In a year that has seen secular bloggers hacked to death in broad daylight, progressive voices in Bangladesh made a bold move this month to spotlight the plight of homosexuals in the country by launching Dhee, the country’s first lesbian comic strip.
Created by Boys of Bangladesh, the nation’s largest gay rights group, the comic tells the story of Dhee, a young girl who faces intense pressure to conform to her traditional culture, leading her to ponder whether she should commit suicide, marry a man to appease her family, run away, or follow her heart.
“We live in a country where sex is a big taboo subject,” says Dhee project manager Ahmed. “That is the reason why we came up with an idea of a new project to inform the public with a character who is too difficult to ignore. That’s how Dhee, the first Bangladeshi homosexual character — whose name means wisdom in Bengali — was born.”
The advocacy organization aims to raise awareness around LGBTQ rights, gender, and sexuality in the country. Boys of Bangladesh also plans to hand out the comic strip, which is a series of flashcards, at seminars and events in addition to running workshops on the issue.
Says Ahmed, the project is intended to educate the public about gender, sexual orientation, and relationships by giving the complex issues a human, relatable face. And the decision to make the central character female was no accident.
“The reason why we chose a female character was to drive home a point,” Ahmed says. “Bangladesh is a male dominated country where women’s sexuality and desire is completely ignored by the majority. Homosexual women are completely invisible from the scenario. We created Dhee, which is a very unisex name, as a woman because we wanted her to become a voice that is extremely difficult to hear. We hope people will see her from a gender-neutral perspective because, at the end of the day, her feelings are very human.”
While prosecutions are rare, homosexuality is a crime in Bangladesh, punishable by life in prison. Even so, the culturally conservative Muslim-majority country has made surprising strides in terms of public attitudes toward gay rights, especially among young people. In 2013, the government officially recognized hijras (Bengali for transgender) as a separate gender, affirming a community that has existed for centuries in Bangladesh. And, last year, the first LGBTQ magazine in the country, Roopbaan, was launched.
However, the team behind Dhee stipulates that despite this progress, the majority of people in Bangladesh remain “extremely homophobic,” and that the brutal murders of secular bloggers has cultivated a climate of fear and intimidation.
“This past year, we have been experiencing high incidences of violence,” says Shahana Siddiqui, an expert on sexual reproductive health and rights in Bangladesh. “It is a strange time where, on one hand, we see strong laws and civil society engagement on issues of human rights yet the state of violence in general has risen significantly. Dhee comes at an appropriate, much needed time and conveys a very complex message of choice in a very simple way. It’s a great conversation starter … I can’t imagine any one messaging tool to bring about a revolutionary change in the ways in which women in Bangladesh understand and engage in sexual freedom, but this is a great starting point.”
Ahmed agrees that the project will not change attitudes in Bangladesh overnight, but sparking a dialogue about individual rights is in itself revolutionary.
“The culture of intolerance in the country is mainly fueled by having a hostile attitude towards diversity,” Ahmed says. “I am hoping for a day when the people of Bangladesh will realize that Dhee may be different from what the majority of people expect women to be, but that difference doesn’t make her any less of a human being. I hope that one day people will be able to embrace the beauty and strength of diversity.”