Two pages ripped, an entire nation torn apart

Misinformation can be dangerous, especially in a country where credentials often take precedence over facts and reality, notes the writer.


Theme illustration. PHOTO: THE DAILY STAR

January 26, 2024

DHAKA – Asif Mahtab’s role as an educator and academic lends him a strong veneer of legitimacy

A couple of days back, I woke up to video clips on Facebook showing a furious man ripping pages from a book and encouraging hundreds of onlookers to follow suit. Curious, I dove in to find the original 11-minute video, only to discover that the reason behind this viral stunt was an excerpt from the Class 7 Itihash O Samajik Biggyan (History and Social Science) textbook which discussed the need to respect and include people from gender-diverse communities, specifically those from the Hijra community.

It was all the more surprising when I found out who this enraged man was: Asif Mahtab Utsha, apparently an adjunct faculty member at BRAC University. Seeing an educator from a top private university openly disrespect an NCTB book at a Jatiyo Shikkhok Forum event was quite ironic. And, needless to say, appalling.

This is not to imply that we ought to police what others believe. People have the right to live life by their personal codes of morality, including abstaining from supporting certain causes and agendas. However, Asif crosses the line when he calls for forcibly imposing his beliefs onto others. And as the video continues to get thousands of likes, shares, and positive comments, I can’t help but be concerned about the ramifications of his actions on the most vulnerable people in our society.

Regardless of the inciteful rhetoric he uses to describe marginalised communities, he ironically fails to respect the bare minimum required of an “academic,” which he claims to be: presenting factually correct information.

Firstly, Asif conflates the very basic difference between sexuality and gender, using them interchangeably. In fact, the text does not address homosexuality at all, which is illegal in Bangladesh. Yet, he claims that a government-approved textbook is somehow being used to “indoctrinate” children, which is a bewildering implication.

He goes on to assert that 40 percent of children in the US are transgender. A quick Google search, however, reveals the real number to be 1.4 percent among US-American children aged 13 to 17 years, according to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles. Asif also claimed that there is a law that supposedly ensures transgender people study at the same pace and in the same institutes as their cisgender counterparts. However, regrettable though that may be, no such law exists or is in the process of being drafted.

All of this is particularly problematic since Asif’s role as an educator and academic lends him a strong veneer of legitimacy. If one is to proudly boast of being a graduate of a reputable university abroad and a lecturer at one of the more prestigious ones in Bangladesh, the least one can do is not conjure statistics from thin air. Misinformation like this is dangerous, especially in a country where credentials often take precedence over facts and reality.

Just as appalling as his complete disregard for the forces of reality are the extreme views he espouses. In his speech, Asif called for people of diverse genders to not be educated or employed. This is irresponsible coming from an educator who bears the very responsibility to guide people towards education.

He then proceeds to cherry-pick an anecdote promoting “inclusion” of the Hijra community which he misconstrues as “brainwashing” children; an absurd premise since promoting the rights of certain groups does not imply that you “become” them—not that anyone can consciously choose to become someone they’re not.

Perhaps Asif’s most outrageous claim was the idea that legal gender identification would somehow encourage sexual assault. He intuits that a “biological male” identifying as a woman could get away with rape, given that the Penal Code 375 (which he incorrectly refers to as “Penal Code 175” during his speech) only defines rape as a crime carried out by men on women. Despite the absurdity of this hypothesis, it’s astonishing that a “philosopher” such as Asif Mahtab fails to realise the most obvious logical fallacy: this isn’t an argument against gender diversity, it’s an argument to reform the dated rape laws made by British colonialists 164 years ago.

The consequences of Asif’s actions aren’t hypothetical. From the hashtag #BoycottBRAC to protests at the gates of the university, a movement of vindictive support for Asif has spread like wildfire, burning down the dignity and safety of marginalised communities. Every social media post claiming gender diversity to be a Western import contributes to the erasure of people who’ve existed in the subcontinent under the umbrella term “Hijra” for centuries. Every meme misrepresents the cycles of systemic abuse they face to this day. I can’t even fathom how difficult it must’ve been for his gender-diverse students and co-workers to know that someone they had to see every day didn’t even believe in their right to exist.

It is important to recognise that ignorance cannot be an excuse for Asif’s behaviour. BRAC University actively engages in initiatives such as gender sensitisation sessions for employees and health camps conducted for the transgender community. Asif has had every opportunity to educate himself and better his behaviour; he simply chose not to.

In the aftermath of his speech going viral, Asif was dismissed from BRAC University. And while this marks a step in the right direction, it’s important to recognise that Asif’s actions were not spontaneous. In the past, he has faced backlash for similar controversies, like when he tried to justify rape publicly via his social media account. So while we commend BRAC’s swift response, we must simultaneously expect our educational institutions to pay closer attention to whom they’re allowing to shape the minds of our future generation. Moreover, we’re often far too quick to jump to conclusions ourselves and take sides without ever really examining what our stances represent. Thus, the responsibility to maintain nuanced and inclusive discourse falls, in part, on ourselves. Before we jump onto another bandwagon, let’s remember to do our research and listen to the students who are most likely to spot red flags such as those demonstrated by Asif Mahtab. As everyday internet users and responsible citizens, let us not allow one voice of intolerance to tear apart an entire nation.

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