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Bangladesh: Women are agents of change

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Women in the Bengali society
Bangladesh has a multi-religious society with a colourful mix of cultures of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhists, Christians. Once, the country even proclaimed itself as a secular nation. In post-war Bangladesh, people were struggling but the society was vibrant. Muslim women slowly came out and took part in the Nation Building. Society has emerged as relatively liberated and economy has improved.The progress of girls in education has been impressive. Up to secondary level, education is still free. However, the curriculum needs to update to cover human rights, equality, science. Institutional sensitivity system and sensitive judiciary are narrow for the promotion of ideas of rights, justice, and equality.

Women in Bangladesh are the agents of change today. They have come out in sectors such as politics, business, armed forces, peacekeeping missions, sports, and science. Religious push is pressing to go stop such changes. Rape and harassment are on the rise: the perpetrator could be anyone, from a man on the street to an imam, or a member of the law enforcement agency. Victims are blamed, and perpetrators are given high impunity.

Political situation

Since the assassination of the nations’ leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, there has been a gradual political disequilibrium. The nation suffered from 19-20 armed coups. Islamists who took part in the genocide of 3 million Bengalis were reinstated by inside and outside forces. We have witnessed both political and religious killings.

The Bengali society revolved around multi-cultural norms and tradition: more inclined to the liberated way of living. Gradual Islamization, have tried to change this flexible social environment. Islamists rallied with thirteen demands against women’s education, work, social mobility, and marriage. Under pressure, the government amended the marriage law, and the line of child marriage in the graph is going upwards. Secularists, liberals, bloggers, and writers are criticizing the government for building a relationship with these Islamists.

Religious freedom in Bangladesh

Constitutionally people have religious freedom. However, Islamists have been pushing for blasphemy laws since the 1990s. They again pressured the Government, in 2013, when the Shahbag Movement was organised by the seculars. They demanded that the Movement organisers were given death sentences and that Sharia laws would be installed. The current Government tries to install laws that cut short freedom of speech and provides chances to Islamic vigilantes to work systematically against the free speakers and dissidents. Atheists are declared criminals. Books with criticism of religion or Madrasa teachers are banned. There are concerns about arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings.

In Islam, concepts such as freedom from religion is non-existent. To be a Muslim means to completely surrender to Islam; to follow the Quran and Muhammad’s footsteps; to follow the Imams. Those of us who have abandoned Islam, questioned the sanctity of the Prophet, the Qur’an and the existence of God are called in Arabic ‘Murtad’ (apostate). One among the four accepted schools of Islamic Jurisprudence of Sunni Islam is Maliki. Maliki says, ‘both men and women apostates will be sentenced to death’!

The secular humanist movement in Bangladesh

There are humanists both in the younger and the previous generations. Ancient literature shows Humanism has been widely preached and practiced in the land.  Two of the well-humanists were barefoot Philosopher Araz Ali Matubbar and Baul philosopher Fakir Lalon Shah. However, the atheism practice in Bangladesh does not have an organized form. There is a rise of conscious effort, but we do not see it has got the shape of an organised movement.  In Bangladesh, it is dangerous to call anyone a humanist.  Islamists label their dissidents as atheists and prosecute them.

As an aid worker and women’s movement organiser, I have been in situations of insults, sexual harassment and beating threats because of my work for women’s economic freedom. ‘ I shall be cut into thousand pieces and fed to dogs’, ‘I shall be raped to death by many’ if I do not stop writing and criticising religion. I had to change house after house. I had to stay hidden. All because I was one of the activists of the Shahbag Movement and an atheist.

I consider myself a secular humanist and an atheist. As a child, I memorized half of the Qur’an. But I left it at the age of 17, and ran away from home to study at the Dhaka University. Home was forbidden for me.

From various messages sent to me and what has been happening in Bangladesh, we see a pattern of Islamists decisions against atheists. They informed me of their decision that when I return to the country, I will be killed or arrested and imprisoned.

The Fristad scholarship

I got the ICORN Fristad scholarship to stay in the city of Linköping for 2018-2020 as a persecuted writer and artist. For the scholarship period I planned to write a book which has been completed. The story is based on a real incident of an arbitrary arrest. It is titled ‘State versus’.  Other manuscripts have also been initialized.

The scholarship period ended this Corona spring. The Swedish Government then permitted me and my family to become permanent residents. I intend getting back to a professional life here in Sweden. Currently, I am writing for Swedish Papers as a freelance journalist. Another essential task that I would like to do is to organize the seculars and activists of the Bengali Diaspora in Europe.

Just as women are agents of change in Bangladesh, I think, women’s assertive role can start new movements and change in any society.

Jahanara Nuri, Fristadsförfattare, Linköping 2018-2020.


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