Monday, July 19, 2010

Tumi Shokti Shalli

What a roller coaster ride it has been. We have been shuttling back between Dhaka and different parts of this country, collecting our materials and trying to wrap our minds around how this is all going to come together by the time we leave- at the beginning of our internship we ambitiously decided that we would not only document the stories of those who work with Human Rights and Legal Services, but also with two other departments- Social Development Program and Gender Justice and Diversity. All three constitute BRAC’s programs addressing Social and Legal Empowerment.

Outside of Dhaka I feel everything in extremes, the stories of the women we have talked to stay with me for days, countless stories of domestic abuse, which perhaps tellingly is only described as torture. I feel like I am putting together the pieces of a puzzle, always trying to understand the structural systems that permit violence against women to exist.

Perhaps when I have traveled before, I have been much more willing to come to conclusions, here I feel like ‘understanding Bengali culture’ is in no way possible in two months and definitely impossible without speaking Bangla semi-fluently (I have been studying with flashcards and can only pick out a few words of each sentence as people talk…). Understanding how people actually communicate with each other in words is such a basic element to understanding everything- how people treat each other, respect each other, communicate ideas etc. I am finding myself wishing I were here for longer, I have endless questions that I wish I could ask everyone I meet, but without Ruhul (the best translator/friend ever), I can basically have one conversation (if the person doesn’t speak any English). It goes like this- I describe what my name is, how I am doing, where I am from, that I can’t speak Bangla but I am learning (duh.), how many brothers and sisters I have (my personal favorite, always get a good response to the big 10), and that I am not married. Then I ask a few simple questions and I am lucky if I understand the answer. “Aste, Aste,” I say, speak slowly. Pretty limited to say the least, definitely not a conversation that gets to the heart of the national/individual psyche.

It is this challenge of communication that makes me so grateful that I have the opportunity to spend so much time in the houses of the women we are meeting. The way that they have opened up about the painful and intimate details of their lives has shown me that the ability to connect with someone is not limited by language. So much is communicated through the face, the voice, the body. We are almost done translating all of our videos and it has astounded me how much I could tell how the women were feeling in the moments when we were alone together.

Mussamat struck us with her beauty from the moment we saw her, greeting us with a brilliant smile, making me almost second guess if she was the woman we would be interviewing- we had been told we were going to meet a woman with a brutal story of acid throwing. Ruhul confirmed that she was the one and briefly told us that her ex-husband threw acid on her when her family was unable to pay a sufficient dowry. That is all we knew. When she hugged us both I saw that the topography of her skin confirmed that she was indeed a survivor of a viciously violent act. She eagerly led us to her home and we realized we would have to talk in her courtyard, as her daughter was sleeping in their home. After a nauseating round of crowd control (can’t expect someone to open up when 50 of their neighbors are listening in), we sat down and she began speaking. The first few moments she glanced nervously at the camera but she quickly forgot about it and for the next 45 minutes she made intense eye contact and spoke directly to us. For long moments she stared into the distance, letting a loud heaviness settle into the spaces between her words. Ruhul was waiting outside so we had no idea what she was saying. Almost immediately my breathing felt restricted and difficult.

Before long sweat covered all of our faces, as if we had just stepped out of the shower, but she continued speaking. A single stream of sweat traveled down her neck and onto her chest, traveling like a river in the valleys between her scars. Scars are evidence of survival. Only the living have scars.

Screenshots from our video:

When she decided she was finished talking, we all embraced each other tightly and collectively cried, each head on another’s shoulder. I whispered in her ear, “Tumi shokti shalli.” You Are Powerful. She spoke quietly to us, but with the cameras off, we will never know what she said. We stroked her hair, kissed her face, and all held each other tightly. She slowly and softly wiped the sweat and tears from my face with her scarf. It is that moment, with her tenderness, gentleness and kindness, which I continue to think about.

After several minutes, we all began to smile and then to laugh. Suddenly, a freedom revealed itself between us, a common unspoken understanding that something powerful had just occurred. We eventually went outside her courtyard where Ruhul instisted that we were very late for our next meeting. Within minutes we were being whisked away after a huge crowd had descended upon us. The last image of her in my mind is of her beaming, holding her daughter, sending us away with a giant wave.

From Mussamat's story

After driving away we asked Ruhul how old Mussamat is.
“Twenty two,” he said.
The same age as Patricia.

Last week we translated what she said to us and we finally learned her story.

In order to pay a dowry (an illegal, but very common practice) for Mussamet to get married, her father, a farmer up to that point, sold all of his land. He is now a rickshaw driver. She was 17 years old. Upon marriage she moved to a new community, away from her family and into her husband’s family’s home. His family was not satisfied with the dowry amount given and both her husband and mother in law physically tortured her, pressuring her family to give more. She became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, but her husband’s family did not accept her in their home. Eventually, after continuous torture and still no more dowry money, her husband and mother-in-law threw acid on her face and body.
In that moment, her fellow members of the Polli Shomaj (a community group formed by BRAC’s Social Development Program) threw water on her and took her to the hospital. They have continued to support her and her daughter now that she has moved back in with her parents. Since her father sold his land for her dowry, her parents can barely support themselves, they cannot offer her any financial support, she struggles to provide food for both her and her now four year old daughter, she revealed that she rarely has three meals a day. She still experiences intense pain because of the acid throwing- she cannot be in the sun for long (meaning she was probably in pain while we were talking) and it is very painful for her to do manual labor. As a woman, she finds it extremely difficult to find work opportunities. As a result of the acid attack, she has no hope to remarry, meaning she will probably live the rest of her life with her parents and daughter. BRAC is fighting for her, baring all costs to run the case against her ex-husband and mother-in-law, which is still in process. Justice is on the tip of her lips, she craves for a harsh judgment and fair ruling.

Hearing her words adds a whole other dimension to our original connection and experience. It is frustrating to learn what she revealed to us and know that I did not have the opportunity to tell her how much I value her existence in the world, that I did not give her anything more than my presence, when she is unable to feed her daughter. I do not think there is sufficient language that I could have used anyways, I can only hope she felt my deep respect and admiration of everything that she is.

Here is a small excerpt of what she said:

What can I do?
What can I do, my sister?
What can I do?
I have so much pain.
I wish that no one else will be as helpless as I am.
No one.
I wish that no one else will have acid thrown on them.
I wish no one else will be tortured as I have been.
I am unable to support myself because of my troubles.
For this reason, BRAC has supported me and I have also received a lot of support from my community.
I cannot do any kind of work, I cannot work in the sunshine.
I do a lot of hard work, and experience a lot of pain.
I said, “I want to die because it is very difficult to live like this.”
In that moment, BRAC asked me, “why do you want to die?”
I said, “Now I am jobless. I would rather die than have to live without a way to support myself.”
BRAC said, “You will get fair judgment in your case and you deserve this because they destroyed your life. If you die, your daughter will die. Your daughter has a life.”
In that moment, I said, “ I am not interested to save my life, because my husband and my mother in law were not interested to receive me. They did lots of torture to me. What can I do now? I don’t have any way to live. I have only one thing I can do, and that is to die. I am not interested to save my life. What can you do for me?”
BRAC said to me, “Please do not kill yourself. We will give you some kind of support. We will help you to support yourself and your daughter. Don’t worry, we will help you. We will help you. You will work with us.”
BRAC just filed a case against my husband. BRAC is now supporting me to continue this case. I am unable to pay for my case, only because of BRAC it is continuing.
I am continuing my life with the help of BRAC and my community.

I wish no one will have to go through what I have.
This is what I wish.
I wish no body will be victimized by acid.
My husband caused me so much pain.
I wish that no one will ever have to go through what I have.
God created this world to live in but I do not have any way to support myself.
How can I support myself?
I need to eat something.
How can I support me and my daughter?
Only because of BRAC, I am here.
I can depend on BRAC that they will give some kind of support to me.
My sister, I do not have any words that can comfort you.
This is my story, I have nothing else to say.

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