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     Volume 4 Issue 51 | June 17, 2005 |

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The Pen in the Hands of Women

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Laila Noor does not like writing on the traditional issues assigned to many women journalists. She is a litterateur, but, she says, "Where messages in pure literature take a long time to spread, it's much faster in journalism" -- and so her pursuit of both fields of writing. She has written features on the environment and on religious issues and has even received threats for the work she has done. She is also interested in writing on the fact that women in Sylhet don't actually vote -- men belonging to the different political parties force their fingerprints onto the ballots where they please. "These are sensitive issues in Sylhet," says Noor, proud of her bold work.

Noor has completed her LLB as well, "Not to practise but to know the law," she says. She is a network member of Bangladesh Environment Lawyers' Association (BELA) and has undergone training under institutions like Democracy Watch.

Sharmin Farzana is a teacher of home economics in Moulvibazar. She had wanted to study journalism at university but was discouraged by her family. "Sylhet is very conservative," she points out, and journalism is not the traditional choice of profession for women. So Sharmin studied home economics and later went into a more acceptable job for women -- teaching -- while contributing to some newspapers. She still hopes to change her profession at some point, however, and get into full-fledged journalism, writing features and perhaps making documentaries for the electronic media.

Laila Noor and Sharmin Farzana are among the 32 students in the Salma Sobhan Fellowship in Journalism for Women offered by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and Pratichi Trust, founded by Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen. The initiative was taken to encourage women into journalism. The 32 women from as many districts were selected for the programme last year. They underwent a two-week training in journalism and development and have been writing on various issues since, with many of them being published in the Daily Prothom Alo. The recent training -- phase two of the programme -- was held from June 5 to 13 on the BRAC University campus in Savar.

The fellowship is a year long and the programme initially aimed at training 200 journalists in three years from every district. Various experts in the field -- university teachers, development practitioners and journalists -- have taken classes on different aspects of reporting such as feature stories, human rights and gender reporting, women and children's issues, the environment and development and so on. The students have also been taken on field trips and given assignments there.

All the women, with no background whatsoever in journalism, testify that the training has helped them greatly not only in growing an interest and pursuing a career in the field but also in their everyday lives. They are much more confident of themselves now and see the whole world and people in a different light.

"Most of the women have said that the experience has been very rewarding," says Syed Waliul Islam, Chief Trainer and In-charge, BRAC. "One woman even broke into tears while describing how she wrote about an ill boy's fight for survival and how, after the story was published, society came forward to help and the boy survived."

Benu Begum Bizlee from Lalmonirhat has been teaching at a primary school ever since she was a student of Philosophy under National University in Rangpur. She also runs a shop there and works with her father in the fields. She wrote for various newspapers before getting the Salma Sobhan Fellowship. Since then, she has written on women's issues, divorce, and how jobs and dowry seem to be interchangeable for a woman. One of her entries has even found its way into Banglapedia.

Shoma Mukherjee, receiving her certificate from Prof Amartya Sen last year

The fellowship has taught her to look at life and people in a different way, says Bizlee, and to treat people (like criminals) nicer for her own professional needs than she would have otherwise. She hasn't faced too many problems in her journalism career so far, except for young men teasing and harassing her for being a "shanghatik".

Bizlee might very well leave her seven-year-old, well-paid and, most importantly, safe, teaching job for journalism. "I'm not afraid of taking a bullet," she says with conviction. "Death isn't a big deal. I'd rather work well while I'm alive."

Bindu Saha, from Narayanganj, is currently teaching at an English medium school in Dhaka. She has written features on child labour, early marriage, tuberculosis in women, a fire at a garment factory in Narayanganj, the brass and jute industries and working women. She's not sure whether she wants to pursue journalism as a career. "Let's see how this year goes," she says, "and then I'll decide."

Shameem Parveen, an accounts officer at an insurance company in Habiganj, has had 50 percent of her writings published in the Daily Prothom Alo. Some of her work has also been broadcast on a private television channel, but when she applied for a job there she was rejected because "women wouldn't be able to go everywhere and cover everything necessary". She has written on issues like child marriage, on a woman who lost her leg in the Liberation War but receives no government support, and on the families of some of the victims of the grenade attacks last year.

The students feel much more confident after the Fellowship

Shoma Mukherjee has come to Dhaka from Narail only twice in her life -- for the fellowship programme. Her work within the programme includes stories on the Adivasi community, pottery, Chorok Mela and a morgue. She is very excited to be in Dhaka and wants to see Dhaka University and one of her fondest memories is that of receiving her certificate from Amartya Sen last December (and giving him a pen in return!).

Women from all over the country, with different dreams within the same profession. From writing about neglected freedom fighters to a milk trader who aspires to send his son to an US university; from traditional arts and industry to the disabled girl whose own father threw her into the river -- these women have seen much in the last six months, and, in their own way, given back to their society. As one participant poetically described, she had always seen people's sorrows, their hardship, but it was only when writing about them, could she string them all together in a garland.

Six months from now, after completing phase three these women will be Fellows of the programme and a new batch will enrol. So far, the current batch has shown great promise in their accomplishments in this short time. And, while the organisers naturally wait to witness the success stories of the trainees, people are on their way to getting some great journalists to tell their stories.


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