Guest post by Zerin M. Firoze
Please read last week’s post for the first part of the journey of this brave young woman.
A year ago, every moment of my life passed with the constant fear of rape and death. Islamic extremists could break into my house and kill me at any moment. The Bangladeshi government, police, Islamic groups, my own family, and the general conservative Bengali Muslim population are all against atheists. I realized that I did not have any option but to flee from Bangladesh in order to survive.
I am an outspoken Ex-Muslim atheist, feminist, and human right activist from Bangladesh. I have tirelessly written about religious freedom, democracy, free speech, women’s rights, and LGBT rights in Bangladesh. Today I risk my life every time I speak my mind. I have received rape and death threats from Jamaat-Shibir, Ansar-Al-Islam, and Hefajat-e-Islam for my writings and for supporting basic human rights.
I am a bit different from all the other atheist writers who were killed in Bangladesh. I am not a blogger. I was attacked and threatened simply for posting the truth on my personal social media. All the other atheist writers and activists who were killed in Bangladesh were all males and were far older than me. I am an outspoken female atheist, which made me even more vulnerable. Unlike most other slain atheists like Washiqur Rahman, I have never used a pseudonym on my social media accounts. I have always been an outspoken critic of Islam and all other religions with my real name and picture. My location in Bangladesh was also easily traceable. I never thought anybody, especially my own friends and relatives, would try to harm or worse kill me just for my writings on social media. Initially, I thought at least my moderate, English-speaking Muslim friends would support me and help me reform Islam, but I was woefully wrong. My Muslim friends deleted me from social media and have cut all ties with me. Some of my English-speaking Muslim friends tried to kill me unless I converted back to Islam and the rest of my Muslim friends wanted to report my name to the police so that the government could punish me for blasphemy and apostasy. I could neither seek help nor report threats to the police in Bangladesh. The police would have arrested me for the grave crime of exercising free speech, instead of arresting extremists who kill people. Under section-57 of the 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act, I could end up in jail for 14 plus years with heavy fines for the crime of hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims in Bangladesh. Jihadists from Ansar-Al-Islam already knew my face and name. I was also at risk of facing honor-based violence and torture by my own Muslim family. I was under attack both by political Islamic extremists and my family.
I did not wish to live my life under constant fear of threat. I want to live my life freely, and I want to continue my education. My British agnostic friend Sarah gave me the idea to open a GoFundMe account. The GoFundMe service is not available in third world countries like Bangladesh. So Sarah had to set it up from the UK with her own UK bank information. My Facebook US atheist friends were generous with their donations. However, I could not raise more than $1000 as I could not openly have published my story and condition outside my trusted social media atheist friends. Later, I also realized that it is difficult to remit money in and out of Bangladesh. I am not a foreign worker so I cannot receive money from outside Bangladesh. My American friend Cary Rogers handled all my financial matters wisely, signed my college forms, and acted as my legal guardian in the USA.
Last year during this time I applied to US colleges for the fall 2016 admission by going AGAINST my parents’ wish. Just last January, I had no idea that I would get accepted by all eight US colleges including selective and competitive Stony Brook University. I had no idea how I would pay for my college. Last January, Cary helped me apply to US colleges on time and even paid the admission application fees on my behalf. Later, I repaid Cary when my parents changed their minds. Cary also signed my housing contract form for SUNY and acted as my legal guarantor in the US and paid for my other expenses here and there when my own parents refused. I’m fortunate that I have a friend like Cary and my parents changed their minds at the last moment (last year in June/July). I was able to fight and demand my rights. I was able to shame my parents’ for denying, delaying, and hampering my education for so many years.
One of the biggest reason my parents let me go is because I received threats from Ansar Al Islam, Jamaat Shibir, Hefajat-e-Islam and various other Islamic groups. I showed all those hateful messages to my dad. My very presence at my parent’s house was risky for my parents. My parents also realized that they could no longer tie me down or force me to marry. Many of my classmates were forced into marriage and my parents wanted the same for me. My dad’s sister told my mom that a typical Bengali Muslim man would never marry a rude atheist girl like me. LOL. I came to the US with one year of funding from my parents and my parents are still hesitant to pay for my college. I’m trying to convince my parents to help me pay for my second, third, and fourth years of college.
US colleges took four months to review my applications and accept me. I could not sleep nor eat for four months. I kept fearing for my safety and changed my location from Dhaka to Chittagong while I waited for US colleges to make a decision on my application. My social media accounts were deactivated for several months as I feared for my life in Bangladesh. I stopped writing on social media. Those four months were the darkest and scariest months of my life. My British friend Sarah was ready to educate, feed, and shelter me in her house. However, the UK embassy rejected my visitor’s visa application due to lack of ties with my home country of Bangladesh. I could not move to the UK to be safe under Sarah’s protection. The Swedish embassy also rejected my tourist visa application.
Then later in July 2016, I got my acceptance letter and I-20 form from an accredited US community college under SUNY. I had worked for the last five years to save money for college. I had fought with my parents, and as an elder daughter, I demanded my share of inheritance. It took me several years to convince my parents to educate me. My parents eventually had to let me go. My parents could no longer keep me in their house as many extremists and my other former religious friends and relatives knew I’m an atheist. My parents simply could not keep an outspoken atheist in their house due to safety related reasons. My parents asked me to leave and never to come back again. I am not even allowed to visit my parents during my semester breaks. My parents will not take me back if I go back to Bangladesh.
The US embassy treated me very nicely and granted me a five-year student visa as I passed my student visa interview, and I met all requirements for the student visa. I immediately packed my bags and took a plane to the USA as soon as I got my US visa stamped on my passport. However, there are job restrictions for International students in the USA. Moreover, a student visa is a temporary visa. I need to go back to Bangladesh before my visa expires. Now, I need a place where I can settle permanently and call it my own country. I speak English fluently, and I am well-informed about US politics, culture, and the American way of life. I want to be a US citizen. I applied for asylum in the USA, and I hope the US government will grant me asylum.
Zerin M. Firoze is now a nursing student in New York. If you would like to support her efforts, check out this link – Zerin M Firoze | Patreon