Sharifa’s Story: debate erupts in Bangladesh over textbook lesson on third gender people

A group of students protest against the dismissal of a BRAC University teacher for tearing up pages containing the story in Class VII textbooks

Kazi Nafia Rahmanbdnews24.com
Published : 23 Jan 2024, 09:57 PM
Updated : 23 Jan 2024, 09:57 PM

A lesson on third gender people in a textbook of Class VII has sparked a fresh debate after the dismissal of a BRAC University teacher for tearing up pages containing the content.

The inclusion of the lesson, ‘The Story of Sharifa’, in the chapter on similarities and differences between people in the history and social science book of the class stirred debate among parents after the distribution of the books earlier this year.

Now netizens and a group of students of BRAC University have joined the fray after the sacking of Asif Mahtab Utsha as a part-time teacher.

Some of them argue that homosexuality and transsexuality are being promoted under the veil of this story.

The other side says those against the story in the textbook have failed to shun negative mentality and are obstructing steps to take forward a community left behind.

HOW THE LATEST DEBATE STARTED

Asif tore up the pages of the book in a discussion on the new curriculum on Friday. A video of the incident was widely shared on social media.

In the discussion, he advised people to buy the book at Tk 80, tear up the two pages, and then return it to the shop for reselling at half the price to “raise awareness”. “This will be our protest – we’ll buy the book and tear up the pages,” he said.

He said people lose their jobs for speaking up. “You don’t support us on many occasions. Will you protest if I lose my job? They are destroying the lives of our students. It may sound unreal to you, but this is the reality.

“The elite society had boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, and now your children have this kind of relationship. When the elite society changes, the rest changes automatically. If you can’t stop this now, the future will be dark.

“Laws will be passed in Bangladesh – the boys who identify them as girls will get jobs and those speaking against this will be fined and jailed for one year. This is the reality. If this law is passed, we are done for.”

bdnews24.com tried to reach him for comments about how a story on the third gender people was fuelling homosexuality, but he did not take phone calls.

Asif talked to BBC Bangla. “I gave the speech for the protection of our youths from being brainwashed so that their lives are not destroyed,” he said, according to the report.

Asked if it was the right thing to tear up textbook pages at a formal programme, he told BBC Bangla, “I’ve talked to my lawyer. The members of the lawyers’ team said no law was broken. There are precedents of such protests around the world.

PROTEST LEADER NOT AWARE OF THE ISSUE

Amid the debate, BRAC University said on Monday it no longer has a contract with Asif.

In a statement on Monday, the university said it was committed to maintaining a safe environment for students along with promoting inclusion and tolerance.

Asif then wrote on Facebook that he was asked not to visit the university for classes in a phone call. “I don’t know why they have taken such a decision. They haven’t given me a reason for this.”

A group of students launched a demonstration in support of Asif on Tuesday, saying BRAC University was backing homosexuality by sacking him. Some of them carried placards that read: “Say ‘No’ to LGBTQ.” and “We don’t promote LGBTQ.”

Besides staying away from classes, they have called for a boycott of BRAC products.

bdnews24.com talked to Muntasir Mamun, the convenor of the platform that launched the protests, to know what was their objection to The Story of Sharifa.

“In fact, I don’t know much about the matter,” Muntasir said.

“Actually, I can’t say much about him because I don’t know the whole incident,” he said.

WHY SHARIFA’S STORY IN TEXTBOOK

Abul Momen, who was in charge of writing and editing the Class VII textbook on history and social science, said they considered the inclusion of all communities in the book so that children do not have hatred towards a particular community.

“We describe those outside the society-recognised genders as the third gender people. They are widely known as Hijra. There are debates over issues like transgender, third gender. They [children] will know about these at universities,” he said.

“We just did the job of letting them know as much as they can understand. I don’t think there’s something debatable here.

“Our main goal was inclusion of the minorities and the marginalised people.”

Md Mashiuzzaman, a member of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, said the book did not say anything about transgenders, but included different communities to give students an idea about similarities and differences between people.

“The entire chapter is on respecting people of other communities as human beings. The chapter does not only have third gender people as a topic, but it also talks about the Bedey community who live in boats.”

He criticised Asif for tearing up a textbook. “For argument’s sake, let’s think that there is something unsuitable for reading. Even after that, can he tear up a book?”

Professor Tarique Ahsan of Dhaka University’s Institute of Education and Research, said "The Story of Sharifa" was included in the book to help the society think positively, but a section of the society cannot get out of their old mentality.

“As the third gender is constitutionally recognised, they have the rights as other citizens and they are part of a diverse human race,” he said.

“But they become outcast and are deprived of their rights because of our negative thoughts. So our future generation should not do what we or our ancestors have done. This is why the story has been included in the textbook.”

Tarique said the term transgender was there in the story last year, but it was changed after objections were raised.

“Those who are interpreting the story in the same way even after bringing changes cannot understand that they are using the same lens to see this. They can’t get out of that.”

Education Minister Mohibul Hassan Chowdhoury Nowfel said a group of people met him and objected to the use of the term transgender.

“But when we discussed it, we saw that the term was third gender, not transgender. The people of the third gender are known as Hijra and they are legally recognised. They are our citizens and have the same rights.”

The minister sees the criticisms of the content, which started within a month after the start of the academic year, as “protests only for protests”.