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Bangladesh’s transgender row signals return of Islamic extremism

Transgender rights promotion is tantamount to encouraging homosexuality in the Muslim-majority nation, conservatives allege
Members of the transgender community learn to read the Holy Quran inside an Islamic Seminary for the third gender locally known as 'hijra' in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka on Nov. 17, 2020. Islamic hardliners are up in arms against legal recognition of transgender people.

Members of the transgender community learn to read the Holy Quran inside an Islamic Seminary for the third gender locally known as 'hijra' in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka on Nov. 17, 2020. Islamic hardliners are up in arms against legal recognition of transgender people. (Photo: Muni Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images)

Published: January 25, 2024 12:16 PM GMT
Updated: January 25, 2024 12:17 PM GMT

Islamic hardliners in Muslim-majority Bangladesh have started flexing their muscles once again in recent weeks amid an ongoing row over transgender rights in the country.

On Jan. 23, several hundred students staged a protest rally in capital Dhaka after leading private university, BRAC University, sacked a teacher for his anti-transgender remarks.

The protesters demanded reinstatement of Asif Mahtab in the Philosophy department of the university. “We are Muslims. We have not come to study in the university to lose our faith,” one of them told a local television channel.

The protesting students pointed out that some of their courses indeed have content promoting homosexuality.

Mahtab became known across the nation after his speech targeting transgender people during a seminar in Dhaka on Jan. 19 went viral on Facebook.

The viral video showed Mahtab tearing down two pages of the new History and Social Science textbook for grade VII students saying it contains a story of a transgender person, Sharifa.

“Sharifa validates homosexuality,” said Mahtab, alleging that such promotion will lead to a situation like in the West, where, he added, 40 percent of the people have turned to homosexuality.

He called on Muslims in Bangladesh to follow his act as a form of protest against the new textbook.

Mahtab was terminated after liberals and secularists strongly opposed his hate speech and his act of tearing down pages from the textbook.

However, hardline political parties and radical clerics openly supported him and demanded revocation of his termination.

Islamists have also called for a boycott of the university and its parent organization, BRAC.

The seminar was organized by the National Teachers’ Forum, a platform backed by the hardline political party, Islami Andolon Bangladesh (IAB).

It featured talks by conservative speakers who blasted the ruling Awami League government for the new curriculum.

The textbook curriculum undermines Muslims' belief in a country where 92 percent of people are Muslims. The majority community must set things right, the speakers said during the seminar.

The IAB is known for its radical demands including imposition of sharia law and opposing women empowerment.

On Jan. 19, it held a rally in Dhaka to oppose the new textbook curriculum and demand a blasphemy law be introduced in the country.

The latest row is the third such incident targeting the marginalized transgender community in Bangladesh over the past couple of months.

Last November, North South University, another leading private education institute in Dhaka, faced public backlash after it barred a prominent transgender activist from speaking during a women’s career carnival. This was due to protests from a group of conservative teachers and students.

Earlier this month, a forum of hardline clerics launched a hate campaign against transgender people aiming to deter the government from passing a proposed transgender protection law.

The strong opposition to the progressive law even among educated sections of the society is an indication of the slow but steady Islamization of Bangladesh, once known as a moderate Muslim nation, observers say.

The nation of about 170 million people has seen a revival of Islamic extremism in recent times with the Awami League government accused of courting hardliners for political gains.

Since 2013, Islamic militants pledging allegiance to transnational terrorist outfits like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have murdered about 50 people including atheist bloggers, liberal academics, writers, members of religious minorities, and foreigners.

The government responded with a heavy nationwide crackdown and dozens of suspected militants were killed in raids while hundreds were arrested and put on trial.

In 2017, the government came under fire after articles by popular non-Muslim writers were removed from a primary school textbook and replaced with writings of Muslim writers.

This was in line with demands from a major Islamic hardline group, Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam).

The move triggered protests and backlash from liberals and secularists, prompting the government to revise the textbook and reinstate some of the articles.

At the Jan. 23 protest, it was the turn of the conservatives to take the government to task.

Moontaseer Mamun, one of the organizers, said that promoting the transgender community was tantamount to promoting homosexuality because "it will be allowing people who artificially change their sex organs to live together."

“We accept Hijras for they are naturally born with defective sex organs, but Hijras and transgender represent different types of people,” Mamun told UCA News.

Bangladesh's government recognized the Hijras, a collective term for eunuchs, intersex, and transgender people in South Asia, as the third gender in 2014. They were granted voting rights in 2020.

However, Islamic hardliners say hijra and transgender are two different types of people. The views expressed by Mahtab and Mamun are in line with the Islamists’ viewpoint on transgender people.

Mizanur Rahman Sayed, a hardline cleric told UCA News that artificial gender transformation is forbidden in Islam.

On Dec. 27 last year, clerics at the Hathazari Madrasa, one of the oldest and largest madrasas located in southeast Chattogram district, declared transgender people as haram (forbidden).

On Jan. 25, Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh, issued a statement hailing Mahtab for his speech.

It accused the government of "ruining students’ character by imposing a curriculum devoid of ideals and morality."

On the same day, Hefazat-e-Islam issued a statement hailing Mahtab and demanding his reinstatement.

It called the transgender people as "cursed and faith-ruining."

“The doctrine is a psychological disorder,” it said in a statement while urging the government to refrain from passing the proposed transgender protection law.

Amid the row, the Ministry of Education has formed a five-member experts committee to review the transgender story in the History and Social Science textbook for grade VII.

“The ongoing transgender controversy has nothing to do with Islam and is designed by Islamist hardliners for political benefits,” said Shahriar Kabir, a journalist, filmmaker and human rights activist.

According to the 2023 population census, Bangladesh has 12,629 transgender people who are known as Hijra.

“The constitution recognizes the third gender. They are citizens of the country. The state must protect them,” Kabir said.

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44. And that it is He who causes death and gives life. 45. And that it is He who created the two pairs—male and female. 46. From a sperm-drop when it is emitted. ( source www.QuranWow.com )
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