Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, also known as Tutul, is the founder and Editor-In-Chief of Shuddashar, a digital magazine that seeks to support human rights and freedom of expression through its publication of diverse voices from all over the world. From Shuddashar’s earliest days in book publishing, it provided a space for Bangladeshi LGBTIQ+ writers despite threats and intimidation. In 2015, after being brutally attacked when leaving his office in Dhaka, Tutul became an ICORN writer in residence in Skien, Norway, from where to this day, he continues to publish Shuddashar. As 2021 Pride month draws to a close, Tutul reflects on the magazine’s and his own commitment and collaborations with the LGBTIQ+ community, the threats and challenges they have faced and continue to face, and the importance of highlighting voices from the Global South in the digital magazine. Emphasizing the need for ongoing activism and nuanced dialogues, Tutul revisits Shuddashar’s past Issue 20 focused on LGBTIQ+ issues, but also shares about an upcoming book on queer utopias.
Could you introduce yourself and Shuddashar for someone who hasn’t read the magazine before and isn’t familiar with your work?
People know me as Tutul. I have an official name: Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury. So far there are three steps to my work with Shuddhashar.
Shuddhashar started when I was in class XI (In Bangladesh, this is the intermediate 1st year of college.) It was a little magazine that was published irregularly. Then in 2004, Shuddhashar began book publishing. From 2004 to 2015, more than a thousand books were published by Shuddhashar. In 2015, Shuddhashar's office was attacked by radical Islamists attempting to kill me to stop Shuddhashar’s publication of books they considered went against Islamic principles. I survived this attack, but I had to leave the country from the hospital. For security reasons, all Shuddhashar’s activities in Bangladesh had to be stopped. Then Shuddhashar started online in January 2017, and we are still continuing and growing.
Shuddhashar is currently operating as a non-profit organization. In other words, in Bangladesh, I was the sole owner of the company, but today, Shuddhashar is a board-run organization. I work almost as a volunteer: as editor-in-chief, publisher, and organization leader. We are working to change people's thinking, to inspire them to think outside the box about important issues. We support freedom of speech and human rights, and we work to encourage people – through responsible writing and thinking – to protect democratic values and culture.
You say that the motto or consciousness of Shuddashar is activism. What do you mean by that?
Shuddhashar has always been focused on activism. When we were a little magazine, we published because we were inspired and determined to open minds and change the world for the better.
Later, even though book publishing became a business activity, we published many books out of a sense of social and intellectual responsibility. We published books by young, new writers as well as established writers. Because some books were about controversial topics, many publishers did not want their names associated with them. Maybe we should have been more afraid of the consequences of publishing, but we were eager and determined to expose the public to different views and diverse ways of living in the world.
In our current online journey, we are publishing and stimulating discussions, critiques, and debates around topics of free speech, cultural diversity, democratic values, and open-mindedness. We have evolved, but regardless of Shuddhashar’s stage, it has always been a pen activism.
Shuddashar has published many relevant articles, books on LGBTIQ+ issues and by LGBTIQ+ authors. Why was it important to publish an entire issue dedicated to voices of this community?
As you can see from our online magazine, we've published several issues on important topics: LGBTIQ +, authoritarianism, feminism, exile, racism, body politics, and blasphemy. We believe that awareness and care are needed for a cohesive society and a democratic non-discriminatory state to exist and thrive. There are many misconceptions and reforms regarding LGBTIQ+, even in many developed countries. Additionally, the people of this group are subjected to various forms of hatred, discrimination, and torture. The situation in South Asian countries is even worse.
Of course, some positive changes are also seen from time to time. But unless the general public as a whole has rational knowledge about this topic, nothing will work. This is basically the purpose of our full issue dedicated to LGBTIQ+.
In addition to this, you know that Shuddhashar published a book on homosexuality and love by Abhijit Roy. Because of those books, the author was assassinated, and I was threatened as a publisher. So as an individual and as an organization, we feel a responsibility for these topics and this community. All of this is a continuation of our sense of responsibility.
What, if anything, do you feel has changed in Bangladesh since that difficult time in 2015-2016?
Many changes have taken place in Bangladesh. Through social media and other online activities, awareness has increased among people, especially among the youth, about free thinking, LGBT issues, blasphemy, etc. On the other hand, state authoritarianism has grown and is staying firm. It goes without saying that there is almost no opportunity to practice the usual traditional politics in Bangladesh. Democratic institutions have been turned into loyal institutions of the government. Party loyalty is now considered for government jobs and even for university teachers. In this situation, religious extremist groups are much more politically organized in favor of the government. Also in Bangladesh, disappearances have become a regular occurrence, sometimes just for a post in Facebook. And writers, journalists, and activists are trying to protect themselves through self-censorship. The rise of various forms of nationalism and authoritarianism around the world is an indication of conflict among humans and a real threat to democracy and basic humanity.
Both you and the guest editor for this issue, Shakhawat Hossein Rajeeb, live in exile. How did that shape your collaborations, what is gained and lost from being outside of Bangladesh?
I would say that exile gave us an opportunity to collaborate. Knowing that he and several other Bangladeshis from the LGBTIQ+ community are also in exile certainly motivated me to want to amplify their voices and experiences. Also, being in exile creates a kind of bond. At the same time, it is also very difficult because our circumstances have changed since going into exile. Some of our original community is dispersed or silenced, and our audience has changed. So, for this issue, I relied on Rajeeb to navigate the challenges of writing and publishing about topics that in Bangladesh, and some other countries, are taboo and dangerous.
Rajeeb makes some very interesting points in his preface saying that a lot of the conversations around LGBTIQ+ issues happen in silos and are mostly led by the Global North. Do you think this issue was a small step to counter this challenge?
It is my – and probably also Rajeeb’s – hope that this Shuddhashar issue about LGBTIQ+ will increase communication and understanding among communities across the globe. As you know, the Global North has led several social movements but has mostly not listened to the voices and concerns of the Global South. This is a problem. For one thing, their concerns and circumstances are not at all the same. But also, remaining in silos where people only talk with others in their own silo perpetuates global hierarchies. For these reasons, it was very important that this LGBTIQ+ issue had a wide diversity of perspectives and especially that it would give space for those from the Global South.
I was struck by this quote in your editorial for Issue 20: “Social, religious and political actors have repeatedly tried to build themselves up on pillars of dualities, asserting their power while standing on the backs of others. Yet each time we try to shove something into one of these categories, we do violence upon it. The real world is more nuanced and diverse than this [...]” Can you talk further on how your understanding of duality and nuance have changed over time and if this special issue had an impact on that understanding as well?
My understanding of all topics is constantly evolving. I first became interested in the subject of homosexuality because I realized that I was very misinformed in my society. Like other countries, Bangladesh society creates narrow categories for people, and anyone who does not fit is considered a problem – or worse, as in the case of homosexuals whose activities are illegal in Bangladesh. The same is true with the subject of feminism and the roles for women and men in society. When we try to put people into narrow societal categories, we neglect or do harm to anyone who doesn’t fit. Of course, my ideas about all these subjects evolve each time I read new perspectives. I am constantly learning.
My sincere hope is that Shuddhashar is a platform for others – writers and readers – to also keep learning. That is one of the main goals of Shuddhashar.
The issue 20 features writers from all over the world. Are all Shuddashar issues this international? Was this a conscious choice? How did you go about selecting and reaching out to contributors and maintaining that delicate balance of hearing a person’s specific perspective while acknowledging it reflects a part of a region or country’s reality?
From the beginning, with the start of blogging in Bangladesh, the online community and the contributors of Shuddhashar were international. Because of that, Shuddhashar addressed issues that had an appeal and impact not bound by borders. We also learned new ideas because of this international network, which included Bangladeshis living in the diaspora.
So when we had to start working online in exile after 2015, we focused on increasing our global network and expanding the voices and perspectives. We sought writers to address the same topic from their standpoints in different parts of the world, to connect with people facing the same challenges, and to exchange opinions and learn from each other.
This was the same approach we took with the LGBTIQ+ issue: to collect articles that showed some of the global and perspectival diversity. We tried to have even more diversity than we were able to accomplish. But due to various limitations, it was not possible to cover all areas and regions.
You say that you don’t see publishing as a courageous act, just a soft one. Why is that? Given that you have been physically attacked and live in exile due to your work, has that opinion ever shifted?
In fact, I wanted to say that I’m publishing this magazine from what is now a safe position. I can call publication a duty, but I don't think it would be right to say that I have shown courage. I think the courageous work is being done by those who are daily facing the dangers and risks and attempting to challenge the oppressive and authoritarian side of religion, society, and the state in Bangladesh. Through Shuddhashar, I and the editorial team are basically trying to act as comrades to those brave people.
As part of Pride Month, you’ve announced that Shuddhashar will be publishing its very first book since its online journey began in 2017 and it will be titled (Re)Imagining Queer Utopias: Voices from South Asia. Can you tell us more about it? Are you still looking for contributors?
Since October 31, 2015, I have been looking for a way to get back into book publishing. Despite many attempts, I was unable to continue publishing in Bangladesh. Personally, I have had to face extreme economic losses. But publishing is more than a business for me; it is also a passion. And in the online journey of Shuddhashar, we have worked on a variety of specific topics and plan to do more.
We are thinking of publishing books on a few topics. You know why I was attacked and nearly killed. So we plan to start the journey again by publishing a book on the subject about which I was attacked and which caused Shuddhashar to stop all activities in Bangladesh. We are also working on a few more books. Initially the books will be published in e-book form. Then we will take the initiative to make a print version. For the book, (Re)Imagining Queer Utopias: Voices from South Asia, we have made an open call for submissions (the open call for pitch/abstract has closed, but submissions is open until November 30, 2021). We are also reaching out to potential contributors through our networks. An editorial team of experts is working on the concept development, chapter topics, and editing the book.
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