Islamist threat challenges LGBT, Gay and Lesbian in Bangladesh

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Tourist’s most popular guidebook Lonely Planet, advises gay travellers to be discreet in Bangladesh, and warns that homosexuality is illegal in Bangladesh, and homosexual acts are punishable under Bangladesh law with deportation, fines and/or prison.

In December 2008, Bangladesh was one of 59 countries that signed a statement opposing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights at the United Nations General Assembly.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh is one of 75 countries that currently have laws criminalizing homosexuality and the highest punishment for “unnatural intercourses” is life imprisonment, but lesser jail terms of up to 10 years in prison and fines might also be handed out under the existing law, writes Dhaka Tribune.

Primarily the country is a Sunni Muslim majoritarian nation, a major challenge for the LGBT, gay and lesbian communities facing in Bangladesh.

Despite Bangladesh being a conservative country, the government in July 2016 has recognized the ‘trans-gender’ community as ‘third gender’ with a single-sentence: “The Government of Bangladesh has recognized the Hijra community of Bangladesh as a Hijra sex.”

This circular represented a significant step toward securing a range of rights for Bangladesh’s ‘hijras’ — people who, assigned “male” at birth, identify as feminine later in life and prefer to be recognized as ‘hijra’ or a third gender.

According to Section 377, the country’s British colonial-era penal code, voluntary carnal intercourse against “the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” is punishable with imprisonment for life or with imprisonment which may extend to ten years and fines.

The Dhaka Tribune in an editorial writes against section 377 of the criminal code stating their belief that while most people in Bangladesh were against homosexuality, they did not want to see people put in jail for it or for the government to waste resources treating it as a crime.

Same-sex romantics or sexual activities are not accepted in the society, with LGBT people facing discrimination, verbal and physical abuse, and unique legal and social challenges. Same-sex sexual activity, whether in public or private, is illegal and punishable with fines and up to life imprisonment, though this law is rarely enforced but Bangladeshi societies view it as a negative activity. Consequently, Bangladesh does not recognise the relationship between same gender.

The New York based rights defender, Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that “Discrimination against LGBT people is pervasive in Bangladesh”.

Homosexual relations are criminalized in Bangladesh and many LGBT activists have been forced into exile.

According to NBC, those who have fled the country are slowly reconnecting and trying to organize a meeting to assess the situation. The attacks have driven local LGBT activists underground, French news agency AFP reported.

On March 30, Labannya Hijra, a third gender activist became a Bangladeshi hero. Witnessing the murder by Islamist militants of the secular blogger Washiqur Rahman Babuon a street in capital Dhaka, she grabbed the fleeing assailants. Her courageous intervention led to the arrest of two men, who later confessed to the killing.

Days after Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub hacked to death in a Dhaka apartment on the evening of April 25, 2016, HRW urged the Bangladesh authority to immediately probe the killings of two LGBT human rights activists.

Ansar-al Islam, the Bangladeshi branch of dreaded Al Qaeda on the Indian subcontinent, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The groups said “the two were killed because they were ‘pioneers of practicing and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh’ and were ‘working day and night to promote homosexuality … with the help of their masters, the U.S. crusaders and its Indian allies,’” CTV reported.

Mannan was an editor of Roopban, Bangladesh’s first LGBT specialised magazine, which began publishing in 2014. He was a visible and openly gay human rights activist who supported and protected LGBT people even in the face of threats against the community.

The assassination of two LGBT rights activists follow a spate of 30 killings since early 2015, targeted attacks on writers, educators, bloggers, and editors who advocated liberal and secular democracy, that radical groups believe are against Islamic ideology.

In the face of police and civil authorities’ reluctance to provide security to those who sought help in the wake of death threats by the Muslim bigots has caused shiver and fear among them.

“This one incident broke the sense of security. More than 15 people left the country. More than 10 want to leave. People in Bangladesh don’t want to talk to us. The whole community is so scattered and scared,” an activist told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of an international LGBT conference in Bangkok, Thailand in end of 2016.

In 2013, the country’s National Human Rights Commission called on the government to protect sexual and gender minorities from discrimination.

To add fuel into fire, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina advised bloggers and social media activists to use restraint in their exercise of free speech or leave the country for their safety.

In recent years, LGBT people in Bangladesh have also been targeted with extremist rhetoric. For example, in November 2015, when activists began publishing a cartoon series featuring a lesbian character, religious groups issued hateful anti-LGBT statements, calling on the government to prosecute LGBT people under section 377 and Sharia (Islamic Law).

Even though a small number of gay rights organisations and activists in Bangladesh were raising their voice to establish rights for the LGBT community, none of them has so far engaged in a legal fight to recognise the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the country, said Supreme Court lawyer Jyotirmoy Barua.



Saleem Samad, is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), recipient of Hellman-Hammett Award and also Bangladesh correspondent of Paris based international media rights organization, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Email:; Twitter @saleemsamad



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