Women and Shahbag

I love Bangladesh terribly, I really do. But I will admit that it is not easy to be a woman here. Especially with the recent media excitement surrounding gender violence, we hear a lot about the big things. Domestic abuse. Eve teasing. Acid attacks. Rape.

We hear less about the everyday. The all the time. The staring. The leering. The walking and sitting just too close. Maybe just maybe that brush against my backside was an accident, except that it happens all the time. A friend of mine is casual, at this point, about the fact that when she’s on a local bus, the bus conductor is probably going to grope her as she steps off.

In Bangladesh, and I imagine in many places all over the world, these things are just a given, a way of life. The fact that women always need to plan and rearrange and figure out how to step outside in the morning – just a given. And I am beginning to think that men will never understand this. I have spoken about this to many, many men in my life. Men who are wonderful people, too. It amazes me how hard it can be to explain that the world interacts with them differently than it does with me. Some have excuses. “Maybe it’s your sari, Yeshim, not many girls your age wear saris all the time.” “It’s probably your short hair that makes them look at you, your hair is really short.” Some say, “What’s the big deal, take it as a compliment. They’re attracted to you.” Some think it doesn’t actually happen, and I’m making it up. Some explain, quite correctly, about education, and religion, and class anger. Some just give me the helpless shrug, the “I guess you just have to deal with it.”

Yes, I guess we do.

Rebecca and I recently went to an outdoor concert in the evening in Dhaka. A very respectable type of concert, too, some sort of jazz-folk festival. We got there when it was still light out, and there were both men and women. We picked a seat near the front. As it got darker, the women started to disappear. The concert did not start on time, and eventually she and I were the only girls in sight, surrounded by a huge crowd of men. You learn quickly in Bangladesh, cover up your goddamn body in a crowd if you’re a girl. It got very very uncomfortable, until finally we decided just to leave, because it no longer felt safe. When we got up, the men around us started cheering and hooting, telling us to get lost. They continued to yell behind us as we walked away. I had wanted, very much, to just stay, because I knew that would happen if we got up, and I knew I would feel like I had lost against them, somehow. But it seemed stupid to be stubborn rather than safe. So we left, and I discussed the experience at great length with Rebecca to deal with the fact that my cheeks were hot with the humiliation of it.

It is a given.

I was in the U.S. when Shahbag first exploded. I heard about the thousands and thousands of people, and I immediately wondered about the women. They had to be there, but how was this working? I inspected the photographs and the YouTube videos. They were there! I emailed my friends in Dhaka. Are there women there? Really? Even at night? Really?

I returned to Dhaka, crazy with impatience to get to Shahbag. And it was true. The men were – I hesitate to say “incredible” or “amazing” or “golden”, although those are the words that come to mind – the men were just as they should be. As I’ve mentioned earlier, it was the most comfortable crowd I’ve ever been in. And this crowd, I might mention, was a formidable one. The biggest crowd I have ever seen in the most densely populated city in the world – that’s saying something. It was fascinating. The respect and courtesy that we deserve all the time, suddenly there – in a crowd, no less! – felt like such a gift.

One of my days there, a woman sitting next to me called out to another woman, letting her know that the zip on her bag was open and she should close it. The second lady called back that it was broken, and it wasn’t going to close. A man nearby laughed cheerfully. “Don’t worry,” he said, “That sort of thing [referring to pickpockets] doesn’t happen here.” He was right. It doesn’t happen in Shahbag. Neither does any sort of disrespect towards women. A different level of morality than the everyday exists in Shahbag.

Here’s the thing that amazes me. I honestly thought the men here, generalizing way too much of course, were not capable of respect. That it just wasn’t going to happen. Shahbag has been a very intense wake-up call for me. They are capable. They do know how to do it. I don’t know what it is about it. Someone will give me an explanation, I’m sure. Maybe it’s that we have a beautiful, peaceful movement going on and no one wants anybody to say otherwise. There is a sense of wanting to maintain the sanctity, the wholesomeness. They know that to be disrespectful ruins something.

The why of it, today as I’m about to head to Narijagoron (Women’s Rising) in Shahbag, is less important to me than the fact that there is an ‘it’ to be talking about at all.

Years of tiredness makes me want to thank these guys that I’m talking about. But of course it is not a thank you that I should be saying, so much as a yes, this makes sense, finally. The next time a man looks at me funny when I’m on the Kakoli overbridge, the first thing that will come to mind will not be to punch him, which is what I usually want. I’m going to want to grab his arm and say, weren’t you at Shahbag? Why aren’t you that way all the time? Why are you not with me right now the way you were with me then? That is all I ask for, that is all we have ever, ever asked for.

I will want to say, there was never meant to be this, between us and you. We are not us without you and you are not you without us. We are, after all, each other’s greatest gift.


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