Talk in Women in Secularism 2016

Published on Monday, October 10, 2016

fuuuuuuu. What an empowering couple of days. I don't know if you guys felt it, but there has been so much power, so much strength in this room! What a diverse, talented and sassy group of women! Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk in this event. I will also like to take the opportunity to extend my thanks to Freedom from Religion Foundation and specially CFI and CFI Canada for being my partners in crime for the last 19 months - for helping the threatened Bangladeshi bloggers, secular and gay rights activists. Michael De Dora form CFI, thank you very much, couldn't do it without you and your colleagues.

By the way, I guess I should introduce myself! I am Rafida Bonya Ahmed, I normally write with my middle name Bonya Ahmed. I am a Bangladeshi American Writer, blogger and also one of the moderators of the bengali blog Muktomona - which is the first Freethinking blog in Bengali language. My late husband Dr. Avijit Roy founded this online platform in 2001 as a Yahoo forum way before the very very noisy days of blogging.

Oh yes, of course! My husband and I were attacked by the Indian Subcontinent of Al Queda, on Feb 26th 2015, when we were visiting Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh for a book signing event. This claimed Avijit's life and I barely escaped… I suffered 4 machete stabs on my head, a sliced off thumb, and numerous other injuries all over my body.

what was our fault?

Avi and I were, are atheists, blogger, writer, and above all secular humanists. Avijit wrote and edited 10 books. He wrote about science, literature, homosexuality, women's right and philosophy of disbelief. He wrote books about the Origin of life, the emergence of the universe from nothing, the science behind homosexuality, and love from Evolutionary psychology. But two of his books titled Philosophy of Disbelief and Virus of Faith, they made him exceedingly popular among young adults and progressive readers… these books also fueled hostility and anger towards Avijit from religious fundamentalists.

The online blogging platform Muktomona also became the name of a secular humanist movement for Bangla-speaking people. I wrote a book on Evolution and wrote many other blogs.

I guess that would be it- a pretty good summary of our crimes in the eyes of the Islamic terrorist groups.

Anyway, My day job used to be in the Corporate world, I was a Senior Director of Marketing with a computer Science background. After the attack, it did not make sense to continue in the corporate world, so I decided to take a leave from work. A university with a very strong South Asian Institute offered me a visiting scholarship to do research work on the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh, I gladly took it up. I thought this would finally give me the opportunity to work not for a pay check but for something I always craved to do. My late husband would have loved such an opportunity; he loved to write, that was his life, his passion.

The reason I think Bangladesh is important because unlike many other Islamic countries, Bangladesh, had a secular history with 90% muslim population. If you don't know where Bangladesh is, it is surrounded by India in 3 sides and it has Bay of Bengal in the south. It is a relatively new nation state, liberated from Pakistan after a bloody 9 month long war in 1971. Religion played such a big role in that war too. Bangladesh started with a secular constitution and history.

And then over the last few decades it has slowly moved towards Islamic fundamentalism. I think it will be a unique case to uncover why Bangladesh is embracing the same fate as many other traditional islamic countries, though Bangladesh had such a different background.

For me, it is hard to separate Feminism from Skepticism of religion. My journey for both started very early - I was what? 13-14 years old! I started questioning very many things. I was lucky that I was born in a very liberal and educated Muslim family in Bangladesh where questioning anything and everything was encouraged.

The more I try to combine my personal and social experiences with my education and what is happening in the political and economic realms of today's globalized world, I cannot separate many things. I cannot separate Feminism from secular beliefs AND (yes this is a big AND) I cannot separate fighting for Women's rights from standing against the Imperialistic policies, wars, global consumerism all over the world.

I know many of you might disagree with me; that's why I would like to walk you through a couple of my personal and social experiences.


In this Postmodernist world - or should I say Post-postmodernist world - 'totalizing discourse' and 'meta-narrative' are BAD, very bad! Rationality is bad. Reason and Science are ideologies. Mass-production, large scale theories, political philosophies, tract housing, and space are all bad. Post modernists celebrate small scale production, local narrative, and relativity; everything is relative in order to challenge and deconstruct the holistic theories with the fragmentation of subjectivity.

Though I do not disagree with everything the postmodernists say, I cannot see women's lib from a fragmented perspective. We are talking about half the human population of the world! 3.5 billion members of human species? How do you separate Feminism from Religion? How do you separate Religion from the national and international structures of political and economic power? And how do you separate women's rights - which should be a basic human rights issue - from politics, economy and culture? We are all a part of a complicated global web, where all actions contain global consequences.

Let me start with the easy one. Perhaps I can give you some context about the other parts of the world, I have been privileged to see both parts of the world to certain extent.

As I said earlier, I started questioning about my rights as a young girl. In Bangladesh, having only female children was not very assuring for the parents in the 70's. Even now it can be worrisome because male children normally take care of their parents during their old age. I was one of the 3 sisters - my parents were okay with having only daughters because they that they were well off enough, that they would not have to seek financial support from us later in life. So it is important to also note that socioeconomic class is a very big component for many of the rights we talk about.

But anyway, coming back to the earlier discussion… Having only girls was not an issue for my parents, but we heard again and again from neighbors and extended family members that my parents were so unlucky. Unlucky because my parents did not have a son, who would really be able to take care of my parents property.

In Bangladesh, though we have a secular constitution, a secular criminal law, and a secular civil law…the Family law continues to follow religious rules.

As a muslim girl, I was allowed to receive 1/2 of the property that my fictitious unborn brother would receive. Since we did not have a brother, 1/4 of my parents property would go to my uncles.

Child custody is also very discriminatory. A male child is allowed to stay with his mother until the age of 7, and the female child can stay with her mother until she hits puberty. If the mother remarries, the father becomes entitled to the custody of their children. Socially and culturally, Women face discrimination and injustice everywhere from their family lives to their professional lives.

My mom was a lawyer, so she dealt with many legal issues for women…and it was very common in our household to talk about these things. My liberal parents also encouraged us to read and question things. I guess I told this story before during my talk at the Reason Rally - that I went to my father at the age of 13 and asked, how did all the world religions claim that they were the only 'right' religion? Nobody else will go to heaven except for the followers of that specific religion, how could that make any sense? My father told me to read all the scriptures and get back to him. So, Off I went, checked out the Quran, Bible, Gita, and Torah from the library and started reading them and whatever I understood with my 13 year old brain.

I went back to him almost a year later and told him that all of the scriptures sounded like fairy tales. They did not make any sense from a logical point of view and they all subjugated women to different degrees. My dad just said 'that's fine, if that's what you want to believe'. And that was the end of the discussio n in my family about religion. Not too many kids are that lucky.

But I have to confess that I used to get a little wobbly about my disbelief until the age of 15-16, especially right before a big exam! And whenever my faith in "No Faith" used to get shaky, I would read Sura Nisa from the Quran, which talks about Women and Women's rights in Islam. I would swing back to being an atheist right after that. I have been grateful to the Quran for making me such a good atheist ever since.

But to be exact, the political, religious and evolutionary history of our species formed my worldview during my teenage years. I started reading these books around that time of my life.

But here are a couple interesting facts to consider: We have a female prime minster in Bangladesh; the opposition leader is also a woman, which kind of violates the Islamic tradition. But they will not take any action to change the medieval Family laws which deeply discriminate against women. Because it might not go very well with the religious community who are part of the power structure.

Please note one thing here, it does not really even matter what gender our head of state identify as…because they represent the male dominated political structure and world order in order to maintain power.

On the other hand they will not hesitate to enact 'semi Blasphemy' laws like the Information Communication and Technology act (or ICT ACT 57) to arrest secular bloggers, writers, and publishers. ICT ACT 57 is a very old British law which has been enforced in recent times with some amendments and an increased amount of severity. Believe it or not - this new amended ICT Act has made the criticism of religion - or hurting so called religious feelings - on the internet punishable by law with up to 14 years of jail time. Bangladesh's government continues to arrest, harass and jail bloggers, journalists and activists on the basis of this law.

However, the government stays silent when atheist bloggers get stabbed to death one by one by the Islamic militants in the broad day light.

The truth is, minorities and progressive secularists in Bangladesh have more to fear than Islamic militants; we must also fear our own government too. This puts us between quite a rock and a hard place.

But, I digress. My point is, it is difficult for me to believe in a religion if I desire equal rights as a woman. But I also see the issue of Feminism from a holistic political, economic, religious and cultural perspective.

Now, let me consider my other point about feminism and imperialism and global consumerism.

Some of you may be familiar with the tragic fatalities that occur in garments factories in Bangladesh, we hear about the fatalities from the building collapses and fires every now and then. The country has an export-oriented ready-made garment industry, which employs more than 4 million workers. 90% of garments workers are women.

The plight of garments workers is something I have thought about for decades. Remember, I grew up in Bangladesh, and I saw these workers for myself. In part, they inspired me to get involved in left politics after high school. It was only a matter of time before I dropped out of med school and worked in a garments factory for a year - first as a helper, and then as a machine operator. My parents got really worried and they forced me to leave the country. They were worried about my safety. That is when I came to do my undergrad in Canada in 1991 and then moved to the here little later.

But during my time as a garments worker, I discovered firsthand that the whole industry is governed by Inhumane working conditions, long hours, extremely low wages, lack of building safety, child labor, repression, corrupt government policies - you name it. It continues the same way after 2-3 decades.

Even now the minimum wage these workers is less than 70 dollars a month. The workers protested a while back to get it up to 100 dollars a month, they had to settle for 70 at the end of the negotiation with the garments factory owners. Does it remind you about the workers and the sweat shops here in the 19th century?

By sacrificing the livelihoods of these female workers, brands like Old Navy, Walmart, H&M, and GAP can provide us with clothes at competitive rates here.

Now if we want to talk about the liberation of these women we will have to talk about structural issues - on both local and international levels. We must consider the impacts of global consumerism and economic policies. I just saw somewhere that more than 60 million young girls in this world are deprived of the quality education.

In this case, it will be hard to talk about feminism and women's liberation without discussing the labor rights, politics and economic policies within the boundaries of a nation state and in global levels.

Let me walk you through one more example very quickly.

Let's consider the case of Saudi Arabia for a moment. They have a monarchy which operates on Sharia law, where women are not even allowed to drive or travel alone. You get jailed and lashing for opening an online site. But we protects the interest of the Saudi monarchy by all means. Why? I guess we all know the answer. Wiki Leaks have opened our eyes to so many thinks! Didn't Obama just veto the bill to sue Saudie Arabia for 9/11?

In fact, the underlying cause for many military conflicts after WWII is the power struggle between superpowers to gain control of the resource and global markets. The discovery of oil makes the world history more bloody and complicated.

Russia invades Afghanistan, we create Bin Laden. We empower dictators like Saddam Hossain, turning a blind eye to his offenses against humanity. We attack Iraq based on false information. Palestinians are fighting for their rights for so many decades. We are seeing it first hand, right now, how instating an allied government in Syria is more important to Russia and the USA than destroying ISIS. Though they are killing thousand and thousands of muslims and other minorities, taking the minority women as sex slaves. And what about the government of Syria, the Russian backed dictator, he has pushed the country to this civil war to maintain his power. On the other hand, Saudis are more concerned about destroying the Yemeni Shiai rebels then killing the oppressive IS regime in Iraq and Syria.

But let me go back to the Saudis for a second. They have been exporting this extreme version of Wahhabism into the third world Muslim countries, like Bangladesh, for many decades with the help of local religious fundamentalist groups. They have funded fundamentalist groups to build and maintain thousands and thousands of madrasas. But we do not hear much against these things because they are our allies in the global market. They have a pretty big say in our political and economic discourse since they employ millions of workers from this poor country.

Now the problem is, how can I blame religion ONLY without blaming the local and foreign powers who use religion as a tool, as a weapon to maintain their power? In Bangladesh we have seen corrupt governments injecting Islam into our constitution, into our education system, and into our societies in a systemic way. and I already mentioned the other foreign powers who play a vital a role into it as well.

This is the story I wanted to tell you today. I wanted to paint a picture from my understanding of the the past and the present. History, for me, is not just stories from the past, or a project for teaching, it is an opportunity for me to become implicated in the stories of the past, feel it in the present and try to paint the future with the lessons learnt from the shared past and the present.

Different parts of our little planet, burdened by more than 700 billion members of our species now, have gone through very diverse history. Humanism has come a long way in the west through the heroic age of ancient Greece, influence from the medieval Persians and Moors, revival of classical studies during Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, French Revolution, Industrial Revolution. But many parts of the world, including Bangladesh, haven't gone through many of these political, economic and social changes.

Think about what the rest of the world was experiencing when the west was going through these changes in last few centuries. Indian sub-continent was a British colony, Africa was getting 'civilized' by European powers, aboriginals were getting extinct systematically in the Americas, we also had slavery and racism backed by many of these civilized countries.

So the context was never the same across the board. That is why, we need to be careful about how we talk about humanism, feminism and Women's lib. We should not try to impose one size fits it all kind of solution. Because it will not work. We need to connect the dots of the specific political and economic evolution of a specific nation and culture with the global economic and political influences and plays.

In the west, when we, women are fighting for equality, reproductive rights, equal wage, in many parts of the world the women are still fighting for their basic rights - like minimum wage, property rights, rights to divorce and have custody of their children, even to have the rights to drive or have any job you like in the workplace.

In last couple of days, We have hard about the local problems in the USA, we have heard from the speakers about religion, about class, about education, minority issues. We have also heard from speakers like Gullalai and Maryam about the problems in the other parts of the world.

I wanted to show you that the world is diverse, and our problems are also diverse. As we have progressed through our unthinkable, relentless human abilities to learn, to discover and invent we have built a very very complicated and unfair world. We need to keep a very open mind when we try to talk about the issues and problems of humanity.

See how I am stealing the ideas of the postmodernists of local narratives, local cultures, politics, economy and society. But then I think it is imperative that we connect these dots with the global picture, the complicated web of global politics and economic structures.

I will like to leave all of us with these thoughts today. I would love to continue this discussion and have debates and discussions with women from different parts for the world about this. Not to showcase my ideas, this is not a novel idea by any means - but to listen, to learn so that we can work together and empower ourselves and move forward so that we can create our destiny together in this different universe.

See also: Bonya Ahmed Connects the Global Dots on Religious Extremism

comments powered by Disqus