Bangladeshi Islamists protest in 2016 against "mockery" of Islam. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
It’s no longer news that non-believers and members of minority communities face random persecution by Islamists in Bangladesh.
Five years ago, the Awami League government, which claims to be secular, introduced draconian penalties for blasphemy by electronic publishers by amending section 57 of the Information & Communication Technology Act.
This amendment aimed to curb free speech and targeted bloggers and writers who were trying to promote secular values in a civilised and peaceful way. Atheists were brutally attacked and several were killed in subsequent bloodbaths in 2015 and 2016.
Sexual violence has also been used against atheist bloggers, including 22-year-old feminist Nirala*. She was gang raped in 2016, and fled Bangladesh in 2017.
Though rape of young women is widespread in Bangladesh, it is shocking that such violence has been used to control and punish an atheist woman blogger under a secular government led by a female prime minister, Sheikh Hasina.
Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina in 2014. Photo: Oli Scarff/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Nirala contacted me for support, believing that my feminist ethics would ensure a sympathetic response. She used to follow me on Twitter and we had feminist and atheist networks in common.
She hadn’t talked about her assault for more than a year. An undergraduate botany student at the time, she says she was kidnapped in broad daylight from a rickshaw on a busy road, in front of her younger sister, in her hometown in northern Bangladesh.
“The motorbike was going so fast that I couldn’t recognise the direction in which they were taking me," Nirala said, in a written testimony she sent to me and colleagues, which we translated and shared with secular and human rights groups to help raise funds and support for her treatment abroad.
"Despite all my cries and pleas, they forcefully undressed me and took nude photographs to circulate later," she said. "I was then drugged, and raped for three days. It is so traumatic that I find it hard to describe or even to talk about it. It’s killing me."
Nirala is Hindu by birth but she identifies as atheist. She said the rapists told her that “it is all right for Muslims to rape a Hindu girl”. They threatened that, if she reported the incident to the police, her younger sister and mother would face the same violence.
“I was told that I will be killed and thrown into the river,” said Nirala. After the assault, her attackers left her outside her parents’ house. “They warned my parents not to report it. They told them that I had been taken to be interrogated about my writing."
“I was told that I will be killed and thrown into the river."
The attack caused severe internal damage to Nirala’s body. She was diagnosed with multiple injuries and is receiving treatment abroad, with costs covered by humanist and feminist organisations as her family could not afford it.
The young feminist’s “mistake” was that she dared to write against fundamentalism and stood for freedom of expression.
Nirala rejected both Islamism and Hindutva. She co-administered a secular community blog site which she said was shut down by the Bangladeshi government in 2013 following an irrational demand by Islamist groups for the state to execute all atheist bloggers.
She believes that her rapists were paid activists of the Awami League ruling party. Known to the police, supported by local politicians, such activists may easily get away with their crimes. Her family reported the rape to police, but it was not followed up. Rather, she said, they were advised to send Nirala away.
When Nirala left Bangladesh, she said her rapists, and other Islamist goons, went after her sister and mother. “The persecution doesn’t end. My blogging put my whole family at risk. I can’t sleep at night even with high doses of medication. I am always having nightmares."
The organised persecution of atheists in Bangladesh began in 2013, following the Shahbag movement during which secular activists called for the hanging of Islamist politicians accused of war crimes during the 1971 war of independence, and the murder of atheist blogger Rajib Haider.
Shahbag movement protest in 2013. Photo: Nasir Khan Saikat/Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Nirala first wrote about gender equality, women’s rights, and discrimination against women, children and minorities in Bangladesh through Facebook, where she encountered the Bangladeshi secular blogger community.
Her own blogging on religious issues began when two atheist writers who she admired were brutally killed by extremists. She was impacted by “the brutality of persecution” they faced and began thinking more critically about the world around her.
“Believing that equality, free speech and human rights are the fundamentals of democracy, I started to write blogs. I was very passionate and young. I thought that it was a citizen’s duty to express opinions about the issues that affect them,” she said.
Reality in Bangladesh taught her otherwise. Her Facebook user ID was “banned twice as a result of organised reporting and [a] campaign against my writings by the Islamic fundamentalists,” she claims.
This is not uncommon; it is understood that several Bangladeshi atheist bloggers and online activists have been banned from Facebook. An online network of Islamist campaigners are believed to systematically report Facebook posts to the government.
“There is no place for me in Bangladesh."
Several years ago, Nirala adopted the pen name ‘X.’ When her identity was discovered, and she began receiving violent threats, she switched to the pen name ‘Y.’ Yet persecution continued.
“Some Muslim boys used to harass me," she said, on her way to a computer course. “One day they followed me from the road... and humiliated me sexually in the classroom right in front of my classmates.”
In recent years Islamic extremist groups have published hit lists, often circulated via social networks, of atheists and writers they vowed to kill.
To this day, the government remains unwilling to end the prevailing environment of impunity for the masterminds of such violence. It is trying to appease an opposition that relentlessly plays the religion card.
The prime minister has herself publicly criticised those who speak out against religious belief. In 2015 she told Time magazine: “If anybody thinks they have no religion, OK, it’s their personal view... But they have no right to write or speak against any religion."
Nirala continues to write, using pen names, while living outside Bangladesh. Her family, including her mother and younger sister, are in hiding. Seeking justice, and still a believer in equality, free speech and human rights, Nirala said: “There is no place for me in Bangladesh.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.