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     Volume 6 Issue 12 | March 30, 2007 |

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Discrimination Begins at Home

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

With shaky hands, 63-year old Munira carried three hot cups of tea up two steep flights of stairs. She was getting too old for this her limbs were hurting and her knees had been giving her trouble for a while. Her employer's daughter, now 16, had ordered tea for herself and her friends. Munira walked into the room and set the steaming cups of tea down, completely ignored by the girls sharing gossip and taking turns fixing each other's hair. As she turned to leave, a sparkly object discarded on the floor caught her eye. Forgetting herself for a moment she leaned over and picked it up. It was a silver hair clip with pretty rhinestones on it. Munira had never seen anything quite like it. Before she had a chance to put it back, a scream startled her into dropping the clip, causing the rhinestones to break off and scatter across the floor. One of the girls (she didn't know who) began shouting, "You thief! Who said you could put your dirty hands on my things?" Munira bent down to pick up the broken clip and hand it back, simultaneously trying to explain that she didn't mean to, that it was just so pretty, that she only wanted to have a look. Three pairs of hands grabbed her from all sides: her hair, her arms and her legs and dragged her up. Her employer's daughter slapped her, saying, "Ei, are you deaf? Get out of my house! Stupid thief, dirtying our things with your beggar hands and smell! Get out before I call the darwan to come and break your legs." By then the commotion had caused the employer's wife to come in. Munira was thrown out on the street, without even a chance to pack her belongings…

It doesn't sound all that unusual, does it? It's not. This sort of discrimination permeates our homes, our schools, our offices, the streets. It finds its way through little cracks into people's consciences and causes them to mentally and sometimes physically distance themselves from each other, widening the already huge gap that lies between people who are different in terms of background, race, religion, social class and skin colour.

In Bangladesh it is painfully apparent that people have not been able to come out of their superior cocoons of ignorance and show some semblance of tolerance for others. The most obvious examples can be seen in our every-day lives, such as the case with Munira. It didn't matter to the employers of the house that Munira was an old woman, not fit to climb up and down stairs. Nor did it occur to the employer's wife that she should chastise her 16-year old daughter for misbehaving with a woman so much older than her. Unfortunately the rules and norms of society are class-specific -- they are not implemented when dealing with the so-called lower classes. For example, most people do not, as they would automatically do so with a person from a privileged class, refer to an older person from the working class as apni. Instead they use the more familiar tumi, and in some extreme cases, even tui. Because somewhere, in all of our hearts, we do not see them as 'real people,' for which all the bhodro (genteel) rules of society should apply. People from the privileged classes assume that they are higher up on the human chain, and therefore can treat those less fortunate with disdain and disrespect.

Because they are from "lower classes" many domestic servants are treated with little to no respect.

Another salient example of discrimination in Bangladesh is the shabby and embarrassing way the government and the society as a whole treat the minority population -- specifically the indigenous people. According to a 1991 census, the indigenous people of Bangladesh, collectively known as Adivasis, make up about 1.3% of the population. This roughly translates into about 1.2 million people. The term Adivasi literally translates into 'original inhabitants.' However, many people use the more crass term Upojati, which means 'sub-human,' when referring to them. Adivasis are often victimised because of the fact that they speak a different language and have a different religion. Their homes and lands are taken away from them and they have little to no rights. Bangalis, being the majority, do not acknowledge the Adivasis as a part of Bangladeshi society.

On top of that there are the usual, almost inane and annoying examples of discrimination, such as the perception that a fair woman is a beautiful woman. This is unfortunately so ingrained in our society that there are advertisements on TV showcasing the benefits of fairness creams. They are all very similar: girl is dark, girl uses cream, girl becomes fair and therefore gets married or gets a good job.

Ironically enough, this year on March 21, Bangladesh celebrated International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. On this day in 1960, police in Sharpeville, South Africa opened fire, killing young students who were staging a peaceful demonstration against the apartheid pass laws. The pass law system in South Africa, originally introduced in 1923, required all black Africans to carry pass-books in order for the then government in South Africa to control their movement into urban areas, which, according to the Native Urban Areas Act in 1923, were areas for “white” people. In 1952 a law was passed which made it compulsory for all black Africans over the age of 15 to carry pass-books. As an act of resistance many black South Africans staged a protest refusing to comply with the pass laws. Although the protest started off peacefully, it ended in bloodshed with over 180 people injured and 69 deaths. Many of the victims were both women and children. In commemoration of the martyrs who lost their lives for the cause, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared March 21 a day for fighting racial discrimination all over the world.

And so Bangladesh, not to be outdone by anyone has dutifully paid respect to those martyrs of South Africa by commemorating International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed, in a message on the occasion of this day, expressed Bangladesh's solidarity in supporting the fight against all forms of discrimination, stating that “we have been able to ensure basic freedom and rights of majority of the people but new forms of racism and intolerance threaten to undermine the achievements.”

Apparently the "basic freedom and rights of majority of the people" does not apply to dark women, poor people or Adivasis.

It is sad that in a world so advanced in countless ways, where the impossible has been made possible, where technology has enabled people to achieve things beyond their own comprehension, many people have not been able to do manage the simplest of all feats that of respecting everyone regardless of class, race, religion and skin colour.



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