“Why don’t you just follow the West and work together with the feminist groups” I heard someone say during my time in The Hague. I forced a smile and turned toward the huge glass window through which I could see the Peace Palace. It was only to hide the look of shock on my face. It’s beautiful summer weather here and most of the tourists are fascinated to take a picture in front of the Palace. I come from Bangladesh, a small country in South East Asia. Of the over 160 million people in Bangladesh, the majority are Muslim. Increasingly, some Muslims are turning to violent extremism in order to push for a Bangladesh where women would be forced to stay at home and Sharia law would be the law of the land. But that’s not why I smiled. Unlike me, the person I was talking to was not Muslim. Unlike me, that person is not based in Bangladesh. And, unlike me, that person is straight. In Bangladesh homosexuality is considered a western concept. Unsurprisingly, the lack of LGBT activism in Bangladesh has a lot to do with local culture. LGBT rights in Bangladesh might seem like an personal indulgence, something to be set aside until more pressing rights are addressed. Sadly, no matter how hard things are for men, women will always have it worse, gay or straight. And for obvious reasons, feminists in Bangladesh never thought of taking up LGBT issues in their own agenda.
Boys of Bangladesh (BoB) started working together with GHRD back in 2012 when our initial collaboration was based on special day celebrations and several other small-scale projects. Later, members of BoB took part in several training programs organized by GHRD and thus became a part of Human Rights Alliance Bangladesh (HRAB), a coalition of like-minded human rights organisations that came together with the support of GHRD to advocate on each other’s behalf and support each other’s causes. For BoB it’s very important that other civil society organizations are aware of our existence and sensitized about the issue. HRAB is a very useful platform to share things among all of us.
It is important to have solidarity but what does solidarity look like back there in Bangladesh? As an LGBT organization making allies is very important for us, thus we approached HRAB with excitement and hopes for acceptance. Though with all the honesty in my bones I will not say we never experienced resistance. But things are getting better. We are hoping that as human rights organisations we will always stand together in the face of injustice, violence and discrimination. There are also divisions among the LGBT movement and community in Bangladesh, inclusiveness is not an easy thing to achieve anywhere in the world. After a public presentation on the LGBT research at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, one of the students asked me about the bisexual community in Bangladesh. “You all should remain united” she strongly pointed. Indeed. LGBT people, all the colors of the rainbow, have different struggles. The Hijra community struggles to get Government-allocated jobs without being forced into gender verification tests. Lesbian women struggle to fight off forced marriages forced on them by their parents. Can these two aspirations go hand in hand? At the end of the day we are all fighting for justice and human rights. And our collective fight needs us to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity. Though the questions remains: can we work together to change our circumstances?
I first met Naz, GHRD’s human rights officer for Bangladesh, in a hotel lobby in Dhaka more than a year ago . Our conversations often revolved around Muslim faith and the politics of terminology. We've been friends for quite a long time and so far the biggest collaboration between BoB and GHRD has been the research on the LGBT community in Bangladesh. Apart from all the other great things, events and meetings, what I truly loved was the storytelling program with reading, video and monologues of the LGBT people from Bangladesh here, in the Netherlands, at the Hague University of Applied Sciences. It was indeed an experience.
During my stay, I had several meetings with Dutch MPs and went to Brussels to discuss the report with MEPs. During these meetings the influence of the Dutch government and the European Union on the Bangladeshi policymaking became very clear. In between the hectic days of meetings and event preparations, the GHRD team managed to squeeze in trainings on social media, basic design and public speaking, which I found very useful. The blog idea suggested during the social media training will be very helpful for BoB in the coming years and it once again reminds me that the Bangladesh LGBT community needs more initiative. Initiatives like these can be the tool to move towards the equal society we want to see.
Apart from all of this what surprised me in the Netherlands is the weather: I knew it was going to be cold here for me in the summer, but I never thought there could be so little sunshine throughout the day. No matter the lack of sunshine, I am happy to have spent the last 3 weeks in the city of Peace and Justice, where people bike everywhere no matter the rain and support your cause in any way they can.