Published in The Diplomat: ‘Authorities Make Arrests in Bangladesh Garments Factory Fire’

My article on the recent arrest of the owners of the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh has been published in The Diplomat. This is in response to the factory fire that killed more than 1,000 people in April 2012. I focus on the police force and the lack of justice served in Bangladesh, and what this much-talked about disaster could mean for the system. To read, click here.

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Authorities Make Arrests in Bangladesh Garments Factory Fire

Their track record is not promising, but will the authorities finally deliver justice?

By Olinda Hassan

On February 8, the owners of the garments factory in Bangladesh that burned and killed more than a hundred people in April 2012 finally surrendered to the police. Delwar Hossain and his wife, Mahmuda Akter, along with eleven associates are charged with homicide for the fire, which prompted an international debate on corporate responsibility in developing countries.

The charges are significant because it is the first time that Bangladesh has sought accountability from leading players in the lucrative garments industry, a powerful political and economic player. It is a test of Bangladesh’s police force and the legal system, at a time when they are coming under increasing public scrutiny for what is perceived as their laissez-faire attitude towards the rich and powerful.

At around $20 billion, the garments industry in Bangladesh accounts for a significant portion of the country’s export industry, with shipments mainly going to the U.S. and Europe. A poster child for development economic research and nonprofit work, the industry has been hailed by academics for increasing the role of the private sector in what is a late bloomer emerging market. With women accounting for the majority of workers, researchers and international development bodies alike have credited garments manufacturing for increasing employment opportunities for women and helping to bridge the rural-urban divide in Bangladesh, praising the industry for its indirect facilitation of gender advancement in Bangladesh socially and economically.

Following the fire in April 2012, along with several other deadly fires in the following months, this praise has been overtaken by stories of harsh working conditions and poor pay, attracting attention from human rights organizations, mainly from the West. While authorities and global clothing companies have vowed to improve safety standards, it is often forgotten that the issue goes beyond the rights of workers, to the very nature of the country’s police enforcement and legal system. The arrests of Hossain, Akter and their associates has shone a light onto an uncomfortable arena: the power of the police, one of the most mistrusted agencies in Bangladesh.

The power and fragmented nature of Bangladesh’s police force is an uncomfortable discussion. Following the fire in the Tazreen Fashions factory, local police cited insufficient evidence to bring a case against the owners. However, further investigation found that some managers had in fact closed the gates that would have allowed workers to escape the fire, and even told workers that it was a regular drill. The building had no emergency exits or a proper monitoring system. Even getting this far in the investigation was a power struggle; everyone knows that there is something profoundly wrong with the way that these factories are run, but no one does anything about it because of their lack of faith in the police.

In incidents involving garment factory fires, factory owners are rarely charged or held responsible. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a quasi-governmental body that is supposed to regulate export relationships, rarely faces charges, such is the influence of its leaders. Look no further than its glittering headquarters in Dhaka, which the Bangladesh High Court ruled sits on illegally obtained land. Despite a court order for it to be demolished more than two years ago, no action has been taken.

Yet the Tazreen fire was the deadliest factory fire in the history of garments manufacturing worldwide. The EU and the U.S. have placed and continuing to threaten Bangladesh with trade sanctions. In the meantime, stories were heard of protests abroad, from people far removed from the Bangladesh experience, against companies like Wal-Mart.

Whether this sustained international pressure was what finally motivated the police to file charges against the owners of the Tazreen factory a full year and a half after the fire will remain a point of contention. The police in Bangladesh are seen as both powerful and indifferent to the public they serve. It will be interesting to see if in this tragic case authorities can successfully separate justice from political power.

An email from Dhaka

I cannot help but ask the question, which has been hanging in the air or the spaces, which I have traveled in these past few years. When does a place really belong to you? If the idea of a home is so fluid, then why do we constantly seek it out and need to build a space for it. Time away from the familiar always gives opportunities for thought, and perhaps lot of chances for thinking things over.

 

Prabhat Gautam,

 

This is an excerpt from an email he sent from Nepal, where he is visiting his family after spending the summer in Dhaka, Bangladesh

You must feed your guests.

The most frequent question that my aunt asks me is: did you eat? This is followed by: what did you eat? As if to check that I was not lying. Since I live by myself in Dhaka, my relatives’ concern is if I eat or not, before they will even ask me how I am, or how work is going. When I meet strangers and they learn that I live by myself, I am always amazed at how many people will serious questions regarding my meals. How do you eat? Who cooks for you? Aunties will ask me this question with a smile that hides real concern. In the West where I suppose living alone is more common, I have never been asked this question. In Bangladesh, a different story. People are really, genuinely concerned about what goes into my stomach and if it is done often enough.

Likewise in Bangladesh, if you go to someone’s home or office, you are most likely offered something to eat, and also insisted upon. There is no refusing, unless you want to offend. This is not a matter of class or wealth. Two weeks ago, I was at a village in Bogra, in Northern Bangladesh doing some field visits for BRAC, and the women we visited at their tin-roofed homes insisted on serving us tea. One woman even forced entire bag of puffed rice to one of the students with us. The puffed rice lasted for days among a dozen people. In another village where I was working as a translator to a group studying microfinance in rural Bangladesh, a woman fed us her homemade sugar-syrup dripped cakes that she sold for 3 taka each in the market (we refused at first but it was too late, her husband was off plating it before she even finished asking/demanding out attention). I was at an urban slum recently in Mirpur conducting house visits with the same group of students and yet again, women were insisting that we enter, sit in their one bedroom homes in the slum, and drink their tea.

All of these women are poor, on the brinks of poverty, if not below poverty, insisting on feeding us drinks and snacks that they save up to purchase. They have barely any money to pay their rent, let alone send all of their children to school.

The same can be said when visiting offices. I cannot think of many offices that I have had to go to in Bangladesh for meetings and interviews where I was not fed at least tea; usually, biscuits and fruits follow. When I visited ASA, a microfinance lender in another remote village, after our meeting, there were plates of apples, oranges, grapes, and bananas set forth by the maids. After visiting a milk chilling center in Bogra, we were directed to another room where plates of hot samosas and again, plates of fruits lined the table, along with tea made from the very milk they packaged for the cities in Bangladesh. At the Yunus Center in Mirpur, I was served Grameen’s Danon yogurt, tea, water, and vegetable crackers in their state-of-the-art conference room.

The hospitality of Bangladesh and the relationship that people have with food is fascinating. A country that faces increasing rises in food prices and with a large number of the population living in or below the poverty line, food is certainly an important commodity. Feeding guests crosses social boundaries. It is not about class, as I have said. It is about respect and showing gratitude for visits, no matter what they were about or how long or short. Furthermore, it is also about pride. And in a society where class and hierarchy defines just about everything, being able to feed (no matter what, black tea or meals) matters more than affordability itself.

Though we in the second generation often make fun of our parents who still hold onto this custom 3,000 miles away from their homeland (I am talking about those of us who are South Asian Americans), I am pretty sure I will be doing the same when I become an “aunty”. Already, when people visit my home in Dhaka, I start panicking, wondering what I have to offer for drinks and food (which is usually, nothing since I spend so much of my time at work or outside and thus, eating out). It is interesting how this thing we do with feeding strangers and friends alike has become ingrained in our culture beyond out great grandparents’ generation.

Alam the CNG wallah.

Alam

Alam came to Dhaka from Sonargaon almost two years ago to support his family by driving a CNG around the city. We were stuck in an unusual traffic the other day when he started to talk to me as he lit a cigarette. Through the cage-like barrier between Alam and myself the passenger, his first question was, Apa you are not from here, right? Why do you think so? I asked back. You don’t talk like the woman here, and you were just on the phone. You don’t speak Bangla that well, he responded in the ever brutally honest way that people here in Dhaka sometimes do.

After the usual introductions- where he is from, where I am from, he asked me why I was on a CNG. Well, I suppose it’s easier, and I don’t have a car. But you have money, apa, he said. I work, and that doesn’t mean I have money.

Well, not all women are alike. If I were educated like you, I wouldn’t be in a car either. This was his response me taking a CNG home on a path filled with other cars around me with their tinted shades. What do you mean? I asked Alam, as I did not understand the connection between an educated woman and modes of transportation. He finally looked me in his mirror, made a quick eye contact to determine if I was offended, and didn’t respond.

So are you married? He asked, smiling an apologetic smile for the first time as we made a turn into my neighborhood. No, are you? He said no. But my brother married before me, and I work in Dhaka to feed his wife, Alam explained with a laugh. I want to get married but I am the only one who decided to come to Dhaka.

Where did you study apa?

In America, I said.

Wow, America? I want to go abroad too.

Why do you want to go abroad, I asked Alam while directing him to my house.

Everyone wants to go abroad, apa.

It’s not that easy, life abroad, as you think. Not everyone is happy there, and when they come back to their villages, they never tell the real story, I explained to him, recalling my interviews with laborers in Saudi Arabia from Bangladesh.

But you went abroad. And you aren’t the one driving a CNG. I am.

We reached my building and I gave him a final look. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he did let me take a photo of him. You are a writer too? Sometimes, I said and he thanked me for taking his picture. Alam lives in Jatrabari, near Old Dhaka and earns about 500 taka per day after giving the owner of the CNG a certain percentage. His final words were, apa I hope to see you again, sorry I asked so many questions, really I just wanted to know where you were from.

Published yesterday: Recognition of Domestic Workers (Daily Star)

This is a piece I worked on for the past few weeks, in reaction to the International Labor Organization‘s convention for protecting domestic workers what took place over the summer. I was especially interested by the fact that countries like the United Kingdom and Malaysia both abstained from voting on a convention that directly works to protect basic human rights for the millions of house helpers out in the world. The convention is a milestone especially for women, who make up 80% of domestic workers worldwide. With research based on media reactions, the Human Rights Watch, and local sources, I looked at what the conventions means, and also in relation to Bangladesh.

The article was written for the purpose of International Migrants Day for the Daily Star.

Read this month’s Forum magazine found anywhere in Dhaka, or online, or below.

Recognition of Domestic Workers:
Responses to the ILO’s Convention on
Protecting the World’s 100 Million

With International Migrants Day in the offing,
OLINDA HASSAN examines the plight of domestic workers abroad.esh.

Domestic workers who travel abroad for employment are also a form of migrant laborers, currently populating in the millions for Bangladeshis, concentrated in the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia. Bangladeshi domestic workers abroad, like migrant laborers, have also been subject to human rights violations over the years, both as an employee and an ethnic minority in the host country. However, while migrant laborers have some loose form of protection laws, domestic workers have largely been ignored in this respect.

Domestic workers from Bangladesh are mostly rural women and even children, many with dependents back home. The difficulty in calculating protective measures for domestic workers lies in the fact that they are severely isolated in the homes of the employers. For example, while many migrant laborers have the ability to live with fellow workers from their industry, domestic workers are far singular and divided. They are subject to double discrimination, first for their gender and then for their immigrant status directly linked to employers whom they are dangerously dependent on for all aspects of their livelihood.

On June 16 of this year, a remarkable breakthrough came when the International Labor Organization (ILO) signed the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. It is the first of its kind to establish standards for domestic workers abroad, such as those from Bangladesh. The three years that it took the ILO for the convention’s development included resisting amendments, convincing international participants, and developing crucial legal bindings, such as limited working hours, family visitation rights, fair wages and preventative measures for forced confinement, trafficking and sexual harassment, to name a few. Despite early reservations, Bangladesh later supported the convention.

However, is the ILO convention a real breakthrough, or will it merely serve as recognition of exploited domestic workers worldwide?

During the ILO contentions, the European Union expressed the most concern and advocated lowering provisions for flexibility. This puts a light on the “peculiarity” of domestic work in Europe. Over 90% of domestic workers in Europe are women, and the employers are mainly women themselves. They are the same women who have historically taken pride in their gender equality and advancement, like most other women in advanced societies. However, the employers complicate this notion of gender equality when they employ, and in many cases, abuse the rights of the women hired for their households. It is a complex paradox in which the lines of gender equality are clearly blurred along social classe and ethnicity (Gallotti, Maria, The Gender Dimension of Domestic Work in Western Europe).

Most would not even consider that there is an issue with domestic workers in Europe, home of some of the strongest global human rights organisations. A majority of migrant domestic workers are undocumented in Europe and have largely been invisible in the media. In most parts of Europe (e.g. Germany, Netherlands), domestic workers do not qualify for immigration as they are categorised under unskilled labour. Many households will bring female workers from Asia as tourists and then keep them undocumented in order to make the position of the workers binding to the household. And since domestic work is unregulated, abuse and human rights violations are rampant. The new ILO convention addresses the complexity of migration statuses and the dangerous dependencies that are created between employers and vulnerable workers. The United Kingdom is one of several countries that abstained from voting on the new convention.

Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand also abstained from voting on the ILO convention. The three members are also among the largest exchangers of international domestic work. Almost 30% of the migrant labour forces in Malaysia are from Bangladesh, and a significant number of women are involved in domestic work. Talat Mahmud Khan, the Labour Counsellor at the Bangladesh High Commission, once described Bangladeshi workers as hardworking, multi dimensional, “obedient”, and undemanding of a high salary. In 2009, when almost 70,000 Bangladeshi workers were brought to Malaysia, women were technically forbidden to work as domestic workers. However, irregular evaluation has continued the employment of Bangladeshi women in Malaysian homes.

Khan had assured that the Bangladeshis, despite their increasing population, would not impact Malaysian society as they were “confined” to their work and never went outside of it. The ILO convention seeks to counter this form of abuse in which migrant domestic workers are purposefully kept aside from society, forbidden to travel away from their work. Khan also added that he did not discount the “possibility of a few Bangladeshi youths getting involved with local girls”, addressing the increased concern of the diversifying culture. While Malaysia’s economy demands cheap, obedient laborers from abroad to do under-paid but hard work that the local population stay away from, the idea of integration into the very society laborers must work for is somehow deemed impractical.

Migrant workers in Malaysia by law are protected with regulations on working hours, medical benefits and holidays under the Malaysian Employment Act of 1955. However, the law does not cover domestic workers, with their terms often left solely to the employer, similar to the case of Europe as discussed earlier. Many of these maids have no holidays and shifted to employer’s relatives’ homes to work on the weekends, and must be able to care for children and the elderly, and in practically every aspect of the household, from cleaning, cooking, laundry, babysitting, to car washing. Verbal abuse, sexual harassment, unreasonable working hours and non-negotiable holiday terms have defined the culture of domestic work in Malaysia, the very elements of which the ILO has addressed in its Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Seeing as Asian countries account for over 40% of domestic workers worldwide, the abstained support from Malaysia, as well as Singapore and Thailand, places the ILO convention on a weak point, if efforts for creating environments through proficient policies are to ever take place for domestic workers.

Astoundingly, Bahrain, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, voted for the ratification of the convention. The Gulf region has had a notorious reputation in its treatment of migrant laborers, with some of the worst cases of human rights abuses stemming from many of the countries that have shown support for the convention. There are over 3 million migrant laborers from Bangladesh alone in the Middle East. While the official number for female migrant workers in the region is small, if unofficial numbers are accounted for, the numbers from Bangladesh is considerable enough to raise concern.

With stricter migration laws for women, combined with economic desperation at home, a large inflow of illegal migration by women is still widespread from Bangladesh, many of whom turn to domestic work. A comprehensive survey of the actual number of female migrants from Bangladesh to work as domestic laborers have yet to be conducted, even though field surveys from rural regions of the country prove that the numbers are higher than expected. Further, how members of the Gulf region will actually implement some of the key elements of the convention is yet to be determined. The fact that domestic work has become a cultural aspect of Arab households over the years makes it especially difficult to apply the protection of domestic worker’s very basic rights.

Because over 80% of migrating domestic workers are women, they are discriminated in a multi-fold sense. Not only are many the key breadwinners for their families back home, they are a key element of the enormous influx of remittance that many of the home countries are dependent on. Furthermore, they must also perform the role of a minority woman which in itself is a cause for discrimination in many of the host countries. Finally, while facing the challenges that come by virtue of their gender, female domestic workers must also fulfill cultural roles of a mother and daughter. It is common to see Bangladeshi women traveling abroad for work, leaving behind several children at home whom they must still support fiscally and socially as culturally expected.

The ILO convention is interesting because it seeks to specifically protect domestic workers with guidelines that have already been placed for other laborers. Thus, it becomes widely acknowledged that domestic workers, whether legal or illegally living in a host country, are still deserving of basic rights. While Bangladesh in many ways prohibits sending women abroad to work as domestic help, it has not stopped middle men from hiring rural women under false pretenses. It has also not terminated Bangladeshi women from seeking to work as domestic help once they are abroad out of desperation.

With Bangladesh’s vote of the ILO convention in June 2011, perhaps policy transformations will start to take place both at home and abroad. However, with several key nations showing a lack of support for the convention (e.g. Malaysia, one of the largest intakes of domestic help, to the United Kingdom, which has always advocated global human rights), it is still difficult to conclude how the new protocols will actually take effect. While data on domestic workers are difficult to come across due to the individualised and irregular nature of their services, the abuse that they face as a woman and a worker are irreconcilable. It is an international problem, and thus international support is crucial.

With a history of scarce work opportunities in Bangladesh, women migrating to become domestic workers represent a significant fraction of the national workforce abroad. They also remain the most marginalised. Bangladesh’s economy has the ability to continue to depend on remittances while at the same time, ensuring a safe environment for the workers themselves with practical policies. Instead of waiting to see what neighbouring countries or the most industrial will accept the ILO conventions, policy makers in Bangladesh need to advocate training programmes and screening processes to guide domestic workers. For the thousands of Bangladeshi domestic workers that exist worldwide, the country will need to actually implement ILO policies, and seek the guidance of existing human rights organisations to amply start creating a more sustainable migrant-labour environment.

Olinda Hassan studied Political Science at Wellesley College, USA, and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh.

© thedailystar.net, 2011. All Rights Reserved

Published: “Street Harassment is Still Serious: The violation of women in Dhaka’s public realm”

I wrote this piece for the Forum magazine regarding the issue of street harassment in Dhaka, and why we must still pay attention to this issue, which many may not consider a form of “violence”, but rather a soft approach to sexual harassment. To read, pick up a copy of the Daily Star today. Or follow this link for an online version: http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2011/November/street.htm

Or, read below:

Street Harassment is Still Serious:
The violation of women in
Dhaka’s public realm

Sexual harassment on the streets is also a form of violence, argues OLINDA HASSAN.

Zahedul I Khan

The laws governing violence against women have made their presence in Bangladesh. From Acid Crime Control Act (2002), to legally declaring eve teasing as a form of serious sexual harassment early this year, crimes that violate a woman — verbally, physically, emotionally — have been, and continue to be addressed by politicians, advocacy groups and NGOs. Violence against women has a history in Bangladesh.

Street harassment against women has also been addressed in some form or the other, usually categorised in the eve teasing form. Defined as being violated — usually verbally — in the streets, this form of harassment is not just limited to the common traits of female victims, or those of a lower social standing, poor and uneducated. Unwanted or solicited attention is given to women of all backgrounds in the streets, in all parts of the city, by all “types” of men. In most of the cases however, commonly, the woman is the subject, the man the predator. It is also something that women face worldwide; The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights reported that 83% of their women faced street harassment at least once in their life, and similar statistics were found for South Africa, Mexico and France, to name a few.

With urbanisation and the rapid population growth in Dhaka, women inevitably become more prominent in the streets. Women from all social backgrounds are joining the work force or institutions for higher education in large numbers in the capital, as opportunities for female participation increases. This trend is certainly a triumph in the modern women’s movement of Bangladesh.

But with participation comes the notion that sheltering these very women is absolutely necessary. Families with vehicles — another increasingtrend in the capital — will go out of their way to make sure that the women in the family have the priority in transportation. Women are being told to be careful every time they leave their homes, or being told to not go out at all. Working, educated women from the middle to upper middle class are deterred from taking public transportation and being out late at night, both for safety and for preserving certain societal reputations. It is very evident therefore, that the ratio of the two genders in the streets of Dhaka is still overwhelmingly in favour of men. The fear of violence and harassment has led to a series of rules and regulations (often implied than said) imposed on women and their mobility.

Because of these imposed rules by society regarding the movement of women, when they are in the streets on their own, especially during the evening, they are suddenly subject to the high possibility of harassment. This could happen in many ways — it could be a cat call from street vendors, stares from rickshawallahs, sexual innuendos from passersby, being purposefully touched by the young boys in the crowd — all usually men who are the dominating gender in the streets. As one male student in his third year at Dhaka University (anonymous) explained after asking him about street harassment, “these women are not supposed to be in the streets, so of course they are going to get harassed. If they didn’t want that attention, they should have stayed home, and not dressed inappropriately which is going to get them the attention they claim they don’t want.”

Women have also been long taught to ignore such harassment, especially in the streets. Since childhood, women, whether educated or not or wealthy or in poverty, have been told to avert their eyes, look away, and keep walking, and not say anything when they are verbally violated in public. This comes from the fear of being further endangered, but more to do with being humiliated in public. The concern is the disgrace of the victim in public, not of the aggressor whose action goes unnoticed and in turn, avoids his humiliation as he is not confronted but ignored. This then gives him the false idea that he can continue his behaviour in public.

Bryony Beynon from London of HollaBack, a worldwide technology-driven anti-harassment movement that first began in New York explained to The Guardian (March 8, 2011) how “people need to understand that street harassment has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power.” Aisha Zakira, the founder of HollaBack in Mumbai in their press release explained how street harassment incidents “are rarely reported, and are culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman and living in a city like Mumbai.” She further went on to explain how this type of violence is a “gateway crime” which creates a “cultural environment which makes gender-based violence okay,” and how while a legal method exists in countries like India and Bangladesh to tackle abuse at work or home, “when it comes to the streets — all bets are off.”

Women are also being told to ignore by other women, as commonly observed by mothers and other older female family members. These members from a young age are giving the impression that they are powerless and must thus simply ignore, that being harassed in the streets is inevitable but avoidable via ignorance. The long standing ideological belief in the “modest” Bengali woman of this culture often promotes such ignorance. Poor urban women for example are often stereotyped as having lower sexual morals, further making them not speak out in public for the consequence of being even more marginalised for their gender. Women, especially those who do not have an access to a private car must change their lifestyle, such as in the way that they dress as a social protection and in order to fit into this ideology and avoid street harassment instead of waiting for the act itself to terminate in society. The violators in turn quickly realise that they will not be held responsible, and gain further confidence to continue harassing in the streets.

Are women supposed to follow the social norms of staying home after sunset and dressing “appropriately” in order to avert such attention? What would happen if more women were to act out and confront the violators, in public? Would it really be that threatening to their modesty as a “good” Bengali woman? Let us assume that public transportation has suddenly become much safer in Bangladesh, for men and women: the rate of hijacking, robbery and threat has significantly decreased, if any at all still occur. Would the roles of women in the streets then change? This question must be asked because, along with violence against women being part of the country’s history, oppressing women by forcing preventative measures (such as ignoring violators) have also become rooted in the historical culture of Bangladesh. And cultures are difficult to change.

Women are increasingly sharing the household income and participating in higher education in Dhaka, a city that is also urbanising at a rapid rate and in a suffocating way. Modern politics encourage such female participation. And for those that are able, women are often being sheltered away in their activities, being told not to be in the streets too much and be in their private shells. Thus, the streets are still overwhelmingly dominated by men. However, what if more women did make their presence known? What if more women had the courage to be independent in their travels? Would the streets still continue to be a boy’s club? We all know of a woman, if not ourselves, who have had at least one form of a story to tell about being harassed in the street. The consequence of ignorance is the continuation of a type of crime that while it may not be considered violent, is as cruel as any other form of violence against women in Dhaka today.

Olinda Hassan studied Political Science at Wellesley College, USA, and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh.

Published: “Noise Pollution: We have gotten used to it too soon”

For October’s Forum magazine (Volume 5, Issue 10, October 2011), I wrote an essay on the continued problem of noise pollution in Dhaka, and how it is felt in the growing city.

Implementing policies related to noise pollution is complex, as discussed. In 2005, when India’s government restricted the use of firecrackers, loudspeakers and vehicle honking, residents reacted, wondering how they would carry on late night religious and marriage festivals. It is also difficult to impose directives related to noise pollution when the general population may be unaware of what type of pollutant this is, and if it is a pollutant at all. Thus, along with addressing it, educating the masses and especially the causers of excessive honking, for example, becomes crucial for a growing urban city.

To read more, click here. I have also pasted my writing below. And if you are in Dhaka, the Forum magazine can be found in your copy of the Daily Star from October.

Noise Pollution:
We have gotten used to it too soon

OLINDA HASSAN runs a critical eye over the sounds of Dhaka city.

The description of a city that stretches only a few miles in radius, a city that is instantaneously described as one of traffic and crowds houses over 15 million people in one place. Fifteen million people. This is perhaps an understated number considering all of the unaccounted people who live in every bend of the city’s narrow roads, slums and streets. With people comes noise, which if one word is to be used to describe, would be chaos. And chaos runs this town.

During this last humid and rainy Ramadan season, six individuals from Dhaka streets were asked, what noise describes your life in the city? A rickshaw peddler in Mirpur, an older woman selling chai in Gulshan 2, a Dhaka University student, a half naked child in Rayer Bazaar and a well manicured woman at the tailors’ and the tailor himself in Dhanmondi had hurried responses. The rain, the honking, the ringing of rickshaws, children yelling, the thump of rubber shoes against the roads, the motorcycles, bricks grinding against each other in construction sites, voices of mothers, the gas pedal being pressed by drivers; these were some of the similarities found among these six individuals who were all in a rush to get away from their respective street to the next. As the woman at the tailors’ pointed impatiently, she had to run before the traffic swept her, her driver and in turn, her son’s and husband’s and mother-in-law’s day.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Chaos gives people the city attitude, the description of being a Dhakaite. People of this city breathe, eat, smell and maybe, even adore the chaos that illustrates the scene of the mega capital today. This chaos is also to an effect, noise pollution. And noise pollution is ultimately, human created. The word noise is literally taken from the Latin word nauseas, or, vomiting sensation and sickness, and the concept of ‘noise pollution’ is far used by environmentalists, lobbyists, politicians and transportation specialists to pound on the extreme unease and health hazard that result, due to traffic and poor infrastructure management, for example, in Dhaka. And pounding they do — noise pollution has gotten some popularity as a means of trying to push other anti-traffic laws, being an easily relatable concept for the average city resident.

Taking some of the above descriptions of noise in Dhaka by the six random Dhaka residents: The honking — the most common part of noise pollution in Dhaka, naturally due to the fact that honking is created by vehicles, usually done to warn other cars to maintain road safety. Excessive honking is however the real issue; drivers honk more out of stress and frustration than to warn other drivers of the fact that they are about to pass them on the road, for example (this is not even really possible, since cars are rarely not in traffic and thus, don’t actually have the space to pass each other in Dhaka). The rain — while this is seasonal and albeit uncontrollable by humans in terms of noise, acid rain is increasingly common in Bangladesh, caused by human practices, such as electricity usage and car pollution, which is high in roads where cars must stay stagnant for long periods of time in traffic, and then create certain sound effects in retaliation. The ringing of rickshaws — while attempts have been made to reduce the number of rickshaws, they still prevail, and perhaps this is not the largest issue to traffic control, though the bigger and faster modes of transportation that surround them think so and thus react with honking. It will be difficult to eradicate all of the city’s rickshaws, entailing the removal of a country’s major cultural element, as well as thousands of jobs. Construction — in the middle of the night, my neighbourhood often wake up to the noise of workers piling bricks from a truck that just pulled in, making all the noise as they please for the manual labour, even if it is at 3am. Construction work takes place around the clock, and because its noise can never be independent from its surroundings (traffic, shouts, yelling instructions, music, etc.), they have become one of the more annoying noise pollutants for Dhakaites today.

While noise pollution in the developed world can seem like a luxury, in the developing world, it is an unforgiving health and social concern. It is an issue that does not discriminate along age lines or socioeconomic barriers for the residents of Dhaka and other mega cities in South Asia such as Mumbai and Karachi. Premature deafness, high blood pressure, to heart conditions as a result of noise pollution can trigger anyone, from children to the retired, slum dwellers to the upper class. Epidemiological studies have made the link between excessive noise and hearing loss pretty obvious. Excessive noise pollution has proven to lead to high blood pressure, low attentiveness, bad temperament and as a result, increased chances of confrontations — behaviours that are well illustrated in the streets of Dhaka.

Noise pollution is an especially saddening impediment to growth in the cities of developing countries, such as Bangladesh, and also a problem that faces little direct attention from policy makers, even if used to back up other policies. The fact is that noise pollution and the very idea of it is still, in large, subjective. There are few direct ways to, for example, measure a group of residents’ high blood pressure as directly related to the noise pollution of the neighbourhood. Because noise complaints are subjective, you will need to prove that you are experiencing a noise problem, which can get problematic with the plethora of variables working around and against you. For example, hearing loss could be related to other factors such as toxins in the air. While some research has been presented by both domestic and international groups, noise pollution still remains a bit unclear. It is a territory that we are pretty sure exists, but not enough information is given to draw attention to it, let alone do something about it. After all, noise pollution will be put aside on the tables of policy makers when thousands of quantitative data is being presented on other (but related) items such as traffic congestion or gas pollution.

Further, noise pollution poses a more dire threat to developing countries. This factor is especially disturbing because, as many would complain, do we not have enough pollution issues to deal with? Environmental issues in general — manmade and natural — are often acknowledged but touched on the surface because they have yet to become a “serious issue” for policy makers. After all, imposing environmental policies are usually the slowest to prove a direct result, unlike other development policies. Further, environmental policies’ indirect effects on other sides of development, such as economic growth, are still sometimes subjective, hard to prove, and thus all together, set aside.

As economist Anthony Heyes described in the Journal of Regulatory Economics (Volume 36, Number 1, p. 1-28), environmental quality is often overlooked in development. He looked at Taiwan, where its sudden boom has decreased the people’s welfare in the long run, due to the environmental degradation that resulted from obsessive attention to economic growth. This obsession came from the coalition of the government and capitalist who wanted to achieve economic success “at any cost”, resulting in Taiwan’s “growth with pollution”. Taiwan is an example of others in the region, whether formerly a poor or developing one is pressured to keep up and felt the need to only focus on the economic, an obsession that leads to the continued degrading environmental issues, such as noise pollution in Dhaka.

Implementing policies related to noise pollution is complex, as discussed. In 2005, when India’s government restricted the use of firecrackers, loudspeakers and vehicle honking, residents reacted, wondering how they would carry on late night religious and marriage festivals. It is also difficult to impose directives related to noise pollution when the general population may be unaware of what type of pollutant this is, and if it is a pollutant at all. Thus, along with addressing it, educating the masses and especially the causers of excessive honking, for example, becomes crucial for a growing urban city.

This generation growing up in Dhaka has perhaps gotten used to the noise — the ringing of the rickshaws are romanticised as much as the arguments they see taking place on the streets to construction sites that flourish in different corners. The 15 million plus that live in the city may have forgotten or simply have no idea how to separate noises that have polluted their streets. And those who come to Dhaka from the outside need weeks, maybe even months to get used to the sounds. When we first arrived in Dhaka last year for our projects, adjusting to the weather and modes of transportation was one thing, but no one had warned us of getting modified to the sounds of the city. Some found it charming, and now it is hard to describe Dhaka to friends back home without describing the same things that the six Dhakaites asked above about what noise defined their everyday lives. Dhaka, like many other developing, urban cities, is plagued by the piling of environmental problems that are also deeply intertwined with the economic and the political. It has become tricky to separate one from the other, with tribulations like noise becoming a by-product of a plate of troubles that are waiting to be addressed. And this will be difficult to do so unless people are able to recognise that the very noise they grew up with is actually a pollutant.

Olinda Hassan studied Political Science at Wellesley College, USA, and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh, teaching English at RUMC.

Viqarunnisa Noon School and College “in Crisis”

Bangla teacher Porimol Joydhor admitted to sexually assaulting the class-X female student of Viqarunnisa Noon School and College’s Bashundhara branch on Sunday. He was arrested earlier in the month from Keraniganj after the girl’s father filed a case accusing of repeated rape at his coaching center. What is particularly disturbing is the delayed action by the principals of the school’s main branch as well as the Bonshundhara branch after the news came about. The girl’s father has also filed cases against the two principals, Hosne Ara and Lutfar Rahman, for allegedly “backing Parimal, destroying evidence and threatening the family after filing the case“.

As for details of the rape, the teacher who privately tutored the girl (among others) had taken her to a room, tied her hands and placed her cloth in her mouth to keep her quiet, and raped her on May 28th, in the morning.  He also proceeded to photograph her from his cell phone, threatening to release the pictures online and kill her if she had said anything.

This incident has involved multiple issues- the principal’s lack of immediate action being the most concerning. While sides will argue as to what exactly happened, the lack of a clear picture attests to the fact that the victim of this entire incident was not given fair attention. Students from VNSC and others protested as a result, skipping classes to do so in the main campus. It is especially disappointing, given that it is one of the  premier educational institutions in the country. Given that it is single-sex institution and thus, is supposed to educate and promote women’s leadership, the fact that crimes against the female body can take place, and not be properly addressed by the very female leaders who run the school (and then made political) is absurd.

The girl of this subject must be applauded for speaking up, when many others do not, in fear of social adversities. Because most rape victims never tell, even to their closes family and friends, there are no realistic estimates of how frequently it takes place among youth and education. As for VNSC, what this entails for their social environment must be taken seriously, independent of politics. Perhaps one way would be to actually have teachers teach in their classrooms, eliminating the need for the profitable and necessary coaching centers. Teachers cannot have so much authority, believing that they can do whatever they want to in the classroom and beyond with their behavior. Students will also need to be empowered, and know that their institution is there for their protection and will support them in any way that they are supposed to- a notion in a threat today.

Kacchi Biryani: eating in Bangladesh

Kacchi Biryani at Star Kabab in Banani. Taken by Tarfia Faizullah

Kacchi Biryani, the most popular type of biryani is pictured here, taken by Tarfia during dinner at Star Kabab in Banani. We love it so much I had to post a photo. This does not even begin to describe what this plate of rice mound tastes, feels, smells, and means.

Originally started in Old Dhaka, Star Kabab has spread to all parts of the city with its growing demand. If you mention kacchi biryani, you are likely to be pointed to either a wedding, or Star Kabab. The taste of this national sensation in the multi story restaurant makes up for the fluorescent lights and stark interior. It will probably be the best 250 taka you will spend on food, for a long time.

Taking a moment: it’s raining in Bangladesh.

Its been raining randomly during the day for a couple of weeks now. Sometimes it rains in the morning when you wake up to see your room still in the dark. You step out to get a rickshaw, having to tip toe your way as you circulate mud puddles. You have to carefully place the blue plastic blankets the rickshawalla will give you to cover yourself, if you choose though really they do nothing to prevent the vengeful rain. You forget to not wear white today and there goes the just ironed, perfectly tailored tunic of yours.

Sometimes it’s late at night when simultaneously electricity would go out and you would be forced to stand in the veranda overlooking the view of the city from the third floor. From that view you will see random pockets in empty, half built apartment buildings in Baridhara where temporary tenants rush to use their scraps of tin to hold the water from gushing into their makeshift beds. They do this while managing their already wet lungi wrapped haphazardly across their thin hips and a half burnt, 2 taka cigarette.

The afternoon is the best. Kids rush out  in my school in the middle of a lesson during fifth period into the long patios that circle every floor, facing an open courtyard. They face the wind they miss in their stuffy classrooms with fifty others, uniformed, hair tied, shoes neat, clean. Even the teachers, the masters of model behavior are temporarily distracted. I am asked to go to the roof with one of them even, where just before it gets to be a real storm I get to see the entire cityscape of Uttara about to be cleansed of its pollution for the day. In that roof there are rows and rows of vegetables planed carefully by the students- tomatoes, baby bitter-melons, okras, chilli peppers, as well as jars of pickled olives and green mangoes. Neat laminated rectangles are attached to these terracotta pots where neat handwritings pop up from the stark whiteness of the papers.

Many kids don’t remember to bring their umbrellas on purpose. There is a particular liking here in Bangladesh for getting wet in the rain. Commercials for local mobile networks on the television will always include the scene of a wet rice paddy or a busy side street in the city drenched in rain with people running gleefully. At the same time the aging aunty living in your building will tell you to be careful, don’t get wet, cover your head, you will get sick. But she too probably loved and still wishes to be young again and in the rain when it used to be appropriate, half listening to her mother say the same.

American Culture Lesson: Magazine photos and observations in an 8th grade Bangla Medium Class

For my weekly Class VIII Bangla Medium of 50 students, I decided to put their critical thinking and creative side to work by posing a particularly out -of- the- box activity for them. This involved cutting out random photos/ads/pictures from an American magazine (I used Cosmopolitan March 2011, for example) and passing them around to groups in class (ideally groups of 4-5 would work, though in my class they were larger due to the volume of students and the lack of space). The groups were asked to work together and analyze what the photos meant in terms of the American culture as we know it, and write their responses accordingly in limited words.

Organization of the Activity: Method, tools, and how it was conducted.

My collection of photos included: two cutouts of women in Vera Wang bridal gowns, a picture of a mixed-ethnic girl eating a vegiterian pizza from the health section of the magazine, a photo of fried chicken and salad served in colorful platters from the recipe section, a few fashion cutouts of women posed in different clothes, a photo of celebrities clumped together, a photo of a white female and a black male model, of several wo nklmen dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt from the “trends” section, an ice-cream sundae article that describes “America, Italian, and Turkish” toppings, etc. to name a few.

The questions I asked them to consider were: 1) What does the photo in front of you tell you about the American culture?, and 2) How does the topic of the photo differ from your culture and lifestyle in Bangladesh?. My helping questions were the typical that I alway use: Who, What, When, Where, How, Why. My students have gotten used to hearing these types of questions to first help identify what is actually happening in a given scenario (I have used the 5Ws/ 1H for readings and lectures before or whenever a chance is posed).
Before the groups started to do this, I showed them two enlarged photos from my collection to give a sample of what I am looking for. For example, I used a photo of an open market in Atlanta and talked about the difference in prices, what kinds of vegitables were being sold, what kind of people were selling and buying, and how the market looked compared to those in Dhaka.

Each student was given a pice of paper to write their responses. The space was limited however so that the students were forced to put their thoughts down in just a few sentences, forcing them to be direct (I did this by cutting a 8 x 11 white paper into four sections).

When there was about 7 minutes left in class, I switched photos between groups and asked them to do the same but just write me one sentence about what they found most interesting.

Responses from students while working in the classroom:

In an ideal situation I would have liked the groups to be mixed but in a classroom with barely any space to move and with only 40 minutes to work with and where genders were physically divided, this was almost impossible.
First, the students laughed at some of the photos. Then they became very serious and started to quickly talk about the pictures. I had to go around the class to each group and help them understand the activity and what I was looking for. I also had to emphasize that there was no right or wrong answer, which is always a bit shocking for the students. Some groups did not like their photo which they openly exclaimed, especially the male students.

The positive reaction was that everyone was amused and thus, interested. It was rare to find, if at all, any student in the group no engaged in trying to understand what the photo stated. The photos were from magazines and random on purpose- they demanded an explanation and they proved their “authenticity” by coming from an “American source”. And because there was no concrete answer to the activity, and it was not based on prior knowledge and such, they had to talk to each other in order to analyze.

Written responses: Sample

Photo: A black male model with a white model whose arms are around him, dressed in neon colors from the “fashion” section.

“In the picture there is a married couple. One of them is black in color and one of them is white in color. They are standing together. This picture says about America that, in America people of different races, tribes, and color marry each other. But in Bangladesh it is not so. In Bangladesh they make differences between the people who are white and who are black in color. Those who are white in color don’t want to marry those who are black in color.”

“…The boy is wearing a jacket and T-shirt, like the Bangladeshi boys wear. The girl is wearing a frock. But the Bangladeshi girls don’t wear that kind of dresses. It also indicates about American culture. The boys and girls can meet and talk to each other freely in front of everyone. But in Bangladesh it is not acceptable.

Other sample responses:

“The American fashion is more artificial than Bangladesh.”

“Bangladeshi ice cream is very good but not as costly. It is also not as good to look at. They are made of unhealthy things.”

“The famous Bangladeshi ice cream is kulfi. It’s only 2 taka. It’s made from milk. It’s very different from the picture of the ice cream in the picture because kulfi is very cheap and it’s not delicious at all.”

“In American almost everyone likes pets. Well, sometimes they take it in fashion. They carry pets in their bags. And like every schools and houses they keep pets. But in Bangladesh we usually don’t see that because they don’t really like pets. They are ignored.”

“There is a funny thing in USA that they carry pets in their bags.”

“In this picture we can see some models of different countries wearing dresses of American style.” (The photo showed American models of different races featuring a skirt trend)

“This photo is about the wedding ceremony of America. In this picture we can see a bride wearing white wedding gown. She is looking happy and holding some flowers. There are some differences between Bangladesh and American wedding dresses. In Bangladesh, usually the bride wears colorful sharis. They wear heavy ornaments but in America, the bride wears a simple dress without heavy ornaments or makeup.”

“Bangladeshi celebrities don’t care about their health but the celebrities of USA care about teir health. They have a balances diet.”

“There is a girl who s eating pizza. She is wearing a red-white T-shirt. he looks so good. But her hair style is so common in Bangladesh. Her skin color is also common in Bangladesh. What she eats, this is a pizza. It also common in Bangladesh. But American people eat this food much more. Her nail polish is looking good.”

About the same photo another girl writes: “The girl is looking horrible. Her hair style is so common in Bangladesh. Her skin is rough (the model had freckles). The pizza is not looking tastey (the pizza had broccoli and mushrooms). Her t-shir tis found in the foot path in Bangladesh. Her nail polish is not so bad. But I don’t know how can this type of pizza be good for me? I don’t think this is a good picture.”

“In order to decorate this meat some green vegitables are used.”- referring to the salad on the plate.

Conclusion:
* Encourages dialouge and group work, especially since it is an unknown topic so they are forced to talk. Everyone is in an even field of exepreince.
*Encourages studetns to write directly and concisely instead of writing too much and not getting to the point.
*Students are made to share and develop and opinion, especially since there are no right and wrong answer (this must be emphasized).
* They learn to look at magazine photos and ads in a different, critical way.
*They are forced to think about my past lectures about the United States and put that to use instead of getting information from a book or other written sources.
* Some groups had the same answer among all its members; some are still uncomfortable to have differing opinions.
* Single-sex groups are forced rather than mixing them up which could be a disadvantage for critical thinking in the classroom.
* Time management is always an issue with 50 students with 40 minutes.

Rajuk Uttara Model School Tops Again in SSC Exam Scores.

I am proud to say that Rajuk Uttara Model School has topped the list again in having the highest number of students passing and scoring high in the SSC (Secondary School Certificate) exam this year. As a result, Rajuk has been ranked the best school by the Dhaka Education Board.

RUMS on Thursday, May 12 2011 after 12 pm was a sea of students and parents in the courtyard, cheering and showing the victory signs. There were reporters and press vans from various channels in the city present to record the scene. Among the crowd can be seen teachers who eagerly entered the crowd. Given how rigorous the exams can be, and the time commitment issued to the students (those who took the exams were given days off from school to prepare), this news indeed was one for celebration. About 1.3 million students in Bangladesh took the exam this year that began in February.

I remember right before the students went on vacation to study for the exams, they held a pre-celebration in the auditorium with music, prize giving to teachers, cake cutting, and food (from their local favorite, Best Fried Chicken). I had just started at Rajuk and many of these students did not know me. While most Rajuk students greet me with great enthusiasm and curiosity, these 10th graders’ reaction was a bit more somber- they were clearly distracted about the examination and the hours of rigorous study that was about to fall upon them.

Not that many were surprised at the passing rate and Rajuk placing at the top again. The celebration on Thursday was already in the air well before results were to be announced. Two of my students who were about to take the exam next year came to my room and told me all about how crazy the scene would be yesterday at noon, despite knowing if everyone had passed or not. The supreme confidence exerted my students at Rajuk is perhaps one to admire.

More students pass the SSC exam this year. 

Exam Time at Rajuk Uttara Model School

There are about four hundred students seated to the take the HSC exam, one of the national exams for 12th grades in the central hall on the bottom floor of the school. The hall, usually home to cultural events for students has been transformed into a room of intimidation: rows of wooden chairs and tables, and desks in intervals for proctors and board members to sit and observe late teenagers sweat their way through a live or die exam. None them look up when I enter the room to speak to one of the teachers, their faces showing the strains of studying for months being finally poured out.

The HSC result will determine the students’ ability to succeed in the sense that if they do not do well, their hopes of getting into a national university are slim to none. Getting entrance into the prestigious public institutions such as Dhaka University, Dhaka Medical College, or Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology will all be essentially determined by the HSC exam. Likewise, the fate of the school rests on its students’ scores as well. The more perfect scores, the better the school will be ranked among all. In a country there hierarchy is engrained in the everyday social construct, this becomes particularly important. Rajuk has been ranked at the top as an educational institution based on these results. When I tell someone from Bangladesh that I work at RUMS, they usually respond with raised eyes and by telling me that I work at the best schools in the country.

The exam culture of schools that follow the national curriculum consists of intense memorization, attention to detail, and unorthodox organization. Not only do they have to memorize information (often word for word), but they must be presented clearly and neatly. I have seen some of the best English handwritings at Rajuk, ever. When I write on the board in class I am sometimes embarrassed as my writing (which I have always considered to be pretty good) looks illegible compared to kids ten yours younger than me. In fact in some classes I have to warn before hand that my handwriting may not be clear (to which I get amused smirks and laughs).

RUMS students from all grade levels have also had exams over the last four weeks. These exams included midterms, papers, and lesson exams. I eagerly took about fifty of these English exams with me home to grade. My most important conclusion: I have a new appreciation for all the teachers I have ever had for what they had to go through. I finally understand why it took them so long to turn back midterms and finals. Grading takes a type of effort that I have decided that I do not enjoy- attention to detail, reading sometimes excruciatingly boring paragraphs, trying not cringe at grammar mistakes, and checking final scores, making sure there are no rooms for students to appeal decisions.

Further, there is an indirect grading deflation policy at RUMS- no one is allowed to have full marks. This unwritten policy can be observed in many Bangladeshi schools, especially the competitive selections. For example, in the essay section of the exam, while it says that it is out of ten points, the highest they can get is a seven (which is when it is exceptional). The student may or may not know this. Thus, getting a score in the range of 70s is considered to be good- a score that translates to a ‘C’ in most schools in the United States. You do not ever give full marks- an important rule with ethical bindings for me. So no matter how much these students study and write amazing answers to questions (which were several in this sample case), they will never be rewarded what they probably deserve.

It is hard to compare these systems with those in the West as the implications of results are so varied. Whereas in the United Stats many factors count towards college entrance, in Bangladesh the exam results are exclusive in that category. And yet Bangladeshi students from these national schools who pursue their undergraduates in the United States have an unusually high rate of success in their SATs. Usually, financial considerations are the reasons for declining entrance to American colleges rather than not getting an acceptance. Their SAT scores tend to make up for the lack of sufficient extra curricular activities, for example, which is still an up and coming component in Bangladeshi schools.