On Friday the Bangladeshi Government accepted 164 of 196 recommendations from the UN after a session of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review.
It came as no surprise to me it had not accepted the recommendation to abolish Section 377 of the national penal code criminalizing consensual same-sex relationships.
Abdul Hannan, a permanent representative of Bangladesh to the UN Office in Geneva, had told the council that Bangladesh would not accept any recommendations conflicting with ‘socio-cultural values of the country’ or its ‘constitutional and legal provisions’.
The UN Population Fund and some non-governmental organizations have been accused of ‘pressuring’ Bangladesh to accept ‘thorny and sensitive issues’ like gay rights.
Abdul Momen told the Dhaka Tribune: ‘We told them that we cannot accept the issues as they are against our social norms.’
He said the UNFPA had tried to ‘sell the idea of rights’ for LGBTs but Bangladesh had ‘opposed it as it also had not supported extramarital sexual rights’.
Apparently gay rights are ‘too contentious’. According to Foreign Secretary MM Shahidul Haque these issues will not be discussed at the current 68th UN General Assembly but would come up next year at the International Conference on Population and Development meeting.
He declined to comment when asked about the briefing note for the Bangladesh delegation which suggested they should ‘refrain from voting against any motions in favor of services for LGBT’.
Tanvir Alim, of Boys of Bangladesh (BOB), one of the country’s oldest gay rights organizations, said: ‘We regret the government has rejected [the] recommendation to abolish Section 377 which criminalizes consensual same-sex relationships.
‘The government already has an extensive HIV and AIDS program including men who have sex with men. This rejection indicates it’s just to avoid acknowledging human rights violations of sexual and gender minorities.’
As Gay Star News reported, BOB and the International Lesbian and Gay Association in a joint statement issued Friday said: ‘Decriminalizing Section 377 is important because it can help bring social change.
‘We also ask the Government of Bangladesh to proactively stop intolerant groups from making inflammatory homophobic remarks, which have often resulted in violence towards LGBT community.’
Pooja Badarinath from Sexual Rights Initiatives (SRI) said: ‘Section 377 of the Penal Code of Bangladesh is colonial legacy in all South Asian countries and hence does not necessarily reflect Bangladeshi society.
‘Section 377 is invoked by the law enforcement agencies to harass and incite many forms of violence to Hijra, Kothi and LGBTI identified communities.
‘Gross violations of rights have been reported in the forms of abductions, arbitrary arrests, detentions, beatings and gang rapes administered by the law enforcement agencies and local thugs.’
To return to Hannan, the Bangladeshi UN diplomat, his statement ‘Bangladesh considers the law of the land should be in conformity with the prevalent socio-cultural norms and values of the country’ indicates homosexuality is considered a taboo subject – by ignoring it the country is merely burying its head in the sand.
The denial of the presence of homosexuality has technically terminated all the needs for any debates toward its legalization and allowed it to be conveniently shelved into the dark shadowy closet forever by the lawmakers.
Two of Bangladesh’s peers in South Asia, India and Nepal, no longer have the ban on homosexuality – Section 377 was given to all of them, and many former colonies, by British imperialism.
It is an outdated law even its creator, Britain, has long since turned from, realizing it is wrong.
Despite what the government think homosexuality is very much part of Bangladeshi society. It exists, but due to the illegality of it open to abuse and exploitation.
The law says: ‘Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with [imprisonment] for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.’
However Bangladesh is perceived to be one of the few Islamic states which exercises considerable tolerance towards the issue of homosexuality and criminal prosecutions under 377 are rare.
In practice the Sodomy Act is mainly used to create fear, which prohibits homosexuals from coming out or demanding legalization of same-sex relationships.
Bangladesh has the second largest Muslim population in the world and much of society is naturally homophobic, through indoctrinated teaching of Islam. The concept of homosexuality is completely incompatible with puritan Islamic morals and an obvious taboo for the country’s semi-literate society.
By avoiding overt persecution of the LGBTs, Bangladesh can maintain its liberal and moderate outlook to the international community while openly declaring and justifying their commitment of upholding strong Islamic puritan morals to the masses.
However there is a hidden cost to this stance as demonstrated in the recent story of the lesbian couple threatened with life in jail for getting married.
If LGBTs are considered ‘against our social norms’, perhaps the minister could explain the newly formed Bangladesh Transgender Welfare Foundation which demands equality for estimated 1.2 million trans people in the country.
And let us not also forget Bangladesh’s population in March 2013 was estimated at 150,039,000. So do we believe, out of 150million people, none of them are gay or bisexual? Or do we believe 9million, or 15million or more are?
But there are other consequences for not legalizing homosexuality in Bangladesh other than the abuse of its populations basic human rights and not being able to carry out AIDS prevention.
I am well known as an LGBT and human rights advocate who fights for equality for all LGBTs who are denied the same rights as their counterparts and the founding member and owner of GayAsylumUK – a voluntary organization that aims to assist and help gay asylum seekers in the UK.
What few know is that I am Bangladeshi and in a way one who falls into the same category as the countless people I help.
I cannot live in Bangladesh as an openly gay advocate or as a gay man, and indirectly through this dictatorial colonial law from 1860, have been exiled for who I am.
And other Bangladeshi gays and lesbians have even had to seek asylum in the free west to enable to live their lives without persecution or fear, and in the process had to face harrowing asylum procedures to prove their cases.
To be exiled just because of being born gay is the worst punishment a human can face. Not only is one’s fatherland taken away, with it comes numerous other injustices and lost freedoms.
It promised a free and equal world for gay and trans citizens. And it sent out a clear message – LGBT rights are human rights and abuse of gay and trans people is against international law.
But when countries like Bangladesh are allowed to reject the UN’s recommendations, these claims are proved to be only words.
The UN proudly upholds Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ but when countries like Bangladesh defy this quoting they ‘cannot accept the issues as they are against our social norms’, it proves these rights are not worth the paper they are written on.
In December 2008 while many other countries signed a UN declaration affirming international human rights including sexual orientation and gender identity, Bangladesh was one of 57 countries to sign a counter-statement read by Syria that expressed serious concerns about granting rights to ‘certain persons on the grounds of their sexual interest and behaviors’.
The generally underground, invisible LGBT minority in Bangladesh, whose sexual orientation makes them criminals in their own country, face discrimination, verbal abuse, physical attacks and social challenges.
They are forced to live a lie in Bangladesh.
Some are married, have kids, but spend their leisure time in the hunt for sexual partners and if anybody is interested in them they hire a room for one hour, have sex and go on to live their separate lives.
This video directed by Tanvir Alim and Arifur Rahman speaks on behalf of the Bangladeshi LGBT population who are almost invisible to the wider society and tells the story of their plight, belief, emotions and a silent resilience.
A far cry from life as I know it as an openly gay Bangladeshi living in England.