From Torn Pages to Open Minds: Bangladesh’s Battle for Gender Inclusivity
In a global landscape slowly embracing diverse gender identities, Bangladesh grapples with persistent negative attitudes. Despite legal recognition of transgenders as the third gender, societal acceptance lags behind. Recent incidents, such as transgender rights activist Ho Chi Minh Islam stepping down from a panel discussion and the controversy surrounding BRAC University faculty Asif Mahtab’s critique of a Class VII textbook, highlight ongoing challenges. As Mahtab tore pages from ‘Sharif to Sharifa,’ the incident becomes a poignant symbol of the clash between education, societal norms, and the quest for acceptance in Bangladesh.
Asif Mahtab was fired subsequently from his part-time teaching position at Utsi BRAC University, amidst allegations of discriminatory behaviour. Following this incident, student protests were sparked by a heated dispute in the heart of Bangladesh over the inclusion of a lesson about third-gender individuals in a Class VII textbook.
The saga unfolded during a seminar at the Kakrail Institute of Diploma Engineers, where Asif tore pages from a seventh-grade textbook containing the story ‘Sharif to Sharifa.’ This act of dissent resulted in the termination of his teaching position, sparking outrage among students who have now barricaded the university gates in protest.
The inclusion of “The Story of Sharifa” in the history and social science book of Class VII has been a focal point of contention. Parents initially raised concerns about the lesson, and now, students and netizens have joined the discourse after Asif Mahtab’s dismissal.
Asif’s critique centered on the potential impact of such stories on students, asserting that they were being “brainwashed and misguided.” He tore the pages in a public demonstration, urging participants to follow suit as a form of protest.
The response from the university has been swift, with a statement emphasising that Asif Mahtab is not currently under any contract. BRAC University reiterated its commitment to freedom of expression for both faculty and students, promoting a collaborative and inclusive academic environment.
The controversy deepened as students, under the banner of the BRAC University Students’ Community, initiated a sit-in and human chain protest at the university’s main gate. Their two-point demands include a clear explanation for Asif Mahtab’s termination and a statement from the university authorities on transgender issues. The students threatened to withhold semester fees and boycott classes if their demands were not addressed promptly.
One student participating in the protest expressed concerns about discrimination, labeling Asif Mahtab as a victim and accusing the university of unprofessionalism in handling the situation.
However, another student’s perspective highlighted a stark contrast. They asserted, “There is no place for LGBTQ or transgender people in Bangladesh. Transgender is illegal in all religions.” This viewpoint underscores the deep-seated societal divisions and legal challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in Bangladesh.
The story of Sharifa, intended to promote understanding and inclusivity, has become a battleground for conflicting ideologies. Some argue that the lesson is fostering acceptance and tolerance, while others claim it promotes homosexuality and transsexuality.
The controversy surrounding the textbook lesson has broader implications for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in Bangladesh. Asif Mahtab’s dismissal and the ensuing protests underscore the challenges faced by advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and the need for open dialogue on issues related to gender identity and expression.
The inclusion of the lesson in the curriculum reflects an effort to educate students about diversity, aiming to prevent hatred and discrimination against marginalised communities. Abul Momen, in charge of writing and editing the Class VII textbook, emphasised the importance of including all communities to instill respect for differences.
However, the resistance to such inclusion reveals the societal struggle to break free from traditional norms and prejudices. Professor Tarique Ahsan emphasised that the story was included to encourage positive thinking in society, challenging old mentalities that perpetuate discrimination against the third gender.
Despite constitutional recognition of the third gender in Bangladesh, negative attitudes persist, leading to the marginalisation and deprivation of rights for this community. The debate over Sharifa’s story underscores the urgency for societal change and acceptance, particularly in the realm of SRHR.
Education Minister Mohibul Hassan Chowdhoury Nowfel clarified that the term used in the textbook was “third gender,” not “transgender,” and reiterated the legal recognition and equal rights of the Hijra community. The minister dismissed criticisms as “protests for the sake of protests.”
The unfolding debate over Sharifa’s story in Bangladesh encapsulates the broader struggle for inclusivity, acceptance, and understanding of diverse identities. As the controversy rages on, it serves as a call to action for a more open conversation on SRHR issues and a reexamination of societal attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community.