by Farah Ghuznavi. This article was originally published in the Star Weekend Magazine, Bangladesh. Reprinted with permission.
Like any 21st-century metropolis, the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka has its darker side. To be fair, with an impossible population density, crumbling infrastructure, gritty urban poverty coexisting alongside extreme wealth, and the general absence of public service provision, that is hardly surprising. In recent years, the city’s inhabitants have been struggling with rising crime rates, but it remains a relatively safe city for foreigners.
Anyway, fears of crime aside there are any number of oddballs to be encountered in my hometown – as a friend of mine recently found out first hand. Nadiya is a feminist writer, poet and translator, and very much a free spirit. She is in the habit of taking morning walks with a friend in one of the city’s few remaining parks, a pleasant place where a number of people congregate in the early hours of the day to take their daily constitutional.
A couple of months ago Nadiya was walking in the park in the early morning, dressed in her tracksuit and doing her own thing. She was approached unexpectedly by an older man who accosted her, and began a tirade – “What’s wrong with you, woman? Why are you out so early in the morning, dressed indecently in order to lead astray the young men who are here to exercise?”
Initially, Nadiya was moderate in her response, simply saying, “Listen, I am minding my own business, and I suggest that you mind yours!”
Unfortunately, this man was clearly agitated and continued, “Look at you! You have short hair like a man; you are dressed like a man. I suppose you have a job too! So you probably think that you’re just as good as a man!”
At this point, Nadiya understandably lost it saying, “Nobody else in this park is looking at me, or has had anything bad to say about how I dress! So why are you looking at me?! If you want to look at something, I suggest you go home and take the burqa off your wife – whom you probably insist on keeping well covered at all times – and look at her instead!” Leaving him speechless with apoplectic rage, she stalked off.
In fact, Nadiya was so angry herself that she made a full circle of the route and very quickly found herself again walking on the path just behind him. Apparently, the “gentleman” is a regular at that park, so when his friends began to arrive for their morning walks, they invariably greeted him; and he was then forced to turn back to acknowledge them. Inevitably, he caught her eye almost every time he did that. And whenever he turned back, Nadiya said, in a tone that left no room for misunderstanding, “Don’t you look at me, mister…You just keep looking straight ahead! Don’t you dare look back at me!”
Another friend, Khushi, had a less confrontational encounter in another park, though the source of annoyance was similar. She’s in the habit of taking her morning walk dressed in trousers and a top, though she usually dispenses with the scarf commonly worn across the chest in Bangladesh, because it tends to interfere with her power walking. Inevitably, there are those who find her “lack of modesty” problematic, and she has been the recipient of a number of comments in this regard, which she generally ignores.
She was amused however by a recent incident involving the self-identified arbiters of suitable park-wear. It was Pahela Baishakh, the day when the Bangla New Year is celebrated. Khushi had planned to attend some of the special events after completing her walk, so she was dressed in a sari for a change. She couldn’t help laughing aloud when she heard one of her harassers comment waspishly to his companion, “So today she’s pretending to be a Bengali”!
On a happier note, it must be said that this year, one of the best days to be on the streets of Dhaka was on the 14th of April, when thousands of people were out celebrating the Bangla New Year. Despite the heat, it was worth venturing out to experience the crowds gathering in the parks wearing beautiful ethnic clothing in bright colours, with soothing music wafting through the air, and beaming smiles evident on every face.
In one instance, I came across a group of young men, most of them well-dressed (in spotless traditional kurta-pyjamas) riding on the back of a pickup truck, singing melodiously. Somewhat incongruously however, one of their number was clad in a full-length gorilla suit. I couldn’t help wondering what the conservatives at the park would have made of him! Then again, perhaps they would simply have welcomed him as a fellow throwback to the Neanderthal man…