The “Bangladesh Paradox”: Reflecting on History to Navigate Research on Queer Bangladeshi Women

While gender and sexuality is an obvious pairing in an intersectional approach, being mindful of site-specific paradoxes can bring forward more nuanced factors such as family, kinship, and negotiating one’s aspirations with parental expectations…”

Anika Shah
University of Technology Sydney



Anika Shah is a PhD Candidate at the University of Technology Sydney. She is currently researching the lived experiences of queer Bangladeshi women, with a focus on the discourse of the closet and coming out. Her interest lies in the areas of gender and sexuality, popular culture, literature, and the gothic/horror subgenre.



In the global imagination, Bangladesh has often been dubbed a paradox; a distinct geopolitical entity with contested identity politics, a development success story within a volatile political environment, and a narrative of secular exceptionalism with underlying religious extremism (Guhathakurta and Schendel 2013; Ali 2016; Siddiqi 2019). This paper asks if similar inconsistencies, especially concerning class and religion, affect women’s experiences, and especially queer women’s experiences in Bangladesh. Scholars such as Shuchi Karim (2012; 2021) have pointed out the complexities of Bangladeshi women asserting their sexual agency in a predominantly heteropatriarchal context, where simultaneously exist denial and tolerance, policing and subversion, often within the same norms. At the same time, Shawna Tang (2017) articulates the necessity of reflecting on history to understand site-specific queer cultures in the backdrop of dominant global queer discourses, particularly when women’s sexual subjectivities appear to be a part of global processes but cannot be easily assimilated into them. This paper, emerging out of a broader question of how queerness is understood in Bangladesh through the paradigms of ‘coming out of the closet’, explores these interrelated arguments, and argues for the necessity of considering wider contexts that situate an investigation of queer women’s sexualities.



Bangladesh; queer; women; gender; sexuality


If me and my partner start kissing in the middle of the street, people will be like, they’re such good friends. They’ll just say we’re really good friends, nothing more than that (laughs). Female sexuality itself is not recognised. People are weirded out by the fact that women can want to have sex without wanting to have a baby. Like, really? They want to have sex? And then two women having sex with each other, what kind of a concept is that? (laughs) That’s why no one bothers women who are with other women. I mean, women have a lot of other problems to deal with. Just because they are women.

– Taposhi

I reached Taposhi (pseudonym) through long-winding serendipitous avenues midway through my research project. Inspired by a curiosity about disclosures, I was exploring the concept of ‘coming out of the closet’ in the context of Bangladesh. My aim was to investigate what coming out of the closet meant – if it meant anything at all – for queer Bangladeshi women. I wanted to know how queer Bangladeshi women perceived their own identities in the midst of broader discourses on queer visibility, and what were the nuances that influenced this perception. In order to understand where the discourse of ‘coming out’ stands in Bangladesh – how it is recognised and how it is represented – I was collecting stories through semi-structured interviews and engaging with popular culture. Taposhi, a thirty-two year old queer woman based in Dhaka, Bangladesh and the executive director of a Bangladeshi queer organisation named Shweekriti (pseudonym), was one of my eight participants. While Taposhi and I both laughed at her comment on the ironic reality of her lived experience, neither of us could ignore the contradictory combination of knowledge and ignorance in it.

While this paper is a fragment of a more expansive research project, this particular portion of it stems from my engagement with Shawna Tang’s Postcolonial Lesbian Identities in Singapore (2017), where she argues for a re-queering of lesbian women in postcolonial Singapore ‘in such a way that local lesbian identities can be poised to interrogate, rather than merely imitate, the putative global gay’ (14). After my primary literature review, especially focusing on queer popular culture in South Asia, I realised that discussions about Bangladesh were scarce. Even though scholarship on South Asia asserted the inclusion of Bangladesh by default, there appeared to be relative inattention to it. Most of the scholarship I found was centred on India; Bangladesh came as an afterthought.A similar tendency was observed by Tang, who noticed that Singapore was missing as a case study in queer studies focused on Asia as opposed to, for instance, Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan. Tang made two interrelated points in this context. Firstly, queer identities around the world have been ‘overwhelmingly queered in Anglo-American ways’, be it in popular culture or in dominant theories (6). And secondly, even when projects wish to endorse a counter to this, there is often an impulse to self-Orientalise, operating within a limited set of binaries and looking for essential differences. In Tang’s example, a practice such as this ends up producing a homogenous account of Asia, where Singapore appears to be assimilated as an extension of the other countries mentioned above. This is why, Tang argues, Singapore has been missing from the queer Asia critique, and proposes to bring forth ‘an analysis that troubles the Asia-West binary’ (10). While I cannot claim that the absence of Singapore in interrogations of sexualities in Asia and the absence of Bangladesh in that of South Asia stem from the same cause, Tang’s argument influenced me to conduct site-specific research vis-à-vis Bangladesh. I am not a historian, however, I am intrigued by Tang’s advocacy for historicising site-specific queer cultures in the backdrop of dominant global queer discourses, particularly when women’s sexual subjectivities appear to be a part of global processes but cannot, and perhaps should not, be easily assimilated into them. In this paper, I will, firstly, consider scholarship on certain cultural complexities – especially involving gender, class, and religion – to situate my research. My attempt here is to position my investigation of queer women’s sexualities within the broader context of the locale of Bangladesh, which, as I will discuss, comprises of numerous inconsistencies and ambiguities. I will then discuss how these tensions affect intersections of gender and sexuality, concentrating on my conversations with two of my interview participants. 

The word “paradox” has often been associated with Bangladesh, especially in the context of the country’s economic progress despite its political instability, with phrases such as the ‘Bangladesh Paradox’, ‘Bangladesh Conundrum’, and ‘Development Puzzle’ (Riaz 2016, 3). There is also a narrative of exceptionalism that plays out in the context of Bangladesh: a country that is a development success story, which is also a predominantly ‘Muslim “but” secular’ country, and yet is simultaneously menaced by underlying radical Islam (Siddiqi 2019, para. 2, author’s quotations, italics added). According to Dina M. Siddiqi, the uncertainty within which the queer population exists in Bangladesh is not merely a symptom of rising intolerance or fundamentalism, and rather should be situated within a broader framework that accounts for an authoritarian state, the country’s historically ambivalent relation to religion, and the nation’s structurally marginal geopolitical location. I want to emphasise that an awareness of these contestations can aid in articulating the necessity of observing queer identities – or any identities – against the backdrop of interconnected and contradictory realities, as opposed to tying it to a singular cause. I also wish to argue that these contestations, especially concerning class and religion, affect the lived experiences of women in general, and queer women in particular. An intersectional approach may assist in investigating this. 

Before introducing anecdotes from two of my participants, I would like to briefly discuss two particular studies by Shelley Feldman (2001) and Shuchi Karim (2021) in exemplifying how an intersectional approach can often bring forth unexpected instances of paradoxical realities in women’s identities and relationships in Bangladesh. Feldman’s study operates within the intersections of gender, religion, and class. In 1984, Feldman visited Bangladesh to begin research on Bangladeshi garment workers. She noticed that since her previous visit, within the span of eighteen months, women’s visibility and mobility on the streets of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, was far more conspicuous than before. She wondered what had changed (1097). There were certain obvious factors: the growing number of garment factories, for instance, and the international recognition of Dhaka as an export-processing enclave. Feldman noted, however, that ironically women’s participation in the export sector coincided with the rise of the fundamentalist religious party Jamaat-i-Islami, who, since the early 1980s, had played a substantial role in the Islamisation of politics, and were responsible for the rise in issuing fatwas (formal ruling on a point of Islamic law) against women participating in nongovernment organisations (NGOs), export sectors, and more. Feldman attempted to trace how the concept of patriarchy was different in each case regarding households, religious veiling, and public-private binarism. She found that there are contradictory ways in which patriarchal gender relations are realised, and these women often use and subvert the notions of kinship and religion to their advantage. For instance, they use bhai (older brother) or chacha (uncle) to refer to male co-workers, and apa or didi (elder sister) to refer to senior female workers which desexualises workplace relations and redefines appropriate persons to interact with. Recasting strangers as kin thus allows them to contest both Islamic discourses that constrain women and discourses about modern, ‘immodest’ women (1106, quotations added) who work in garment factories. Feldman observed a similar tactic regarding purdah or veiling. The choice to wear a veil appears to often be a strategic choice to redefine public space, have access to employment, negotiate new definitions of family honour, and even transform it as a source of power and control over men. 

Karim, on the other hand, brings forth findings from an intersection of gender, sexuality, and class. In one of her more recent works, where Karim studies heteronormativity in urban Bangladesh through the ‘lived sexualities’ (11, author’s quotations) of single middle-class women, she explores the ways in which her participants assert agency over their bodies and diverse desires while negotiating and resisting normative restrictions. Karim maintains that single women are capable of creating pockets of subversion and resistance using the same norms that subjugate them. The struggle for acceptance as ‘respectable yet free sexual beings’, is different, she notices, for single heterosexual women compared to single homosexual and bisexual women (7). Unlike non-heterosexual women of a marriageable age, heterosexual women face social taboos and restrictions in asserting their sexuality because of their desire to erotically engage with members of the opposite sex. Evidently, it becomes easier for them to have erotic experiences with other women, in both private and public spaces, because homosociality remains a socially acceptable form of gender intimacy. 

Karim’s findings resonate with Taposhi’s comment in the very beginning of the paper. The tensions are apparent in her statement regarding the non-recognition of female sexuality. On the one hand, there is an erasure of queer women’s desires, on the other there is an opportunity created by the same oblivion that maintains the former. It is by keeping in mind such discrepancies between expectations and realities that I am inclined to explore the notion of disclosures. I now consider two accounts of disclosures, and their aftermaths, shared by my participants., explored alongside scholarship from Brian A. Horton (2017) and Carlos Ulises Decena (2008).

Taposhi, whom I have already introduced, had quite a deliberate opinion about coming out. She thought that coming out had been glorified too much and should not be done so in the context of Bangladesh. She said:

I mean, what is coming out? You come out with a certain expectation, right? You see TikTok videos of people coming out and getting accepted, and when you don’t, it creates a very big impact on your mind… I tried to come out to my family, really stupidly too, back when I was sixteen. They took me to a doctor. They didn’t know what to do. I felt really bad then, I got angry. But now I understand. I mean, what else could they have done? They had nothing, no materials to guide them. If your child comes out to you, what would you do? They didn’t know what to do, so they took me to the doctor, and the doctor gave me lots of medicines. For three months I was basically sleeping. Then I told them that I had become straight, and the medicines stopped. I was a very dedicated student, I needed to study. If I try to come out now, I know the situation would be better, and no one would bother me. Because I contribute a lot, economically. You don’t want to acknowledge that – the economic balance within the family, the balance of power. But it is there. Until you know that you are not dependent, not economically dependent on your family, you shouldn’t come out.

I read this narrative alongside the work of Horton (2017). Horton refers to the concept of ‘agonistic intimacy’, and uses it in the context of queer kinships, suggesting that home is an ambivalent space. The nature of intimacy is ambivalent and unpredictable, where violence and care often intermingle. He contends that silence, in a space such as this, can be strategic. It can be a mode of negotiating desires for respectability and queerness. It can also be an act of care for the family’s social reputation, and a manipulation of identity to honour both sexual desires and kinship desires. Taposhi pointing out the balance of power between members of the family indicates her awareness of the juxtaposition of care and violence within the family. And one’s position within that volatile dynamic can change based on factors such as economic independence, among other things, as Taposhi indicates. 

Different outcomes can certainly occur too. Another one of my participants, Nusrat (pseudonym), had a different experience. According to her own words, she got ‘exposed’ at home. Nusrat, twenty-nine years old and currently living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, spoke to me of her only relationship with a woman who turned out to be abusive. Nusrat met Trisha (pseudonym) by the end of her second year of undergraduate studies. They were both studying in a residential public university and were living in the same dormitory there. By the end of the second-year finals, she noticed some red flags and was thinking of ending things. Closer to the end of her undergraduate studies, she went back home during the Eid holidays to stay with her parents. The day before she was supposed to leave home, a fight ensued between her and Trisha over the telephone. The phone call lasted for two or three hours. Eventually, her mother knocked on the door and asked her to hang up the phone because she wanted to talk to her. Nusrat hung up the phone, switched it off, and opened the door to her mother: 

My mother spoke to me for a long time. She asked me if I was okay, if there was something wrong with me, if everything was alright on campus. She assumed that it had to do with a guy… My mother suddenly asked if I had a relationship with Trisha. When she was asking me what was wrong with me, it was almost like emotional blackmail. She was like, you’re my youngest daughter, you’re such a beloved daughter of mine, tell me what’s wrong with you. After she guessed that it was about Trisha, I didn’t tell her anything more, and she figured it out on her own. She was quiet for quite a while, didn’t say anything. She did cry, but to my brother. He told me later about it, that she had called and cried. My brother came too, and then they called Trisha’s home. After that things gradually cooled down… As far as coming out goes, that’s all there was to it. Nothing happened at home after that.

The reaction of Nusrat’s family and kin showed a sense of tacit understanding, similar to what Decena (2008) discusses as ‘tacit subjects’ – the subject that is not spoken but can be understood. Decena suggests that there lies a place that is both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the closet (340). There remains an understanding between immediate and extended family members in not talking about sexuality – especially homosexuality – and treating it as a private matter, while also partaking in a public secret. And what is tacit, is neither secret nor silent. Nusrat’s mother understood her sexuality based on a non-utterance, and her mother’s reaction, according to Nusrat, was a non-reaction. Yet there was a shared understanding, a necessary ambiguity, which, according to Decena, is important in sustaining both the individual and the collective.

While the word ‘paradox’ might be a poeticised simplification, it does appear that there are numerous inconsistencies and ambiguities in the spatial and cultural framework of Bangladesh, especially concerning class and religion. I wish to reiterate that permutations and combinations of these affect the lived experiences of women in general and queer women in particular, and an awareness of these wider contexts can help situate an investigation of queer women’s sexualities. According to Patricia Hill Collins (2019), there is a need for relational thinking within intersectionality, and it can aid in combining components that are similar yet distinctive. They can bring forth new questions and perspectives, theorise the connection between different discourses, and reference an in-between space within them. While gender and sexuality are an obvious pairing in an intersectional approach, being mindful of site-specific paradoxes can bring forward more nuanced factors such as family, kinship, and negotiating one’s aspirations with parental expectations, which can further enhance an investigation of queer disclosures, and more.


Bose, Brinda. 2014. “Notes on Queer Politics in South Asia and Its Diaspora”. In The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature, edited by E. L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen, 498-511. Cambridge University Press. 

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2019. Intersectionality as Critical Theory. Duke University Press. 

Decena, Carlos Ulises. 2008. ‘Tacit Subjects’. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 14 (2-3): 339-359.

Feldman, Shelley. 2001 “Exploring Theories of Patriarchy: A Perspective from Contemporary Bangladesh”. Signs, 26 (4): 1097-1127.

Guhathakurta, Meghna and Willen van Schendel. 2013, The Bangladesh Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Duke University Press.

Horton, Brian A. 2018. “What’s so ‘queer’ about coming out? Silent queers and theorizing kinship agonistically in Mumbai”. Sexualities, 21 (7): 1059-1074.

Karim, Shuchi. 2021. “Pleasure, Prohibition and Pretence: Single Middle Class Women Negotiating Heteronormativity in Bangladesh”. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 1-14. 


Khubchandani, Kareem. 2016. “LGBT Activism in South Asia”, in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies edited by Nancy A. Naples. John Wiley & Sons Ltd. <>

Riaz, Ali. 2016. Bangladesh: A Political History since Independence. London and New York: I. B. Tauris.

Sanyal, Srija and Abhik Maity. 2017. “A Discordant Harmony: A Critical Evaluation of the Theory from an Indian Perspective”. The Vedic Path: Quarterly Journal of Vedic, Indological & Scientific Research, 92: 60-95. 

Siddiqi, Dina M. 2019. “Exceptional Sexuality in a Time of Terror: “Muslim” Subjects and Dissenting/Unmournable Bodies”. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, 20. 


Tang, Shawna. 2017. Postcolonial Lesbian Identities in Singapore. New York: Routledge.