A Constant Fight of LGBTQ Community in Bangladesh for Rights

A second to second brief interview written version ( if the government of Bangladesh shuts down the YouTube ) of The co-founder of Bangladesh’s first and only LGBTQ magazine Mr. Rasel Ahmed had to flee his homeland after the magazine’s funder was hacked to death in his own flat in Dhaka are April 2016 by Islamic fundamentalists. A brief interview of Rasel with Free thinker’s Director of communication Amit Pal, illustrate the Freedom of expression and the rights of LGBTQ in Bangladesh.

Please beware there are some graphic photographs from the crime scenes in the video beneath the blog post.

hi, I'm Dan Barker and welcome to free thoughts a production of the Freedom From Religion Foundation an association of atheists and agnostics working to keep state and church separate. In 2015 a horrifying religious hate crime occurred in Dhaka Bangladesh when writer Abhijit Roy was murdered by Islamist terrorists for being an atheist and Roy's Widow Rafi DiBona Ahmed who was critically wounded but survived the attack, the agnostic society and Just Another Bangladeshi now have created the Abhijit Roy Courage Award in his memory the debut award went to Rasel Ahmed the co-founder of Bangladesh's first LGBTQ periodical, who unfortunately had to flee his country and seek asylum in the US after two of his colleagues were hacked to death by Islamist terrorists in 2016.

Director of communications Amit Pal interviewed Rasel Ahmed during FFRF 2018 National Convention in San Francisco. Where he received the award it's so nice to interview such a courageous person. Mr. Xulhaj and you have such a multi-faceted background you've been a documentary filmmaker and artist of various stripes and of course you founded a publication. Can we first start by talking a bit about yourselves,

Rasel Ahmed: I primarily identify myself as an independent queer storyteller and I have worked in like you know multiple media, also in printed medium and then digital medium, filmmaking, journalism so kind of like multidisciplinary. the diverse course of work that I have in my portfolio and obviously one of the main things that I consider. One of the key things that I have done so far in my life is the magazine.

Amit Pal: you just mentioned the name of the magazine, can you please elaborate the why is this name.

Rasel Ahmed: Well the name “Roopbaan” means Roopo baan, it’s a Bengali word which actually a very famous folk theater character in Bangladesh it has a meaning that can mean differently on the basis of situations. if someone just says Roopbaan as like a noun it will be concluded as the name of a male dancer who is dancing as a woman, but the reason we named it Roopbaan is that like we wanted to in fact take that character and sort of like retail the story of Roopbaan.

if you want me I can elaborate on you a little bit about the story, why we chose the name.

Amit Pal: Yes please yeah

Rasel Ahmed: So it's actually a very celebrated character, in fact, this character is celebrated in stage theaters in Bangladesh, folk theatre, and especially in the rural areas and very much exclusively in the eastern part of Benga,l which is now Bangladesh.

it's a story of a 12-year-old girl who was forced to marry a 12-day old prince and then they were banished to a jungle on the night of her marriage. so seemingly a very like heterosexist old story and I mean very flawed and very problematic.

From my understanding, the development of this story would have been mostly narrated by a heterosexual man in Bangladesh. so what happened in 2013. We gathered a group of queer people including myself. we decided to in fact reclaim this story and retell the story from queer perspective, because we also realized the story has a very subtle like tone. Undertone and also like the main protagonists of this fairy tale or this folktale is a woman and it says it's a journey of her own struggle. so it's not only about the lack of appreciation, that woman like normally we see in the South Asian context but also Roopbaan the main protagonist of the story, how she pushed back social stigma and conquered love. her story of love over everything else I think that it was one of the key reasons why we wanted to pick that name.

We also rebranded the story one other reason, Because the story is again always like LGBTQ issues in that region entirely. I say always seen as a Western product so we wanted to challenge that by taking like a local. With a deeply rooted cultural element from yeah from Bangla.

Amit Pal: Bangla literature and Bangla stage performance history and then retell the story. and so you chose this very very Bangla very deeply rooted in Bangla culture name for a landmark publication can you tell us a bit about Rupa and its founding.

Rasel Ahmed: Yes sure Roopbaan, in fact, started from the very very very small scale so it's it was like a grassroots publication and it's still like a grassroots group of people initially very informal I would say like a group of friends in the beginning and they remain a friend for a long time and then decided like let's do something in the time like 2012-13 period of time. so Xulhaj was sort of the mastermind behind that husband and one of the founders of Roopbaan so he was the mastermind because he always wanted he was a man of like so many different ideas. he would always come up with something, we can do this, let's do that, he was a tremendous organizer that have ever seen in my entire life so far.

So he came up with this idea and he discussed it with me. Due to this reason, it was my brainchild and I was going through intellectual frustration. I wanted to become a filmmaker and I was very young. then I did not have the resources or the skill to do that, at the same time I was studying engineering, because I was kind of forced to study engineering like many other South Asian contexts. So that frustration was behind my mind, but I used to go to theatres I love writing so Xulhaj was the one, who planted the idea in my mind that:

-------- “hey let's do it because you love writing along with it you want to do something for the LGBTQ Community in Bangladesh creatively.”

He knew that I had ideas for cultural events and all of that so let's do something that we are comfortable with and something that you are interested in. and that's how the idea of a magazine was born and I think slowly it grew to a point that eventually we came up with a 56 page printed magazine by January of 2014. It happened because I believe the friendship that we had was intimate. We all had the trust that we had each other back, so we weren't aware of how fast the good year went away.

I guess it's more than usual time for many other mainstream publications, we wanted to do a printed magazine. We did not want it to be an online paper, because we wanted to have that physical presence and it wasn't easy I mean especially given the socio-political context back in 2014 the election just happened it wasn't one party election so much was going on politically. I would say volatile and wasn’t stable, so I think it was a lot of work that we had to put together especially the Bangladeshi context. It was such a wonderful story.

you spoke about this at your presentation during the convention when you receive the VG Troy Courage Award let's take a look at the clip so when or visit

The book that came out back then by us is written for all the classes of people it will spread hope. I think a lot of people need to change the view on homosexuality, there is no need to claim it as a crime. You should be what you are this is not like a disease that has been told by the heterosexual community out of homophobia. for a gays years, ago I mean like within the community even before the magazine was something that we could always refer to so when we came like brainstorming for the magazine. we wanted to connect with or visit the past that we like.

I personally never knew him, I know of him because of his work and because of his light you know the image of her public writer but personally I never knew Abhijit Roy. So when we wanted to know do the magazine we thought to connect and then he very I mean generously agreed to be interviewed by us. it wasn't the first issue and the second issue we published the interview we took during our first issue but the interview was at the last moment so we couldn't publish it on the first issue published anyway. we became like one of the platforms

After few months of publishing the 1st edition, we saw other people who we knew came up to us we didn't saw before there were any visitors present there but after publication, we got connected to our community and there were so many people who wanted to work together. we got connected and that's how I think the attack on Abhijit Roy happened in 2015. it was not only an attack on Abhijit but it was an attack on the entire community the community he and I’m talking for.

the LGBTQ community in Bangladesh and the agnostic community felt that act like we are been threatened.

Amit Pal: other than you do you know any other personal loss and mourn and outrage what the attack evoked side by side?

Rasel Ahmed: it was also the fear I felt for the first time, I think the fear was real, I don't though, any of us thought, we always knew that we were doing something very controversial and sensitive in Bangladesh but we never thought that we would be targeted like this and shortly after Roopbaan’s founding a horrible awful tragedy struck the publication and a number of the members who were associated with its founding threats.

Amit Pal: Can you please tell us about that, please

Rasel Ahmed: Even though it may be a bit painful yeah because I mean I have been talking about this since last at least two years so Rueben. like as I mentioned when we found the magazine became right after the publication. when we launched the publication it becomes quite a sensation especially I would say the social media was booming as an alternative media space in Bangladesh. so it becomes the face of homosexuality in Bangladesh and we faced a huge backlash online right after the magazine published and a number of like you know national and international newspaper like they published yeah so so much coverage and then because of that. I think that also served the purpose of visibility and so many homosexual people started liking and communicating with us so this all has Bhommed.

I just mentioned as a person of a like so many different ideas he wanted to, in fact, make it bigger than just a publication so he then started other kinds of cultural organizing such as fashion show for transgender and then film festivals and so many other things different initiative community initiative. so that I think like in retrospect when I look back at it fascinates me because the community, in fact, started to really grow.

We all were getting more visible day by day, through all of these activities dancing poetry and then writing. so it was a beautiful-beautiful time, but then as I just mentioned the socio-political especially the political situation on the backdrop of the country. It was also to some extent was deteriorating that affected obviously our thinking that affected some of our activities.

well we kind of sense that something might go wrong because we were getting more visible and that was making us a political pawn, and it became like sort of an issue of discussion online and a newspaper among like civil society. So the issue was getting attention which was not the case, in fact, a couple of years back and also like India exactly the next country where it was decriminalized.

Getting visible to more people becoming like knowingness of organization of the country. A cultural organization but also getting all the wrong attention and wrong kind of attention that we were not expecting. because our organizing at the beginning was pretty much underground and slowly it was coming out of the shell and then in April. in April 2016 this incident that you just mentioned the double murder.

Both of the activists was like with the co-founder and the other was the general secretary at that time of Rubin so Xulhaj was in his house he came from his office at around like 5:30 and then five men who posed as courier peoples and it’s taking a lot of effort to do that particular job FedEx. they came under his building, so one of them stayed downstairs for them like went up with a machete as they're armed and then they rang the bells will have opened the door and tannoy was not supposed to be there but he went there just to meet Xulhaj. we don't know what was the particular reason but he was there. I am sure that Xulhaj was the main target and then they forcefully entered and hacked them both to death within 10-12 minutes.

His mother still living about 70 plus year-old, she saw the entire incident in front of her eye.

Amit Pal: Thank You, Russell, for recounting this painful story for us and we'll talk more after the break about this incident and about the state of LGBT rights in Bangladesh and in South Asia.

Amit Pal: (After the break ) Rasel we are talking about the painful murders of your friends and colleagues in Bangladesh two years ago can you tell us where it is the investigation now what has been found out about these people, who committed this act and who has been arrested? what's been the progress so far I

Rasel Ahmed: I have been contacting some of our other friends, we have like sort of following the updates of the investigation, but unfortunately we have heard only very limited progress. Our sources were trying to fetch information but Bangladeshi police are not the most hospitable organization for homosexuals, so most of the time it like the public newspaper, other than that the information are not been passed to other media.

The funniest thing about this case is more than 25 times the investigation officers failed to submit the investigation report since 2016 April so that says a lot about Bangladesh’s sincerity about the LGBT community. I personally think that the way the case is heading of course the case should be moved from CIDcrime investigation department - from DBP which is the detective branch - now Bangladesh has the counterterrorism and transnational crime unit so they are like the elite and very well-equipped investigators in Bangladesh, but they are not getting involved in this case with Dhaka Metropolitan Police, due to this investigation is taking so long.

So far the research I was doing this morning and I saw till now they have made five arrests related to that case and the latest one was in July. the chief of intelligence of al-Qaeda of Indian subcontinent / Ansar al-Islam. they also call them Ansar al-Islam, they're the local culprits of al-Qaeda. that's how they identified themselves so I think it's very worrying.

I would very much like to quote in fact Xulhaj has his family and his brother who is currently in Bangladesh and he has been very vocal about this.

I was reading this morning that this investigation is a farce and he( Xulhas brother ) said we have no expectations from the police. a good part of the reason is that the victims were LGBT. Many staff of our police department are prejudice towards the homosexual community and of course, the second thing is as you and I know is, that there's so much fear of the right-wing segment of Bangladeshi population and these Islamic fundamentalists, because one thing is clear that Islamification and LGBTQ community in Bangladesh can not go hand in hand.

So these two main reasons why the investigators are having a problem, as well as his brother says that the investigation is a sham.

it means Islamic fundamentalism and right-wing parties are all on the backdrop and I don't deny any of these but at the same time, I think the desire to be in power in Bangladesh and especially the people who have been in power and not leaving the position of power definitely plays a huge role in this kind of violence.

we have seen in our history and I don't think this case is any different because I never thought this was an isolated incident of homophobia. this rule has entered an order but has been a part of ongoing political violence like political target killing that was going on since 2013. well like a number of secular bloggers writers, free thinkers even just like regular teachers were targeted, and they were murdered.

I think the response from the government since the very beginning was very hostile to the victim rather than blaming the people who are committing these crimes. the government of Bangladesh is accusing us that we knew that we shouldn't become up with a magazine that talks about gay issues or we shouldn't talk anything about the religion and for those who have less political knowledge of Bangladesh. it'd be interesting for everyone to know that the current government is headed by a woman and the party is actually the more secular of the main parties in Bangladesh and even then there is this ironically this response which is pandering to fundamentalism and hostile.

Amit Pal: as you said to the LGBT community could you please tell us a bit about the state of LGBT rights in Bangladesh and maybe a bit more broadly in South Asia. there's been a silver lining as thin as that made silver lining may seem that the Indian Supreme Court recently decriminalized being gay in India which is, of course, the largest country in South Asia so could you please talk just a bit about the state of LGBT rights in Bangladesh under the current government and in South Asia more broadly.

Rasel Ahmed: Yes absolutely, I think this discussion is very wide and large and complicated. but to put it in a nutshell I would say in Bangladesh, I think definitely we have the criminalizing law for the same law that has been applied in other South Asian countries. like Pakistan, India Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka the section 377, It's the same section interestingly in every south Asian nation. and this is why it made really made our life miserable.

Amit Pal: how come is the same section of the Criminal Code?

Rasel Ahmed: all thanks go to the British being all over South Asia and being the colonial power and having the same criminal code for all these countries of course India Pakistan Bangladesh.

Amit Pal: Oh one and it's been handed down and not repealed

Rasel Ahmed: Except very very recently in India this archaic law. But even if we go to Bangladesh or India, we have this sentiment of Independence and but this law goes against colonization and oppressor and all that thing but then again we won’t hesitate to accept their laws, as a paradox, it's so ironic.

I would also like to mention that the law was there but I think it's more the socio-religious and political practices of people and the lack of knowledge I would say in Bangladesh to be very honest. people do not have the knowledge of this entire spectrum of gender and sexuality. There are so much misconception and ill knowledge. People normally tend to be inclined to anything that is normative so this hegemony heteronormative.

A patriarchal culture that we have seen prevailing this region for such a long time LGBT issue also falls under that and definitely like it. it's a struggle for the homosexual community in Bangladesh to push it back in terms of the entire region. As you mentioned the DKR decriminalizing the law, I think this is definitely a very historic move no doubt about that and I was very happy like you. whenever we were all like anticipating this and we were anticipating a positive News and some of my friends who have actually been through the verdict,

I think for entire India and the region itself but at the same time, I would also like to focus on the other side of which is this mainstreaming image of what LGBT freedom might look in the entire region, moreover in the world and a lot of time like we see and we think that what is like our freedom is. a lot projected by other people or what is expected by other people so decriminalizing is great but if you go deeper to this entire issue in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and many other South Asian countries we have many complex guideline that prevail us to express our sexuality. In our continent there are many sorts of community we have like lesbian, gay, which are considered more western terms, how we have taught or how we have like you to know started like identifying ourselves, but so many people identify themselves Hedra or non-binary or coyts or Pontes. so those are some of many.

I think identities are not touched upon by the mainstream media on often so when we talk about section 377, I don't know how much it goes down to the bottom of all goes deeper so many other issues that we have intersectional issues, like religious identity economic condition. class is a huge huge issue and the Kuti people they are mostly coming from the marginalized economic background and they do not have the power knowledge to identify themselves as gay men. so they and the situation even after section 377 is pretty much the same for people.

I have been reading some articles from India that, marginalization has increased after the verdict, so we also need to think about who is the beneficiary and we are getting benefits obviously. In terms of ideological war and in terms of policy it's a great victory but at the same time, thinking more critically how much this is affecting the movement in general and what do we see as LGBTQ movement is it all about decriminalizing and marriage equality and rainbow filter or is it for the cause for human freedom.

I'm not disowning any part of it, but I think we need more discussion on that.

Amit Pal: Well thank you so much Russell and it's been such a pleasure to have you on our show free thought matters to have you at a convention in San Francisco accepting the Abhijit Roy courage award and thank you so much for your courage and being with us and you've been watching free talk matters this is Amit Pal with Rasel Ahmed.

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