Heterosexual Profession, Lesbian Practices: How Sex Workers’ Sexuality Right Positions Through Intersection of Sexuality, Gender, and Class Within the Hierarchy of LGBT Activism in Bangladesh

  • Shuchi Karim


The politics of gender, class, and sexuality has put women’s sexual diversity issues at the bottom of LGBT activism in Bangladesh. Focusing on women’s same-sex desires, this chapter specifically looks at a group of female sex workers who practice heterosexuality as labour and homosexuality as personal sexual desire. Choosing ‘lesbian’ as a strategic label to make space within LGBT discourse and activism, this group of women challenges the politics of sexual identity, labelling, and representation. These women’s ‘personal is/and political’ practices mark the emergence of ‘new sexualities’ in Bangladesh, and their almost invisible presence in an otherwise educated middle-class fabric of sexuality rights activism questions our middle-class framed understanding of heteronormativity, womanhood, sexualities, and rights discourses.


This chapter is part of a larger study titled ‘Living sexualities: Understanding Heteronormativity in Urban Middle Class Bangladesh’ (Karim 2012, 2014), on heteronormativity and its everyday politics, at both individual and collective levels in the context of Bangladesh during the period of 2007–2012. In doing so, it intended to understand through the perspectives of non-normative gender and sexuality practices that are lived outside the dominant heteronormative matrix in Bangladesh. Women’s sexuality issues always remained either on the periphery or at the bottom of a rather struggling and short-lived LGBT movement in the country. Even within women’s sexual identity politics, class has and continues to play an important role in deciding inclusion, representations, and visibility (Karim 2012, 2014).

The new social perspectives on sexuality, especially brought through feminist discourses over the past decades, show how gender and sexualities are more of embodied social constructions rather than only biological phenomenon. Women’s sexualities in particular are now understood as something being socially constructed and shaped around serving as well as sustaining men’s social and political dominance. Increasing researches on women’s sexualities reveal diversity existing in women’s choices and practices of sexualities and gender identities, proving that sexualities are historically emergent and meanings are always varying as well as changing (Seidman 2011; Menon 2007, John and Nair 1998). Women do not use sexual identities in simple linear or straightforward manners, but instead they can and do use sexual identities either to indicate a specific sexual desire, practice, or to take a political standpoint. Gender (identity, roles, and norms) is central in understanding sexuality as part of constructions and expressions of femininities and womanhood—and that is why it is crucial that we understand women’s sexuality in its plurality within the realms of various public/private spaces that they occupy, inhabit, and claim. In the context of South Asia (including Bangladesh), the emergence of ‘new womanhood’ through neo-liberal economies has brought forward a construction of a ‘new sexualities’. Though most studies of new womanhood are done in the Indian context, the general ideas can be applied broadly across the region. An urban localized, educated, professional middle class positioned image of womanhood—a new avatar that is visible in public sphere, blurring the pre-existing boundaries of private-public/home-outside binaries (Chatterjee 1993, 1989; Sarkar and Sarkar 2008; Mohsin 2010) though never to jeopardize the notions of tradition and feminine modesty. It has renegotiated the (female)self by evading a direct challenge or critique of power relations within the family. The newly found financial independence of this ‘new woman’ is not seen as powerful enough for her to entirely take over decision-making agency of the self though it is a leverage that can be used strategically (Lisa Lau 2010, 2006; Daya 2009; Dhawan 2010). This construction of ‘new Indian woman(hood)’ has been criticized as only an image that is created as an effective tool for the management of liberalization without disturbing the structural inequality of a capitalist society and in the process ignoring working-class women who have always been visible and present in public spaces (Dhawan 2010). The women’s body still preferred (and expected) to be presented in a pure moral format that is palatable to a hetero-patriarchal imagination of its culture. This imagination of hetero-patriarchy still remains central to this creation of new womanhood, as it is evident that the legacy of the colonial and traditional discourses surrounding women’s bodies (and therefore sexuality) has continued to affect the perception of women as they enter the public spheres. Nevertheless, critiques observe that despite all these, the new womanhood does reconcile and make use of contradictory cultural signals surrounding their bodies that arise out of rapidly changing gender and class structures, and there are ways in which they resist and embrace cultural demands on their bodies and sexualities (Talukdar and Linders 2013; Daya 2009).

Keeping intersection of gender-class-sexuality as the lens, and using a critical reading of ‘new womanhood’ in south Asia in particular for its exclusionary framing, this chapter approaches women’s same-sex desires, especially those of a group of female sex workers belonging to lower economic class in Bangladesh, who term themselves as ‘lesbians’ in LGBT spaces. It attempts to delve into a deeper understanding of how intersection of gender, class, and sexuality constructs sexual identities for a certain group of women, how new sexualities contribute to challenging the constructions of new womanhood (in the context of Bangladesh), and how these influence this specific group’s strategic positioning in relation to the sexual politics of a LGBT movement at a particular point in time. Taking the case studies of two women’s support groups, first one consisting of urban educated middleclass women who rejected ‘lesbian’ as an identity label for their sexuality and another one organized by commercial sex workers who owned the same label for strategic reasons—the paper looks into the respective groups’ processes of organizing members through their own politics of visibility and representation especially within the LGBT movement at a particular time and context. It shows how the latter group works these intersections of class and gender to its benefit and helps to bring about new thoughts regarding sexuality, space, and organization. It also shows how unlike the other class-privileged group/s, the sex worker ‘lesbian’ group did not struggle internally as a result of class and generational tensions as all its members found solidarity within their marginal existence in the society through commonalities in income struggles, professional backgrounds, and living arrangements.

This chapter in discussing gender, sexuality, and body politics through the informally organized activism of ‘lesbians’ participates in the broader discussions of this book around south Asian femininities through the challenges and reconfiguration of new womanhood through discourses around new sexualities across the lines of gender and class, in the context of Bangladesh.


Based on qualitative research methodology, using ethnography, life-history, and focus group discussions along with document analysis, data was collected between a research period of 2007–2012. Fifteen non-heterosexual (in/interested in same-sex relations) women (age range 18–60 years) participated through life-history method in this research, which forms the narrative base of this chapter. Two non-heterosexual women’s support groups (S1 and S2) were studied as case studies. These groups can be described and divided by class (based on founders’ and members’ class belongings). The first group ‘S1’ comprised of mostly middle-upper middle-class educated (from 12 years of education to master’s level) women though at one point they had membership from relatively less privileged economic backgrounds, and the second group S2, which is the main focus of this chapter, comprised of lower socio-economic class sex workers (from no schooling to less than 10 years of education). Since the groups were nonregistered and informal in their organizational style and visibility in the mainstream, case studies were conducted based on informal documents that were made available to me. All names used in this chapter are pseudonyms, and the two women’s group names are chosen not to be disclosed to ensure the groups’ and members’ security in mind (given the recent backlash and killing of LGBT activists in 2016). This chapter mainly focuses on S2 group and its members, and to have a better understanding of the class-gender-sexuality dynamics of women’s sexualities in general and in LGBT activism in Bangladesh during the aforementioned timeline, S1 group is discussed as a referral point and not as the primary focus.

The chapter is divided into two broad sections. In the first section, ‘Bon’ding Through Love and Sexuality, I explore ways in which individual awareness of sexuality takes place in a dominant homosocial culture and family environments and the ways in which agency is applied in negotiating sexual subjectivity through a creation of non-normative family households. It specifically focuses on female sex worker ‘lesbian’s households and how they make use of their class, profession, and sexual subculture to establish alternative households. The next section, ‘Shomopremi’ Versus ‘Lesbian’, looks into the politics of sexual identity and labelling and how female sex worker ‘lesbians’ strategically positioned their group for recognition and survival within the LGBT movement, which ultimately takes us to the discussion of a possible emergence of a new understanding of ‘new sexualities’ in the context of Bangladesh.

‘Bon’ding Through Love and Sexuality: Organization of Same-Sex Households of Female Sex Workers

Much of the existing work on women and sexuality in Bangladesh has been on sex workers which can range from victimhood to empowerment (Blanchet 1996; Tahmina and Moral 2004; Haq 2006; Karim 2004), which indicates the dominant practice of separating sexuality from ‘respectable’ mainstream women positioned and carefully placed within family structure, from the other or ‘fallen’ woman of sex trade. While in mainstream society the issue of women’s sexual pleasure remains a taboo and women remain unvocalized, sex workers present a different scenario where in many cases they can and do ensure that sexuality is presented as an embodied reality. For example, in brothel culture, attitude towards sex, sexuality, gender, and normativity might appear to be subversive (and they are to some extents); often these reflect the mainstream middle-class values and norms of gender and sexual inequality between men and women, between normative sexuality versus sinful dissident ones. Sex worker ‘lesbian’ informants of this research are to be understood from the subculture of brothels and its troubled relation of agency versus subversion trajectory of sexuality as some of these informants started their professional life in brothels. Because of their sexual orientations, practices, and identities as women in same-sex relations, but practising heterosexual sex work, the narratives of their life histories show a distinct dynamic of gender, sexualities, assertion of desires, and identity formation processes. Though most would acknowledge that since their childhood or adolescent days they felt a strong bond towards female friends and/or desire to be more like the ‘boys’ by taking part in farming activities, outdoor games, and dressing in male clothing—but none of these seemed alarmingly different in a way that screamed out ‘female homoerotic desires’. Most of the informants came from rural backgrounds and became commercial sex workers for socio-economic reasons (though a couple of informants originated from lower middle-class families from Dhaka). Shaheen and Chameli were considered as ‘senior’ (40 is considered old for this profession) in this group and would term themselves as ‘former sex workers’ and currently as ‘activists’, though they admitted that when necessary they fell back on their profession to meet financial needs especially during a crisis or emergency. Both women had long-term live-in partners. While Shaheen had already given her child up for adoption, Chameli’s constituted her own family with multiple adopted children. Ruma and Begum were a couple in their 20s. Tania was in her early 30s and also living with her then long-term partner. All these women are part of S2 support group that formed a close-knit community of women. The bond between these women originated not only from their profession and sexual orientations but also from the fact that each one of them spent months in state-sponsored/administered ‘vagabond’ or ‘correction centres’ (now known as ‘rehabilitation centres) where street children and sex workers are systematically sent and kept until they are ‘reformed’. In the all-women units, friendships are formed and partnerships are made. But it is an error to think that this ‘homosocial’ environment is the sole reason for forming homoerotic relations. When asked if homosociality was the reason behind their ‘lesbian’ identity, everyone answered in the negative (and noted that they always had access to men if they desired), and many had heterosexual encounters before and after their prison time. It was recognized by informants that long period of traumatic time spent together in the centres, where they were deprived of resources, compassion, and support—the women only had each other for comfort and the bonding established there had more to offer than mere sex. Many women were initiated into the actual act of homoerotic sex in the centres, but it was female camaraderie and love that lasted beyond the walls and time of the semi-prisons. Even though same-sex relations were commonplace in the confinement of the correction centres, it still had to be kept a secret form the authorities who were known to handle such ‘deviant acts’ and ‘abnormalities’ with strict discipline. Almost everyone narrated episodes of ‘punishment’ (ranging from isolation, verbal and physical abuse to flogging) after getting ‘caught’ or being exposed by others. The abuse, trauma, and humiliation of being imprisoned as a ‘vagabond’ or ‘fallen woman’ (in Bengali, Potita) and then punished for their sexual choices was no doubt a painful process which shaped these women’s resolution to stick to what was felt ‘right’. When freed, they set up homes with respective female partners or love interests and continued life as heterosexual sex workers for economic survival.

Motherhood is coveted by most of these women, and so they either already had biological and/or adopted children or planned to have children someday. These all-women households with children did not see the absence of a father figure as problematic, but at the same time, the sexual aspect of the relationship between mothers was kept a secret from children, and it was described as a normative practice of mainstream heterosexual family homes where this ‘aspect’ of parent’s conjugal life is never made visible to children.

‘Bon’ or sister is a generic term used within the sex worker community to indicate love and a possible erotic relationship between two women. The term ‘bon’ or sister in general encapsulates a strategic move to negotiate heteronormative structures within Bangladeshi society. At one level, sisterhood (‘bon’) is revered as a relation and the term can be applied to a wide range of social meanings. For example, ‘bon’ can refer to blood sisters, cousins, friends, co-wives, and so on, but in this context a very strict ‘non-sexual’ meaning is understood, thereby removing any connotation of incest. At another level, because most women in sex trade come from rural areas and work in the city, the use of the term ‘bon’ and being accompanied by one may help them establish a level of respectability when they visit parental or even spousal homes in villages. Most create a married woman’s image when they visited family homes in villages, legitimizing any children they might have had as a result of their work or personal choices. Sex worker women participants preferred to live in a close social cluster with other women from same profession as it provided an understanding of lifestyles and protected them from threats from mainstream society. Sisterhood is essential for networking and survival, especially in case of police harassment, arrest, or violence. Finally, most women desired motherhood, biological or adoptive, and raising children with another ‘bon’ or within a sisterhood which provided these women with a sense of security and care within the spaces of households for their children.

Because of their triple marginalized status in society (women, sex workers, and non-heterosexual)—these women appeared to be extremely resolute and strategic in how they pursued life, livelihood, and their personal desires. Within the private spheres, the heterosexual model of ‘husband and wife’ was followed, and in some cases, there was a tension between couples regarding the roles and responsibilities of the partner who assumed the male-husband-provider role, which meant that the wife-female-partner was expected to withdraw from sex work and stay at home and not share her body with others. Monogamy on the ‘wife’s part was expected. But such restrictive boundaries of the body often could not be maintained because of financial stress. There were no practices of cross-dressing or dressing like the ‘masculine-husband’ versus ‘feminine-wife’ in any of these couples, and the reason for that was made very clear—to be a commercial sex worker in a heterosexual world, one needed to maintain a desirable feminine appearance irrespective of whatever gendered role model was maintained within the boundaries of home. Also, none of the women mentioned any acute or inherent aspiration to look like a man, but rather some expressed the desire to be able to live in the world like a ‘man’, that is, with freedom, mobility, security, and privilege. This is just an indicative of the power the masculine gender has in a hetero-patriarchal structure which everyone understood and wanted. The concept of a ‘queer’ family does not even feature in the socio-sexual discourse in Bangladesh. It was/is therefore difficult for me to address this as a generically and loosely termed as ‘queer’ family.

The issue of respectability that is attached to middle-class culture and mainstream society’s value system—and values originally defined the middle class or Bengali Bhoddrolok and its Shongshar (family household) identity in south Asia—remains central to the norms, roles, and decisions women (especially in relation to the construction of Muslim Bhodromohila or gentlewoman) make regarding their sexualities, its expressions, and assertions (Azim 2010; Amin 1996; Akhtar and Bhowmik 1998; Begum and Haq 2001; Nahar 2005). Sex workers, irrespective of their sexual orientation or identities make a separate connection between sex as a bodily act and economic performance and sexuality as an expression of desire and emotions. Because there is a limited number of class-based sexual taboos or moralities attached to meanings of sex and sexuality, gender roles can be performed in a range of alternative ways. Urban sex workers in same-sex relations participating in this research, because of their need to move in and out of their own circles and mainstream society (and the lack of a definite physical boundary like that in brothels), learnt to associate sexuality and gender within the dominant middle-class normative parameters. Performances of femininity and marriage normativity are integral part of their socio-sexual identity. Desire of the agential body is associated with monogamous love relationships, whereas performance of the erotic body for economic purposes is separated from the personal life. Homoerotic desire is framed within the context of middle-class heterosexual marital relations (of provider husband-care giver housewife). The agency lies in their ways of internalizing same-sex desires as a natural part of life, unlike in brothels where it is seen problematic. Resistance occurs in the creative avenues which they use to navigate through the multiple layers of gender role performances in life and the plural worlds that they inhabit. The women are constantly strategizing performances, images, and routines in such a concerted way that it enables them to have separate pockets of life, each pocket with different but functional relations with families, friends, and lovers. These women lived on the periphery of the respectable middle class and inhabited a smaller circle of community space that had its own subculture of sex, gender and sexualities, and norms of acceptability that often differed from the mainstream middle class. And it is this inner space of the community that allowed women to have same-sex relations, household partnerships, and co-parenting arrangements for children. Same-sex marriage, cohabitation, and the right to have children are still components of a Western queer movement agenda that cannot be automatically translated into a Bangladeshi social-legal context, yet. Nonetheless, these narratives illustrate that the concept of ‘family’ must be re-examined with an understanding that sexuality in totality as a concept is a part of its discourse rather than just understanding it as a mere physical ‘sex act’ (Malone and Cleary 2002).

Creating a social network and securing a safe private environment is crucial to any marginalized or non-heteronormative group, especially of women. The small but crucial breathing spaces give women opportunities to find friendship, bonding, and camaraderie—but also provide all-important grounds for organizing themselves, debating the politics of sexual rights and identities, and extend support to fellow members of the community. Women create homes, support groups, or simple inner circles of friends to come together as a community—sometimes these communities have intergenerational characteristics, sometimes they are based on professional commonality or commonality of education, marital status, or simple family affiliation.

The (unintentional) comparison between non-heterosexual women from different class groups, as individuals as well as groups, who live their lives in a different economic position within the vast-varied spectrum of the Bengali middle class, is a fertile ground for addressing questions of class, sexuality, and differences. Female sex workers in same-sex relationships are grounded in the same hetero-patriarchal social context, but their take on gender hierarchies and heteronormativity has different interpretations and performativity because of their marginalized position as sex workers. Their status is at the bottom of any hetero-patriarchal hierarchy, but their household arrangements and relationships, and how these were maintained within the broader familial and social contexts, can be termed a queer habitus. As they formed a very close-knit community (of sex workers and ‘bon’/sisters), it is the reality of an extended family that helped them to maintain multiple social-sexual identities. The support derived from these networks helped them cope with demanding roles, which included keeping the appearance of a ’respectable’ working woman when visiting the village family home,1 acting as responsible mother, being involved in a sex workers’ network (providing safety in instances ranging from client violence to police cases), and maintaining an intimate relationship with another woman within home. Living with another woman is compliant with homosociality, but it is the immediate community of sex workers who prefer to live in clusters that provide a sense of space and freedom. This is in contrast to the mainstream ‘respectable’ middle-class existence that requires supervision and surveillance of women living outside matrimonial arrangements. If family support is crucial to many educated middle-class non-heterosexual women, for these sex workers it is their immediate community that forms a family and whose support provides a safety net that allows them to maintain a same-sex family household.

The private aspect of that space—often critiqued in feminist scholarship as the prime site of violence and discrimination of women—can actually function as a protective cover for non-normative sexual arrangements . Jackson (2011, p. 13) suggests that analysis of heterosexuality must address ‘two interrelated aspects of its social ordering: first the ways in which institutionalised, normative heterosexuality and its associated practices serve to marginalize those who live outside its boundaries; second the social ordering of relationships within heterosexuality’. The first aspect looks into non-normative lives from the ‘heterosexual’ assumptions, practices, and prejudices; while second aspect looks into how heterosexuality is classed and how the hetero-homosexual binary intersects with class in regulating intimate life. These two aspects are integral parts of this research in its close examination of heterosexual assumptions of Bangladeshi society and its intersection with gender and class. Narratives from non-normative lives depicted in this chapter show exactly how individuals integrate heterosexuality and heteronormativity to push the boundaries of norms in order to create spaces for multiple expressions of erotic desires. There is no linear way of negotiation even within the same gender groups living in different economic class. The variation in class identities and experiences within the same group or forum brings a complex but interesting dynamics as it organically and continually push each other’s boundaries of respective gendered normative performances especially in reformulating erotic performances in newly claimed places and spaces. The coexistence of conflicts (based on labels and respectability of class privileges) and solidarity (based on being marginalized and often invisible) in fact subtly pave ways to the constructions of new forms of sexualities in its politics and practices.

Shomopremi Versus ‘Lesbian’: The Politics of Identities, Visibility, and Representation

Identity is a fluid term, and the narratives of the non-heterosexual women in this study indicate that the process of constructing or articulating sexual identity is anything but straight. One can make strategic decisions to move in and out of different sexual identities (Eves 2004). In understanding the sex worker ‘lesbian’ women’s activism and positionality within the then LGBT community, reference and comparison are to be made with another informal support group of women who belonged to educated urban middle class (S1). ‘Lesbian’ is a term that is more problematic as it either highly contested or strategically appropriated in the context of this research. The process of identity construction and labelling is done at two levels: firstly, at the personal level, and secondly, at a collective level which takes the ‘personal’ to the level of the ‘political’. For the purpose of this chapter, I will focus on the collective identity (and its politics) mainly because in LGBT activism or sexuality rights movement ‘identity’ of the collective in terms of groups plays a crucial role. This is where groups differentiate from each other based on their respective sexual politics. For example, the S1 ‘shomo (same) premi (to love)’ (to love the same) group of women—who were also the most visible in the LGBT community at the time of this research—had a debate over the labelling of ‘lesbians’, weighing the term’s political correctness as well as its political usefulness in the broader sexuality rights movement/framework. They preferred to describe themselves as Shomopremi, emphasizing on ‘love’. These group members used ‘lesbian’ to describe their sexual identities but refused to ‘label’ themselves as such. ‘Lesbians in Bangladesh prefer the term Nari-shomopremi2…relation between two females is spiritual, mental, and social. Sex is not central, but part of the larger construction of a relationship’ (workshop on Sexual Diversity and Coalition Building in 2009, 2010). It indicated that image is an important element to social life in Bangladesh. Thus, one should use terms of identity that have less sexual connotation. While they reject the English term ‘lesbian’ in the context of Bangladesh, they recognize its relevance in international forums. It was clear that this group of educated urban middle-class women’s concepts of gender and femininity was influenced if not moulded after the traditional role of women within Bengali society—a cultural setting where women’s overt projection of sexuality or emphasis on ‘sexual desire’ is not welcome. Recognition that women are sexual—and in this case sexual in a way that is deemed ‘deviant’—undermined the mainstream notion of ‘respectable female sexuality’, which is understood as transcending the sexual to an almost spiritual level.

I met with S2 in the then LGBT coalition office in January 2011, during a social event to celebrate one of the organization’s anniversary. I was introduced to the group and its leader by one of the Coalition leaders/organizers. It was intriguingly insightful to know how female sex workers could organize and claim space within an otherwise educated, middle-class and male-dominated LGBTQ landscape in Dhaka. The group was initiated and formed by a former sex worker, Kohinoor (28), who felt the need to organize fellow sex workers (within Dhaka) in same-sex relationships and to look into their (and their children’s) welfare. Kohinoor had started the initiative only about a year ago but managed to get an initial membership of 25 women. The membership had been increasing ever since, and Kohinoor was working relentlessly to gather resources, information, and space through networking with other sexual identity-based groups within the LGBT coalition that had formed two years prior to this. She was introduced to the Coalition through a transgender group, and after some meetings, her group was given membership, which in turn allowed her to gain access to a small seed fund to hold monthly meetings using the Coalition’s office space. The group was administratively well organized in terms of maintaining meeting minutes, documenting proceedings, and transparency of accounts and accountability. Membership came with a monthly fee, which was mainly used as an emergency fund of its members (like releasing a sex worker from police custody or bailing a member from the court). Most members were also part of the Sex Workers’ Welfare Organization.

Their experience of sex workers’ rights movement and practical experiences in organization/administration of such group efforts provided them with related pragmatic skills, and this marked a major difference between S2 and similar same-sex support groups (for both men and women). It should also be mentioned here that the initiative to set up S2 as a separate group based on sexual identity created anger and hostility within their umbrella Sex Workers’ Welfare Organization, which resulted in threats, violence, and punishment (in the form of monitory compensation) for Kohinoor. One of the main objections of the Sex Worker’s Organization was that identifying and organizing as a ‘lesbian’ group would label the entire sex workers’ community as more deviant, which might be harmful for the image of the association. This indicated that sex workers find it easier to work and strategically benefit from the heteronormative structure of the society, even though they are positioned at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy.

Group S2, representing the female sex workers in same-sex relationships, had an interesting route to the term ‘lesbian’ and its useful power of labelling. They said that did not even know that such a term to identify or express one’s sexual desire of a particular kind existed until the HIV/AIDS prevention health campaigns introduced the term to them (they were told that they were ‘doing lesbianism’). But S2 didn’t find any trouble, ideologically or linguistically to use ‘lesbian’ as an identity of sexual orientation or practices as long as they could benefit from it by attaching the group within the LGBT groups at that given period. S2 members including its leaders, who had experiences in sex worker’s social movement and organization previously, understood sexuality politics through identities and were not interested in getting entangled in the disputes over terminology that were profoundly class and gender based. They reasoned that people understood it more readily than the Bangla terms as there were too much taboo and ambiguity around sexuality and identity in the native language. Their decision to be affiliated with sexual rights activities and to join a broader platform made them cautiously choose the English label of ‘lesbian’ because it has a more universal currency and access to resources. I also feel that women sex workers did not feel the need to be viewed in the ‘respectable middle-class Bengali woman’ image, and/or they simply accepted that society would not view them in any other way in any case. Their approach and lived experiences of sexuality through their profession, in a way, allowed them to deal with sexuality and identity in a more straightforward manner than the women from different socio-economic class. Being a sex worker, part of their social identity is related to professional identity, which is sexual in nature.

What makes sex workers’ sexual identity a more complex and intriguing issue is that it shows that sexual identities can be as plural or diverse as an individual’s sexual practices. Being commercial sex workers, these women not only assumed heterosexual identities in public but they also practised it. While sex (the act) is central to the heterosexual identity, ‘lesbian’ is an identity that is used for a broader purpose of welfare, of which sex (the act) is only a small part. ‘Social identities, individual selves’, as puts it, is central to the problematic of sexual identity labelling for non-heterosexual women in this study. Identities are not only expressed through labels but more through day-to-day expressions of living arrangements, lifestyle, dress codes, associations, and images that are more social than individual. As individuals get more comfortable and confident with their sexualities, many find a middle ground of self-expression that allows them some continuity or fluidity of movement between different spaces, and their separate identity performances get reduced.

Connecting women’s conflicts, negotiations, and personal politics of sexual identity with that of organizational politics is extremely significant to understanding how support groups organize, conduct, operate, and thus position themselves in the broader field of sexual rights ‘movements’ and/or initiatives. Despite the conflicts, threats, and violence inflicted on Kohinoor, she was determined to carve out a space for her group with the help from other Coalition members. Unlike S1, S2 established and maintained a closer relation/affiliation to the other groups and their leaders, especially the transgender groups mainly because of their class affiliation and a commonality in their marginalized social position. S2 was looking for allies that would benefit them and did not want to challenge anyone or any group ideologically. They refrained from participating in all debates and discussions mainly because of their then newcomer position and also because of their lack of efficiency over the educated English dominant language and jargons of sexual discourses. They rather preferred to focus on the organizational stability of the group itself. Though the group used the term ‘lesbian’ as their sexual identity, all documentation and communication is actually done in Bangla so they use the term ‘nari-premi’ (women-loving-women). Interestingly, they mentioned in our discussions that they could do without getting into the politics of identity, labelling, framing, and so on, because they were not educated or informed enough regarding these politics. They had identified welfare as their topmost priority, and this strategy and attitude actually benefited the group.

Unlike the groups, and S1, which eventually came out of the Coalition and disintegrated as a group by 2011 because of internal disagreements over intergenerational issues like visibility and relatability, S2 did not seem to struggle internally with class and age tensions. All its members come from similar professional backgrounds, realities, and living arrangements, and they were united in protecting themselves from the outside hetero-patriarchal world that oppressed them socially, economically, and sexually (both mainstream oppression and marginalization, as well as hostility and marginalization within the sex workers’ community). The extent of their common ground strengthened the group and helped them to stay together. Also group members are all between 20 and 40 years, and, as a practice in the sex workers’ community, seniority was respected and hierarchy was maintained within the profession’s norms. Also, because socially the group was considered lower middle class or even working class (despite the fact that many of them had a relatively higher income bracket [something of a fact which they preferred to hide for safety and security reasons]), within the sexual identity-based organizations and LGBT activism, they were not seen as a threat and could be kept under control unlike the other women’s group (whose class, age group, and network privilege were seen as challenging and problematic).

Leadership appeared to be a contested issue within the sexual identity-based LGBT movement in general, therefore, within non-heterosexual women’s groups too. The main reasons for the disintegration of S1 were generational differences in the understanding of ‘movement’ and activism, conflicts regarding agenda and funding, debates over how much sexuality rights need to be ‘politicized’ and how, and finally, a failure to approach sexuality as a ‘lived experience’ rather than as an isolated ‘identity-based’ discourse and how sexuality impacts different people and different genders in the wide range of class and location. ‘Does a lesbian identity necessarily offer a natural and secure platform for lesbian politics? Is the name “lesbian” a self-explanatory one, a homogenous embodiment of marginalization and therefore a bearer of a radical transformation?’ asks Biswas (2007, p. 276). Bacchetta, in her reflection on the 1980s’ lesbian history in Delhi, says that India dealt with this identity and positionality that was crucial for the lesbian women’s agency, organization, and activities in the 1980s. In fact, in the 1980s there was little agreement among lesbians, and among ‘lesbians’, and between them about terms of identity, and in some work a multiplicity of terms surfaced precisely to dismantle fixity (2007, p. 112). Just like in Delhi in the 1980s, in Bangladesh, especially in Dhaka, one finds women informally grouping and organizing themselves based on their sexual identity or orientations. And as in Delhi, in these informal organizations, autonomous discussions were arranged in smaller private spaces like middle-class homes. And just like the present debates around sexuality, identity politics, and rights discourses resulting in backlashes around the region against sexuality rights—women’s sexuality in general and women’s sexual diversity in particular did not only faced internal conflicts and contestations, which resulted in splits among the middle-class women’s same-sex group, while sex worker lesbian group survived these testing times by staying low, aligned with more established groups like the transgender. The question of representation around identity claims and labelling politics threw challenges to both the groups: while S1 found itself disintegrated much earlier in the movement, S2 used strategy and its existing marginalized position of gender, sexuality, and class to claim a mainstream identity to organize and stabilize itself with a larger collective. The question of visibility was an ongoing debate amongst all LGBT groups at the time of the research: while the male sexually diverse groups made a dash to visibility to promote sexuality rights as an agenda in public eye, women’s same-sex group refrained from it as a strategy. S1 not only refrained from visibility as a collective group but also questioned the purpose and future of such approach fearing a backlash and counterproductive outcome from rushed activism. S2 concentrated on staying put and keeping its members safe and build capacity in one way or the other. One cannot conclude if one strategy was better than the other between the two women’s groups, but the fact that S2 still exists and has survived backlashes is an indication that strategy and alliance are keys to asserting sexuality as a right, however salient its features might be. In this sense, what the women’s sexual identity-based groups were going through is not uncommon if one looks at the history of LGBTQ communities around the world.


There are major gaps in the knowledge base about sexuality in Bangladesh and the socio-sexual conditions of people of different genders and sexualities. There is almost no in-depth knowledge base about women’s sexualities, its diversities, and social practices. The gaps in sexuality and activism are illustrated by the lack of a coherent, inclusive approach to sexuality, as an embodied concept, as part of the bodily integrity discourse. Spaces for alternative discourses that often stem from different sites of resistance created by the individuals through life’s strategic lessons are absent in documented forms. As Sharma, J. (2009) puts it, and what my findings agree with, reflecting on lived realities is a crucial entry point to sexuality politics, especially in the case of women. Lived realities of women with diverse sexualities belonging to different socio-economic class, like the two groups discussed here, show us the processes of challenging norms, of negotiating norms which are processes of not only strategic living but also of the widening possibilities of sexual politics at both private and public spaces.

In the emergence of ‘new womanhood’ through renegotiated femininities and power relations, most of the discussions have remained within the ever-expanding middle class in south Asia. Sexuality still remains taboo and ignored from the debate around the construction of this new womanhood. Within the sexuality rights and feminist debates around politics of body and sexuality of women, working-class women remain invisible. Sex worker ‘lesbian’ women and their organization of themselves around rights and welfare—as discussed in this chapter—throw a challenge on the dominant discourses of both new womanhood and sexualities as they clearly demonstrate how sexuality can be expressed differently yet simultaneously as labour choice, desire, and identity—and all of these are done strategically by women making use of gender and class norms. Thus, these women challenge the prevalent politics of ‘forgetting’ the working-class women from new womanhood (socio-economic discourses) and sexualities (by the LGBT discourses) but silently ‘claiming’ a space through sexuality. The ‘new’ ness of their womanhood lies in the reality that while they access labour market through paid employment through the most tabooed profession, but they maintain the appearance of the household, the private space through normative order, though inside that space, norms are once again deconstructed and reshaped according to personal choices. The constant conformation-negotiation-resistance is something that is beyond the possibilities of their middle-class counterparts within the same urban locations. Within the activism or restricted public space of LGBT activism, the same group of women are placed at the bottom of hierarchy based on gender and class, and they do not contest that positioning for strategic reasons while making gradual progress in securing safe space and welfare for its own members through strategic invisibility. Their sexuality, its labelling, and use of professional choices that allows certain sexualization of bodies are all manifestations of renegotiated and resistant womanhood and sexualities, something that needs to be further understood and recognized for at least symbolic significance.


  1. 1.

    All sex workers (in this research) are migrant women, who maintain one household in Dhaka and support parental family back in the villages. The shaping of one’s public image has to be done at two levels: covering up professional identity and sexual identity. Professional identity is also part of personal identity as a woman, who needs to carefully establish an image of a respectable working woman staying away from home village/family but whose economic contribution is crucial for others too.

  2. 2.

    A workshop entitled ‘Sexual Diversity and Coalition Building’ among the Bangladeshi LGBT community was held February 6–7, 2009, in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, with financial support from the Norwegian LGBT Association (LLH Norway). The topic of ‘Gay Women: Issues and Concerns—Perspectives from Bangladesh OR Bangladesh in Perspective? Perspective of Bangladesh’ (where this Shomopremi group represented the only ‘gay women’s’ group) was addressed.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shuchi Karim
    • 1
  1. 1.Radboud UniversityNijmegenNetherlands

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