The Freedom From Religion Foundation in January gave a $5,000 stipend to Shuchessmita Simonti, a young student, secularist and feminist from Bangladesh now seeking refuge in the Netherlands who has been imperiled by her activism. This is part of FFRF’s “secular Underground Railroad” grants. Last year, Shuchessmita’s mother received a $5,000 grant from Nonbelief Relief, and also received aid from ICORN and other agencies to remove her from Bangladesh and settle her safely in a European nation.
By Shuchessmita Simonti
I was born in Russia and moved to Bangladesh when I was just 4 or 5 years old. While growing up, I was personally affected by a number of issues that caused deep anguish.
First and foremost, I was born to a Hindu mother and a Muslim father whose marriage did not work out, so I grew up with my mother. As a teenager, I was vulnerable and was bullied on several occasions because my religious identity did not fit into a box. I never learned about religion like many others. I was often made to feel I did not belong in society. As a young girl growing up in Bangladesh, I found myself in a traumatizing situation where I faced sexual abuse and was unable to stand up for my rights.
I felt my life would be better if I moved out of the country. I was elated when I got a scholarship to pursue a bachelor’s degree in India. Once I moved to India in 2011, I tried to live my life to the fullest and keep myself safe from the discrimination I had faced earlier. However, being born to parents from Hindu and Muslim background was used against me when I was studying in India. These individuals (mainly from Bangladesh) resisted my ambition to participate in different kinds of events organized for international students. It bothered them that a woman was being so assertive. They tried to shame me for my choice of clothing and for living freely, although that was not enough to kill my enthusiasm. They used my identity to put me in a corner.
In South Asia, religious extremism is one of the major issues of concern and I found myself cornered from all ends. This affected my self-esteem. The feeling of not belonging, of being worthless, like a particle spinning in space without an orbit, was shattering. It started reflecting on my performance in different activities.
For a while, I found myself withdrawing, but I wanted to find my way back again. And this is when I stumbled upon the world of online volunteering. I joined one nonprofit as a remote volunteer in 2014, and that was my official first step toward feminist activism. I started helping them with social media, and later served in different positions. I found a safe space for myself.
I had a passion for writing, so I started writing about women’s issues I had observed while growing up and submitted them to different student blogs. While I continued to face politicized discrimination, these activities kept me happy despite lack of peace in my life.
In parallel, some developments occurred back home. My mother, Supriti Dhar, who had had a long career in journalism, became involved in activism and eventually founded an online portal for women called Women Chapter. It was initially published in Bengali, but sometimes she also published articles in English. I gave her a few of my articles, which she gladly published.
As the writers started addressing bold and sensitive issues, Women Chapter started getting the attention of political figures and religious extremist groups. Many writers criticized the patriarchal aspects of religion, while some talked about social stigmas. Some pointed out the corrupted and brutal acts of people affiliated with political groups. Some articles had to be withdrawn because the writer’s safety was at stake. Unfortunately, my mother had to bear most of the wrath. She started receiving threats and even lost her job.
I was afraid to go back to Bangladesh for vacation, and only returned to renew my passport. I resemble my mother, and many times when I was in a public place, I was approached by random people who asked if I was related to my mother. Given that she was already being threatened, I began to fear my own safety. In 2015, after we were both threatened, I confined myself for two months, never stepping out without necessity.
At this point I felt I could no longer keep silent. I had to use my own painful experiences and insights to help others. I organized and participated in interfaith dialogues where I felt I could contribute to promoting a culture of tolerance. As a secular and tolerant individual, I wished to foster this culture of tolerance and inclusivity. Around the same time, my mother approached me with a proposal. She told me that she wanted to create an English site of Women Chapter and invited me to be editor of the English website. I agreed, and tried to utilize my own networks to build the portal.
In 2017, I moved to the Netherlands to pursue my master’s degree in social justice. I continued working for Women Chapter and I tried to provide a platform for women from diverse backgrounds. In 2018, my mother had to leave Bangladesh. To this date, she is afraid to return as it can cost her life.
Sometime after she left, I got a message from an acquaintance who sent me a news link. When I opened it, I was in shock! It was a case filed against four women, including my mother and me, on the grounds of insulting Islam. I tried to recall what I could have written to merit this charge, but could not remember anything at all. It was filed under a draconian law in Bangladesh that aims to silence voices of dissent. I was scared and shattered at the same time because I knew that it could land me in prison, and also make me a potential target of the extremists.
Given that my mother can no longer live in Bangladesh, and I had no place to live there, I was already in a difficult situation whenever I tried to contemplate my future. Now this accusation brought everything to a standstill. I deactivated my Facebook account in panic. In no time, the news was shared in different religious extremist pages, with claims of punishing us brutally for committing the crime. The news had misspelled my name, so it may take someone awhile to find me. But in the era of technology, it is probably not so difficult to track me.
I refuse to hide my face because I am not a criminal. But I do know that I cannot ensure my safety in Bangladesh. The situation is like being blindfolded and not knowing who will attack. Even if people do not want to attack me for who I am, they can attack me for whose daughter I am. Or because I am affiliated with Women Chapter.
Reflecting on this, I feel a sense of grievance and anger. When I reflect on my life, I did not choose to be born to parents from differing religions. And yet, that made me a target for bullying and harassment. And even though I tried to resist the oppression, the oppression only amplified over time and has escalated into a much more dangerous situation.
We have a lot to do when it comes to protecting individuals who do not fall into the societal norms, or do not abide by them. In so many countries around the world, individuals are being oppressed for being who they are. And often, the government does not care.
Yes, as a child I did not choose my identity, but as an adult individual I made a conscious choice to be a secular feminist and pursue my passion freely. I also hope that in the near future, I can utilize my own experiences to help others.
Shuchessmita has a one-year visa in the Netherlands, allowing her to legally reside there for one year and try to rebuild her life in that country. She has had to leave student housing. The grant will provide her with the time needed to secure her stay there through employment or further studies.