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.”