frequently prevent Bandhu's staff from handing out condoms in public places. Repealing Section 377, Ahmed feels, will do little to prevent any such harassment, and thus he believes that now is not the time to fight for legalisation. For Bandhu, what is more important is to focus on fighting for rights to access to health care and educational services, to make sure all people – regardless of sexuality, gender or class – are able to be seen by health practitioners. "At the moment," Ahmed says, "many MSMs are denied treatment and even possibilities of getting a job." Bandhu believes that the key to changing the existing situation lies in grassroots-level education.

The group holds 'sensitisation workshops' where members of the police, local elected bodies, journalists, doctors and lawyers are educated on MSM-related issues and the problems the MSMs face. It also provides training on how to deal with HIV/AIDS, as well as an international and human-rights law. Since Bandhu began its work in 1996, Ahmed says he has noticed the levels of understanding and even acceptance of MSMs has grown not only within the public sector, but also within wider Bangladeshi society. "MSM issues are now being discussed in families, in newspapers, in colleges and universities," he says with evident satisfaction. "Our kind of work is far more crucial to the everyday lives of men who have sex with men than attempting to repeal the outdated Section 377."

While most MSMs are poorly educated, the Internet has inevitably become a crucial resource for the middle and upper classes in Bangladesh. Gay-oriented dating websites today offer a way to meet people locally as well as from around the world. A recent study through one such site showed more than 500 profiles in Dhaka alone. The people registered are generally in their 20s and 30s, educated, describing themselves as 'gay' as opposed to 'bisexual' or even 'straight'. Boys of Bangladesh (BOB) is an online group that claims to have 1700 members. The forum allows people to make friends, meet potential partners and is a way to disseminate targeted information and advice. BOB also hosts a number of offline events including boat parties, film shows, picnics and dinners, encouraging people to venture into the open. Organisers hope that these social gatherings will allow young gay men to feel less isolated and more comfortable with their sexuality.

I arrange to meet Shakhawat Hossain, BOB's 'moderator', at a trendy coffee shop in Dhanmondi in central Dhaka. Part of the breed of young Dhakaias that BOB appeals to, Hossain is in tune with international fashions and technology, is privately educated, takes foreign holidays and would rather eat sushi than shutki, the traditional Bengali dried fish. Hossain believes that, on the surface, BOB may seem to be just about parties and fun, "but no one likes direct preaching. If members feel more comfortable about who they are, they will want more." As such, BOB's aim is, first, to develop a lifestyle and, second, discuss and fight for rights and equality.

But unlike Bandhu, which works primarily in healthcare, BOB works to get Section 377 to be repealed. Hossain says he is very aware that such a repeal would not automatically bring about social or religious acceptance. But, he continues, "Legalisation nonetheless will be a step in the right direction. The debate it will generate will mean that there will at least be a sense of awareness that the community actually exists." BOB recently held a workshop for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered groups from across the country. The experience taught the group that there is much to understand about non-heterosexual life in Bangladesh. "We realised that we all have to come together" Hossain says. "The experiences of middle class lesbian women for example are very different in this patriarchal society to middle class gay men. No one is sure of the realities for working class lesbians." Not all BOB members are so keen on public scrutiny of their grey lives, however. In fact, many are concerned that legislative activism to change the status quo may actually mean a loss of much of the privacy, fluidity and freedoms currently available. At the moment, for instance, their mothers are not suspicious when a 'friend' sleeps in their son's bed overnight. If the issue was to come out through protracted public debate, those mothers might take action.

Whatever the outcome 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 for countries such as the US and Australia. One reason for this is for simple economic benefit. Attracted to wealth, status and a particular kind of consumer-oriented lifestyle, middle-class gay people are no different from their heterosexual counterparts in this regard. The other reason of course is for the perceived freedoms that Western countries offer homosexuals. Young Bangladeshis want to partake in the social, cultural and political developments taking place there. Of course, the idea of gay men seeking refuge is not new. In the 19th and 20th century, people from Europe and the US, writers such as William Burroughs and Tennessee Williams, moved – ironically, by today's standards – to Muslim countries, where they found the atmosphere to be much more liberal towards homosexuality.

Mounting the inevitable campaign to repeal Section 377 will be full of uncertainty, even possible violence and a large volume of hurt, koshto. But doing so need not necessarily adversely affect the grey area that affords many gay Bengalis freedoms that are restricted in their private and public lives. As Imam Suleman bids his salaam and leaves to prepare for the afternoon magrib prayer, he says the key to this dilemma lies in discussing the issue openly. "Everyone has these urges, give or take a few, at some time in their lives," he says. "It was a long time after I became an imam that I realised this, when people would come and see me. If we do not understand this, then what are we as humans able to understand?"

~ Delwar Hussain is a doctoral student at Cambridge University, UK.

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