This article is written by Shongshoptok as part of EngageMedia’s Youth Advocacy and Communications for Internet Freedom project, which aims to expand awareness and engagement with digital rights issues among youth advocates in the Asia-Pacific.
Shongshoptok, established in 2018, stands as a dynamic volunteer-driven platform dedicated to mobilizing and empowering LGBTQI+ individuals across Bangladesh. It’s mission revolves around building a vibrant community that transcends boundaries, encompassing queer individuals, rights activists, and organizers. Committed to decentralizing the queer movement, it creates opportunities at the grassroots level, empower indigenous queers, raise civic and political awareness, provide legal assistance, champion human and digital rights, offer mental health care, and foster skill and knowledge enhancement within the queer community.
December 10, 2023, marks the Platinum Jubilee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet Bangladesh’s LGBTQI+ population grapples with the violation of their basic human rights like Internet Freedom. The enactment of the Cyber Security Act 2023 (CSA) stands out as one of the many draconian laws passed in recent years, especially in anticipation of Bangladesh’s 12th parliamentary elections to be held on January 7, 2024. This law forces the country’s LGBTQI+ movement and population into the shadows of self-censorship, akin to navigating through darkness. On November 13th, the United Nations organized the 4th Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on the human rights situation in Bangladesh. In the lead-up to this event, organizations advocating for LGBTQI+ rights in Bangladesh since 2022 collaborated on a shadow report for the UPR on behalf of civil society. However, a paradox emerges after the report is prepared: under which organization should it be submitted? The legal complexities in Bangladesh and the threat to LGBTQI+ organizations make revealing their existence perilous. Fearing Section 25(b) of the CSA, we, with a general sense of apprehension, submit the shadow report using the name of a defunct organization.
In the shadows of self-censorship
I am authoring this article using an organizational pseudonym rather than my actual name. Anonymity is a common practice due to the persistent fear of the CSA. This law instills fear to the extent that domestic LGBTQI+ organizations are reluctant to create their websites. Even if they manage to do so, the information disclosed is minimal, considering the government’s authority to shut down any website at any time using Section 8 of the CSA. Presently, only two LGBTQI+ organizations in Bangladesh have successfully established specialized websites accessible to trusted individuals through user-ID passwords, revealing the challenges imposed by CSA that go beyond crimes and punishments to compel daily self-censorship within the LGBTQI+ community.
Over the past 12 years of community-based organizing experience, I found that there exists no alternative to the internet for advancing the queer community movement within the current reality of Bangladesh. The internet is regarded globally as a fundamental human right, acknowledged through a resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council. However, our daily activities face constraints not only due to draconian laws such as the CSA; this legislation directly violates our digital human rights. Bangladesh routinely imposes internet censorship, conflicting with the freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 39(2) of the Bangladesh Constitution. Additionally, incidents like nationwide internet shutdowns occur regularly at the behest of the government.
Our activities are not free from constraints on social media either. As the government of Bangladesh is sliding into autocracy and is aiming to return to power through non-transparent electoral processes, it has introduced the Integrated Lawful Interception System (ILIES). This technology enables law enforcement agencies to track any citizen’s precise location through the mobile network, contradicting Article 43(b) of the Constitution. Furthermore, CSA Section 42 grants law enforcement agencies the power to search and seize a person’s hardware, social media accounts, and documents, both online and offline, without a warrant, based on mere suspicion. This section, too, conflicts with Article 43(b) of the Constitution. The presence of such acts and systems forces organizations and individuals advocating for LGBTQI+ rights in Bangladesh to operate under the constant shadow of fear, subjecting them to arrest, harassment, and even risking their lives.
The Ominous Impact of Cyber Security Act on LGBTQI+ Community in Bangladesh
In 2021, the story of a Hijra freedom fighter was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence war. However, stating that this country belongs not only to cisgender men and women but also to the LGBTQI+ community and acknowledging that the liberation war involved the efforts of LGBTQI+ individuals could lead to punishable offences under Section 21 of the CSA.
Section 25 of the CSA severely restricts the entire advocacy and movement for LGBTQ+ rights. This provision becomes particularly problematic when we attempt to send or publish reports submitted by LGBTQI+ organizations highlighting injustices faced by the LGBTQI+ community in Bangladesh on a national or international level. Even if an LGBTQI+ individual shares online content about any injustice or torture they have experienced, legal action can be taken against them, even by the state. This clause infringes upon our constitutional right to protest against injustices as citizens of the state. The latest census in Bangladesh, conducted in 2022, categorized Hijras along with men and women under gender. According to the government’s post-census data, the number of Hijras in Bangladesh is reported to be only 12,629 individuals, a figure vehemently rejected by the Hijra community, which estimates their number to be well over one and a half million. Despite our rejection, this data is officially accepted by the government. If an LGBTQI+ person questions the census process, they can easily face prosecution and punishment under Section 25 if the government desires it. This reality underscores the unsettling fact that our human rights hinge on the goodwill of the government due to this law.
In October 2023, Shongshoptok released a statement condemning UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s disrespectful remarks on transgender issues. However, the government reserves the right to take legal action against the whistleblower under Section 27 of the Act, claiming that the publication of this statement caused damage to Bangladesh’s relations with the United Kingdom. This section contains ambiguous terms, such as “endangering the integrity, security, and sovereignty of the State” and “instilling fear among the people or a certain number of sections,” lacking well-defined definitions. If LGBTQI+ organizations and individuals engage in online campaigns advocating for their rights, they risk being identified as involved in terrorist activities under this section, potentially leading to legal repercussions.
It is evident that homosexuality or gender diversity contradicts the religious sentiments of the majority in Bangladesh. In this context, when Shongshoptok advocates for the rights of LGBTQI+ individuals, it inherently opposes the religious sentiments of Abrahamic religious groups, making LGBTQI+ people in Bangladesh vulnerable to threats from intolerant factions. The brutal murders of two LGBTQI+ rights activists in 2016 serve as a stark reminder of the dangers posed by bigoted groups. State-encouraged extremist militancy, facilitated by a de facto blasphemy law like Section 28 of the CSA, contradicts the constitutional principle of secularism outlined in Article 8. This law not only negates the standing of a significant population but also legislates against it. Section 28 has silenced LGBTQI+ voices, while Section 29 of the Act hinders the LGBTQI+ community from expressing their opinions online. Moreover, it prevents them from taking a strong stance against hate crimes, propaganda, and misinformation imposed on the community by extremists. Instances of open interference by the state and influential individuals in the exercise of free speech, in gross violation of Article 39 of the Constitution, have already been witnessed.
Cross-border activism and diaspora support play pivotal roles for any oppressed nation or community. Section 4 of the CSA poses a significant threat to Bangladeshi LGBTQI+ individuals residing abroad. Due to these restrictive laws, our cross-border activism and diaspora support have come to a halt.
Cyber Security Act’s Extra Toll on Hijra, Adivasi, and Marginalized LGBTQI+ Communities in Bangladesh
The LGBTQI+ community in Bangladesh, faced with social and legal risks, often resorts to using fake IDs to communicate online. Grassroots LGBTQI+ individuals who may not be well-versed in the law, including Hijra and Adivasi LGBTQI+ people, frequently manage social media accounts with images of iconic characters. Hijra, transmen, and transwomen express their identities by dressing according to their gender, challenging societal norms, and embodying their desired identities, a practice often referred to as cross-dressing in our cis-normative society. All three forms of self-expression are vital for the LGBTQI+ community but are criminalized by CSA Section 24. This section, abolished in 1949, echoes the colonial-era Section 26 of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871.
The majority of the Hijra community in Bangladesh lacks primary education, while Adivasi LGBTQI+ individuals, both in the hills and plains, struggle to meet their basic needs. These Adivasi LGBTQI+ communities face deprivation of essential services, including education, mirroring the plight of lower-class LGBTQI+ individuals. Despite their use of social media, their lack of digital literacy leaves them vulnerable. In this reality, criminals can exploit digital devices for illicit activities under Sections 17 to 37 of the CSA, including hacking and unauthorized use of devices. If someone else orchestrates a crime using the device of these LGBTQI+ individuals, the innocent may face punishment under Section 33 of the CSA. They are left with the arduous task of navigating the legal process before their innocence is proven, and the challenges posed by Bangladesh’s legal framework and judicial process are evident.
Since the passage of the Digital Security Act in 2018, LGBTQI+ rights organizations in Bangladesh have consistently demanded the repeal of laws like the Cyber Security Act that enable undemocratic practices and human rights abuses. We call on national and international human rights organizations to expose the torture faced by the LGBTQI+ community, urging the government to cease such actions.
Strict laws and legal restrictions in Bangladesh prevent organizations like Shongshoptok, working for LGBTQI+ rights from obtaining official registration, hindering our advocacy efforts. I appeal to the international community to support the LGBTQI+ rights movement in Bangladesh, allowing us to operate without government registration barriers. Despite facing challenges from the government, laws, and extremist groups, we maintain the dream that this storm will pass and a rainbow will emerge in the open sky. Shongshoptok urges everyone to champion this dream.