Shades of Grey: Conceiving Sexual Agency - - Adnan Hossain
Contemporary Bangladesh presents a rather paradoxical situation in terms of non-normative genders and sexualities. For example, historically there have been at least two publicly visible sexual/gender subcultures of putatively effeminate males desiring macho males namely Hijra and Kothi. Moreover owing to rampant homosociality (the fact of two same gendered persons’ being in intimate relation is not generally accorded any homoerotic connotations) a wide range of linguistically unmarked and culturally unrecognized same sex sexualities have also been existent. Alongside these, transnational gay ‘underground’ groups also emerged from 2000 onwards. Yet same sex sexualities remain criminalized though socio-legal persecution is rare.
Against this backdrop I attempt to highlight the complex intermingling of factors like ‘homophobia’, class, Islam, emergent rights activism and political economy in the production of contested sexual agency.
Is there any homophobia in Bangladesh?
Hijra a cultic sub-culture of lower class nonnormative ‘males’ with extensive community rules and rituals is publicly institutionalized. Hijras are often seen to stroll through the hectic streets of Dhaka in groups. Kothi another subculture of nonnormative ‘males’ but less conspicuous than the hijras subvert socially imposed masculinity in specific spaces like the cruising gardens and then vanish into the mainstream macho society as normative males. There is also a subculture of kothi known as the ‘gamchali’(Gamcha is a patch of woven cloth used to wipe the face and hands. Gamchali kothis are so called as they wear gamcha across their chest) kothis who work as cooks in the construction sites in urban spaces. Owing to a great deal of inter-community migration and overlapping communitarian traits these groups are hard to distinguish. Nevertheless a few commonalities that bind these groups are their shared resistance to normative masculinity and the desiring of the ‘macho’ males. To the wider society however all these groups are just hijras a word often invoked by all and sundry to refer to any one ‘not man enough’.
In Bangladesh ‘transgenderism’ is not conflated with any form of homoeroticism in the popular imaginary. Thus the hijra/kothis1 are often read as asexual/impotent people without any genitalia. The fact that hijras have sex with ‘men’ does not occur to the majority mainstream. Hijras too reinforce this image of their asexuality and claim to have been born like that though a majority of the hijras are non-emasculated or what the hijras call ‘Janana’. So are the gamchali and garden kothis. Nevertheless I am keen on reading this institutionalised presence as an instance of ‘acceptance’ engendered by a lack of knowledge in the wider society about hijra/kothi non-normative sexuality.
Gay groups emerged in Bangladesh from 2000 onwards among the middle/upper class males. Many of these groups have increasingly started to use public spaces for rendezvous though without much publicity. Moreover, at least half a dozen NGOs are currently working with the MSM (men who have sex with men) across Bangladesh.
To the best of my knowledge there has not been any organised onslaught on the hijra/kothi or gay men2. Nor has there been any threat from the Islamic pockets or the government. In fact Bangladeshi society is not segregated based on a concept of sexual preference. There is no used word in Bengali for ‘straight’. Nor is there any widely used currency for homosexual. There is also a lack of public discourse on homosexuality. Even the fact that homosexuality stands criminalized is largely unknown3.
This is however not to suggest that same sex sexualities and marginal gender identities are celebrated in Bangladesh. Rather in the context of Bangladesh what is evident is an overarching heterosexuality. Heterosexuality considered the morally superior and natural category of sexuality has never allowed non-normative desire to rise to the status of a legitimate sexuality. Therefore fear of same sex desire or ‘homophobia’ could not gain adequate conceptual depth.
Recent scholarship has driven home the limitation of the concept of homophobia as a universal signifier to refer to the oppression of same sex sexuality. For instance Bryant and Vidal-Ortiz (2008)4 argue that the uncritical deployment of homophobia tends to impose preconceived judgments foreclosing attention to multiple axes of power through which oppression is systematised. This is particularly significant for a socio-cultural context like Bangladesh where not only the concept of western-style homophobia is absent but also there is no overt persecution of people based on sexual orientation. In fact the nature of ‘heteronormativity’ in Bangladeshi society is such that it not only grants space for unrestrained same gender interaction but also encourages same gender sociality as opposed to heterogendered ones. As a result same gendered persons are often seen to walk with their hands tied to each other without provoking any cultural anxiety. Two men living in the same house for years also do not instigate the wider society to even remotely conflate it with any form of same sex eroticisms. This is however not to argue that ‘queerness’ is entrenched in Bangladeshi social structure. Rather the extent to which homosociality enables or restrains homoeroticism is still subject to research.
Against this backcloth I argue against the uncritical transposition of ‘western-fabricated’ homophobia onto the Bangladeshi social context where the socio-cultural configuration is far more complicated with ‘homophobia’ never taking the overt form of physical violence but manifesting through a multiplicity of vectors of power like class and religion that are often in operation in consolidating regimes of oppression.
‘Lower class people are more accepting than the upper class’
Production of sexual subjectivity is complexly mediated through class. The publicly visible hijra and kothi generally emerge from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Their acceptance is also higher among the lower class. For example hijras/kothis live in the poor neighbourhoods in urban Dhaka alongside the normative population. Though there is generally a lack of knowledge about hijra/kothi sexuality, hijra/ kothi marriage with normative men are routine practices in such neighbourhoods.
In the last six months I attended at least ten such marriage5 ceremonies where non-community neighbors were present as guests. Based on my fieldwork, I can argue that there is generally a greater degree of acceptance, not just tolerance among the lower class of nonnormative ‘men’. On the other hand, in the middle/upper class when such marriages/engagements take place it is always very surreptitious with mostly gay-identified men participating in such events. One reason I can only provisionally offer for this is that middle/upper class men grow up with a sense of ‘classed social respectability’ that they find difficult to disrupt. Thus class privilege instead of being a boon becomes a burden for the majority of middle/upper class same sex attracted men in urban Bangladesh.
Hijra/kothis often fret that middle/ upper class society rarely accept them though men from these classes often buy sex from the hijra/kothi. In fact in the popular imagination of the middle and upper class (including the gay-identified section) hijra/ kothis are ‘foul-smelling’, ‘dirty’, ‘violent’, ‘shameless’ people. Thus it is the lower class status with its associated imageries of ‘foul smell’ and ‘filth’ through which hijra/ kothis are discursively produced as the abjected others.
Thus the paradox is that while the lower socio-economic status grants the non-normative ‘men’ relative freedom/agency to come out and celebrate sexuality /gender nonconformity, it is highly likely that the same groups of men might not be able to do the same when they move up the socio-economic ladder. Class therefore can be both empowering as well as disempowering in terms of how sexual agency is exercised.
Islam and same sex sexuality: A strange bedfellow?
Let me share the story of a hijra friend who I will call Sonia for the purposes of this article. Sonia now in heris6 late 40s underwent emasculation ten years back. Recently s/he performed the hajj pilgrimage. After returning from hajj Sonia has been working with the local mosque in Dhaka as a volunteer in weekly Islamic preaching and moves from door to door with other ‘musolli’ to preach Islam. Sonia also supervises a hijra group in the same area. The mosque committee and the locals are aware of heris being a hijra. Sonia’s ‘hijrahood’ has never stood as a roadblock to heris acceptance into the normative social spaces. Examples attesting to such compatible juxtaposition of Islam with hijra/kothis are abundant in contemporary Bangladesh. Hijra/ kothis openly cross-dress and roam around in public spaces. Many of my hijra/kothi interlocutors live in buildings where madrasas (Islamic religious schools) are lodged without any conflict. In the Internet message boards used by the gay groups I have never seen a single reporting of any attack by the Islamists. To the best of my knowledge there has not been any documented case of Islamic persecution of hijra/kothi or gay people.
This is however not to suggest that the dominant Islamic/official establishments approve of same sex sexuality or cross-dressing practices. Rather my precise point is that Islam, at least the practised version of it, does not seem to be incommensurate with non-normative sexualities and gender identities in contemporary Bangladesh.
In a recent article Long (2009)7 details out the prurient exuberance of western press and advocacy organizations about homosexual persecution in Iran. Long, an LGBT human rights activist, takes several alleged cases of persecution on board and demonstrates how these cases have been tempered with erroneous facts and circulated as judgments in the guise of facts. Interestingly, in the last one year, in one of the message boards of a gay group in Bangladesh several emails have been posted by foreign lawyers asking for evidence of persecution of gays in the hands of Islamists to buttress cases of Bangladeshi homosexuals seeking asylum abroad. Such claims have always been thrown overboard by the gay members as downright falsehoods. Such messages in fact point up the problematic orientalist ascription of prejudged homophobia to Muslim societies like Bangladesh.
The paradox of sexual rights
International advocacy and human rights organizations like ILGA and many others periodically bring out reports with countries like Bangladesh and India marked out as ‘homophobic’ on the ground of penal code section 377. Interestingly in the history of Bangladesh Sec 377 has rarely been used against the same sex attracted individuals8. NGOs catering to the sexual health needs of the so called ‘MSM’ would not have been able to operate for more than a decade had this law been in use.
So why bring up Sec 377 all of a sudden? A few NGO-based interlocutors recently brought to my attention that Sec 377 is increasingly figuring as an agenda now that that there is this new trend to fund rights as opposed to HIV and AIDS work. So while I acknowledge the undesirability of Sec 377 I argue that abrupt activism around its repeal is highly likely to give rise to an unprecedented ‘homophobia’ and consequent social segregation based on the homo/hetero binary with the added disadvantage of legal persecution under Sec 377. Perhaps more than anything else the nascent rights activists need to take this paradox into account before moves towards the repeal of Sec 377 are made.
Political economy of sexual agency
Western-style queer politics has in recent times become the ultimate yardstick to measure sexual agency of the non-western others though ironically anti-sodomy laws were mostly colonial introductions. I draw attention in this section to the role of global political economy in upholding western recognition-based queer politics as the desideratum. This is however not to suggest that ‘queer globalism’ is a one way traffic or culture is bound in space and time but my precise point is the degree to which cultural interpenetration occurs is still uneven with the standpoints of the economically wealthy often becoming hegemonic. Thus a particular/western way of being ‘queer’ becomes agential (LGBT visibility politics and its battle for civil rights) while any deviations from it are deemed as ‘defective’ (hijra, kothi). And it is this hegemonic ‘homonormativity’ that needs to be challenged. I am not suggesting that gay is foreign and a threat to the hijra, kothi. Rather, gay in contemporary Bangladesh is very much reconfigured and can coexist alongside the hijra, kothi and other non-identity-based male to male sexualities. But to assume that hijra/kothi and other non-identity based male to male homoeroticisms are less political than the gay is problematic.
In Bangladesh however it is not gay but ‘MSM’ that has become an accepted way of articulating male same sex sexuality in the policy domain. Though originally intended as a way to capture non-identity-based male to male sexuality ‘MSM’ in recent times has become a sort of an identity. Many of the non-normative men including the hijra/kothi-identified in contemporary Bangladesh identify and are identified as ‘MSM’. Expressions like ‘I am an MSM’ or ‘Look at those MSMs coming’ have become routine. Concealed in this seemingly innocuous moniker is a deeper politics of representational effacement/violence enacted through both scholarship and activism9. It is as if Bangladeshi male to male sexualities have never been able to rise to the status of identity. A few academic friends in a recent workshop argued that if people embrace ‘MSM’ as an identity why that would be a problem. This in fact raises important questions about agency/structure. Thus we need to keep in mind the reasons for why people do what they do and under what conditions and to what extent what they do is regulated by the political economy of development intervention over which they have no direct control.
In much of contemporary sexuality studies and activism there is a tendency to consider ‘desire’ as unregulated and autonomous. It is as if desire springs up in a vacuum and erotic justice can be therefore sought outside the broader combat for socio-political justice. I do not however indicate that individual sexual subjects are solely determined by international division of labor with individuals as passive victims as Marxian monists might contend. Rather my precise point is sexual agency is multiply inflected and is not reducible to one single variable like law, religion or class but is to be understood as a corollary of complex translocal processes where a plethora of factors like culture and political economy intersect to simultaneously bring into being and erase sexual agency.
1 Despite the differences between the hijra and kothi I use ‘hijra/kothi’ interchangeably throughout this paper as kothi based on my fieldwork emerges as a hijra clandestine argot used to refer to effeminate males. Thus, as many of my hijra/kothi-identified informants suggest, all hijras are kothis but all kothis are not hijras. But at the same time kothis can become hijras as much as hijras can become kothis depending on the social space in which one operates.
2 This is not to suggest that there is no violence. But based on my fieldwork in the last 8 months and previous 10 years of informal involvement with these communities I can say violence is not rampant.
3 In several meetings with the law enforcers in the last 6 months through the NGOs this became evident that the police are not aware of 377. Rather it is always under section 54 of CRPC that police detain and harass the kothis/hijra sex workers. Section 54 allows the police to arrest anyone on the ground of suspicion.
4 Bryant and Vidal-Ortiz. 2008. Introduction to Retheorizing Homophobias. Sexualities Vol.11(4):387-396 Sage Publication, Los Angeles.
5 While non-normative marriage is illegal in Bangladesh, hijra, kothi and gay men refer to such pair-bonding as marriage.
6 Though pronoun in Bengali is uninflected by gender I use ‘heris’ (I juxtapose ‘er’ from ‘Her’ with ‘is’ from ‘His’ with the prefix ‘H’) not only to destabilize the notion of gender as a natural category but also to highlight Sonia’s gender transitive behaviors.
7 Scott Long. 2009. Unbearable Witness: How Western Activists (Mis)Recognize Sexuality in Iran. Contemporary Politics Vol. 15, (1):119-136. Routledge, London
8 To the best of my knowledge there was only one case in history fought in the court under this section.
9 In many academic research and NGO reports on Bangladesh male to male sexuality is often framed through the lens of ‘MSM’. A recent NGO publication is titled ‘Let us Ensure the Rights of the MSM’ and throughout there is no explanation of what MSM even stands for.
Adnan Hossain currently a PhD student in Social Anthropology in the University of Hull, UK has been working on gender and sexual diversity in Bangladesh for about a decade now. Recently he has contributed an entry on Bangladesh for The Greenwood Encyclopedia of LGBT Issues Worldwide (forthcoming). He also worked on the production of the civil society report on LGBTI rights in Bangladesh for the 4th round of the UPR for the UN Human Rights Council. He can be reached at email@example.com