Monday, August 23, 2010


I am now back in New York city.
My time in Bangladesh is over.

The last day of our internship (the day before we left) I got really sick- fever, digestive problems (if you know what I mean), headache, intense stomach pain. I know it was my body responding to being completely exhausted. The last week in Dhaka we worked on average 12 hour days and near the end we were pulling close-to-all-nighters almost every night.

The last night before our presentations, I desperately needed some fresh air so I went outside for a walk. Across the street from the TARC is a construction site, day after day I have seen three women sitting on a pile of broken bricks, pounding bricks with hammers. Six days a week they have been in the same spot. Smashing. Smashing Smashing. The broken pieces are used in the construction of rooftops. In some areas I have seen machines that easily chop the bricks, but all over the country I have seen individuals intensely pounding their hammers doing the same job. It is a job that pays less than a dollar a day.
I had been wanting to talk to the women for awhile so I approached them with a smile and they kindly let me sit with them, photograph them and play with one of the woman’s daughter. Every day I saw this woman’s daughter, who is perhaps five or six, spend her entire day waiting and pacing around the 20 foot work space. I saw how her mother glanced up every few minutes to make sure she is near. The eyes of all three women had so much in them, I wanted so badly to hear their stories. The next two days, every time I passed them I received enthusiastic waves and smiles.

What I miss the most about Dhaka are the small moments on the streets- the waves, the smiles, glances, seeing everything that surrounds me. Dhaka really began to feel like home. I will miss everything about the streets, the way I feel, in awe, trying to learn as much as possible. Some time in our first weeks in Dhaka, on the rickshaw ride to the BRAC center, I noticed a site where a group of men were tearing down a two story building with only hammers. Over the course of nine weeks I saw the building slowly deteriorate, with a patience that is foreign to the supersonic speed of our modern world. Finally, the day before I left, the entire building was finally destroyed.

In these nine weeks I have felt, for the first time in my life, that I have been a part of something that matters. My collaboration with Patricia makes me imagine a whole new way that I can create change in this world. There is no way to say how much I miss my dear friend and partner in this project, Ruhul. I could not imagine my time in Bangladesh without him. I cannot put into words what this journey has meant to me, I hope my images can do a better job than I can. Bangladesh will always be a part me.

Friday, August 6, 2010

My Experience as a Woman

My experience here as a woman has challenged me in many ways. Here, where there are rarely women in public, it feels lonely to be a woman. I learned early in my time here that holding eye contact with men too long or smiling too long are read as invitations for more than I intend… I find myself searching for other women on the street so I can make eye contact with them and smile and recognize each other, and not feel that I am being inappropriate. I feel the boundaries of my comfort being tested. How much am I willing to adapt in the recognition that I live in a context where my behavior is interpreted in much different ways than I am used to? I love to engage with people in public and I have had to tone that down most of the time.

I don’t think I fully realized how much my experience here has been shaped by my gender until my partner Ethan came to visit. All of a sudden men on the street were coming up to us, engaging in conversation, asking questions. Ethan had access to everyone around us on the street. While I was working at the BRAC center, he hung out in the day with Ruhul’s cousin who took him around to tons of different factories and roadside manufacturing shops. Ethan was able to hang out at different local hot spots, drink tea, take video and chill. Other men generally let him be undisturbed. Whenever I have been on the streets, walking around, buying fruit etc, I will no doubt get a crowd of interested men who will all blankly stare at me from a few inches away (as if I can’t see them) silently for as long as I decide to stay. And they aren’t always staring where I want them too either. The frustration comes from realizing that I can not participate as a full member of the public sphere.

Still, I would not have wanted to experience Bangladesh as a man. As a woman I have had access to the inside of women’s homes. They have opened up to me in a way that never would have been possible had I been a man. After all the stories we have heard, and the unbelievable amount of kindness and generosity we have received, I feel as if I have fallen in love with every woman that I have met in this country.

In this public/private separation, I have once again been reminded of the importance of spaces for social relief. Many of the women that we interviewed were in desperate need of social release, their powerful reactions to being alone with us proved that. In the rural areas, women are restricted access to public space even more. Several times we heard that husbands did not want their wives to leave the house because if other men saw her on the street, they would think that the husband could not control his wife well.

It has been inspiring to witness how BRAC’s programs are truly changing the societal consensus about how women are treated. Just one aspect of their programming, at the individual and household levels, they have workshops where men and women/husbands and wives discuss gender equality especially with concern to division of resources and household tasks. It is really quite incredible how quickly beliefs are changing. As Ruhul repeats over and over, “Our society is changing day by day.” Women are aware of their rights and are demanding them. There are networks within communities of women activists (many who are involved with one or more of the three departments we are working with) who assist other women in claiming their entitlements and demanding their rights be recognized. So many of the women who BRAC is representing were referred to BRAC by other women in their communities. The presence of over 12,000 polli shomaj groups, which are ward based (3-4 villages) organizations for women to connect and mobilize, has made a huge difference. Last weekend we shot what will be the final video of our web storytelling platform. Whereas all of our other cases are individual stories, we decided to do a group piece that documents a story of collective action. We talked to a Polli Shomaj that prevented a 14 year old girl from being married. The mother of the girl was trying to convince her husband that their daughter was too young, but he wouldn’t listen to her. She told her Polli Shomaj group and a group of women approached her husband together and convinced him to wait until she turns 18, the legal marrying age. He agreed.

While observing one of the polli shomaj’s meetings we asked the women to stand and tell us why they thought the polli shomaj was important. We recorded what they said and their words truly show their sense of agency in changing their lives and their communities:

“Polli Shomaj is a poor people’s freedom club.”

“Polli Shomaj is our greatest wealth. Through the polli shomaj, we will stop all unfair practices.

This is how we will improve our society. If the Polli Shomajs will improve, then our country will improve.

If anybody tries to achieve something on their own, people will not value what they are doing. Our power increases if a group of members work together. When we work together, our community people respect what we are doing and help us achieve our work easily.”

“ If all poor people combine together, then they can stop unjust practices in the society, if any one is raped, or is encouraging an early marriage, we will stop it and we will inform to BRAC. We can also make poor people aware of their rights. The polli shomaj is very necessary. Only because of the polli shomaj, a group of people is able to complete any kind of task. If a group of people go to any kind of place, people will think they are a strong unit, so if they want something, it will be easier for them to get that thing.”

“We feel proud to be members of the Polli Shomaj. I think Polli Shomaj is great because sometimes we are unable to achieve things individually, but when we work together as ten people then we can easily achieve difficult tasks.”

“Now we have much more courage to move in public freely.”

“Through the polli shomaj meeting, we know which practice are legal and illegal. So now we can protest and defend to promote legal practices. Now we have enough courage but before we had no confidence. Only because of the Polli shomaj, we are now aware of our rights. Poor women are now aware about their rights. Now they know what is legal and what is illegal. We have learned about these things from the polli shomaj.. Now we place a high value on education. Previously, we did not think it was important. Though the Polli Shomaj meetings, we understand the value of education.

We learned how to achieve our rights.”

Thursday, August 5, 2010


We are in total crunch time right now. In the past two days I have literally looked at every single photo I have taken in the past 8 weeks. Through this visual journey I am finally realizing that I have transitioned into the final phase of my time here, a reality that continues to reveal itself… Two nights ago the 25 Afghanis who have been my family in Bangladesh left. Hallie, our dear friend, fellow BRAC intern and TARC resident, also went home. Our home that we have shared for the past eight weeks feels different, empty.

Sometime in our first few weeks here Patricia and I were eating dinner in the first floor dining room, a large room that is split into three parts with one section distinctly labeled “Only Afghan.” Due to our common inability to handle the extremely spicy flavor of Bengali food, we ate in the Afghani section for every meal. While serving ourselves dinner (which is e.x.a.c.t.l.y. the same every night) one of the TARC staff members turned on some hindi dance music. None of the Afghani men had come into dinner yet, and immediately most of the 8 women began clapping and dancing. some enthusiastically sang while I eagerly pretended to sing. The moment Habib walked in everyone immediately froze and sat down, within five seconds everyone was sitting, focused on dinner. Patricia and I were suddenly the only ones dancing, which perhaps took me a few seconds too long to realize (I tend to get really into it). We ate the rest of dinner quietly, but I kept thinking how unfortunate it was that simply the presence of a male meant that we couldn’t dance.

The next evening at dinner, while sitting with our best girl friend Shefiqa (who I wrote about in one of the first blog posts), we came up with the idea to have a movie night where we could all hang out, watch a movie and dance. Girls only. We would have to take over the classroom that their training was held in (which has a projector). Most of the men would be in there watching the world cup and using the internet. We would have to convince them all to relocate. We planned it for the following evening and let all the other women know. The next evening at dinner we excitedly discussed our plans and Shefiq (one of our best guy friends who is always playing jokes- like flicking giant cockroaches on my foot) begged us to allow him to attend. We joyfully refused him even as he offered to be a bodyguard for the door, preventing other men from entering. After dinner we took survey of all the pirated dvds we had purchased and decided that Momma Mia would be a fun choice. At 9pm we met all the other women in the classroom as we performed the impossible- convincing 20 Bengali and Afghani men that they should leave the room so that we could have our girls only soiree. It was not easy, they were persistent and extremely eager to watch the movie with us, but all us women all worked together, pushing them towards the door and resolutely refusing the most desperate pleas from Shefiq, Wali, Mujib and Bismullah. At one point Shefiq came pretty close to tantrum status. Once they were all out, Shefiqa and a few others even taped paper over the door so that the men couldn’t look in at all. We locked the door and started the movie.

I cannot begin to describe how fun the movie was. From the first song we all were on our feet dancing and clapping, with different women taking turns in the center of the room. Kareema, who can always be heard from a few rooms away with her loud laugh, filled the room with her melodic explosion of joy. When I explained the plot the whole ‘One woman slept with three men around the same time and doesn’t know which one is the father’ gave a everyone a big shock. We danced throughout the movie and at one point, one woman (who shall remain un-named---- I know you read my blog wali ;) even danced on top of one of the tables. The evening was a joyful success. I don’t think I realized how much the evening meant to the women until the night they said left. As we were saying good-bye almost every woman mentioned how they would never forget the night we took over the room. As the van pulled away, taking eight sobbing women to the airport, and two sobbing women behind, I was overwhelmed by what a beautiful privilege it was to get to know such courageous, resilient and kind souls.

This group of 25 (plus Hallie, Craig and Patricia) were my family in Bangladesh. I will never forget when Delow Jan, who I call my Afghani grandmother, gave me a one hour head massage after I told her I had a headache. Or when she massaged Patricia’s belly with a technique that involved slapping both her stomach and the bed. Or when she brought me into her room and in the course of an hour communicated her family’s story with hand gestures and only a few words and pictures.

Shefiqa and Delow Jan <3 <3 <3
Or when Shefiqa stood up to Aayoub during a conversation about women’s rights, arguing that Islam does not require to only have one eye showing and that women should be able to move freely in public. Or when Shefiq, Zabi, Wali and Mujib kept me company when I was working late in the computer lab. Or the way Delow Jan covered my face in kisses every time I passed her in the hall. Or when an entire bus of us women (on the way back from their closing ceremony) sang bollywood songs at the top of our lungs. Or so many other moments and interactions that convinced me time and time again how lucky I was to have found an Afghani family in Bangladesh.

Impromptu dance party in the van

Kareema <3

"Oh my darling, I love you!" <-- Bollywood song that plays EVERYWHERE

All dressed up at their certificate ceremony at the end of their training.

Who doesn't fit in?


Noori, whose smile always made my day

Wali- an incredibly ambitious 20 year old who raised $50 from all his colleagues to buy a rickshaw wallah his own rickshaw.


Habib with Enayat in the background

Atiq. nuff said.

Me being modest for Aayoub who thinks women should only show one eye ;)


Shefiqa and Patricia