Prejudice is a monstrous thing, and so is the tendency to be judgmental—the mindset that allures us to put ourselves in the shining armor of righteousness. I know I have expressed the same attitude by putting “prejudice” and “monstrous” together in the sentence above. My statement discriminates against all the species that do not resemble my humanness. Monsters. It’s what we call those from whom we want to dissociate ourselves: those who commit violent crimes—rape, murder, pedophilia, incest—or engage in non-normative sexual behaviors, or fail to look or behave like humans due to some physical or mental defect. Monsters. They are what we are not. But even though we define them as something different from us, we still try to judge them according to our own terms as if our ability as humans depends on our disapproval of others. What does not look like us or talk like us or dress like us or perform sex like us must not be defined as someone like us. We spread a veil around our human shell and try desperately to save its fragile existence. But to what end? I was pondering on this, standing in a classroom, where I was aghast to see the display of human prejudice at its horrific worse. But before I take my readers to a classroom in the western world, I want to describe another incident that I had experienced in Dhaka a few years ago.
Scenario 1: A Street of Dhaka
Because I have been living abroad for a long time, old roads and newly built highways have jumbled up my memories of Dhaka streets. But if I am not mistaken, I was in an intersection near a fancy car showroom somewhere in the Mohakhali area. I was on my way to give a talk at my old work place —the English Department at the University of Dhaka. Whenever I visit home, Enamul becomes my personal chauffeur. Per the instruction of my sister Bindu—his boss—Enamul drives me everywhere and makes sure I ensue no stupid stunts in the dangerous city (being a ‘foreigner’ that I have become to my own country’s social norms). That day, when our car stopped at the traffic light of that intersection, dozens of needy hands swarmed around us, asking for alms. Enamul asked me not to open the window, but I ignored him. I lowered the window and offered everyone a few bucks. I handed a hundred-taka bill to a one-legged man, standing on crutches. The old man gave me his blessings in Bangla, “Allah apner bhala koruk,” and limped away to the next car. Another person then approached me and spoke in a distinctively polite voice.
“Assalamu alaikum. People normally don’t give us anything because of who we are. But I noticed you smiled at me when you saw me. And that gave me the courage to approach you.”
I looked at his face. He was clad in a red saree, his eyes were painted in black, and his lips, in red. His long black hair was nicely braided and tied with a pink ribbon. I grabbed a bunch of hundred-taka bills from my purse and handed them. Looking at the amount, the person gave me a smile so beautiful and so warm that it instantly made me feel blessed.
As I was about to close the car window, the one-legged man appeared from nowhere. He raised his hand and pointed at the direction of his crutches.
“Have you seen my condition? At this old age I’m struggling so hard to survive, and you feel no sympathyfor me? You gave that hizra that much money? Aren’t I worthy of your charity? You have more pity for that hijra maagi? Take back your money; I don’t want it.” Shouting at the top of his voice, the man threw a crumpled hundred-taka bill at me and limped away like one heck of a ballsy man.
Scenario 2: A Classroom in the West
I was teaching an upper level course on cultural studies. As usual, my students were graciously accommodating to each other’s individual and intellectual spaces and paid extra attention to Terence, who was clinically blind in his right eye and had an orbital implant in his left eye socket. He had lost that eye in a car crash that killed one of his parents. Terence was lucky to survive, but had to go through a series of reconstructive surgery to rebuild his face. He had a middle-ear hearing aid implant in place of his left ear. The left side of his face had scars that ran like a pair of parallel train tracks through his left cheek, crashing right on the corner of his chin, melting a part of his lips in such a way that made it impossible for him to pull them over his teeth. Terence had to sit on the front row and near the projection board and had to have easy access to the door because of his frequent needs of bathroom breaks. He requested me to stand right in front of him while lecturing because he was a visual learner and found it hard to follow me with his two difficult eyes when I paced around the room. But I was not born to stay stagnant in one location; therefore, I gave him permission to walk behind me as I talked and walked in between rows and by the whiteboards around the four walls of the classroom. On one such day, after I finished giving a lecture on the deployment of sexuality in mass media, the whole class got involved in a discussion on the Harry Potter movies and the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars franchise, and the Twilight saga. We talked about Dumbledore’s homosexuality, Harry’s potential bisexuality, Hermione’s ultimate domestication as a good subservient woman, misogyny in Star Wars, and the latent hypersexual elements in the Rings movies, among other things. Megan mentioned Kristen Stewart—the lead actor in the Twilight movies—who had recently come out of her closeted identity.
“I’m so glad that she showed the courage,” Megan said elatedly.
“And Aubrey Plaza too, from Parks and Rec,” added Jason, “she declared she’s bisexual.”
“And Sheldon Cooper! I mean, Jim Parsons…his husband is so handsome!” someone remarked.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I was quite heartbroken to find out that Matt Bomer’s gay.” I smiled as the students kept teasing me on my ‘gay crush.’
“Hold on, rewind please!” said Terence. “Kristen Stewart is a lez? That’s disgusting! I’ve been a fan of hers all this while! Ugh!”
“What!” Megan burst out. “Do you know how much it means to us?”
“Seriously. I was so happy when I heard that,” commented Heather.
“You guys are lez too!” Terence started laughing.
Megan’s face flushed in anger. It was Megan who always recorded my lectures for Terence whenever he missed a class, and it was she who had offered him her seat the very first day when Terence requested to be seated near the door. I stood there watching the insolence that glowed in Terence’s face, while the rest of the class looked utterly perplexed. Having read Butler, Sedgewick, Freud, and Foucault, they were ready to raise a pandemonium of argument on that issue. But they did not want to attack Terence—the boy who had lost a parent in a car crash and carried the pain of that loss as an ugly scar all over his face. In my head, I saw myself trapped in a car and being rebuked by a one-legged man in a busy street of Dhaka. I walked to Terence and stood close to him so that he could hear me loud and clear and see my face when I spoke.
“Your *forking head is stuck in the *shoot-hole* of your own *arse. Turn off the porn channel that’s running inside your head and listen to me carefully: who you are is not how you *fork. Stop thinking with your *ding right now and learn to see people as people.”
I then asked everyone to stand up if they identify themselves as—and I wrote every word on the board—Straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual, sapiosexual, agender, gender queer, bigender, gender variant, pangender.
The whole class stood up.
“Wonderful!” I said. “Now brace yourself for a bonding event. Terence and I will take a tolerance walk around the class and give each of you a big hug.”
I followed Terence as he moved from one chair to another and from one row to the next, hugging his classmates who were humans—just like him.
Fayeza Hasanat is an author, translator and academic. She teaches at a university in the US and regularly writes for The Daily Star.