No space for love in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is currently suffering from, perhaps not a wave but more of a persistent flood of extremist attacks, manifesting in the form of assassinations of various free-thinking, secular or atheist bloggers, publishers, writers and journalists. While this trail of blood may be linked to a point of origin with the murder of blogger Avijit Roy in February last year, this is something that has existed under the surface of Bangladeshi society for much longer. Conservatism, the quashing of more progressive ideals, rising belief in Islamic homogeneity, and a vicious intolerance for anything that does not fit the Sunni, Bengali Muslim identity. As mysterious men, armed with machetes chip away further and further at all opposing ideologies with violence, the space for liberal and progressive ideals in my country is disappearing. The latest in this bloody spree of “divine” executions came on April 25, when gay rights activists and editor of the country’s first and only LGBT magazine, Xulhaz Mannan, along with his friend, colleague, and fellow activist, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were brutally murdered by unknown assailants, linked with larger, global Islamic terrorist outfits.


The two murdered activists – Xulhaz Mannan (left) and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy (right)

(Source: Dhaka Tribune)

Mannan started the magazine, Roopbaan, to promote LGBT rights in Bangladesh. This by itself is an amazing achievement in such a conservative country. In the face of such disapproval and adversity, Roopbaan took off in 2014. Long an advocate in the development sector, especially working with LGBT rights, Mannan’s work went from strength to strength. In fact, on 14 April 2015, when Mannan successfully organized a “rainbow rally”, Bangladesh’s version of a pride parade, during the Bengali New Year celebrations, for a second, Bangladesh’s liberals believed again that the country was moving forward and for the LGBT community, especially the gay and lesbian communities who are legally oppressed, it was a landmark achievement – an announcement that these people not only exist, but are unafraid to stand up and be counted, as people, in Bangladeshi society. For me as well, long having been frustrated by regular news of tragedy, misfortune, oppression and intolerance, reading about the “rainbow rally”, during the New Year celebrations no less, brought me immense pride, and in one of those rare moments, I may have felt something akin to patriotism.


Pride parade in Dhaka, 2015


I could swell with pride for how far my country has come, and like the rest of Bangladesh’s liberals, once a proud tradition in its own right, feel hope for the future. Mannan’s murder feels like a nail on the coffin for a dream that I once thought could be reality.

This dream now seems a long way away. This year, the second “rainbow rally” was cancelled due to death threats and intimidation from a section of society that cannot bring themselves to respect (or even tolerate) other human beings. And the worst part is, this seething hate is winning. And we, Bangladesh as a nation, are allowing it to win. A Buddhist monk had his throat slit earlier this week. University professors, a profession held in such high esteem in my society, are being hacked down for no good reason. The violence is more senseless than usual. The government refuses to acknowledge that we have a terrorist crisis on our hands for fear that we start remembering that their role in how we got here. So they tell us that these murders are unrelated. That we should stay quiet. They tell us to be silent and let hate win. But for Xulhaz, for the LGBT community in my country that have now had to flee for their safety, we cannot. The pride parade is a symbol of love triumphing over everything else, and I hope, for our sake, I see it next New Years. Only then will I remember the dream that me, Xulhaz and everyone that looks forward and looked forward in my country once dreamt.


Cover photo source: Wikipedia Commons


How do women change the world?

Although today is the last day of March, I want to take some time to recall how the Women’s History Month has passed by. The women history is infinite: it passes through time and space, and a page is not going to be enough to cover it. Therefore, to save time, I am not going to talk about the “old” history, but about the “new” one. However, “old” history still means a lot of things, because it is the first step to the end of the road, or the first brick to the complete building. The civil right lady Rosa Parks, the famous scientist Marie Curie, and the benevolent nun Mother Teresa are familiar names that are undoubtedly in our minds when we talk about women who changed the world.

And yes, these women have dramatically changed the world, but the world still needs changes. It is the growing group of new faces that keeps necessary changes continuing. Let’s just take a few minutes to remember them—the ones who still live with us now.\

Malala Yousafzai, an 18-year- old Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize awardee was shot by the Taliban at the age of 14 when she sought women’s rights for education. Her action brought the world’s attention to the injustices women experienced in the Swat Valley when the local Taliban had banned girls from attending school. Like Rosa Parks, she stood up in public, and fought for the privileges that women, as human beings, deserve to have. Her action symbolizes that age, sex, and nationality do not matter as long as you are determined and brave enough: the sky is the limit.

Not only do contemporary women fight for the rights for education, but they also stand up for their beliefs. Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is a name to know if you have heard about the blog MuslimGirl. This amazing woman takes advantage of the Internet to raise awareness about Muslim women in the United States. Little has been known about them, so this site is a great place for Muslim women to express their true identities without hiding, and others can also learn about this religion, which they may not be acquainted with.

What would you do when you reach the age of 69? Would you retire and go on a vacation somewhere to unwind your busy life? This is not the case for Hillary Clinton, one of the promising candidates for the 2016 presidential election. She was the United States Secretary of States, a senator from New York, and the First Lady of the United States. Needless to say, her contribution to America is huge. If elected, her achievement will mark another era of “Women who changed the world”. Go Hillary!!!

After reading their stories, I hope that every woman will be encouraged to follow their dreams. Like Dr. Mae Jemison —the first African American woman to travel in space once said, “I realized I would feel comfortable anywhere in the universe — because I belonged to and was a part of it, as much as any star, planet, asteroid, comet, or nebula.” Do whatever you want, it does not have to be big, but never be afraid of how people think of you because a woman deserves to achieve whatever she wishes for. Then, to everyone who loves you, your achievements are meaningful.

In the end, you may take a moment to remember the important women in your life. It is not too late to say Happy Women’s History Month, or I am thankful to have you in my life. And I personally want to say, “Happy birthday Mom—the most endearing women who has brought me to this world so I can sit here and write this post.”

– Anh

(Cover image source)

Yoni Ki Baat: 50 Shades of Gender, Identity, Race, Sexuality and Violence

Last weekend, the South Asian Student Associated hosted its annual Vagina Monologues: Yoni Ki Baat. This event was held in collaboration with multiple cultural organizations on campus such as ISA (International Students Association), CASA (Caribbean and African Students Organization), LASO (Latin America Students Association) and, MCS (Muslim Cultural Society).

The event spanned over 2 days and 23 performances, including self-written and popular pieces performed by a diverse group of Clarkies. The theme this year was “YKB: 50 Shades of Gender, Identity, Race, Sexuality and Violence.” 

Day one started with a piece called “Half-Blood” and was performed by Ariana Mohammed. It was based on the rampant societal labeling that we face everyday and how it leads to identity crisis and frustration for people from mixed or diverse backgrounds.

This was followed Kaiomi Inniss’ performance called “Meditation on Yellow”, that shed light on the ongoing exploitation of the Caribbean culture and traditions by the privileged West and how it mimicked the oppression the Caribbean people have faced in the past.

“How to cure a feminist”, performed by Medha Monjaury was a sarcastic take on the gender status-quo and the how women are often objectified and are the ones who have to change according to their male partner. While it was a more humorous piece compared to others, it addressed real life situations and social hypocrisy. Another Clarkie, Marika Thompson performed a piece called “Dear Straight People”. It addressed homophobia in its different forms and the deep and lasting impact it can have on people. Lack of self-expression is still oppressing large strata of society and this issue needs to be paid more attention to.

Recently, through media and popular opinions, Muslim women have been facing flak for how they choose to express their religious believes. “Lollipop”, a piece performed by Azra Tahria reflected on a comment that compared Muslim hijabi women to lollipops and also spoke to the hypocrisy of Muslim men towards Muslim women.

For me, the most spellbinding performance of the night was a self-written piece by Elyana Kadish, “A not so sincere apology to the person I left behind”. It gave us insight into the personal lives of people who have to stay inside the closet and how the world, their own family treated them when they decide to be true to themselves. This one really captivated the audience. Suaida Firoze, Hasini Assiriyage and Elyana Kadish performed the YKB classic “Hairy Pussy” reflecting on the unreal beauty standards set up for women.

Breaking the rhythm of women’s issues and rights, Brennin Consalvi performed a piece by Kevin Canter “People you may know”, and talked about an issue that is brushed aside by many, the plight of male rape victims. Suaida Firoze followed this up by “No man’s land”, very aptly describing the dilemma international students face after studying abroad. This resonated with me as I went through something very similar with my family and friends back home.

Again, changing up the tone of the night a little bit, Melina Toscani presented her bilingual, poetic piece about exploitation of Latin America and its people for resources and, while these actions might have physically damaged the land, it hasn’t killed the spirit of the people. The night came to end with a piece performed by members of the SASA about labelling of people, cultures, race and, how useless and unnecessary the concept is.

The second night of YKB opened with an energetic and charismatic recital of the Maya Angelou classic “Still I Rise” by Milky Abajorga. Her performance set the tone of the night as the performances that followed exhibited opened up about the oppression of women and the stigmas attached to their cultures and traditions. From a daring declaration by Amira Farrag that her hijab was not about judgement and oppression but a declaration of her submission to Allah. Ending her piece with the powerful statement, “My hijab, and everything under it, is mine”. The South Asian Sisters provided two poems that reflected on the hardships and realities of life as a South Asian woman. Sweta Basnet ended the first half of evening with the “Period Poem”, a piece imploring women not to hide the fundamental element of their lives and challenging the stereotypical male view of the female period.

Opening the second half was a hilarious anecdote performed by Hasini Assiriyage about the concept of blaming a woman’s rape on the way she is dressed and debunking the “She was asking for it” stereotype. The duet of Oyut Amarjargal and Melody Uyanga Mungunchimeg opened up about the effects of the Mongolian culture of women and its similarity to that of many women around the world.

The most striking performance of the night in my opinion came from the penultimate act by Marika Thompson who opened up about the realities of being a gay black female in the USA. Her experiences with police brutality and having to prove that as a black female she can get her education and use it to build herself up. The deeply emotional self-written piece entitled “Tired” was the perfect round up of the pieces from both days. Two of the pieces, “Half Blood” and “People you may know” from the previous night were repeated, and the evening ended in the same manner as the first with a piece by the SASA E-board members entitled “Labels.”

The two day event was one that left every member of the audience either in tears, or very close to it as we experienced the joys and pains of every piece.

-Radhika and Ashleigh 

* As there were an incredible number of performances this year, this article did not cover every single piece. Unmentioned performances include “Unborn Dreams” performed by Qurrat Ul-Aim (Anny), “Wedding Night” performed by Lubaina Selani, and “Rapefugees” performed by Jitske Grift.

Being hijra: Gender identity in the South Asian context

I just finished reading an op-ed piece published a few days ago in the New York Times, which discussed the brave actions of one Labannya Hijra, who as an eyewitness managed to apprehend two of the three Bangladeshi Islamist radicals who brutally hacked to death secular blogger Oyasiqur Rhaman. There are a number of angles to this story – the religious intolerance that motivated this barbaric murder and the courage of Labannya Hijra being the most prominent. While the fate of Oyasiqur Rhaman is grievous indeed, and warrants mobilization and discourse around freedom of speech and tolerance in über-conservative societies, Labannya’s involvement in the matter has sparked interesting developments in Bangladesh.

What you should know is that Labannya is a hijra, which is a term used in the South Asia to signify a person assigned male at birth who later goes on to identify as female. While some hijras are intersex, a broad majority of them are assigned male at birth. It is interesting to note that hijras have long been mentioned in recorded history of the region, such as in Hindu and Jain texts, as well as in the Kama Sutra. It was the arrival of British colonialism in the subcontinent that enforced the gender binary and outlawed hijras into the fringes of society.

In 2013, Bangladesh made history by recognizing hijras as a third gender. Nepal, Pakistan, and India are the other countries that have legally recognized the existence of a third gender, including on passports and other official documents. While this may seem rather progressive of the South Asian subcontinent, one must not be too quick to assume true equality in these societies. As a South Asian myself, I understand the ability of our cultures to embrace contradictions. While the concept of a third gender exists, hijras have very little beyond that recognition. They operate within a close community, which serves as both a support system and a prison. They have little autonomy in a hierarchical structure that places their guru in charge of their order. Despite what their governments might think, the citizens in these countries are yet to fully recognize hijras as their equals. The societies in our countries still employ inflexible, impermeable gender norms to police behavior, and hijras must either conform or be shunned. What generally occurs is both. Due to the socio-economic isolation that hijras experience, an overwhelming number of them face a lifetime of begging or prostitution. While heterosexual men in these countries utilize the sexual services of hijras, it is done largely in secrecy, a shameful secret that none are willing to admit. Comparable to the status of trans communities in the U.S., hijras face discrimination in employment, healthcare, housing, education, immigration, law, and bureaucracy. HIV prevalence among the hijra population is 276 times that of the entire adult population in Pakistan.

Reading this account aroused mixed emotions in me. On one hand, I was struck by the western-centrism of social justice narratives in our world today. It is worth noting that the West is not the only part of the world that rejects binaries and hierarchies of oppression. From examples of grassroots feminist movements in Latin America to the celebration of homosexuality in Ancient China, all cultures have their own takes on equality. The historically-rooted concept of a third gender in the Indian sub-continent is yet another example of this. This is important to keep in mind when we consider fighting for equality globally. The western definitions of identity are not a one size fits all approach, just like western liberal democracy has failed to take root in other parts of the world in its purest form. Similarly, the hijra identity does not translate neatly to a western equivalent. For instance, there is no natural association between gender and sexuality that occurs with hijra identity, for some go onto renounce sexuality altogether. There is an element of the sacred to hijra identity, despite the low status granted by society (remember what I said about contradictions?), with a belief in the bond between sexual and spiritual energies. It is important to be culturally competent when espousing the cause of a particular population, as opposed to blindly transplanting the beliefs of one group and imposing it upon the other.

On the other hand, I am struck by how far our South Asian cultures must progress to be truly equitable. Identities may be relative and subjective, but perhaps all of us can agree that one of the objective standards in this world is to ensure that all people enjoy the same freedoms and privileges. Well then, I wonder if those who are assigned female at birth have the same capacity to transcend their identity as hijras do. I consider the injustices heaped upon the hijra community. I think about how homosexuality is a criminal offense in all countries in the region except Nepal, which affects the hijra population as well as all sexual minorities. While the western approach to rights and recognition may not suit these cultures completely, it is important to embrace the fundamental principle that lies at its heart, which is recognition of all people and the struggle for the rights of everyone.

Labannya has become an overnight sensation in Bangladesh. As a South Asian Caitlyn Jenner, her bravery has led to the government’s announcement of hiring hijras as traffic police and the Central Bank requiring financial institutions to devote a portion of their corporate social responsibility funds on the hijra community. Thanks to those like Labannya, times are changing in this part of the world. Let us hope that it spells change for everyone.

– Themal

Why Pride isn’t enough

It’s Pride season, and everywhere and everything is festooned with rainbow hues. The colors carry symbolic meaning, representing the diversity of the queer community. While watching the Boston Pride 2015 Parade last week, I was struck by the scale of this diversity. The parade featured nearly all identities of the movement – trans* community, white and racial minorities, differently abled. It was heartening to see signs of ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ being borne right before the delegation from the Union United Methodist Church. It was a moving experience, to feel the sense of community that prevailed in that space, and hear the crowds cheer and support all the different identities of the queer community.

But by now, you should know that I rarely write happy, positive pieces. While it is truly amazing that inclusive spaces such as Pride exist, this is not a daily reality for the queer community. It always saddens me to think that a movement that has experienced the pain of exclusion and stigma would dole out those very things to their own. The queer community has much to do in terms of tackling the sexism, racism, transphobia, and other forms of prejudice that exist within its ranks.

I once wrote an article about gay cis-men and their male privilege. In it, I discussed the privileges that gay cis-men take over women and their bodies, infringing on their bodily integrity by critiquing their fashion, appearance, and diet in a non-consensual manner. It is worrisome that this trend extends to sexual harassment, with gay men groping women at bars and clubs and using their sexuality in order to trivialize their actions. The fact that sexual harassment has little to do with sexual desire and everything to do with power assertion means that gay men contribute to sexism as much as the rest of society. In another article – an interview of faith-based LGBTQ+ advocate Judy Hanlon – I was shocked to report the blatant racism that she and the LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in her care had experienced. To take for granted the legacy of queer communities of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Audre Lord, Angela Davis, and Alice Walker, is to do a disservice to the legacy of the queer community itself.

Another dimension in which this insularity occurs is in the trans* exclusion that prevails in certain sects of the queer community. The Human Rights Campaign recently came under fire when one of their staffers asked an attendee at the Proposition 8 Supreme Court hearings to remove a Trans Pride flag, on the grounds that marriage equality is not a trans* issue. As the key group supporting marriage equality initiatives across the country, the organization’s trans* exclusionist policies has led to a stifling of trans* perspectives in this issue. As of 2013, the organization did not have any trans* individuals in their staff and they did not include the letter ‘T’ in their use of the LGB acronym until 2004. Most troublingly, they have supported transphobic policies, such as in 2007 when they supported a version of the Employment Non Discimination Act (ENDA) in Congress that did not extend the same protections for discrimination on the basis of gender identity as sexual orientation. It seems that there are those within the community who have forgotten the ‘T’ in our label, and don’t find as much meaning in the diverse colors of the pride flag as they should.

One of the major problems with the mainstream queer culture is that it has become assimilationist, adopting a white, middle class, cis agenda at the expense of identities that don’t fit into this mold. Consider how the hallmark LGBTQ+ issue of the modern day – the one that is debated by hopeful politicos and the Supreme Court – is marriage equality. Violence against LGBTQ+ identity still exists, as is demonstrated by the statistic that queer youth are twice as likely as their peers to experience violence. 73% of youth are more comfortable being honest about their sexuality online than in the real world.

Employment discrimination on the basis of sexual identity is yet to be criminalized in 29 states. And yet marriage equality has become the seminal topic of queer rights. What is most disturbing of all is that marriage equality is commonly referred to as gay marriage – which fails to be inclusive of many queer identities – representing how its poster child would be a gay, white, cis-male couple. It is signs like this that point to the insularity of mainstream queer culture, and the many ‘isms’ that exist within its midst.

It is important for the queer community and its allies to force these conversations, discuss these issues, and attempt to rectify the mistakes that we’ve made. For if not, Pride would cease to be any kind of meaningful symbol to the queer community and the world at large.


Sources: ;

A Love Letter to Clark

It has been over a year since I began blogging for the ‘Things That Matter’, and I took the time to peruse some of the articles that I wrote during that time. In reading them serially, I was struck by how quickly they began to focus on issues of social justice, discussing topics like race, gender, sexuality, privilege, and the intersections of these concepts. As someone who strives to write from the heart, from a place of authenticity and passion, I believe that what I write is a reflection of who I am and try to be, and Clark has played a large role in that.

In the everyday conversations about Clark that I have with friends, acquaintances, and even random Clarkies (such a Clark phenomenon), I present a critical voice because I believe that Clark should be held to higher standards than the less progressive colleges we are constantly compared to, and should aspire to rectify problems that exist in our community. However, this article will deviate from this tradition, and instead celebrate the many wonderful ways in which Clark broadened my perspective.

As sensitive and aware as my family was of issues like racism and sexism, broader Sri Lankan society could hardly be categorized in the same manner. Racism and sexism, as two issues that had gained ground in the public consciousness, were rife in our immediate environment and were normalized to a great deal. Other forms of prejudice, such as homophobia, transphobia, ableism etc. were virtually unheard of growing up. Worse yet, conversations about identity were not as commonplace as they are within the Clark circles I move through. While there was a chance that glaring displays of racist or sexist behavior would be identified and problematized, microaggressions would slip under the public radar and prevail unchallenged. For instance, I remember being taught at a young age that it was impolite to use the term ‘woman’ to refer to someone who identifies as female. No doubt a legacy of our British colonial past, such ideas had taken root of Sri Lankan society in a death-like vice. Given my young age, I took this lesson to heart, but looking back I question this flawed logic. Why is it acceptable to call a man a man, while the term woman is considered tainted in some way? The sexist overtones – that being a woman is inherently degrading – are now crystal clear to me. I had a penchant for writing, and was prone to write (pseudo)philosophical treatises on all things ontological. When referring to the human race, I would always unconsciously use the term ‘mankind’, excluding women and trans* populations in the process. Never during my 13 years of schooling was this corrected by any of my teachers.

Looking back on my childhood, I feel that I have come a long way. Clark played an immense role in awakening my political and social consciousness. The amazing people I associate on a daily basis have inspired me to expand my awareness and understanding of diverse identities, the intersections of these categories, and the issues that plague them. I have grappled (and continue to do so) with the concept of privilege and how fluid-like it is in changing based upon context and identity, passing hands from one group to another. I think about how historically rooted phenomena such as privilege and power are inspired by centuries of colonial influence and the human impulse to dominate and master. And not only has Clark taught me to question and reflect on such topics, but to speak out and act towards the ending of oppression and the liberation of all peoples.

This particular international student owes a large debt to Clark, for helping him learn and unlearn what he has during the past two years. Yet, Clark alone does not earn all the credit for my transformation. My family has taught me in innumerable ways the importance of valuing human life and easing the suffering of others. My culture has taught me the importance of sacrifice, empathy, and the power of the collective. It is the influence of both Clark and my culture that have contributed to who I am today. Clark taught me who I should care about. Sri Lanka taught me why I should care.

– Themal

Cis-genderism and the Clark community

I recently sat in on a class where we were shown a brief video of people milling about in a common space, and then asked to describe what we saw. The conversation began innocuously enough, with students describing what they saw people doing. Yet, inevitably the conversation turned to gender (because our society is so enamored by this concept) and students started making assumptions about the gender of those in the video. I heard comments like “most of the people are women” and “there is one man in the far corner” – assertions based entirely on appearance and dress. What got to me the most was that when I piped in (in my superior “let’s-be-politically-correct voice”) that all of us were making premature judgments based on appearance that the people in the video are only male or female and thereby reinforcing the gender binary, my concerns were politely dismissed.

I am by no means an authority on gender identity. In fact, until quite recently I was the furthest from one. Growing up in a highly traditional society where conversations about identity was all but stifled, I didn’t have too many opportunities nor did I see the need to question the gender binary. Even once I started thinking about this topic, I would enquire about preferred pronouns as a formality, having instinctively assumed the gender of individuals in my mind. It took sheer force of will to unlearn this belief, crush that instinct and be unassuming about gender. And so, I can appreciate the difficulty in wrapping your head around the fact that there exist more gender identities than the traditional male/female binary. But what I don’t understand is the ability to turn a blind eye to this issue, to shy away from questioning your inherent prejudices, and thus deny the legitimacy of far too many identities.

If you are reading this, and you feel a pang of conscience, then use this opportunity to be more aware about cis-genderism and how to root it out. Let us face down that instinct to see (and only see) male and female all around us. Let us not assume that everyone identifies by he/she pronouns. Let us not assume that everyone wants to identify by any specific gender identity in the first place. It took society long enough to recognize non-heterosexual identities and now, I hope, you feel that these are perfectly valid. But please recognize that the movement for equality ended prematurely, and that if sexuality can be variant and exist on a spectrum, then so can many other things. Gender is but one.

If you are unmoved by this account, and feel that this issue does not affect you, understand that equality of gender identity is an issue that transcends you and your life. There are so many who identify as trans* (to be interpreted as an umbrella term) here at Clark, and your beliefs and actions may have, unwittingly or not, hurt them grievously. If you think that gender identity is not your cup of tea, then know that you are directly or indirectly contributing to the oppression of perhaps your parents, your siblings, your friends, your relatives, and your future children. Your apathy or bigotry is the reason why they stand an almost 9 times greater risk of committing suicide than the general population (yes, suicide prevalence among trans* populations is 41% as opposed to the 4.6% of the general population). They could be among the 50-54% bullied at school, the 50-59% harassed at work, the 60-70% sexually harassed by law enforcement, and the 69% who experience homelessness. If you think that this is not a real issue which real people face, perhaps it is because you haven’t created the safe spaces for the loved ones in your life to confide in you and say that they do not identify as cis gender. Whatever you decide, know that your actions have consequences beyond yourself. I hope you care.

– Themal Ellawala