The Ms. Q&A: Extremism Won’t Stop Rafida Ahmed Bonya’s Secular Feminism

Rafida Ahmed Bonya’s story resembles that of the mythical bird the Phoenix.

In February 2015, Bonya and her husband, Avijit Roy, were violently attacked by Islamic terrorists while they were visiting their native Bangladesh. Her husband didn’t survive; Bonya got back to the U.S. with severe injuries, a sliced-off thumb and gnawing memories of the attack. But machetes and death threats could not stop her indomitable spirit. Bonya and her husband were targeted because of their writing on issues including atheism, secularism, feminism and LGBTQ rights—and after recovering, she resolved to delve into research and keep on fighting.

In her lifetime, Bonya has waded through many rough patches. She went through a violent divorce before she met Roy; raised her daughter as a single mother and survived cancer. Now, she also lives with the loss of her friend and partner. But it is still difficult to see Bonya as a victim.

Bonya talked to Ms. magazine about fighting for gender equity across borders, secular feminism and her forthcoming memoir.

Eva Anandi / Wikimedia

From a 13-year-old girl who denounced religion, to a Bangladeshi-American writer who survived a violent attack by the Islamists in Bangladesh—tell us more about your journey.

I was lucky to be born in a liberal educated middle-class Muslim family in Bangladesh. My parents encouraged me and my sisters to read and question everything. When I was a 13-year-old, I used to ask my father: Why all religions claim that they are 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.

I went to check out the Quran, Bible, Gita and Torah from the library, absorbing all the information my teenage brain could handle. I went back to him, almost a year later, and told him 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 discussion in my family about religion.

What is your take on the connection between feminism and secularism?

Feminism and secularism are closely connected. All major world religions are extremely patriarchal; I don’t know one which supports equal rights of all human beings. But I also think if we do not talk about the other important factors associated with secularism—such as politics, economy, interplay of gender, religion and local and global power—as part of feminism, the story remains incomplete.

Human societies and cultures are complex and do not work linearly. We need to remember: secularization in the west was a political project, not just an abstract social and historical process, as many secular movements try to portray today. If you look carefully, you will see women’s rights weren’t integral to the movement—they became a piece much later as women started demanding it. There is a prevalent idea in developed western countries that separation of politics from religion is inevitable as “modernity” happens, and gender equality is an enduring principle of secularism—but we are seeing all around us that this is not universal. Secularism is getting rejected by many of today’s populist movements in countries such as India, Turkey, Egypt, Russia and even here in the United States, in many ways.

We should also not forget that many of these powerful secular nations sponsored religious fundamentalism in developing nations and newly democratic countries, especially the Muslim nations, in the post-colonial era as part of their cold war and imperialist strategy. Saudi Arabia, the biggest exporter of Wahabi fundamentalism in poor Muslim countries, is our biggest ally. We are seeing the first-hand result of this in countries like Bangladesh now.

How would you describe it in the context of Bangladesh?

Let’s look at it from a local perspective as well. Think about a female garment’s worker in Bangladesh. She is still fighting for a humane minimum wage. We are talking about millions and millions of female workers in the developing nations who are selling their labor for $50 to 70 per month and living in inhumane conditions. That’s how we are getting cheaper stuff here. As a woman, they have to constantly fight the political, economic and social structures just like the poverty-stricken men do in those poor nations—but then these women have to fight against religion and patriarchy on top of it.

We are seeing a new wave of identity formation based on religion and nationalism—to me, nationalism is also a religion—all around the world. At the same time, It also feels like we have started going backward. We are getting stripped off of the progress we made in last few decades as part of the feminist movement. Women’s right are under attack here in the United States as well.

We are living at an interesting time. I think we need to go beyond just the secularism and feminism binary, though it is one of the important factors, and think about women’s liberation and feminism from a more holistic point of view.

Tell me about your upcoming memoir.

My memoir is still very much in the works, but I guess I can give you a general concept. I have been hesitating to write it because I have always been pretty private about my personal life, but I guess I am growing out of that reservation, especially after the TEDx talk I did in April in the UK.

I will write about two major parts of my life: my upbringing in one of the poorest countries in the East, getting involved with the left politics as a teenager, dropping out of medical school and working with indigenous people and garment workers—which was a pretty big deal for a teenage girl to do in a conservative Muslim country like Bangladesh—and my adulthood in the richest countries in the west, the U.S. and Canada, as a student and a professional, and my life with Avijit after a violent divorce in 2000.

It feels like I have been fighting with the existing world order in various capacities—religion, social change, politics, family. I am particularly excited about telling my story from the lens of a woman who grew up “alongside” Bangladesh; by this, I mean that Bangladesh gained independence shortly after my birth through a bloody nine-month-long war and that Bangladesh and I have grown up hand in hand. On the other side, I want to talk about my adult life in the corporate world as one of the few women in IT; Avijit’s and my journey together as freethinkers, writers and activists.  My story is also about one of a woman in our generation who had to constantly balance and negotiated her way through the period of single motherhood, professional success, passion, politics, competing worldviews and religion.

How did you meet Avijit?

Avijit and I started dating across continents in 2002 after we met in Avijit’s newly founded online platform, Muktomona, for the Bengali speaking freethinkers. We had a wonderful relationship for almost 13 years. Avijit was not only a prolific writer and an online activist with a rational and scientific mind; he was also a feminist. I sometimes feel our relationship was so fulfilling in so many ways that I will not have any regrets if I do not have any other relationships in my lifetime.

Do you think the attack make you more committed to your goals? Do you feel this attack has changed you? 

I don’t know if it made me more committed, but it has changed me in many ways. I do not worry about little things in life anymore, and my 21-year-old daughter definitely appreciates that a lot.

Do you think such terrorists consider fearless women one of their biggest threats? 

The religious community commits itself to the suppression of women—it’s a trend found in all organized religion. A woman’s right to choose is currently under attack in this country, too. It is sad that we are still fighting for the protection of these fundamental rights, whereas we should be fighting for the next steps to achieve equal rights for women.

You asked a question in your TEDx Talks: “Why not me.” Can you explain that?

This realization of “why not me” helped me see my random and brief existence on this planet within the broader context of the universe and was an integral piece of my recovery. I coped by not being perplexed and depressed by the question, “why me,” but by trying to deal with it, and answer it. I tried to understand how events are shaped by each other, how we all impact each other—just as, perhaps, a small butterfly fluttering its wings in one corner can impact the weather on the opposite side of the world.

Even after all that had happened to me, I am still more fortunate than many others. I still have a well-paying job, an extremely supportive and capable network of friends and family and a guarantee of a comfortable life and a platform to talk to the world. Most people do not have those luxuries. We live in a world now where the richest one percent own half of the world’s wealth, but when some of us get lucky to be tucked into this safe and comfortable life we take it for granted and create a personal garden of Eden all around us. We think this is what we deserve, that nothing can touch us within these protective walls that we have built. But when we are thrown out of that Eden, we break down and start asking, “why me, why am I the one suffering?”—just as Job did in the Old Testament.

If you look carefully, this is a pretty violent universe: stars exploding, galaxies crashing. Even in our relatively calmer planet, there is no end of catastrophes—natural disasters, climate change, random accidents, extreme poverty, corruption, wars, sex trafficking, ethnic cleansing, violence. Some of it flows from sheer randomness, such as where we are born; some from accidents. Others are definitely created by the actions of humans.

At that time, stories of the Yazidi women who escaped from the stronghold of ISIS after being captured, sold and raped many times were all over the news. They worked as an inspiration for me. I thought, if those incredibly brave women could try to live again, what was my excuse? This realization was incredibly freeing. It encouraged me to go beyond the inner screaming of “me, me, me.” The question really isn’t “why did bad things happen to me?” Shouldn’t the real question be “why not me?”

I thought about it from another angle, too. I thought about the young photojournalist. Rather than just taking pictures and leaving or watching us on the street like hundreds of other people, he asked himself: “Why not me? Why not help?” That saved my life.

Kohinur Khyum Tithila is a journalist based in Bangladesh. She is a Fulbright scholar and received her second master’s degree in Magazine, Newspaper, & Online Journalism from Syracuse University, first master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice from Dhaka University, and bachelor’s degree in English from East West University. Kohinur writes about LGBTQ and women’s issues, feminism, crime, secularism, social justice and human rights. She is also addicted to anything caffeinated.

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