Just as we finished our Reason Rally coverage with Bonya Ahmed, so we do again as she closes out the fourth Women in Secularism conference.
Things have changed, even just since June. There was something quieter about her presentation at the Reason Rally, in this writer’s opinion, but today, she was fiery, newly invigorated, spurred by a purpose she’s in the process of discovering.
If you don’t know her story, it’s harrowing. She survived the attack in Dhaka by Islamists that claimed the life of her husband Avijit Roy, and would later claim several other secularist and progressive activists in similarly gruesome manners. Ahmed herself barely made it out alive, with multiple, horrible wounds, and a painful recovery. “Most of my fingers don’t work anymore,” she told us.
Now, she’s directing her efforts toward better understanding the rise of extremism in Bangladesh, getting a more nuanced understanding of why this is happening now. This was notable, because her address wasn’t merely an alarm, warning us all about the ongoing crisis of militant Islam in Bangladesh, but a global look at how myriad factors contributed to the current situation.
She talked about the vast garment industry in Bangladesh, 4 million workers strong, and mostly women, all working for meager wages and in horrid and dangerous conditions. She asked us to remember that global consumerism and the struggle for resources between the U.S. and Russia all impact and infect the climate of Bangladesh. She reminded us that Bangladesh hasn’t reaped the rewards of political and economic advances that the West has enjoyed over the past century. “How can I blame religion only without [also] blaming local and foreign powers who use religion as a tool to maintain their power?”
The problems Ahmed seeks to address are central to CFI’s work, especially now. Because of our mission, we tend to focus on the free expression and religious aspects of this human rights crisis, but it’s important even for us to take into account the global consumer economy, the corrupt regimes propped up by foreign powers, and the harrowing and fairly young history of Bangladesh as a nation-state. She helped us “connect the local dots to the global picture.”
But of course, religion is always there. “For me, it is very hard to separate feminism from skepticism, from atheism,” said Ahmed. She recalled her youth, discovering that religions — all of them — were lacking in sense, telling us, “I am so grateful to the Quran for making me such a strong atheist.”
We are so grateful for Bonya Ahmed.