Gay Rights Group Launches First Lesbian Comic in Bangladesh

In a country where four atheist bloggers have been hacked to death this year for sharing their secular views, and where homosexuality is still considered a crime with a maximum punishment of life imprisonment, it is a brave move to publish a comic strip featuring a young lesbian. But that's exactly what one gay rights group has done this week.

Boys of Bangladesh, the country's largest gay rights organisation, launched their new comic strip this week in which the central character—who is called "Dhee," the Bengali word for wisdom—discovers she is attracted to girls and must come to terms with her sexuality. As the story progresses Dhee turns to the reader for advice on her choices, asking whether she should marry a man to please her family, commit suicide, or follow what she truly wants.

"When we thought of preparing unique, attractive and effective advocacy material to talk about gender and sexuality, creating a comic character deemed to be the best solution," Hossain says. "We wanted a Bangladeshi, middle class girl who is just like anyone else but at the same also stands out. We envisioned Dhee to be an empowered, knowledgeable and easily relatable character."

Boys of Bangladesh's aim is to create a strong LGBT community with the hopes that Bangladesh will "start talking about real LGBT issues and eventually take a bold positive step towards building a better society free of any kind of stigma and discrimination," according to a statement on their website.

Bangladesh is officially a secular country, but of its 160 million population, 90% are Muslim and it is considered to be a largely conservative country. LGBT people continue to face discrimination in with some gay people forced to lead double lives as they fear what the reaction would be to them coming out. In a survey carried out in December 2014, 50 percent of the LGB participants said they felt their sexuality conflicted with their religious identity and said they feared their sexuality would be exposed and almost 26% of those surveyed said they had faced discrimination. A U.N. report published in June this year revealed that there were stories of LGBT being mistreated while in police custody in Bangladesh, including that of a woman who was reportedly arrested for being a lesbian and then raped while she was in custody. "There is no public discourse on sexuality and homosexuality is considered a grave sin. It is rare for LGBT persons to be out," Shakhawat Hossain, the comic's project manager tells Newsweek.

There have been some improvements in recent years. January 2014 saw the launch of Bangladesh's first LGBT magazine, Roopbaan, and in 2013 the government officially recognized hijras—the South Asian term for biological men who identify as female—as a separate gender. However, as Hossain points out there is still some way to go. "There are pockets of acceptance and tolerance but the mass of people are still extremely homophobic," he says, pointing out that the events of this year have also had an impact. "The systematic killing of bloggers has been a real worry. It does scare us."

The group were at pains not to glamorize Dhee and to avoid using gender stereotypes. "Dhee is not fair, has curly hair and wears glasses. She does not really fit into the typical definition of beauty." Hossain also highlights the fact that the comic is focused on a gay woman rather than a male character. "It is very much more difficult for lesbians than gay men given the patriarchal society [in Bangladesh]," he says. "They are doubly marginalized. And that is why we wanted the comic character to be a girl, not a boy."

The comic will be handed out at gay events and seminars, and will be used so spread information about sexuality and gender across the country in a series of campaigns. The group will run workshops in which pre-selected participants from various sectors of society will be invited to take part, and the comic, along with other materials, will be used to spread knowledge and spark conversations about gender and sexuality.

The comic was officially launched at the British Council in Dhaka, at an event attended by hundreds of people including Bangladeshi activists. However, although the event was open to all, a close eye was kept on those arriving to ensure that any hardline, conservative protesters did not gain access.