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Love in a grey zone

Suleman1 has always known that he was attracted to men. He would wear his mother’s saris when she was out of the house and put on his sister’s make-up in the belief that this is what men found appealing. Suleman also knew that he wanted to be a religious leader, an imam. He joined a madrassa (an Islamic religious school) where he began rigorous training. Small in stature with an imposing black beard, he is dressed in a white kurta pyjama with a matching white mosque hat, the ubiquitous uniform for the men of Allah. He is predisposed to following everything up with religious references.

‘Imams have a lot of responsibility. The Malik (Lord) has chosen me, even with all my flaws, to follow him. If I can fulfil even the slightest one of his wishes, then Allah is pleased.’

At age 32, Suleman leads the five daily prayers and also the Friday jumma at one of the largest mosques in Dhaka. His dry, husky voice, a result of the fiery sermons he delivers, has a cheerful twinkle buried in it.

Suleman made the decision to become a religious leader partly in the hope that it would bring an end to the desires he had for men, something he thought at the time to be outside of the bounds of religious acceptability.

As with the other Abrahamic religions, the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom, used by some Muslims to condemn homosexuality, was something he was more than familiar with. Suleman tried controlling his feelings by praying and fasting obsessively, ironically in the process excelling in the eyes of the scholars at the madrassa. However, to his dismay he found that his urges did not diminish. If anything, as he grew older, they became worse.

...my friend and I needed and wanted to do this. It gave us peace of mind and body. Is this so wrong?

‘All night in the dormitory, my eyes would see no sleep. I wanted to be able to care for a man, marry him and give him physical pleasure,’ he remembers.

One day Suleman reluctantly shared his feelings with a friend, a fellow student. They ended up having sex. Afterwards, he was meticulous about following the guidelines on fornication set out by Islamic scriptures. He had already recited a prayer before they slept with each other; afterwards he washed his entire body, his mouth, hands and only then did he go to sleep. In the morning he prayed for forgiveness and read the Qur’an.

This was a pivotal moment. For the first time in his life, it dawned on him that what he had done was not wrong. He remembers saying in his prayers that day, ‘my friend and I needed and wanted to do this. It gave us peace of mind and body. Is this so wrong?’

Suleman is hardly the norm in the conservative world of Bangladeshi Islamic orthodoxy. I ask him whether he believes what he did was ghuna (sin)? In Islam the sin is in the act and not at the level of the feelings or thinking.

He has given this much thought. ‘Love between men, even in the days of the Prophet, has always existed and always will.’ He asks me if I know the worst sin a person can commit. I don’t. He replies that it is to give koshto (pain) to another. Giving koshto is the equivalent of destroying one of Allah’s mosques.

‘He has said that we should love one another, give each other joy and happiness. The shariah (part of the basic principles of Islamic law) even says this. When I am with the person I love, I am giving him pleasure, joy, affection, my body. He is doing the same in return. We are not giving each other koshto or anyone else. So where is the ghuna in this? It is for Allah to judge.’

Love and marriage

Despite this early moment of elucidation, the personal conflicts and anguish continued to haunt the young imam for many years. But today, after completing Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Suleman has come to accept that his feelings for his lover do not contravene his understanding of the Qur’an. He is exasperated that for many in his congregation homosexuality is wrong because Allah has not explicitly granted it.

‘They consider what should be ghuna to be permissible and what should be permissible to be ghuna.’ In response he tells them that there is not a single thing that humans can do without Allah knowing about it in the first place. ‘Even a leaf on a tree cannot flutter in the breeze without His say-so. The only thing we can ensure is to be good and try and follow what He has said.’

Suleman believes it is important that gay Muslims be allowed to marry as a way to gain acceptance from wider society and to avoid promiscuity. While it is still illegal to be gay in Bangladesh, let alone for same-sex couples to marry, he is sometimes asked by gay friends to bless their relationships, an unequal equivalent to getting married.

‘I really enjoy doing this. They see me as their imam. I always say to them, “stay in whatever line you want, but don’t forget Allah in all of this”.’

In Bangladesh, things that are illegal or socially and religiously taboo, such as homosexuality, are considered permissible as long as they are not brought into the open. This grey area is neither public nor private and is carefully governed, with its own set of rules, obligations and ways of being. In a society which does not protect, let alone acknowledge the intimate desires and aspirations of its citizens and in many cases even outlaws them, this is the only way to live.

Paradoxically, living in such a way affords many a sense of privacy and security they would otherwise not have. It protects them from the ‘mad mullahs’ or other conservative elements who would otherwise be inclined to preach hatred against their choices or community. Living like this allows people to carry out social and religious duties, not experience state-sanctioned discrimination; to be a member of wider society and continue cordial relationships with family and friends.

Section 377 of the Penal Code of Bangladesh considers homosexuality a crime – it is rarely discussed socially and generally considered unacceptable under Islam. However, gay Bangladeshis are not only meeting one another and falling in love: they are also living together and marrying each other. All of this takes place surreptitiously, in this grey area.

Imam Suleman is an example of the everyday contradictions people live with. None of his family or colleagues suspects his relationship with his partner, who is publicly acknowledged as ‘just a friend’. A few years ago Suleman married a woman who had approached his mother for his hand in marriage. They now have two children. Thus, having fulfilled his social and religious obligations in both public and private matters, he is free to continue his relationship with his ‘friend’ (it is the same for heterosexual lovers who may end up marrying someone else chosen by the families for socio-economic reasons, but will continue their love affair in secret).

Consequences of going public

Furthermore, this is a society in which even heterosexual men hold hands in public and are able to show affection for one another without their masculinity being called into question.

Suleman is keenly aware that there will be consequences if knowledge of his friend becomes public. He could be dismissed from the mosque or physically beaten. Such people, Suleman says, his voice sullen, unfortunately think loving another man is amongst the worst of the ghunas. Learning the rules and living in this grey world is a lifelong endeavour for many Bengalis.

Bangladesh is hardly different from other conservative societies in this regard, in particular its neighbouring countries. Recently, however, there has been a demand to acknowledge, or at the very least decriminalize, these new (and old) ways of living. There is a movement to legalize same-sex relations and to recognize lesbian, gay and transgendered rights. The debates are about what direction the nascent community should follow.

Bandhu (which means ‘friend’ in Bangla) is at the helm of some of these issues. For the past 12 years, the organization has been providing support to nearly 700,000 Bengali men who have sex with men.

Shale Ahmed, who runs Bandhu, stresses that the people they work with are not ‘gay’ but fall within the abstract definition of ‘Men Who Have Sex With Men’ (MSMs). There are two main differences: MSMs do so for ‘fun’ or ‘physical release’. To be gay on the other hand is to seek a relationship with another man which is based on emotions. The second difference is class. MSMs are generally working class. Gay men are invariably from middle- and upper-class backgrounds.

Ahmed believes repealing Section 377 of the criminal code is unlikely. ‘It’s crazy even to think so. The community itself is not even demanding a change in the law.’

For Bandhu, what is more important is to focus on access to healthcare and education, to make sure all people – regardless of sexuality, gender or class – are able to see doctors and health practitioners.

Boys of Bangladesh (BOB), an online group which claims to have 1,700 members, has a different focus. The forum allows people to make friends, meet potential partners and is a way to disseminate information and advice so that young gay men will feel less isolated and more comfortable with their sexuality.

I’d die if my parents and friends knew I was gay. Not because they’d kill me, but because of shame

Shakhawat Hossain, the group’s ‘moderator’, says BOB aims at people who identify as gay. MSM refers just to sexual behaviour, which Hossain finds ‘negative and insulting’. Gay on the other hand refers to ‘sexual attraction, emotions, partnership and love,’ far more complicated and less palatable for the orthodoxy. This is because to be gay assumes having fundamental human rights currently being denied Bangladeshis. BOB wants Section 377 to be repealed.

But there is little sign that either tack will stem the tide of educated, middle-class gay people leaving Bangladesh. One reason is simple economic benefit. Middle-class gay people are attracted to wealth, status and a particular kind of consumer-obsessed lifestyle – not much different from their heterosexual counterparts. The other reason is the perceived freedoms Western countries offer homosexuals.

The idea of gay men seeking refuge is of course not new. The problem with this contemporary rainbow exodus is that the very group of people who are potentially in a position to confront the issue of inequality in Bangladesh are the ones leaving.

I ask one gay man leaving for Australia whether he is willing publicly to declare his love for his boyfriend in Bangladesh? His answer is frank.

‘I’d die if my parents and friends knew I was gay. Not because they’d kill me, but because of shame. I’m leaving so that I can do what I want without anyone here knowing about it.’

Delwar Hussain is a writer on South Asian society, currently completing a doctorate at King’s College, Cambridge.

  • Not his real name.
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