Graffiti in Egypt / Women on Wall

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Graffiti culture is an urban, male-dominant sphere. Most popular graffiti work has been associated with New York City, where from the 1970s, youth-dominant “hip-hop graffiti” emerged as a means of “ghetto expression” of urban culture (and urban decay). Graffiti continues to be a means of “doing art” with explicit knowledge of its legal precautions, a.k.a. it’s now allowed. That is probably what makes graffiti a popular form of expression– you are not supposed to spray paint public and private properties with images that denounces social norms, or things we are uncomfortable about.

It is not wonder that some of the best graffiti art work has been associated with revolutions (e.g. Berlin Wall).

With the uprisings that continue to take place in North Africa and the Middle East, the graffiti scene has been of particular interest to me because 1) they are quite beautiful and 2) a lof of them are being taken up by young women. I first observed the work online more from an artistic point of view; I have always been fascinated by female artists from the Arab region because inevitably, politics and their ownership of their bodies are always tried to it. Here, it is without saying that the graffiti work by Egypt’s young female artists are, is, and will be political.

Mostly, what draws my attention to Cairo and Alexandria is the fact that these are young women expressing their work in a male dominant sphere, challenging the notion of femininity and what it means to be a woman in society, at large.

Graffiti has always been a male dominant area. New York City’s subway stations carry some of the best work, most, if not all, completed by young men. It is without saying that even in America, men are the artists who get to carry the spray pain and dictate what goes on those abandoned walls. It is not a East-West, North-South thing.

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Egypt, like many of its neighbors, is a region where female expression has been indirectly silenced. Of course, women have been a big part of the revolution. Their voices continue to matter and they are not being directly silenced (as they are in the Gulf regions, for example). In an area that has historically and repeatedly limited the development of female expression, combined with a very strong patriarchal culture embedded along all social lines, the work of anonymous female Egyptian artists in Cairo’s walls are invaluable.

It’s public. It’s contemporary. It’s words/things we still don’t like to throw around. It’s maybe even a way for Egyptian women to take agency of their bodies and their place in heated politics. It’s political.

Please check out Women on Wall, an artistic campaign and collaboration  that took place in Luxor, Mansoura, Cairo and Alexandria to use graffiti art to express the female agency and empowerment. (womenonwall.com).

Published: Women in the Workplace: Gender-specific challenges in the corporate world (Daily Star)

The article can be found in this month’s Forum magazine supplement of the Daily Star or online by clicking here.

Women in the Workplace:Gender-specific challenges in the corporate world

OLINDA HASSAN explores the role of female participation and leadership in the workplace.

The last decade has witnessed an impressive rise of women in the workforce in Bangladesh. The encouraging rate of growth has been reflected in a variety of sectors. Being able to identify some women in high positions in the normally male-driven corporate industry is certainly encouraging. With change comes a social pressure for cultural shifts in perceptions. For example, today, the working women’s future ‘dreams’ are not just obtaining independence, but advancing in their respective careers. Such notions of career advancement closely resemble the historical aspirations of men. However, women’s paths towards such dreams are vastly different from men and the reaction that such women face from their peers and families continue to be problematic. Combined with the general consequences of a patriarchal society, women in Bangladesh’s corporate world are driven by additional determinants — How should I get ahead as a woman? How do I manage my life at home alongside my career? How do I deal with family expectations?

Traditional gender-roles and seeking female leadership in the workplace

A reason why women in South Asia, such as in Bangladesh, opt out of professional careers is to raise their children. Because of continued stigma attached to women and raising children at home, a woman’s continuation of work after birth remains a cultural obstacle. Women in South Asia also continue to have an uneven share of responsibilities when it comes to taking care of their elderly parents and/or parents-in-law. Combined with having to take care of children, many South Asian women find it exceptionally difficult to resume their careers at the level they left since they are unable to remain connected or develop professionally in a linear fashion.

Moreover, women’s participation in Bangladesh’s movements continue to be limited in scope. To this day, whether married or not, young or old, women face a harder time being able to work odd hours, overtime, or over weekends — the types of commitment that are needed in a competitive, corporate world. Women in general face more pressure than their male counterparts to explain and gain approval from their home as to why she would need to work longer hours, or why she would have to take a certain work trip out of town, for example.

The movements of female workers at the workplace are more scrutinised with a magnifying glass than their male counterparts. “As women, we already face advances from our male colleagues. I have even been advised to flirt with them in order to be heard. The definition of what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is definitely much more difficult to navigate for us than it is for our male colleagues. There is just too much cultural pressure,” said one female communications manager for a multinational corporation in Dhaka who asked for anonymity.

At the work place, it is more difficult for women to break into a male-dominated industry, since a woman in leadership or seeking a leadership position must showcase that she is as capable as any other man at work. She must work hard, if not harder, to gain staff respect and understanding.

Thus, women often have to choose between their career and their family life as both components require much attention and physical presence.

However, some of the difficulties listed above may be used as excuses and are self-created. In a recent article in Business Standard, Vinita Bali, the managing director of Britannia Industries was asked about how she felt working in a male-dominated industry and she expressed that sometimes, “we talk about it so much we make it bigger than what it is.” While problems may exist, embedded problems from culture can be changed. Women must thus be more vocal in defending themselves at their home and create a reasonable venue for approval and understanding. After all, more women than ever hold corporate positions in Bangladesh, and this could not have been gained without achieving understanding between families and communities.

“This isn’t a golf-playing, beer-drinking homogeneous culture,” Naina Lal Kidwai, Group Managing Director and Country Head of HSBC in India once said in an interview regarding corporate women in South Asia. “Women could join the workplace on their own terms…You still have to network; you still have to work hard, but that made it easier” (HRM Asia).

Appearances, its judgments, and why it may matter to a woman’s employment

The Bangladeshi corporate woman can instigate all kinds of images. You have the one who wears stylish, trend-setting saris and comes to work with her designer bag and always perfect hair and flawless makeup. On one hand, she embodies professionalism with her clean, clear cut modern image. On the other hand, she is seen as a bit too much — a bit too modern, a bit too smart, a bit too out there. Who does she think she is, better than all of us?– a common Bangladeshi sentiment arises. The leading corporate woman can also wear a simple sari or shalwar kameez, with visible dark circles under her eyes and non-flashy shoes and I-care-more-about-my-files bag. This can generate a nod of approval from those who want to see a hard worker, but she can also be subjected to being too simple, too sloppy, and too intelligent. Either way, no matter how she dresses and presents herself, a negative perception and related typecasting can, and most often does, follow.

With slow economy worldwide and higher competition among job seekers, men and women alike are facing new challenges in the market. Interestingly, in the array of research, articles and advice blogs written to aid women, there has been a particular assertion: looks matter.

“If you want to get a raise or a promotion, you might want to throw on a pair of heels and suck in that belly. Your looks can help (or hinder) your chances of getting a well-deserved promotion, regardless of qualifications, especially in a sour economy when advancements are few and hard to come by,” recently wrote journalist Laura Sinberg for Forbes, one of the leading publications for corporate America. According to the Journal of Labor Economics,attractive people earn about 5% more than their average-looking colleagues.

A 2009 study by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that 73% of women felt a “youthful appearance” played a role in getting a job, promotion, or getting and keeping clients. Many in the study cited difficult economic times as the reason for such a sentiment; the better-looking are the ones advancing in their careers where competition has become even more rigorous.

Such statements and studies may seem anti-feminist and anti-women’s movement. It certainly can be seen as offensive. But given the recent economy, women are certainly taking the looks-factor into consideration.

In Bangladesh, the number of working-women who are in the rising stage of their careers, between the age of 25-45 are visiting the parlours more than ever, opting for work-appropriate looks ranging from haircuts to subtle manicures. New boutiques and fashion houses are offering more and more “work-appropriate clothing” specifically created to make a woman feel and look more serious. Young women employed in major business and banking industries in the city are increasingly “looking the part.” It is not that one should ever not look work-appropriate; rather, there is a conscious decision made by many women to have to look attractive in the workplace, beyond just being “presentable”.

“The first lesson I learned as a South Asian woman is, I don’t have to compromise my values, but I really need to understand how I articulate them,” said Shahla Aly, a general manager at Microsoft at a conference at Harvard Business School in 2005 in a discussion about South Asian women at work. “My need to dress modestly can be articulated in dress that is more pervasive. At that point [when she first began her corporate job], I had not yet earned the right to be different.”

Countering stereotypes as women increase their visibility in corporate South Asia

South Asian women in business sometimes endure stereotypes exclusive to Asian women; on one hand, they are deemed as very intelligent, sharp, and able to think from varied angles. However, they are also often labelled as passive and submissive, and unassertive. In the corporate business world, these perceived qualities can hamper a woman’s professional growth. Additionally, there is a massive disconnect between an educational system in Bangladesh that now produces a large quantity of female graduates and a business climate that has not yet included this talent pool. Even if a woman is hired for a higher-end position, she will earn less and have lower chances of a promotion than her male counterpart.

A recent survey by Catalyst found that companies with female board directors consistently outperform corporations without women on the board in areas such as return on equity, return on sales, and return on invested capital. Another study posted on the Harvard Business Review cites such trends to qualities such as women invest more on preparation before board meetings and have higher attendance rates. They seek to broaden the scope of discussions and bring in a different set of characteristics that makes any corporate board unique and all-encapsulating. Given the recent economic climate worldwide, such characteristics are needed more than ever for struggling or expanding industries.

The discussion of what inhibits female growth and entrance into professional roles in Bangladesh (in an age when we have become focused on addressing gender gaps) takes place in the light that more women than ever are indeed advancing their careers in South Asia. Let us take India for example: foreign banks (e.g. HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) and the country’s ICICI Bank and Axis Bank are all run by women. Half of the deputy governors at the Reserve Bank of India are women (HRM Asia). Even though the traditional Indian society is patriarchal like Bangladesh, modern women in the region do not need to act like the stereotypical male banker to advance their careers.

Increasing the representation of women on corporate and governing boards is not singularly a women’s issue — it is a gender issue, for both men and women, and a professional concern. It is often asserted that putting women in leadership positions can broaden a company’s perspective on social welfare issues and “counteract the ’empathy deficit’ on corporate boards” (World Economic Forum). While these studies certainly place attention upon women, it is time women take on more active roles and be seen not just as female leaders, but as leaders. Women, whether they choose to dress for success and maintain traditional norms are certainly able to also juggle a career. Both women and men must make a conscious decision to champion diversity and open the path for other women — it is not impossible unless it is tried, experimented and fought for.

Olinda Hassan is a graduate of Wellesley College, and continues to discuss various musings in her blog atolindahassan. wordpress.com.

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 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 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.

Picking on details- the new proposal that could make women cover their eyes in Saudi Arabia

Women in Saudi Arabia are already made, by law, to wear the abbayah/abaya in Saudi Arabia (long black cloak). The law does not however, technically say that women have to cover their hair. Interpretations of the law, of cultural notions, and media may make it seem as if you do need to cover your hair, however.

Now to the news that there is a proposal to force women in Saudi Arabia to cover their eyes as well, or as some media reports have taken the liking to term it as, covering their “sexy eyes”.

A few notes:

1) It is reported that Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice [CPVPV] (also known as the religious police or Mutawa) have made this call. The religious police has over the past decade lost a significant portion of power to control or prosecute what they may deem as immoral behavior in Saudi Arabia. While general stereotypes and historical events may make people from the outside think that they are a powerful force, this has not been the case, especially in cities like Khobar and Dammam where the most the religious police has done recently is to go up to a woman and ask her to cover her hair. She can refuse and simply walk away, as personally observed.

2) The announcement came a few days following the incident of a Saudi man being sent to the hospital after fighting with a Mutawa, and being stabbed by the Mutawa, after he ordered his wife to cover her eyes. Interestingly, the attention has gone to asking women to cover their eyes, not to the Mutawa for using such violence upon civilians. No where in the religious police code should deem such a violence and furthermore, allow members to be involved in a “process of punishment” that gets out of hand. This may be just another way to exert their already losing power over civil obedience in the Kingdom

3) The news comes weeks after the announcement that Saudi women will be allowed to cast votes in the Kingdom, and rumors of finally allowing women to drive one day. These are significant events which may truly turn they very way that families function in Saudi Arabia- a process much needed for a society, as well as for their place in international diplomacy and affairs. However, with the next line in the throne being Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, it may be a bit more difficult than hoped (he is allied more closely with the conservative sector of the country).

4) If the eyes of the women are tempting, stop looking at her. A very simple solution for all the men who are also supposed to lower their gaze. If the Mutawa is in existence to ensure that people are complying with Islamic “rules” and obedience, it may do well to reconsider their methods and see that religious rules are not specific to just one gender.  

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.

getting a hair cut during Eid weekend in KSA requires not following order, paying 2x the price, and gawking at women as they take off their veils.

I finally had a chance to get a haircut today at my favorite salon in Jubail, after being rejected last night at 11 pm because they had too many customers. They did not take appointments so I had about 20 minute wait after my mother paid for the cut (before even getting a cut). I went in the afternoon and even then, it was packed, mostly with women getting their nails done, hair styled, and eyebrows colored (instead of waxing/ threading which was recently outlawed in the salon. No idea why). Women of all ages sat around in the red tones waiting area with plush cushions and bright red sofas with their children.

But you don’t actually wait for your number to be called. There were only three women actually cutting and styling the hair today and there were literally crowds around them waiting in line, no matter if they came after me or whenever. So I had to follow this disorganized mishap and just wait. It did not help us that the receptionist spoke no English, refused to respond to my broken Arabic, and played with her iPhone the entire time and picked on her nails. The woman I waited for, a Filipino who usually did my hair and may I add, amazing was busily cutting away. Except she was literally taking about 5 minutes on each hair; her hands moved fast and I was pretty sure she was ignoring the mothers or she was actually multitasking and risking with women’s long, amazing hair.

For one girl, she literally grabbed the top chunk, sliced it off in three strokes, and left the rest to be, creating bizarre layers while the mother looked on, looking pleased. It took just a few minutes and I was a little more than freaked out and wanted to run away.

Thankfully, she handled my situation beautifully. She took a bit longer with my hair and just did what she wanted to with it. This is why I love her; the women just KNOWS hair, and does whatever she wants and know sit will look good, whether it takes 5 minutes or an hour. She tugged and pulled, and didn’t care if I winched but just grabbed by head here and there like it was a tree. While mute most of the time, she started talking to me and my mom and said that her arms were weak and she had been working nonstop, without any breaks. She was in such a hurry and complained about how busy they were with swarming clients as they did not take appointments and no one followed  rules. They were open until 3 am last night, and today expected to work all night until 8 am, the day before Eid. Women flocked the place to get everything done before the break so that they could look their best. After ten minutes (I was really, really thankful for the extra five minutes), and apologizing that she could not blow dry my hair because of the line behind me and charging us double of what we usually paid her, we left the area where arms and scissors flew everywhere along with hair and nervous energy.

Anyways, I got my hair cut and I know now to not wait until the last minute because nothing gets in the way between Saudi women and primping themselves for the holidays. They can literally get what they want no matter what time it is and how much it will cost them. And I got to see what they are like beneath all the busy abbayahs and niqabs. Gorgeous, as usual.

Lynn Sherr’s Commencement Speech/ Wellesley College/ May 28, 2010

Kim – President Bottomly – very distinguished faculty, trustees, staff, sister alums, loving parents and grandparents and families and all the friends who made all of this possible today, and above all, beautiful, bubbly members of the Royal Purple class of 2010. Congratulations! I’ve even written my speech on purple paper today.

Thank you for inviting me to your party. Thank you for letting me pretend I’m still here. And really, above all, thank you for showing me what the Scream Tunnel sounds like!

I celebrate your accomplishments and I share every tingle of excitement. This day is beyond special in your lives, and I am honored to help welcome you out into the wide, wide world. Regrettably, I do not stand here to guarantee you a job; I can, however, guarantee lunch. Never underestimate lunch.

I also stand here as living, breathing proof that Wellesley does indeed open the doors to the planet. Most of those doors were, in fact, barred to women when I graduated from Wellesley in 1963 – another century, another era, even another color. I was a mellow yellow girl. Golden, if you pushed. Which my generation had to do. As women – or “girls,” they called us – we were not invited to participate in the working world except at the lowest levels. But thanks to the knowledge we gained and the courage we inhaled on this campus, we figured it out. We smashed the barriers so that you – every one of you – can now walk into any doorway that you want. That’s the way it works. Pay it forward, when you’re ready to do the same. Continue reading “Lynn Sherr’s Commencement Speech/ Wellesley College/ May 28, 2010”

In the wake of International Women’s Day…

“Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights”– Hillary Clinton

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday said her government would repeal the laws discriminatory to women and soon make the National Women Development Policy effective.

Could include:

– female empowerment

– re-defining the laws surrounding woman’s property rights.

– education

– employment

The prime minister urged mothers to give equal attention to their sons and daughters since discrimination sparks from within the family.

Also-

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Bangladesh ranked 67th in terms of female participation in politics, surpassing neighboring India (99th).Pakistan ranked at 50th.

check: http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/more.php?news_id=94516

India: http://ibnlive.in.com/news/india-ranks-99-in-worlds-women-participation-in-politics/111254-3.html

Reading list for International Women’s Day, click here.

Includes: The Widsom of Whores, by Elizabeth Pisani, Dividing Citizens: Gender And Federalism In New Deal Public Policy by Suzanne Mettler, and Counting for Nothing by Marilyn Waring.

***

The Colors of Warka: Paintings by Iraqi Women– US State Department

Continue reading “In the wake of International Women’s Day…”

Barbie Dolls in Burqa Presented in Italy’s Barbie Fashion Show

Yet again, the problem with this:

– calling it “Islamic” and/ or “Islamic fashion” leads to a false image of what Islamic clothing is. There is no Islamic fashion or Islamic dress. This is another case of confusing religion with culture, and not allowing it to be de-linked. Burka, while traditional in certain regions of the world, is not something that symbolizes Islam, a religion that spreads around the globe and includes many elasticities. This is not to say that burqa should be dismissed. Rather, it is a cultural aspect of many societies, worn by many women out of choice rather than force. What I have a problem with is the labeling- by calling it “Islamic fashion” only enforces stereotypes of Muslim women to be one-dimentional.

Article here.

Freitag: Parastou Forouhar

Friedrich

In a culture of concealment, the significance of the visible is heightened. The fragments of the body that can be shown symbolically represent all that cannot be shown and cannot be said. This makes them eloquent and multivalent.

Friday …it is also a day on which the long Friday prayers and sermons, so important to Islamists, are held at the mosque. A day when morality and order are invoked and defined, when the mullahs of Iran often speak to crowds of thousands, who then chant their propaganda slogans. Rhythmically, ecstatically.

By Parastou Forouhar

2003

Wife of Al Qaeda Member Has Childcare Message

“Fighting is not easy for women because they need a male guardian by their side. … But we can place ourselves in service of the mujahedeen and do what they ask of us. We can help by supporting warriors with money or information or even by a martyrdom operation.”

*CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of the document, which appeared on multiple radical Islamist Web sites.

CNN’s senior editor for Middle East affairs, Octavia Nasr, said it is not a usual practice for women linked to al Qaeda to release messages.

“It signals that al Qaeda seems to be aggressively reaching out to the female population, whereas in the past their focus was mainly on men,” she said.