Naira Khan provides a post-feminist viewpoint
I am not a feminist nor do I wish to be labeled as one. In fact I would even go so far as to voice my protest against such celebrations as "Women's Day" because it makes me feel as though all other days are "Men's Day."
Even Valentine's Day I feel was invented by men for men to redeem all the birthdays and anniversaries they forgot and Hallmark was assigned the task of making it logistically impossible to ignore it, let alone forget it.
Another such Hallmark invention would be Friendship Day -- an insult to all friendships whereby you need to set aside a day to commemorate them.
Coming back from the tangent I seem to have strayed off into, my proclamation of not being a feminist was mainly because for the next few paragraphs I'm going to harp on about women's issues. Well not so much women's issues as there is a plethora of issues therein, but rather about the tribulations faced by women on the streets of Dhaka city. As for women's issues, as long as we live in a male dominated world, there will always be room for improvement.
Having grown up in Dhaka city I find that there are some discrepancies in terms of the gravity with which the problems faced by women in the streets on a daily basis are presented. There seems to be a socio-cultural demarcation between women who take to the streets because they have no other option and those who are so apprehensive to do so that they don't mind their mobility being limited due to the lack of availability of their private vehicle.
A friend of mine labeled the latter as bubble-girls -- women who live in a bubble created by the paranoia of their parents and perpetuated by themselves. I was once a bubble girl myself. I was only able to break free from the shackles of my parents' stronghold by literally taking to the streets, using public transportation, and showing them that it is quite alright to do so.
The apprehensions seem to be three-fold: a) the state of roads and traffic conditions, b) the staring, c)the eve-teasing. To the extent that many believe the streets of Dhaka are completely unusable and women only deign to use them despite the conditions described.
In actuality, however, this perspective is rather extreme. Women can indeed walk the streets of Dhaka -- and average women do. In fact I think it's rather elitist to say that the streets of Dhaka are no place for women and women don't use them.
As for the apprehensions, I will agree that the pavements and the streets are unwalkable due to lack of hygiene, men squatting indiscriminately to relieve their bladders (or worse, bowels), traffic conditions, or a complete lack of pavement. But these are problems that have nothing to do with gender, as men face them too.
As for the staring issue, you have to realise that culturally it is actually not considered rude to stare in Bangladesh. Everyone stares at everyone all the time. Men stare at men, not just women. In fact, I find everyone has enough time to just stop and stare. It is primarily because we are used to a very western concept of personal space.
In Bangladesh the radius of personal space is so small that you can consider it almost non-existent -- a fact that is readily evidenced as you find people think nothing of standing next to you in the market while completely leaning on you with their entire body-weight.
I do agree that there are men who indulge in eve-teasing as a sport, but that happens to be present in every society and every country. I myself have dealt with eve-teasing in Europe and America, as I am sure any woman has. That is of course not to say that it is acceptable.
However, I feel that you cannot expect to walk down the streets of Dhaka in shorts and a tank-top and not attract attention. It is a mode of clothing that is considered disrespectful to our culture. Although I would love to have the liberty of attire to wear whatever wherever, I also have to learn to respect cultural traditions of clothing that we have inherited as part of our history and heritage.
I cannot wear pants while teaching at Dhaka University simply because it is not an acceptable dress code for a teacher. As a student I wore pants to DU quite often. Similarly, I can if I want to, wear a sari in the US, and I did when I was teaching in North Carolina. Believe me, I attracted my fair share of curious stares, odd questions, and even mocking laughter. Hence, as you can see it is more about cultural incongruity rather than liberty of clothing.
In fact I think in that respect Dhaka has actually progressed quite a bit, as it is something I can feel acutely when I visit Karachi where wearing pants and a fotua on the streets, an outfit I see quite often in Dhaka, is still quite taboo.
Yes, we do have room for improvement, but it will not happen in a day, and I do believe we have actually made a bit of progress. In fact, in all the issues addressed above some steps need to be taken on government and policy-making level, and I think these cards are already on the table of discussion.
The gist of what I'm trying to say is that the streets of Dhaka are not unusable for women and it is up to women to walk the streets with dignity. Speaking as a bubble-girl-convert, I use public transportation every single day.
I walk the streets every day, in DU area, Dhanmondi, New Market, Banani, Gulshan, etc in saris as well as jeans. Yes, people do stare, but I do not face the eve-teasers that are being talked of. That is not to say they don't exist. Of course they do. But not to the extent that the streets are unusable and women are using the streets despite them.
Many complain that there are pinchers and pokers. My sister goes to New Market and Gausia on a weekly basis. I go to Nilkhet frequently because I have to buy books for the university. Packed markets. Neither of us get groped. We get pushed definitely, but mostly by women.
I'm sure it happens, but we haven't faced it in the last number of years; and of course if ever it happens it needs to be stopped. But I believe that women should be the ones to make the difference. If women are getting pushed, poked, pinched, stared at, they need to be the first ones to put a stop to it. They need to let people know at home, on the streets, and in the workplace that no one can treat them with such disrespect.
If you happen to feel that the streets of Dhaka are unfriendly and you can't ride your bike or go for a jog in your favourite track-pants, then it is up to you to be brazen enough to simply do it. I know it is easier said than done. But if you realise that the fact of the matter is, if enough women biked or jogged in their favourite track-pants then it would not attract as much attention.
I would even wager that if you conduct a survey you will find majority of women do not even wish to bike or jog. Thus the handful of women that do want to, have to suffer it out. It is a phenomenon that will happen with anything regardless of gender. If a small number of people choose to engage in some activity that happens to be incongruous with the rest of the culture they are bound to attract attention. It is up to the women to be brazen enough to deal with it. Women who want to bike, jog, play cricket, run a marathon should just go ahead and do it in order to pave the way for cultural acceptance.
Speaking of jogging and biking actually brings me to what I think the real problem is: the unhealthy sedentary lives that women lead in Dhaka, where physical activity is not only not encouraged, people simply don't deem it necessary. This is something I perceive at every level, even amongst my own friends. After a certain age if you run or play a sport it is considered ludicrous. It is actually considered ludicrous by women, not just men.
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain
Hence, since women themselves don't feel the need to be physically active, there really are no outlets for them to do it. No such options. After school and college, I could never find a place to play a sport because the sports federation is populated by women to whom sports meant bread and butter and therefore it was extremely politicised and lay people could not survive.
In fact, when I went about looking for a sport to play, people at every level thought it was ridiculous because according to them "grown women don't play sports." It is considered age inappropriate, an adage that everyone at every level seems to agree upon. Playing a sport is even considered elitist.
In fact, I think that upon reading my ranting here on women playing sports a number of women including some of my closest friends will perhaps be rather irked and will probably assume I'm either elitist or non-conformist or perhaps plain crazy. I should mention here that by playing a sport I mean active physical exercise, and usually the most enjoyable way to do it is to play a sport. I actually went for a jog at 6 am in Gulshan park one day, in my favourite track-pants no less, and although people stared at me as though I was a Martian there was no eve-teasing, not even any mocking laughter.
The main obstacle to my jogging endeavour, however, were lackadaisical morning walkers in saris and sneakers intermittently blocking my path and pace and I was crestfallen to realise that that lackadaisical waddle has been transfigured into exercise due to a congested city life in which we live like broiler chickens.
The concept of well-being, including physical well-being, is simply not there. The main problem is that it is the women who need to realise it. Apart from menial labour (like breaking bricks, etc) women that work full time or are homemakers or do both do not get the right kind of exercise that is necessary for their health and well-being. That's what I meant by playing a sport.
Yes, time management is important, but so is exercise if you wish to prevent geriatric ailments like diabetes and heart disease -- an awareness that is completely absent from our society. Why should exercising be elitist? Playing a sport or exercising is not a luxury but an essential part of everyone's lives. Or at least it should be.
But women need to realise this. Women need to realise that a certain type of physical activity is essential for them to maintain their health. Unless they realise it, they will never seek for outlets or options that provide it for them or a culture that accepts them indulging in it.
As I mentioned before, as long as we live in a male dominated world there will always be room for improvement where women's issues are concerned. However, the point that I have been trying to make is that it is largely up to women to make the difference. The change has to come from women as well. The change has to come from within.
Naira Khan is a lecturer at the Department of linguistics, University of Dhaka.