The struggle for a progressive Bangladesh goes on – from Sweden

28-year old blogger and journalist Shamima Mitu left Bangladesh on November 5. She was receiving severe threats because of her writings on social issues. With the aid of The Palme Centre and Swedish PEN, she is now residing in Gotland, waiting for a decision on her application for asylum.

December 17 2015 Text: Daniel Gustafsson Pech

Shamima Mitu has been active as a journalist and blogger for the last four-five years, and has among other subjects written critical pieces on the limitations of women’s rights in Bangladesh. Her writings stirred up anger among religious fundamentalists and triggered threats.
“I was receiving death threats and rape threats frequently. Vituperations and short messages like “Be prepared to die,” “I will rape you,” etc, were pouring into my mobile phone and Facebook Inbox and not only from Islamist, but also from Hindu fundamentalists”, says Mitu.

The fact that she has a three-year old adopted daughter has also provoked fundamentalists. Her daughter, who was abandoned by her biological parents when she was only two years old, is now with her on Gotland.
“I have been raising my child alone, defying all obstacles of society. The fundamentalists are angry with that because I am unmarried. And they say Islam doesn't support adoption.”

When Shamima Mitu started to work as a journalist and blogger she was met by instant reactions on her writings. In her position as a staff reporter at the The Daily Samakal, a front ranking bangla daily, she was covering women’s and children’s issues. Her writings were also published in other media, such as womenchapter.com and The Bangla Tribune. She is the founder of the blog istishon.com where she writes regularly, and in her own blog  shamimamitublog.wordpress.com she was being even more outspoken.
“For example, the rate of child marriage in Bangladesh is the highest in South Asia. I was writing blogs on this topic and religious fundamentalists showed anger. Recently the government voiced plans to to bring down the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16 under pressure from religious fundamentalists, as they failed to achieve the 2015 United Nations Millennium Development Goal of reducing the child marriage rate. The Islamic fundamentalists are also demanding to lift the ban on child marriage.”

Another problem she has addressed in her writings is the sexual harassment of women in public spaces. A piece called “How I wear my sari, what is it to you?'' went viral in social media. It described the way women were harassed by a group of students from Dhaka University at Pohela boishakh, a national festival celebrating the Bengali New Year. There was CCTV footage of the event, but nobody was arrested.
“People, especially fundamentalists, tried to say that, ok, women don’t need to go those festivals, or women wore their sari below their belly button, with an open neck blouse that exposed their bare backs. And that the festival in itself is an anti-Islamic event. It was a big threat for women’s freedom. Nobody talked like that before.”

The initial reactions to her texts were however quite normal during her first years as a journalist. But she and her colleagues observed how the tone gradually became more and more aggressive, and as the first bloggers in Bangladesh were killed, they realized they had to start taking the threats seriously. The circumstances for journalists and writers critical to women repression, religious fundamentalism and communalism then deteriorated quickly, with more and more killings of bloggers, writers and publishers this year, among them Mitu’s good friend Niloy Chakrabarti. In the end, due to the threats, she could not even leave her home.
“When I was eventually trapped in my room and couldn’t do my job any longer, I realised I had to leave”, she says.

She explains the hardened situation for journalists and bloggers as a result of the growing influence of the fundamentalist movement on politics in Bangladesh. This shift began some years ago with open provocations, such as the case in when fundamentalists started to protest against a sculpture of well-known 19th century mystic and singer Lalon, erected close to the airport in Dhaka. Lalon is considered an icon of religious tolerance, whose songs inspired and influenced both poets and religious thinkers. Eventually, fundamentalist activists tore down the sculpture, and actions like these gave them a growing attention.
“Gradually they also gained more power, not least through the religious so-called Madrassa schools with their numerous students, and the influential religious leader Allama Mohammad Shafi”, says Mitu

Shafi is the leader of the so called Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh, one of the larger fundamentalist movements in the country. In 2013, with the help of thousands of Madrassa students, the movement entered Dhaka with a 13-point charter addressed to the government. The charter demanded execution of so-called “atheist bloggers”, to stop infiltration of all “alien-culture” in the country, but it also included a ban on women’s right to work outside their homes and to bar girls from school after fifth grade, something that Shamima Mitu openly protested against in her writings.

She sees this radicalisation of religious movements as a result of the political situation, with a two-party structure, which in her opinion has deprived people of their possibility to raise their voices. But she also sees the radicalisation in countries like Afghanistan, in the Middle East and in Africa as an explanation to why fundamentalism in her own country has gained ground. Conservative religious leaders have simply been inspired by this development abroad. But she underlines that these tendencies are not, and have historically not been a part of Bangladesh culture, neither in the Muslim nor the Hindu community.

In 2015, the Cabinet Committee for Law and Order decided “to declare Atheist authors as criminals”, thereby meeting the demands of the fundamentalists. Despite these open provocations and severe attacks on human rights, such as freedom of speech and women’s rights in Bangladesh, Shamima Mitu sees that this situation will not go on forever. She continues to write her blog in exile, and is convinced that her only way to try and influence Bangladesh society in a more progressive way, is to continue writing.
“Everyone, from my office colleagues to friends and family, told me to stop writing. But it’s not the solution to stop. I had to write, and this was the reason why I had to leave Bangladesh”.