A Step in the Right Direction
Iffat Nawaz reflects on taking back the streets for women
It was not a carefully composed set of words, a cloud of meaningful thoughts, or a specific incident that happened to me or someone close. It wasn't spring, summer, winter, or autumn. Neither was it Hemonto or Shorot. But it was the expression on your mother's face after she got back from doing her weekly bazaar, it was the wrinkle on my cousin's forehead after she took her daily ride on the bus from Dhaka University to Dhanmondi. It was a trip and fall, a ripped orna, a pair of unused running shoes. A bike that collected dust, a few drops of tear in my neighbour's daughter's eyes. It was a collected set of wishes from different corners of Bangladesh and its middle. It was simple … it just was.
And that's how it started. After walking from Aziz Super Market to Dhanmondi during rush hour, stepping on abundant saliva on the ground, maneuvering around pot holes and open manholes, ignoring a few cat calls, getting almost run over by buses, cars and rickshaws, and pushed and shoved by pedestrians, one can only feel one sensation, liberation. Liberation because it feels like you have done the impossible, you have walked down the streets of Dhaka, which do not welcome feet, they do not welcome mobility or independence. So each time someone accomplishes their journey on foot between point A to B there is that amazing feeling of climbing Everest.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv
But does it really have to be this way? Do we have to walk down the streets with a scowling-stern face protecting every ounce of us? Do we have to think twice, thrice, four times before pulling out our running shoes and going out for a jog down Dhaka roads, or getting on bikes to take a ride, or even commute to work? Do we have to, every second, make sure all possible parts of our body that could appear as a temptation to some chap standing in some corner of some street is covered? And do we have to get used to those unsolicited comments by strangers, often with humour and often with lust? Do we have to?
I know you know the answers to all of these rhetorical questions of mine. Then why do we still ask these? Well it's because these problems have existed for generations now. Our mothers faced it and now it's our turn, and next will be our daughters; unless we change something, something fundamental, within us and the ones around us.
And that's how the idea of Ey Poth Amadero, came about. As a part of Drishtipat on April 11, we organised a run/walk/bike from the front of the national museum in Shahbag to the Shahid Minar. And after this event, I am convinced that we definitely will make a difference, through this event and through the ones which will follow.
Even then the days that led up to the event made me nervous. We knew the idea was a good one as everyone who heard about it told us it was long due. However would people actually come out at 4 pm on a burning April Saturday to run, bike and walk? What if we were left alone on the roadside to claim the road with our big banner and just the 15 volunteers. What if?
Thinking of this "what if," Asif Saleh (executive director, Drishtipat) and I arrived at the museum, it was an hour before the run. There was no one there yet, we told ourselves it was still an hour away. Then the clock hit 3:30, only half hour from the start and less than a handful of volunteers with us we avoided making eye contact. But things changed, 10 minutes to four, about a 100 people showed up, mostly to walk or jog and some with their bikes. The Bangladesh women's cricket team with their coach were there. The garments factory workers sang Amra korbo joy while jogging down Dhaka streets shoulder to shoulder with corporate Dhaka, journalists, NGO workers, students, artists, and photographers. The crowd held a kind of diversity yet unity that made me want to stand and watch instead of run.
We finished the run wanting to go further. We took our combined high energy to Robindro Sharabar and spread it to the thousands of audiences waiting there for music and words. All artists and speakers delivered messages about the road and women's rights. They encouraged Bangladesh to step out of the set box, to stop harassment towards women, to encourage women to walk down streets with their heads high and to become more physically active.
BRAC University and BUET students volunteered during the event, their youthful attitude spread a different kind of electricity through the crowd. There was a united understanding of the agenda of this campaign and everyone felt and lived it. And if that is not success I am not sure what is.
That is not to say that this journey is over. If two eve teasers stop passing comments on the street, if three people make space in their minds and roads for three other women to walk more comfortably down the roads, if five more women feel safer while commuting tomorrow then we will know we made a difference. We will know and feel our roads better, we will continue this campaign through reading, writing and practicing our rights, through more walks, runs and physical activities.
Some say it is not only in Bangladesh where we face these kinds of issues and I agree. Sure, there are other countries in the world facing the same, but does that make it okay for us Bangladeshis to just carry on this way? Why not change something and show the rest of the world we are capable of doing so, why not spread respect and safety down our roads. Just why not?
So I hope the next time we gather, to walk, run or sing you too will be with us. And in between these walks I hope you will think of us and our streets, about the long due and imperative change of attitude towards our roads with our women in them, the changes you can make might be subtle but combined that will make the biggest difference.
Our roads will take us far, so come out and own them it. Claim your piece of the road, it's waiting for you.
Iffat Nawaz is a Director, Drishtipat.