Response to the attack on my father

Yeshim Iqbal

We are all, of course, shocked and extremely disturbed. Much like many of you who will be reading this, I have a profound sense of unease and sadness that my country is not safe. That the university campus I grew up on is the same place where my father got stabbed while trying to enjoy a robotics competition. A young friend asked me desperately, “WHY Yeshim Apu? Why would you stay in this country, when this is happening?”

It seems, then, that many people are despairing about the state of this country. Asking me if my family will leave, lamenting that we have failed my father.


There’s something I’d like to say to all of you. In fact, I might as well just be lazy and steal a few words from my father, because I know exactly what he’s going to say as soon as he’s up and about again. You see, you are not allowed to give up hope. And you can never, ever stop fighting for all the things that are good and beautiful to you, for the country you so badly wish you were living in and just haven’t gotten quite to yet.

Nothing has ever come easily. Every single thing that you enjoy in your world today – a street to walk on as a free person, a meal to eat, a doctor when you are ill, the right to go to school, to vote, to work at a job that pays you enough money to live and maybe take a rickshaw ride and eat some fuchka that will probably mess up your stomach but is worth it because you’re eating it with someone that gives you the giggles – every single thing you enjoy now was fought for by someone who came before you. Nothing ever came for free, and nothing ever came easy. Somebody fought for it, little by little, piece by piece, day after day, year after year. By people like my parents, yes, but also by people like you and me. It is our right, and our responsibility, to deeply enjoy every tiny bit of what we have been given. And it is our responsibility to continue to fight for what we don’t yet have. Perhaps our children will get it.

When it gets difficult, when you want to scream and cry with the sheer outrage of it –  I know, I know, I am there myself – you do not plan on how you’re going to run away. You take a deep, deep breath. You look around, and you gather up the pieces of courage that you might have dropped by accident along the way. You lift your chin up as stubbornly as you possibly can, and you figure out where the next step forward goes.

I know very well that one of the reasons I am able to say this is that my father is alive and well, already talking about how to finish the five courses he’s supposed to be teaching this semester. I take a moment now to think of the families and friends of those who have lost their lives in this same fight. There are daughters out there whose fathers have not recovered. I’m thinking about you.

I’m staying in this country because I like it. To me, this place is not the ugliness of the incidents like this. These incidents and the people who cause them are a problem, one there we need to deal with very urgently. They are rather like warts, or maybe fungus. They’re gross, and they may have appeared because we haven’t yet done a good enough job of keeping clean. We need to remove them.

But they are not what this place is. To me, this country is the gorgeous volunteers I work with at Kaan Pete Roi. It’s a trip to Chhayanaut or Shilpakala any day of the week I’m looking for a song in my heart. It’s the incredible science and art and literature this tiny country has managed to make despite the battering it has taken in history. It’s the groups of university students I often have the privilege to chat with and learn from, and it’s my parents’ young colleagues sitting around our dinner table, planning how to make things better for their next wave of university students. It’s the insistence of friends to feed me kababs made of little fish, because apparently that’s what makes a healthy baby. It’s my mother and father, who – make no mistake – are not going anywhere.

I am so grateful, especially to those who were there in the moment and acted quickly, with no thought to their own safety, to get my father the care he needed. Thank you. To those protesting all over the country, thank you; the sound of you gives me strength. To those who made up the absolute ocean of love we have received in the past few days, thank you; you are exactly what I need.

Make no mistake. We are not going anywhere.



To the man in his mid-thirties who was standing in front of the DHL office on Kemal Attaturk last Thursday at about 1 pm

(It’s a little bit of cheating for me to put this here, because it’s not very recent – I wrote it in a fit of anger quite some time ago, when I still lived in Dhaka. However, nothing has changed since then in this regard, and I never did anything with this piece, so I suppose it still makes sense for it go here.)

Hello there. You randomly caught my eye while I was stuck in traffic with my cousin. A young woman was walking on the pavement, and I don’t know why, but I looked at your face as she walked by. I guess I figured you’d want to take a look at her, seeing how typically when young women walk on pavements (or anywhere else) they get looked at by men like you (who are just regular men), and I guess I wondered if I would see you do it. Sure enough, as she walked towards you, your eyes flicked to her chest. As she walked by you, you turned to look at her lower back.
It was so clear that it was a jolt, even though it was exactly what I expected to see, having experienced exactly this every time I am on the street in Bangladesh. I pointed it out to my cousin, I said, that guy just looked at a girl’s chest and lower back, it was really clear, and really disgusting.

She leaned over and the two of us watched to see if you would do it again.

Oh, you did it again. In fact, you did it every single time a young woman walked by you.

Every single time.

(And I’m sure you know about that traffic on Kemal Attaturk, so we were there for a lot of minutes, and we watched you look at a lot of women. I mean, a lot of chests and lower backs. Faces didn’t get very much eye-time from you.)

You didn’t let us down, not once. Woman comes up on the pavement. You look at her chest. She walks by. Lower back.

Girl walking with a guy? She got it, too, but you were faster, more discreet, eyes flicking about more quickly.

Two kinds of women were spared. Women in hijabs, and women who were not upper or middle class. I assume that you feel that a woman in a hijab deserves respect that a woman not wearing a hijab doesn’t. I also assume you feel that women who are not upper or middle class aren’t worthy of that kind of interest from you. As my cousin pointed out, this means you choose who you look at, this means it’s conscious.

Several people (almost all of them men, in case you’re wondering) have told me that it’s not okay to be vocal about these things. I’m going to be told, after writing this that it’s vulgar for me to even be talking about how you were looking at a woman’s chest and lower back. That, in our culture, we just don’t talk about these things. I am going to have to defend myself against these words, right here, right now, as if it’s not you, but me, that is doing something wrong by bringing up that this happened.

Well, I am going to talk about them, anyway. I’m not going to wait until International Women’s Day and write an article vaguely but kindly talking about how we’re all equal and aren’t we all someone’s mother and sister, et cetera, et cetera. It isn’t always like that, you see. It’s not always vague, and gentle, and women’s rights, and how we should buy flowers for our mothers. It’s ugly. I don’t think anyone should ever pretend that it isn’t. If you think it’s ugly that I’m saying this, that’s because it’s ugly when I feel it when I’m walking on the street.

(Somehow, also, I think that you might be the kind of guy who thinks that all women should wear hijabs. I’m not sure if people will read this and think, well, women should just wear hijabs, if that’s what saves them on the street. I do not want to discuss whether or not women should wear the hijab here; that is a separate topic. I do want to make one thing very, very clear though: This conversation should never, ever be about what women should do to be treated differently by men. Ever. Respect is a right, plain and simple. It is not deserved, if. It is deserved, always.)

And oh, I won’t say “I know what it’s like for other people too” because I don’t, really, and it’d be wrong to say I do, but I will say that I am aware I am privileged. I can ride in my car. Only a few times have I experienced what happens on buses in Dhaka, rather than every day. I am so protected, so cushioned, from what many other women in this country face. To the point that I almost feel it is a crime for me to even open my mouth.

There are a thousand different things I love about this country. There are even a thousand different things I love about you. People like you will run over, in an earnest, helpful, noisy crowd when there’s an accident (or anything at all) on the street. You’re able to work in temperatures hotter than most people in the world can even stand to stand around in. You are probably who my mother talks about when she affectionately chuckles, “Bangali buddhi!” at some ridiculously funny and clever thing some Bangali has done.

But what I’ve described here? It makes me want to walk away from you, and from this place.

It isn’t my responsibility to solve this problem. But I’ll work on it, anyway. I’ll pour a crazy amount of time and energy into making it better, into hoping your son doesn’t do what you did, into protecting myself and my younger cousin from you when we go outside.

Time and energy I could have spent on something to make this country a better place for both of us.

Kaan Pete Roi: The Twenty-Month Update

This blog has returned for no reason except that a few wonderful young people have demanded that it should, people that are so wonderful that I apparently find it very hard to say no to them!

Now that it’s back, we’ll see where it goes. My previous blog was about the making of Kaan Pete Roi, Bangladesh’s first and only emotional support and suicide prevention helpline. While I’m sure I will write about Kaan Pete Roi often – it owns my heart and mind, now – I hope to also be thinking and writing about the rest of the world too.

I call this “Walking Back” because my walk from NYU to home every day is the longest, coldest, and, oddly, the best part of my day.

Kaan Pete Roi: The Twenty-Month Update

I’ll start with a few numbers. Kaan Pete Roi is open 5 days a week, 6 hours a day, except for Thursday, when it’s open for 12 hours. We’ve now trained 7 batches of volunteers, we have 4 staff members, and we have taken almost five thousand calls, a third of which have taken place after 9pm. We celebrate our two-year anniversary on April 28th, at which point we’ll have a team of about seventy people.

BUT, we of course don’t measure how we’re doing by numbers, so here are a few details. Rozina Khanam – Rozy – runs the show as Helpline Coordinator, KPR’s steadiest rock right from the beginning. Her co-staff are now Rubina Jahan Rumi, Outreach Coordinator; Arun Das, Volunteer Coordinator, and Muhtasabbib Rumman Matin, Referrals Specialist. Rumi and Arun are volunteers from the very first trainings, promoted to management for their sheer excellence and popularity. Muhtasabbib, one of my oldest friends, has also been with KPR since it’s baby stages, teaching us different ways to think about mental illness in Bangladesh and remembering the details that nobody else ever remembers. These four are what we call, with a touch of reverence, ‘the management.’ Several senior volunteers act as Backup Supervisors; they’re the ones who can (and often do) take over if the actual management members are unavailable for some reason. We have our very first School Representative and more and more people lining up to take on that role in their schools.

So what have we been upto? We officially joined the Befrienders Worldwide network as the newest member, and have made immensely productive connections with Befrienders members in Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, and the UK. We had our first fundraising concert, Kaan Pete Roi’s Evening with Arnob and Friends (check out photos here) which will go down in my life as one of my favourite Evenings; we were truly honoured to have Arnob Bhai, Pantha Bhai, Buno Bhai, Saad Bhai and Shoeb Bhai perform for us, and I still marvel that I got to make a speech in between songs. (Volunteers who made the concert happen are reading this and no doubt expecting me to make a special mention of them, so here you have it: your first concert was perfect, when’s the next one?) Media attention, awareness talks, and suicide prevention workshops have been thriving; we’ve done suicide prevention workshops with school teachers, police commissioners, rural community leaders, womens’ advocacy groups, and of course, many, many students. These days, if anything is happening in the country on mental health, we’re there! We now have our very first promotional short film, created by Nuhash Humayun and his team at Pique Productions (check it out here) which could not have captured our message more elegantly.

And we are taking more and more calls every day. Again, we do not measure our success by the number of calls, but by the interactions we have with the individuals who put their trust in us by calling. And I can see in our volunteers as they’re on the phone and when they hang up, and I can feel from those who write to us about their experiences with Kaan Pete Roi, that we are, actually, doing what we set out to do.

I am, of course, constantly stunned by this.

When I first wrote about Kaan Pete Roi, I wrote about the excitement and joy I felt because of the enthusiasm with which people came to volunteer. Now that it’s been almost two years, I also must mention the delight I feel about how that enthusiasm has been sustained. I could not be more proud of the work that people put into holding Kaan Pete Roi up. Even now, when the ‘petrol bomb’ (which should be some kind of sick joke but is unfortunately a reality) is a daily occurrence, our volunteers are still making their way to the office, on the buses and the rickshaws, to be there when the phones ring.