Being a Muslim dominated population with a mixed culture of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam- Bangladesh is a at a crucial yet intriguing point in history where it struggles to be part of a globalized world and still maintain a rather conservative social-culture. Sex is a taboo topic and sexuality is strictly understood within ‘heteronormative’ framework, within which though ‘deviance’ for men is tolerated and often ignored but the same for women isalmost denied.
The paper, is derived from my own PhD field research work (on Women and Sexuality in urban middle class Bangladesh),aims to explore and understand how individual non-heterosexual women live, challenge or ‘counter’ heteronormativity in urban middle class Bangladesh through women’s personal narratives. It aims to inquire how women, of this particular class, in their lives define, assert and practice their own sexuality and sexual identity- which includes constant process of negotiation, bargain, manipulation, conciliation, and strategies. Using the concept of heteronormativity, the paper, because of its limitation of scope, narrows down to non-heterosexual women’s own narratives of ‘identity’ formation within their middle class existence in Bangladesh, and thus, hope to open space for understanding of how heteronormativity works and operates in the sexual lives and identities of women.
The paper is outlined as such:
Section 1: Contextual Background: Bangladesh;
Section 2: Concepts presents the paper’s understanding of sexuality and heteronormativity, as well as research questions and methodology;
Section 3: Living Sexualities and not talking so ‘straight’, identity formation of non-heterosexual women;
Section 4: The ‘Invisible’ women, in which I talk about the invisibility and social exclusion of non-heterosexual women in mainstream social lives as well as from the LGBT movement/community.
Section 5: conclusion.
Section 1: Contextual Background Bangladesh
Bangladesh is a South Asian developing country, and is one of the largest Muslim countries of the world, which means Bangladesh has Islam as its official State Religion, is dominated by Muslim (especially the Sunni Muslim) and Islamic norms and practices. This influence has major implications on state policy, culture and the lives of religious minorities. Bangladesh has a population of about 140 million, making it one of the most densely populated countries of the world. The majority (about 88%) of the people is Muslim, and over 98% of the people speak in Bangla (Statistical Pocket Book of Bangladesh, 2007). Bangladesh is a highly patriarchal society in which men are at top of gender power, and have control over women`s labour, sexuality, income, and assets- both through public and private sphere domination system. Women are taught and often made to depend on men throughout their lives (fathers, husbands and sons); and a woman without any male `guardian` or protection is seen as vulnerable. Marriage is a norm, and compulsory heterosexuality is the normative form of accepted sexuality. Because of conservation social culture and dominance of religion, any deviance from norm has social or legal consequences, especially if deviance is of sexual nature. constitutionally (Article 377 homosexuality is a punishable crime, and there is no provision of marriage or civil union for same-sex relation or any gender identity other than male and female. Modesty and chastity are of paramount importance for women, and the concept of protecting `family honour` or `izzat` sees into the control of female sexuality. In Bangladesh female sexuality is often controlled through denial of access to information on sex, sexuality and reproductive function. (Khan et al 2002; Rashid 2007). In spite being a Muslim dominated and culturally conservative society, Bangladesh sees a much more relaxed gender relations and sharing of spaces compared to many other Islamic countries, and the strict notion of `public and private` can be, and often is, a blurry one, where women move in and out of male domains. The UNDP Gender Development Index (GDI) for 2004 ranked Bangladesh 110 among 144 countries, an increase of 13 positions since 1999. Women`s participation in public work places have increased in the recent years and steady increase in women`s participation in education, labour market and politics has contributed to an improved gender situation in Bangladesh, but at the same time, this increase in `path-crossing` of public and private and independence has made the issue of sexuality, identity and its assertion a more problematic and challenged one.
Section 2: The concepts
I understand sexuality from a feminist perspective:
Sexuality refers to … aspects of personal and social life which have erotic significance’, not only ‘individual erotic desires, practices and identities’ but also the discourses and social arrangements which construct erotic possibilities at any one time.
(Andermahr, Lovell and Wolkowitz (1997) quoting Jackson and Scott, (1996) as: 1997:245)
It therefore, recognizes the fact that what is defined as erotic varies from context to context, and therefore, what is encompassed by the term is far from fixed. But I do take this definition of sexuality as an entry point for this research because a) it lists what is broadly included in sexuality: erotic desires, practices and identities- thus scoping it from an intimate personal point to a broader issue of identity; b) it relates the personal with social, especially within discourses that create social arrangements, and religion is a dominant discourse in most societies that constructs ‘erotic possibilities’, especially in this case for women; c) it specifies that all these are time and context specific, therefore, allowing me to justify my study of a specific class context and time line.
My study is situated in a small but growing body of literature on women’s sexuality in Bangladesh. Sexuality studies in Bangladesh, especially women’s sexuality studies, are a recent phenomenon, but something that is gaining importance slowly and steadily. On a broad level, I am interested in sexuality as a topic and women’s sexuality in particular. Different approaches to sexuality only prove that sexuality does not have one or ready-made theoretical framework, which could be prescribed for a research like this. But, because this is a study about relations between sexuality and class and gender- specifically women’s sexuality – a broader analytical framework used here would be a social constructionist one, taking gender as an analytical tool. The understanding is that sexuality is socially constructed as well as subjective; and that its meanings are expressed in language (discourses) as well as actions (practices).
What lies at the core of this research are the concepts of: heteronormativity, Sexuality and Gender. Heteronormativity: why is it central to the research?
‘…the question is not whether (hetero) sexuality is natural. All aspects of our social world – natural or otherwise – are given meaning. The real issue is, how we give meaning to heterosexuality and what interests are served by these meanings…Without a systematic analysis of this institution (i.e. heterosexuality) – various questions go unanswered…the broader question at hand, ‘who decides what counts as appropriate and necessary and under what conditions is their authority legitimate? It is cultural meaning systems that determine (with our agreement, of course) what counts as natural or unnatural. And it is cultural meaning systems that regulate what should be the ‘proper’ treatment or response to anything ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unnatural. (Ingraham, 2002:73-74)
This research aims to engage itself with a range of individual assertion that women make to challenge or ‘counter’ heteronormativity in Bangladesh, especially in the cases of non-heterosexual women. In that process, it also aims to understand and question the dominant, its construction in terms of influential elements/phenomenon like history, politics, class, religion etc. As indicated by many researches, it is of paramount importance to trace the history or mapping of a term, for example, here heteronormativity, in the specific context of the study (here Bangladesh). As Bangladesh is a relatively new nation, was part of the Indian sub-continent, therefore, part of the British colony, this mapping of process through history can be understood by researches done in the continent, especially in India (which is ample and rich). The route usually would take one through the processes over the 19th century where two opposed tendencies or forces- British colonial interventions and emergence of new nations- came together to create the same effect of erasing homoeroticism and naturalizing heterosexuality (Menon, 2007:8). Specific studies on Bengal (which includes both present Bangladesh and Indian state of Bengal) reveal how modernity, with its influence of education, created a dominant ‘Bhadrolok’ (gentlemen) ways of things for both masculinity and femininity, and thus reinforcing the good housewife-ideal marriage kind of heteronormativity as norm.
Heteronormativity is significant to study sexuality because it produces particular forms of family, gendered identities, and makes only certain desires as natural, acceptable and as something that have existed through eternity- and much of these are institutionalized and continued through mechanism of state and its laws. But a careful study of the term in its conceptual and historic mapping only reveals the porosity and instability of the binaries and boundaries that constitute heteronormativity- the task is to question or interrogate these through the lived experiences of individuals.
I adopt the lens of heteronormativity, in its broader, all inclusive meaning- it would allow me to understand class, gender, power, identity, subordination as well as agency- and religion would inevitably be part of these revelations. It would also allow me to investigate what constructs the dominant norms, image and representation of sexuality for women in contemporary Bangladesh, and individual’s life stories and narrations will help me to understand both the dominant as well as the alternatives that are lived by people, at least in their private realms of life.
Hetronormativity, as it is an analytical framework for this research, is not only understood as ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, as it would then only mean to be challenged by homosexuality. But heteronormativity can and should also be understood beyond this scope of homosexuality or same-sex relations, as one can be heterosexual and not be heteronormative- because the crux of the matter is not only what is the sexual preference of an individual or how one is ‘fit’ into a the hegemonic heterosexual categories, but to understand whether a person conform to a/some social formation that emphasizes on or built on a heterosexual patriarchal monogamous family unit, mostly within the framework of marriage. In this light, it is not only people who have same-sex preferences, but also those who are either remain single, and sexually active outside marriage, or have children outside marriage- in other words who embrace sexuality, motherhood etc outside the heteronormative social norms and boundaries of this given society and thus transgress heteronormative ideology which is expected to be the ‘foundation’ of the social identities of its members, especially of women. But it also remains aware of the fact that there are power dynamics that are based on gender roles (often replaying the dominant norms) and gender subordination in all relationships, be it same sex or heterosexual- as gendered roles and consequent subordination are based on differences between individual access and control of resources, which again, in turn is related to the class issue in one way or the others. Therefore, a link between gender subordination and heteronormativity is to be explored in individual’s lived experiences of sexuality.
The focus of this study is urban middle class, which I consider as a significant class for a variety of reasons. It is important because it is a class that is becoming focus of studies in South Asia in the context of globalization and liberalization as it has expanded as a class which benefits from the neo-liberal economy. Furthermore, liberalization has affected the economic aspects of its peoples’ lives, but also lifestyles in terms of consumption, choices, mobility etc. Along with these, there are the changing influences of religion (including fundamentalism) and the ways gender relations and representations, power dynamics especially within households, and more relevantly for this research, the changes in sexuality and identity discourses – thus linking it to the broader ongoing debates on culture and modernity in South Asia. I am aware of the fact that ‘middle class’ as a generic term is problematic as there is certainly no fixed definition or income level that ‘boxes’ this category.
This particular paper has a specific set of research questions:
- How do non-heterosexual women form their sexual identities in urban middle class Bangladesh?
- How do women in same-sex relationships negotiate, challenge, resist, reinforce and/or make use of heteronormative ways of middle class life-style?
As a part of PhD research work, non-heterosexual women formed one of the three groups of people that I collected life-stories of, and in total there are 10 narratives of non-heterosexual women that will be used for this paper.
Section 3: Living Sexualities and not talking so ‘straight’
3.1 How do we talk about sex, sexuality and desire in contemporary urban Bangla: heternormativity constructed through everyday language
The construction of heteronormativity in public discourse in Bangladesh is obviously multi-faceted, and is a complex task. Sexuality and its construction can be found in popular media, literature and on religious discourse. But for the purpose of this paper, i have chosen the everyday words and phrases of sexuality that are commonly used in urban contexts, especially within middle class educated youth.
Bengali language has erotic words that address the issues of sex and sexuality, and many of these words are poetic and are used in literature, and in context of love. But everyday words that express sex, sexuality, and desires have a different category which is dominated by slangs, violent-aggressive heteronormative words and phrases. For the purpose of this research I decided to make a list of these ‘commonly used sex-words’ in urban Dhaka, sourced to me by my informants and their social groups. I did call out for contribution by willing participants to send me lists of the words they know of and use regarding sex and sexuality. The women came up with the least number and least number of ‘slangs’- not because they were trying to look good, but because they simply didn’t know or did not have the social opportunities to learn or use such words. It was men (both gay and straight), ranging from 25 to 35, who could give a wide range of sexual words that are in use in Bangla, in contemporary Dhaka. When asked to make the list, men did warn me, with little embarrassment that the words would be ‘unsophisticated’, crass and raw, and offensive at times. For example, one (straight man, a poet and student of Journalism in a public university) took 2 days time to think about words, and after 2 days said apologetically, ‘ I am very sorry…I have realized that I only know slangs, and nothing else…and I use those often…when I am with my girlfriend (I say it in my mind); and when I am with my friends (I say those aloud); and to tease women…I mean, I don’t know any ‘good’ words… it is all slangs…I am very surprised to see that I don’t know any beautiful words about sex’.
People with some English language skills (or picked up from media) use English words in everyday life to talk about sex. Sex is ‘sex’, and a commonly used word is ‘sexual/(sexy?)’ to describe anything (from a people to attitude, dress, desire) that has any connotation of sex to it. The most common question to us (me and my research assistant) was, ‘oh, you are looking for ‘gali’.i.e. slangs’? and were advised to read the ‘Choti’ books (booklets on sex, often in story forms, that are available usually from street vendors ). It is obvious, from observations and from reflections of our social-cultural upbringing that ‘choti’ books have been and still are the source of sex-education for most young people, who can read Bangla.
Lists of sexuality related Bangla words and phrases
List 1: basic words
Word/phrase in English
|1.||sex||jouno kaj, jouno milon, sohobash,kharap kaj,sharirik melon, chuda chudi, aakum-ku kaam,
|The highlighted words mean ‘to engage with bad act’; to do things that are ‘not-socially sanctioned’. Sex is considered a ‘bad’ activity.
‘to fix’ or to ‘fit in’
|2.||penis||purush linggo,Nunu, Dhon, bara, laaura, shona,Becha, Goponanggo, ,
|These words actually mean something precious: treasure, big, and gold|
|3.||vagina||Jounanggo, joni,moina, vodha,
mang, heada, gudh
|Moina: a bird
|4.||Anus||Pacha, putki, hoga,
batli(hijra), nitombo, back side
|5.||Anal sex||pacha mara mari kora, putki mara,
batlite nea(hijra),hoga mara, back side e kora, gua mara
|All the phrases have ‘mara’, meaning to ‘hit’ of penetrate suffixed with a word that describes the ‘anus’. The connotation is always active, and aggressive|
|6.||Oral sex||(fellatio) shona chusha, dhon chusha, bara chusha, muk dea kora, mukhe penis newa, chumu dewa,
|For fellatio, the verb is to ‘suck’;
Cunnilingus: to lick (not a common word or expression or even a concept)
kharap kaj, baje kaj,
chuda chudi, putki mara mari kora,
MSM (ngo oword ;-), gay, purushe purushe jouno kaj kora,
jeena kora, haram kaj, hijrader kaj,
|= lust for same sex
To ‘fuck’, ‘to thrust’
NGO words, that try to be more ‘socially and politically correct’
To commit ‘zeena’ (Islamic word for illicit sex); to do something ‘haram’; an act done by ‘hijra’ or transgender’ (unnatural)
2 narite prem,
meye meye jouno / meye meye k kore
|Lust for same sex (women)
‘love’ for the same
Love between two women;
Sex between two women/ women doing women
A recent phrase for lesbians, ‘Lace-ribbon’. The word phonetically matches with ‘lesbian’ as in bangla ‘lace’ is pronounced as ‘les’…and the concept of ‘lace-fita’ is probably rooted in the traditional feminine dressing up/ or aesthetics for self-care. (vendors sell lace-fita and everything feminine from door to door, in neighborhoods at odd hours like afternoon when women usually are at home and have chance of spending time with each other- grooming, beauty care etc are central activities)
|9.||Sex worker||magi, beshsha, khanki,
jouno kormi, deho posharini, shorir bekreta,
Baje meye, mondo meye, hotel er meye, raster meye,potita,mokhi rani, taka dea jader shate sex kora jai( these all for female sex workers).
(men) hooker, escort, money boy etc.
|Loose women in a range of degrading words;
Sex-worker; woman who sells body;
Bad women; women of the hotels; women on road; fallen woman; who you can fuck for money;
(all the words are for women, and no one I spoke to had any bangle word/s for male-sex workers)
There are also words and phrases that are not, what can be termed as ‘direct’ words, but are used to describe a sexual activity, sexed body, and value judgments for sexual morality, desirability and dominance in a sexual or potential sexual relations. And the list below have such words and phrases that is commonly used by mostly men (and some women) aged 20-30, and especially in conversation among educated middle class young people. These are situated in heterosexual social settings. See attachment 1 for additional listing of words and phrases.
A close look at the words and phases reveal that expressions of sex, sexuality and sexual desires are inherently masculine in nature, and violent in action. The lack of female desire, active participation or even gender respectability is difficult to find. Except for the phrase `Lace-fita`, which is all female-sexuality orientated, all other words are embedded in compulsory heterosexuality, and in case of deviance, it is expressed with either ridicule or violence. A further investigation of a second list (attachment 1) will show that in everyday sexual talk, female body and sexuality is objectified and a tendency or perpetrating the body with force and indignity characterises these expression, masculinity and femininity is established as active versus passive; women are seen sexual objects when they are outside a legal – monogamous relation; and masculinity is proved through virility. None of these are extra-ordinary or new, or different from other languages. Heteronormativity is dominant in all cultures, to variant degrees, and therefore, its linguistic expressions are more or similar to each other. In case of Bangladesh, which has a very high prevalence of violence against women, and gender based violence, which are closely associated with the notions of sex and gender- it is, therefore, important that one takes notice of language of sexuality and how gender and heteronormativity is constructed on everyday basis.
Lack of words for female sexuality and its expression of desires is significant, because in the following section, through the narratives of women, we will see that understanding of personal erotic desires, its meanings and assertions, especially in coming in terms with one`s identity- it is the lack of vocabulary, in individual`s own language and immediate surroundings- play important role. Women`s inaccessibility to information on sexualities, their gender-conditioning of sexual repression or suppression and urge to understand their own bodily desires can be challenged because of how they come to know about sexuality or most of the times, related to their ignorance` of the subject.
In the following section, women`s own narratives of sexual identity and the process through which they articulate their acknowledgement of non-heterosexual desires, are presented.
3.2 `Lace-Fita`- Women Loving Women: Sexuality and Identity formation among non-heterosexual women
It is not only limitation of vocabulary that brings difficulty in articulating sexuality, desires and identity for women in general, and non-heterosexual women in particular; but it also the limitation of spaces in which they can speak of their lives that can be instrumental in suppression. Spaces that does not other` non-normative sexualities, or where one does not `pass-off` as heterosexual, or where all tools of expressions of sexuality is not heternormative can be found rarely. Though women in my study, usually, took long time to agree to give their narratives, but once a relationship of mutual trust and respect was built (mainly because of my own heterosexuality and not being part of the `gay community` and the fear of being exposed and facing social retribution), an eagerness and willingness to tell their stories.
One of the purposes of the study is to adopt a narrative approach to the study of sexual identity among non-heterosexual women in urban middle class Bangladesh, and to explore how, in what ways identity is constructed in relation to cultural discourses and representations n Bengali society. Therefore, the following narratives of a group of lesbian women reflect on their lives, and in particular how their sexual choices and orientations are integrated or shaping their personal identities. I interviewed 10 non-heterosexual (lesbian and bi-sexual) women, age ranging from 20-60, all from urban middle class background, mostly initially contacted through a snow-ball process and interviewed through a time of 10 months, in Bangladesh. Though the original narratives are actual life-histories and are part of a broader PhD research project, for this paper, i will use selected parts of some narratives that are related to sexuality and identity.
3.2.1 Describing non-heterosexual desires: `Discover, Dilemma and Denials` of same-sex attraction
Women document in their narratives their journey of discovering their sexualities, their attraction for same sex- which often is encountered with a self-awareness of their desires but also their difference from others, especially against their own cultural dominant model of compulsory heterosexuality. Such encounters makes way to dilemmas and conflicts in women`s minds as they try to make sense of their own feelings, erotic desires and sexuality against the social construction of demonizing or at least stigmatising anything other than heterosexual identity. Sala and Benitiz (2009) in their study of lesbian women`s narratives of sexual identities in Spanish culture, explains how `… participants explain very clearly the difficulties they faced when first considered the possibility of being homosexual, an idea that is even difficult to formulate owing to a lack of vocabulary. …here we see the effects of hetersexism in silencing nonnormative identities, emotions and desires. There are no words to talk about it- and if we do not talk about it, it does not exist. ` (2009: 828-829)
Life story of Flora, for example, is a good example of how women through different phases of life come to discover her own sexual desires; face dilemmas and conflict and go through heterosexualization process, and finally, through exposure alternative identities and possibilities of non-normative life styles as well as with language tools and access to information – how a woman can come in terms with her sexual identity.
Is a 58 year old Self identified ‘lesbian’ (she prefers to be called `Shomo-premi, i.e. one who LOVES person of same sex). An outed lesbian Flora is an activist and the founder of support group for women in same-sex relations. Flora is deeply religious and follows Islam; has been successful in her professional career in development sector. Though she hailed from a small town in Bangladesh, and still has her roots there, but she lives in Dhaka, and can be termed as a Dhaka urban middle class woman. She lives an independent life, and has her own living space, a flat. Brought up in a rather conservative family and surrounding (where girls did not continue schooling after puberty), she made an exception. Her father dressed her as a little boy (in traditional male dress of ‘lungi’ and shirt) till she was 8/9 years old and when she was handed feminine dresses, she was upset and ‘wanted to turn into a boy’! Flora had reached puberty a little early, around the age of 11-12, having menstruation at that age made her feel disgusted about her body and she wished to turn into a boy as soon as possible (though she mentions that never ever in her life she has been uncomfortable with her body or gender ). She also says that sexual awareness and that of the body came rather late in life for her. So, when the marriage proposal came, and she agreed to marry was not because she had much idea about marriage, conjugal life etc, but she was just excited to know that she would or could reach her goal, i.e. passing School final exam.
At the age of 14 and half, Flora got married to a man, 10 years older, very different from her and who was not that educated. After wedding she moved in with her husband in Sylhet, another small town and got into a girls’ school – ‘everything looked wonderful- I loved everything about life, the world- girls of my age, books, trees, class, sky, tiffin period – everything! The world changed for me! But it was a different, the real world for me- poles apart from the household that I shared with my husband. I hated going back home, to have to have sex with him- painful, stiff, uncomfortable and life a torture. I loved staying in school!’
It is in school, that Flora had a love relation with a girl. A classmate of her’s ‘knocked’ at her, and she responded. Though there was nothing sexual between the two, it was a very close, affectionate relation between the two- exchanging secret love letters, sharing snacks in break time; holding hands and simply enjoying each other’s presence. It was only once that her ‘friend’ kissed her, which she did not dislike much, in fact liked it a lot, though there wasn’t much beyond that! (her husband had never kissed her). This relation continued for a year, but after a year her husband had to shift base to another district, and the two friends separated. Letters continued for a while, but after the school final exam, there was no reply from the other girl, probably because she was also married off by that time.
At the age of 17, Flora left her husband without much hesitation as she planned to continue with her college, which the husband was not very keen on; and she returned to her parents’ home amidst scandals and much social humiliation. After many attempts of freedom (including running away from home), she was sent to Dhaka, to her sister, to continue with her education. It was in Dhaka that flora would complete her education, till MA degree, and mostly staying at girls’ hostels. It is during her undergraduate days, she fell in love with a friend of her and they shared a ‘committed’ relationship- so much so that they planned to live together after their graduation, and she started collection household stuff together for their future. Flora’s girlfriend proved to be a bi-sexual and she st