A powerful look at the business of Brothels and Prostitution in Bangladesh

Allison Joyce‘s photo essay on the Brothels lining the rivers of Bangladesh gives us a powerful look at a thriving and taboo business of prostitution. I was surprised to see the captures, actually, since I rarely find articles let alone photos of the business in Bangladesh. This article for ABC News ( I am “Chowkri”- Inside Bangladesh’s Biggest Brothel) focuses on the Joinal Bari brothel in Faridpur, on the banks of the Padma river. It is an important stop for the trading route, making it an especially intriguing spot for a brothel. It is all economical of course- men make up almost 100% of the business of trading and truck driving, shipments and business dealing in the region. The existence of prostitution is widely known, unspoken of, and witnessed both in the urban towns to river banks and villages. It would be harder to undertake a photo project for Dhaka’s prostitutes let alone brothels where the clientele are far more secretive and sometimes, public figures. I can’t imagine Joyce trying to cover this very important topic outside the Westin and Radisson hotels or in the affluent the narrow streets of Gulshan 2 where young women stand in the corner streets soon after 10 pm. Though the photos that I will share below from her project captures one setting, it serves as an eye opening setting to address this booming informal business sector for many young Bangladeshi women.

This photo is of Kajul, who is embraced by a customer in her bedroom. I am captivated by this photo as I wonder how they let Joyce, a white woman clearly out of place and so obviously a journalist capture this very intimate moment. When I first saw this photo, before I even read the caption, I was sure it was of something happy that came out of a dire setting. Maybe I am still not mistaken; I think we often forget that these young women, whatever their occupation, can still desire love unlike the kind they sell.
This photo is of Kajul, who is embraced by a customer in her bedroom. I am captivated by this photo as I wonder how they let Joyce, a white woman clearly out of place and so obviously a journalist capture this very intimate moment. When I first saw this photo, before I even read the caption, I was sure it was of something happy that came out of a dire setting. Maybe I am still not mistaken; I think we often forget that these young women, whatever their occupation, can still desire love unlike the kind they sell.
“I grew up in Jessore and I have been working in the brothel for 5 years. I was stalked by a local boy in Jessore and when I told my family they blamed me for the harassment so I ran away. When I was on the streets I met a woman who brought me to the brothels here in Faridpur. I miss my father and I talk to him often. I tell him that I’m working in a garment factory in Dhaka and he always asks me to come back home.” ( Ria, 22 years old) … Update: At the time of our visit Ria was excitedly planning to leave the brothels and move back home with her father to become a tailor. When we visited a few weeks later Joshna, her madame, had given her 20,000 taka, gold earrings, and sent her back to her family in Jessore.--Tiffany Hagler-Geard
This photo shows a girl named Piea who is surrounded by customers who walk through the building for their pick. Some of the men are as young as the prostitutes themselves.

To read the entire entry, click here.

Published in Hollaback! today: Playing Word Games- “Eve Teasing” in Bangladesh

I just had a piece I wrote for Hollaback! published in their blog today. I discussed Eve Teasing and what the phrase actually means and plays in a society that has recently focused a lot on sexual harassment against women, both in the courts and  media. This is a follow up to the article I wrote on street harassment in Bangladesh for the Daily Star this month.

To read, click here where you will be directed to their front page. Or see below where I have pasted the article.

Playing Word Games- “Eve Teasing” in Bangladesh

BY OLINDA HASSAN

“Eve teasing”, or sexual harassment is problematic in Bangladesh, especially when we want to talk openly about the aggression South Asian women face day to day on the streets. The phrase has a biblical link- it refers to Eve, the tempting, beautiful woman who inevitably attracts attention from men. So, while “eve teasing” in South Asia refers to the day to day sexual harassment that women face, whether it’s an unwanted touch from a passerby or a cat call from the boys in the corner, the phrase itself blames women, she is tempting, men can’t help it.

Bangladesh’s high courts recently stated that the term “eve teasing” downplays the serious nature of the harassment that women in the country face in their day to day movement. I have seen and experienced my share of eve teasing. I have watched a store clerk eye a girl half his age’s chest and ask her to bring her assets to the store as her mother walked right beside her. This is not something to be ignored, neither should we blame the girl, who could not have been more than 13 years old. The high courts have made this clear, let’s not call this “eve teasing”, let’s use the correct term, sexual harassment.

So how important are words when we talk about these kinds of crimes? When I interviewed several male students at Dhaka University for an opinion-project last year, I was surprised to hear a few of them say that girls are asking for it, even at a time when sexual harassment has been making headlines in Bangladeshi media. Alam, a 20-year old History student said, “What am I supposed to do, when the girl is wearing such a tightly fitted kameez [the traditional dress worn in Bangladesh]? She is at a University, she should be dressing appropriately. I can’t help but look and tell my friends, and try to get her attention when I am bored.” He went on to tell me how girls know that they are going to get attention, so they should protect themselves by dressing accordingly, rather than “complaining” about getting harassed.

In an increasingly globalized world, I particularly enjoy watching girls in Bangladesh dress the way they want and not follow social norms in their clothing. I think that fashion holds a unique story telling power. So why should women have to dress in a way that makes them less vulnerable? Is she taking on the role of Eve when she wears clothes that could, potentially, tempt men? Or is she simply exerting her independence and her right to be who she wants to be on the streets?

Women don’t get harassed on the streets just because of what they wear in Dhaka. Men in Dhaka have basically been allowed to harass women because they were never caught and punished, until now that specific laws have made it a crime. Dhaka’s streets, once dominated by men, are beginning to change as more women are taking on professional roles. Women are increasingly getting educated at one of the highest rates for a developing country. Bangladesh has several female political heads, including its Prime Minister. It is one of the most liberal Muslim-dominated countries in the world. Nevertheless, a patriarchal culture still exists.

Referring back to the notion of words, how important is it to make sure that we use the right words when we talk about violence against women? I followed up with Alam and asked what he thought about sexual harassment against his female peers that take place regularly in Dhaka University. Alam hesitated and said that what his friends did, the cat calling, and sometimes following women was not sexual, or harassment. Then, I asked what he thought about “eve teasing”, to which he responded that it was all innocent and fun.

Calling sexual harassment “eve teasing” makes the aggravation seem harmless and amusing against victims who are purposefully tempting. How do you make a society start saying “sexual harassment” where the culture never really talks about sex and sexual behavior openly? And an even bigger question is, how do you convince a society that victims are not purposefully tempting perpetrators, that men don’t harass women because they are asking for it? Although it may seem like a mountain to climb, there is an answer – education as education fosters change. Both men and women need to be educated about exactly what constitutes sexual harassment, the impact of it, what is acceptable and what is not, only then can we move forward.

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.