Sexuality Policy Watch

Where are we heading? A Bangladeshi feminist’s reflections: Khushi Kabir

Guest Post by KHUSHI KABIR

Very soon after Professor Rezaul Karim Siddque of Rajshahi Univeristy was hacked to death in the morning of April 23, 2016, I wrote my feelings, my frustrations, my concerns and my fears. From all the information we received, Professor Karim appeared to be a quiet man, a man who was of a peaceful nature, a lover of music and a committed teacher.  As is the case with most Bangalis, he loved music.  Cultural activities were in his bloodstream. He tried to, or did set up a cultural hub in his home, where he lived, not too far from the University where he taught. He was not a declared atheist, nor a blogger, not even an armchair or facebook activist.  Not one of the usual argumentative Bangalis, the usual picture of the intellectual.  Not one of those who were in the frontlines of activism, not a talk show star, not one who wrote long opinions and editorials about the state of affairs of the country.  Why would he be killed?

We read from the reports that we get from all the different forms of media that exists, that he was what I often describe as the typical example of a citizen of this land, the kind of people I grew up with, secular in his thinking by encouraging culture, music, playing his favourite sitar, reading books, yet sensitive and responsive to the practice of religion of the people he lived amongst, his family perhaps, certainly his neighbours. We heard of his large donations to the building of the local mosque as a proof of this perception.  His daughter has been very vehement in stating that he was a believer.  I find it very telling on our current state of affairs that we have to insist that we are all believers.  Why should it matter?  A murder is a murder and a gruesome murder has to be taken in all seriousness no matter what one’s beliefs are or where one stands.  We all grew up learning to sing, dance, play an instrument, and write poetry, recite etc.  Where else do we find that recitation is considered a part of cultural practice, a part of the performing arts?  Was his fault that he embodied this very nature of the Bangali? Was he murdered so brutally simply to be used as an example of what not to be?  Was he simply targeted because he embodied the very spirit of 1952, of 1971 in the quiet nature of his being?

No sooner than this murder shocked us, we heard of the brutal killing on the evening of April 25, of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy at Xulhaz’s house at Kalabagan, a crowded locality in central Dhaka.  Xulhaz was very well known in the activists’ community.  He co-founded the LGBT magazine, Roopban which tried to bring forth many issues and concerns along with talking about the rights of Bangladesh’s Gay community.   People were in tears when I called to find out and be sure.  I had not seen such a reaction before amongst a varied and large range of people from so many ages and walks of life, people who normally do not associate with each other.  These were people he interacted with or touched, through his gentle nature in wanting a multicultural and diverse Bangladesh.  A Bangladesh that would allow all people, of all faiths, beliefs, orientation, identities and occupations to live and flourish without fear.  He was truly fearless, he never felt threatened nor did he feel the need to leave his country, not continue to do what he believed.  He had the option, which he never thought of using.  He took responsibility to care for his frail and ailing mother, in front of whom he was brutally killed. How would he give others the strength, if he was not with them, if he left?  At least that is what I have been told by all who knew him well, that is what I felt in the little interactions I have had with him.

I last spoke to him on Pohela Boishakh when I heard four gay people had been held at the Shahbagh Thana.  I had asked if he needed me.  He was quite clear he could handle it and said that they would be released soon.  That was the last I spoke to him.  His friend Tonoy was a theatre activist.  Both could instill in people confidence and courage, what many people who are marginalised always experience as insecurities, but through their talk, instead they succeeded in giving them a feeling of strength and a sense of faith in themselves as they are, as they wish to be.  Many spoke to me yesterday and today, how these two young men managed to dispel the idea of living in constant fear after they spoke to each person who felt threatened.  So why should they get killed?  They were not hurting anyone, they were not using any kind of coercion or violence to force their position on others?  On the contrary they tried to let everyone have the chance to express their views.    Xulhaz’s house was a haven for people who felt the need to be comforted, to feel strong, to feel wanted.   Neither of the two very recent incidents where such gentle people were killed showed that those killed ever thought that one has to use machetes, knives, daggers, guns to spread an ideology or a belief or a life style, to express one’s rights as a citizen, to instill fear through force and venom, to take away lives to perpetuate a belief?  Surely no rational or intelligent person can ever believe that it is only through fear and force that ideology could be established and followed.  That analysis is so flawed it is beyond comprehension.  But, unfortunately in the name of ideology, in the name of religion, this is sanctioned. How contradictory can one get?  Either passively or tacitly by not acting or by deliberately pandering to this kind of action, by giving into the fear factor or by being brain washed, this kind of violence and intolerance is exactly what is being propagated.

The list of people killed during this last almost seventeen months is long. We have no idea of how long or how fast will this situation spread all over the country, before it can be stopped? Of course the question asked time and again, can we see signs that there are serious intentions to stop this?  The confusing and sometimes contradictory statements given by those in the Government certainly do not give any sense that the Government has any intention to act to suppress this.  In fact their statements are often to the contrary and seem to be given to appease the killers.  It is randomly and broadly stated that it is the bloggers who are attacked, and that all bloggers are atheists. I think it is time to stop this over simplification.  Why do people think that being an atheist is dangerous, not to be tolerated?  Just as having a religion, whatever the religion may be, either Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Jains, etc. is very normal and acceptable, similarly not having a religion or a religious belief is not an agenda either.  It is an individual’s decision.

This is not the Bangladesh we know. We are not mentioning any general murders, rapes, sexual harassment of women in public celebrations, extra judicial killings etc.  The purpose of this piece is to mention killings in the name of ‘Religion’. What is interesting to note that in most cases the modus operandi is uncannily similar.  What is also similar is the non action in bringing to book or even finding out the perpetrators. Our Government says these are isolated incidents; next day we get the report that all those who have been involved in killings have been caught.  We know that one of the killers of Oyasequr Rahman Babu was caught but later released and we see the CCTV camera video footage of Police catching and yet unable to hold on to another killer in the recent incident.  Apparently the killers were armed!  Of course they were, remember they killed two people and injured two others?  On the other hand our law enforcers are happily killing people in encounters ever so often.  The contradictions in each statement given are so weak.  They really need a better script writer.

I would like to mention here some facts.  First, not all those killed were bloggers, and those being killed now are neither necessarily bloggers nor atheists.  Secondly, not all bloggers are atheists, nor all those active in social media are bloggers or atheists. They may or may not be, that is irrelevant. Thirdly, I had no idea, and please those who know do know, inform me under which article of the Constitution is it stated that no one can be an atheist in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.   The message that appears to come out is that it is perfectly alright to machete and hack to death an atheist, because she/he questions the very basis and beliefs of a believer. That one need not go through the legally accepted and established legal forum, the laws of the land or the Judiciary, nor does one need to be taken to Court. That a believer only implies not just one religion Islam, but also does not allow all the different schools/mazhabs, sects, trends within Islam to continue to exist. Islam has been practiced in what is now Bangladesh as the religion of a majority which came through the preaching of very religious and spiritual leaders, hence the influence of the Sufi Culture.  Not through the sword, definitely not through imparting fear and/or force.

The message that there is only one form, a form alien to this land, of belief and practice, that of the Wahabi/Salafis who are not part of the 4 Mazhabs of the Islamic Sunni belief is now being pushed with full force as the current agenda.  This is a global phenomenon, not just here.  It is not relevant as to whether our Government accepts that Islamic State exists in name here in Bangladesh.  They may be called Mujahideens, Talibans, Al-Qaeda, Hefazat e Islam, Harkat ul Jihad, JMB, or whatever name they wish to call themselves.  The process of force, violence, falsehoods, and murders to create fear in order to establish their State is essentially the same.  What is crucial in all this is that women will never be full citizens with equal rights.  We cannot allow ourselves to go backwards from what we have so valiantly fought for, for what we have achieved.

I write this since many people killed in this brutal manner have been believers, Pirs,  Shias, Ahmedias, followers of the Sufi tradition, priests from other religions, writers who were not necessarily atheists, or at least have never openly stated their position as being such, even expatriate residents who came to work and live in Bangladesh. People who love music, people who are young, middle aged, old, anything or anyone without any apparent basis or rationale may be killed. Believers, non believers all have been targeted in order to gain control to establish that there is only one acceptable form of Islam.

Those feeling outraged at this barbarism are asked that one should be careful not to hurt the sentiment of the believers? Whose sentiment are we talking about? Which believers? The misogynists,  communalists who preach and breed obscurantism, a group financially strong, having the backing of the powers that be, misrepresenting and misquoting for their own vested interests, building upon the lack of knowledge of the vast majority of people, in the name of religion, a completely false base? Why are these groups allowed to operate? In whose interests are they doing so? It is time to link up this obscurantist, misogynist ideologies, whether in our country or using the name of another religion in another land, and to analyse whose interests do they really serve? There does not seem to be any contradiction between great profit making interests such as the drug, arms, smuggling, trafficking and sex industry and these bigots.

Islam, and I mention Islam here since that is the religion of at present over 90% of the people of this land, existed in this country for centuries, without the current trend of extreme violence and fear (if I were in India or in Europe or North America, I would mention the majority religion, used as a political tool in those countries too) We do not need a new and alien form of Islam in this country, or any form of religious indoctrination for that matter. As a secular state we are supposed to believe in the separation of Religion and State.  Are we, those that are either at the helm of affairs or claim to have some influence over policy and thinking, at all concerned that the numbers of people who have a different faith or viewpoint are decreasing? That non Muslims are currently around only 9% of the population?  Whereas, in 1951 non-muslims were 23%, which then came down to 14.6% in 1974.  Just as a country needs Democracy, a country needs Diversity in all its various forms. Killing of protestors fighting for their right to their land and home against coal fired power plants, the Tazreen, Rana Plaza and other industrial tragedies, attacks on non Muslims, Indigenous peoples, Women, are all part of the same trend; a trend towards the establishment of a controlled monoculture, whether of production systems, market controls, or a monoculture of the mind, through ideology and culture.

Is it not now the time to speak out? To fill in the blanks, make the links?

As a woman, a feminist, as a rationalist, who believes in democracy, freedom of speech and thought, in equality in all fields specially one’s mind and thinking, freedom and security of one’s movement and the right to our basic needs including that of sharpening our intellect through knowledge and culture, I will speak out. My mind is my own, it belongs only to me, free to move where it wishes to go and free to dream its own dreams and free to express myself. I do not hurt others ideology or beliefs, just as I do not allow others to hurt mine. I am strong in my belief, because it is mine as I have come to understand it.

My belief, my ideology, is not so feeble that just because someone does not share my ideology, my ideology becomes insecure and shaky.  1971 has taught us that killing cannot stop freedom. It did not then, it will not now.


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