Inclusion of transgender rights chapter in Bangladesh school textbooks sparks debate

Ahammad Foyez
Inclusion of transgender rights chapter in Bangladesh school textbooks sparks debate Members of “Islami Oikyojote,” a faith-based party, demonstrate demanding that the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) scrap changes in the transgender inclusive books for government schools, Dhaka, Jan. 21, 2023.
[Rehman Asad/AFP]

One of Bangladesh’s top private universities has sparked a heated debate on social media and on campus after it allegedly dismissed an instructor who publicly criticized the inclusion of transgender rights in the national school curriculum. 

BRAC University said in a statement that Asif Mahtab Utsha used to be a part-time lecturer and was no longer under contract, while he said he had been teaching regular classes on weekends until he was removed on Sunday.

This comes after a newly formed hardline religious group launched a campaign to oppose the Bangladesh government’s efforts to legally safeguard the rights of transgender people in the Muslim-majority South Asian country.

Mahtab told BenarNews that he suspected he was dismissed because he opposed the inclusion of a chapter on transgender rights in government school textbooks, which began in January last year. 

“I taught classes at BRAC University regularly on Sunday. I was asked not to teach any more classes at the university,” he told BenarNews,

“They didn’t give me a reason, but I suspect this is due to my opinion on the transgender issue.”

Last Friday, Mahtab had participated at a seminar on the new education curriculum held at the Institute of Diploma Engineers in Dhaka. 

A video that circulated on social media showed him tearing up the two pages of the seventh-grade textbook that contain the story of a transgender woman.

“This is an attempt to brainwash our children. I am in favor of protecting the [transgender] people’s rights. But this story is not going to help them,” Mahtab told BenarNews.

The story describes how a transgender woman who had been born male had been discriminated against by her family and society, and found peace after she changed her name and joined a transgender community and changed her name.

A transgender woman holds a national flag as she dances during a rally to mark the first ever nationwide program to observe ‘Hijra Day’ in Dhaka, Nov. 10, 2014. [Munir uz Zaman/AFP]

Meanwhile, BRAC University on Monday said it would maintain the confidentiality of its employees and their contracts, adding, though, that Mahtab used to be a contract faculty member and not a permanent one. 

“Asif Mahtab Utsha worked as an adjunct faculty member at BRAC University on contract. However, he is currently not under any contract with the university,” the university said in a statement.

“The university upholds the freedom of expression of its faculty and students and promotes collaborative, inclusive, and collegial conduct,” the statement added.

Some conservative Islamist groups last month formed an organization called the National Fatwa Board to launch a campaign against transgender people who they believe are “interfering with God’s creation.”

“Changing the identity that [God]  has created through surgery is tantamount to interfering with Allah’s creation,” Mufti Mizanur Rahman Sayed, a member of the organization, told BenarNews.

He said the group had met several times in Dhaka to discuss its campaign and planned to publish a book on what they believe.

The Bangladesh government in 2013 officially recognized people called “hijras” in South Asia as a “third gender.” 

According to a case study by Harvard University’s Divinity School, hijras are often born male but look and dress in traditionally feminine ways. Other hijras are born intersex.  

People outside South Asia call them transgender, but South Asian society and most hijras consider themselves to be third gender — neither male nor female, not transitioning. 

According to the latest population census, Bangladesh has 12,629 hijras.

Boycott threat

An organization affiliated with an Islamic party called the Islami Andolon Bangladesh, which is currently the country’s largest faith-based party, meanwhile said that BRAC needed to reinstate Mahtab, the professor, or it would be boycotted.

“If BRAC University authorities do not reappoint Asif Mahtab, then 92% of Muslims of the country will be forced to boycott not only BRAC University but all institutions related to BRAC,” said Shahidul Islam Kabir, president of the organization Liberation War Generation Council, in a statement.

Another group called Citizen Forum, in a separate statement, protested the “hostile and cruel attitude” of BRAC University towards Mahtab.

A noted Paris-based Bangladeshi writer, Jannatun Nayeem Prity, however said that an academic ought to have certain qualities.

“A person who cannot respect people of all genders as human beings has no qualification to be a teacher,” the writer said on Facebook.

Tanisha Yeasmin Chaity, a transgender woman who works for her community’s rights, told BenarNews that such a campaign against transgender people was inhumane. 

The campaigners were trying to portray the transgender community as anti-Islamic, she said.

“If a person is born with an illness during birth, can it not be treated?” she said.

“So why would it be an offense to cure gender-related ailments?”


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.