Women in Bangladesh: Rejecting Ridicule, Demanding Respect

by | May 19, 2011
filed under Feminism

Rush hour in Dhaka

by Farah Ghuznavi. This post was originally published in the Star Weekend Magazine, Bangladesh. Reprinted with permission.

Using virtually any form of transport in Dhaka, Bangladesh can be a hazardous enterprise. Not only because of the recklessness of drivers – or even the chaos created by the combination of buses, trucks, private cars, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, rickshaws and the occasional sleepwalking pedestrian jostling each other for space on the roads – but because the variety of individuals you are likely to encounter covers a wide range of “chirias”. This is a term commonly used in Bangladesh to refer to weirdoes (and interestingly enough, ties in nicely with the term “chiria-khana” which means “zoo”).

And on the subject of exotic animals, bus rides in particular can be the equivalent of a virtual safari; albeit considerably less appealing and more than averagely weighted in terms of predators. While the diversity of likely encounters is considerable, there are occasions on which it gets as rowdy as feeding time at the zoo, particularly reminiscent of the Monkey House (providing, if needed, irrefutable proof of our cousinhood with simians). A colleague of mine, Sharmin, was widely admired for her ability to retain her sense of humour in the face of adverse circumstances. However, as she herself admitted, her daily bus rides to work invariably tried even her exceptionally sunny disposition.

Most days, she reduced us to fits of horrified laughter by describing incidents that she had witnessed or participated in during those trips. Through it all, she kept smiling. One day, when I asked her the reason behind her continued good humour, she let me in on a secret. Opening her handbag, she whipped out a rather large, lethal-looking safety pin “You know, no matter how hard you try, very often somebody will try to touch you on the bus. The problem is, it’s usually so crowded that you can’t even see the person who’s doing it. Therefore, when I find any hand suddenly materialising on any part of my body, I don’t bother asking questions anymore. I just use this!” That was the day I realised that Sharmin’s radiant smile masked a steely determination to dispense suitably rough justice to predators on public transport.

Sharmin’s experiences date back several years, but Polly, another friend, has since updated me on the current state of affairs. She works as a mobile physiotherapy provider, and frequently uses Dhaka buses to get her from one place to another. Polly is a feisty, and in my opinion, rather brave young woman. Unlike many women who become so embarrassed that they would rather ignore harassment than fight back, Polly does not pull her punches. On occasion, literally!

Recently, she was climbing into a bus when the young man behind her quite deliberately put his hand forward and cupped her breast. “I didn’t stop to think about it,” Polly said, “I just reacted. There was nothing to misunderstand because he made no attempt to remove his hand until I had turned around and given him a tight slap. In fact, I was so angry I slapped him three times in quick succession, and he still wasn’t in the least embarrassed!”

Polly was understandably outraged when the young man’s reaction to being slapped was to nonchalantly say, “I’m letting you get away with it because you are a woman”. Even as one of the other passengers dragged him off to the back of the bus, he continued to argue with her. “What was he arguing about?” asked an outraged Polly. “I said to him – What do you mean by saying you’re letting me get away with it?! What is it exactly that I’m supposed to be trying to get away with? You’re the one who touched me!”

Most women travelling on the capital’s buses have experienced some variation of this story (things are very different in the countryside), but only a few are brave enough to take the kind of action that Polly did. In another instance, an acquaintance of mine, Khaleda, described how – utterly exhausted at the end of a draining workday – she came aboard to discover all of the women’s seats occupied by men. Normally, the row of seats to the left-hand side of the driver is reserved for women only, although additionally women can and do sit anywhere in the bus where seats are available. “That day, I’d just had enough!” Khaleda said. “I looked at this young man sitting in the women’s seats, and I said to him ‘you need to get out of my seat’.”

“The funny thing is, he did get up to move to a different seat, but there was another man there who was very offended by the fact that I had demanded a seat. He addressed the other passengers loudly, saying, “Just look at the way she talks! She’s telling him to get off her seat! She should be asking him nicely and saying ‘Do you mind getting up and letting me have this seat? I am a woman, you see, and I’m not strong enough to handle this journey standing up.’ If she had any shame, she would behave like a normal woman and ask for the seat politely.’”

His comments further inflamed Khaleda, who turned to him and interrupted his grandstanding, by retorting “Are you sure it would be good enough for me to just ask him for the seat the way that you described? Perhaps, in your opinion, I should have got down on my knees and begged him for it instead?”

According to Polly, another source of friction is often the sign above the woman’s seats that reads “women, children and disabled persons”. On more than one occasion, she has seen some wit make a comment along the following lines – “Yes, yes, I suppose you have to give them those seats. After all, it does say ‘women, children and the disabled’ together. I suppose it just makes it clear that women are unfit to handle themselves in public places because they are socially disabled. So you have to take pity on them and let them sit down”…!

One reason why many women are reluctant to fight for their rights in these situations is that, as elsewhere in the world, when a woman argues back, she is often perceived as aggressive or “unfeminine”. Fortunately, I have come across many, many instances where other passengers – including men – will stand up for women.

For example, when a group of young men were occupying the women’s seats and refusing to move, another man said sardonically, “I suppose, we should let them keep the seats since they want them so badly. Since they aren’t women or children, they must need the seats because they are disabled!” This was sufficient to make the usurpers leap up in a pathetic attempt to ‘prove’ their able-bodied masculinity…