Thursday, August 29, 2013

An Affair To Remember

In Bangladesh the end of Ramadan culminates in the Eid al-Fitr Festival or "The Festival of Breaking of the Fast." During the Eid weekend the city of Dhaka empties. Rather than stay and try and operate in this ghost town, several friends and I, rather impulsively, decided to take advantage of the diversity and ease of access of the region by taking a short trip to Nepal. The proximity to other countries and cultures remains one of my favorite things about traveling abroad. It makes the whole world seem so possible and available. 

Arriving in Nepal felt like some sort of meet cute from an old Hollywood movie. (A meet cute, by the by, is the moment in a romantic comedy when the two love interests meet, often in an adorable manner.) After a few minor hiccups at the Kathmandu airport (one piece of travel advice: always, always carry extra passport photos with you), getting through some bumpy traffic, I tumbled out of the taxi and was immediately swept in by the sights of Nepal. For me there is an instantaneous chemistry with the place. I feel foolish, I've just come from the reality check that is Dhaka, this place can't be as wonderful as it feels. Surely this is just post landing gratitude for someone who hates to fly. I tell myself that this is only the honeymoon phase of my relationship with Nepal, I'll get over it. 

Never happened. I never fell out of love with Nepal. Maybe there's some magic that floats down from the Himalayas or maybe I'm just the sort of girl who always go weak at the knees for a gorgeous mountain. Even though I've never been to Nepal in my life, it felt familiar, as if I'd returned to some distant but not forgotten haunt of my past. That sensation of familiarity even in a strange place, that was the feeling that had flooded in me in China and Scotland. And that was what I failed to feel in Bangladesh. 

One of the more fantastic things I did in Nepal was go paragliding. During your paragliding session you quite literally run of the cliff face of the Himalayas before the wind lifts you and your sail up. Then you are flying. I had one moment of real fear, one moment where I looked down at the harness that was holding me, and just wondered how much turbulence would it take to make one of those clips snap. But once you're in the air you're in the air. 

                                                                  (Me paragliding)

The paragliding session as a whole lasts for about 20 minutes. It's hard to put into words the sensation I felt while I was up there. I think I was struck once again by how familiar it was. That sense of astonishment, that surge of wonder that seems to radiate through your whole self, I've had it before. I had it when I stood on the Great Wall of China and witnessed the intersection between this spectacular man made monument and nature's prowess. I had it standing in a valley outside of Edinburgh, listening to bag pipe music, as I laughed and teared up at the sheer magnificence of the world before me. Up there, above Nepal, soaring between the mountains and Earth, I found that sensation once more. I would not prescribe myself to any one particular religion or spiritual affiliation. But each of those places, each of those mountains evoked the same sentiment in me: "If there is a God, then they're here. They're in this place."

My short trip to Nepal was utterly wonderful. Almost too wonderful. My reaction to Nepal made me feel as if I were cheating on Bangladesh. It was everything I had wanted Dhaka to be and which Dhaka isn't. Despite both Kathmandu and Dhaka possessing rival poverty rates, I didn't experience the constant solicitation for money that I did in Bangladesh. I've always found the colors in Dhaka to be muted, covered in a layer of grime, whereas in Nepal they were robust and piercing. The atmosphere of the two cities felt different to me. Perhaps this hearkens back to the religious differences between the two nations, Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim whereas Nepal is mostly Hindu, but it was if some oppressive force had been lifted from my shoulders. From my first steps in Dhaka, I had felt this weight, this sense of constant observation, this never ending watching. While the persistent gazing may simply be the result of curiosity, it didn't feel that way to me. But even more than that, it felt as if everyone who stared, and most of the stares were from men as they have a more prominent presence in the public sphere, felt they had the right to look at me. It didn't matter to me if they were looking with animosity or with interest or with welcome, it never sat quite right with me. Because I had no say in the matter. I had no agency. I didn't chose to be looked at, I was chosen, and it was an inescapable decision. I hadn't expected that. None of it was what I had imagined Dhaka to be. Imagine is, however, the key word in that sentence. That's what I had imagined. Not what I had been told, certainly not what I witnessed, but what I imagined. It wasn't Dhaka that disappointed me, it was myself. 

In acting class I am sometimes critiqued for sacrificing the genuine experience of the performance in order to create an interesting stage picture. I think in images and scenarios. Sometimes I see the scene as a beautiful image, a frozen still of emotion, and I try and recreate my performance around that frozen flash I've created in my mind. I came to Dhaka with all these visuals of what life would be like there. When the world I encountered didn't match up with those projections, I struggled. I had an idea of what I wanted Dhaka to be. After being confronted by something quite different than what I had imagined, instead of changing my mindset as I should have done, I pushed away. There were days I didn't want to leave my apartment because I felt so defeated by the world outside. This was not the place I had dreamed it to be. I found myself at an impasse, completely unsure of how to proceed.

One of the fundamental fissures in common developmental strategies is this notion of bringing the preconceived mind sets of an organization into the culture and locale it is trying to assist. We approach improvements in infrastructure from a Western perspective. I appreciate the draw of the tangible. Western society is all about instant gratification, being able to point to a map and say "See! That's how many latrines we built!" provides that. It shows clear, projectable results. This proof then leads to greater donations, which leads to more demonstrations of success, which leads to more contributions, and so on and so forth. This creates a cycle where more and more money is spent on aid with fewer and fewer long term results. Yes, many, many latrines are being built and that is fantastic. But the construction of a latrine is only the first step. People need to be shown how to use and properly maintain it. How do you convince people to take the oft times stigmatized responsibility of cleaning a toilet? What happens if the latrine breaks down? Are there people trained in the community to repair it? Do they have access to the tools they would need?
To be clear, despite my  critiques, I respect the work of organizations who do take this approach. I would rather have them doing something, and an admirable something, than have problems continue to be ignored. Do I consider it to be a bandaid solution? Absolutely. But I'd rather a bandaid on a wound than nothing at all. 

It is hard not to look at Dhaka through the lens of my assumptions. But it is necessary.  Kathmandu was spectacular but it was also a construction. At the end of the day I went to the tourist section of Nepal, a place crafted to make short term visitors fall head over heels for it. Bangladesh doesn't have that. It is simply what it is. That is perhaps the thing I have come to admire most about the country, despite the challenge it has presented to my pre departure notions. The most successful change that is accomplished in Bangladesh is done the Bangladeshi way, even if the source of that change is a Western organization. If you want to help a person or a community or even an entire nation, you have to help the way they need to be helped, not simply the way you want to help them. Because it's not about you, it's about them. What I have finally come to discover is that this might be my research project but it's never been about me. It is and always has been for and about Bangladesh. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sesame Street Life

Toilets are not sexy, especially the ones in Bangladesh, and no one wants to talk about mensuration and diarrheal diseases, separately or in relation to one another. 

Now, the above statement might seem obvious to most to say the least. But these are the topics I have come to Bangladesh to discuss and immerse myself in. One of the most frustrating and unexpected struggles of my research has been my difficulty in getting professionals to openly and freely discuss these topics with me. I find it perplexing how, whilst being interviewed by me, a man working on improving hygiene policies struggles uncomfortably to find a word that is not poop or shit or anything of that ilk (fyi he eventually settles on the desensitized phrase of defecation.) This syntactical limitation is not constrained by gender. I have found that many of the women I've spoken with struggle just as much as men to speak openly with me about bodily functions we both know are a universal experience for women. How is it we can talk about the deformation of women through acid attacks, which I consider a far more disturbing topic of conversation, but end up spending moments in silence while scrambling for a more palatable way to describe a UTI? 

I understand where people are coming from. I've not always talked about bodily functions with the same ease with which I discuss the weather. When I was nine I went through a phase where the only word I would use to describe, and only when absolutely necessary, what I deemed to be an inappropriate and uncivilized bodily function, was excrement. Or if I was feeling particularly causal, I would at times say dung. I believed that if I could not sanitize the function itself I could certainly do so with the language I used. There is, however, a fundamental flaw with that logic. 

I do on some level understand that these are trigger words that makes the average person, regardless of geographical origin, uncomfortable. I recognize that are layers of cultural and societal stigmas that are attached to those words. But if you can't talk about a problem openly then you can't authentically discuss the problem. And if you can't even discuss a problem how are you ever going to solve it?

Language both constructs and mimics the social structures of a society. Part of the reason that Mary Daly, a rather infamous leader in feminist theology and the author of Gyn/Ecology, put forth a proposition for the restructuring of the English language is because she recognized that the ideas and values of a society, especially the more oppressive ideologies, are intimately connected to the language coda of that culture and community. The notion of the power of words is fundamental across belief systems. The same is true of Islam. The ceiling of the Dome of the Rock was inscribed with Quranic verses rather than images. This was done because human imagery was not powerful enough to express the transcendence of communing with Allah. But words were. 

When I speak to a sanitation professional who feels uncomfortable speaking the word diarrhea outloud, I am a direct witness to the way cultural taboos manifest themselves as limiters of progress. Yet of all the discussions and interviews I've had, there is one that stand out as an example of openness and forthrightness. 

I had the privilege of interviewing some of the staff members of Sisimpur, the Bangladeshi branch of Sesame Street. Yup, Sesame Street. Sisimpur, the Bangladesh extension of Sesame Street, premiered in 2006. 

When I walked into their office I was prepared to face the same barriers I had faced in all my prior interviews. After all, this is the office of a children's program. If there were ever a group of people that would want to employ as neutral language as possible I assumed it would have to be these guys. It is a testament to the investment and the high intellectual regard Sisimpur (and Sesame Street in general) has for children that these directors of programming had absolutely no qualms about utilizing candid and graphic language to discuss the issues they hoped to address through their workshops and television programs. When speaking with these two men there was never a moment's hesitation for them in using words like menstruation, diarrhea, poop, feces, shit, period, tampons, pads, etc. This acceptance and attention to the needs of women and girls is reflected in Sisimpur's programming. One of the core characters of their show is the character Tuktuki. Tuktuki is the muppet the most closely resembles a human child and is a she. TukTuki was designed to be a clear example for little girls and women all over Bangladesh. It is through her and her skits and actions on the show that message of female empowerment and health are communicated. 

                                             (Me and my new hero Tuktuki)

I've never before truly appreciated the power of a muppet to transform a society. Maybe it's because I grew up with Sesame Street, never analyzing it from on objective perspective, that I've failed to realize thw immense impact it must have had on shaping my ideas and values. Sesame Street and its international counterparts tackle those subjects that other outlets struggle to address. In the South African Version of Sesame Street, Takalani Sesame, they use one of their muppets to dispel harmful myths about HIV, using the muppets to teach children that it's perfectly safe to be friends with, play with, and hold the hands of an HIV positive child. Sisimpur uses Tuktuki to demonstrate how girls should maintain proper hygiene standards, how they should stay in school, and how they should take pride in themselves. What an utterly beautiful use of the power of media and branding. 

            (In a little corner of the office is an ode to all th Sesame Street's all over the world)

There's something transformative that these muppets are able to ignite. They do it across nations from Bangladesh to Israel to South Africa to the US of A. They are not just characters on a children's show. They are the craftsmen of a space that safely allows adults and children to learn and evolve together. As a theater maker and a proponent of the social obligation of theater, I think that Sesame Street and friends are demonstrative of theater at its finest. They are so much more than a kid's show. They are a revolutionary force for a better world. So next time you son or daughter flips on Sesame Street, wherever you are in the world, do yourself a favor and watch it with them. You won't regret it. 

                              (A picture of a Sisimpur workshop)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Confessions of an Ex Anti-Feminist

Once upon a time I abhorred the word feminism. Rather than associating it with a history of courageous struggles, I thought "Feminists, those are those women that go around without shaving or wearing a bra, touting how much they hate men." Though I have always been pro woman, have always stood for and believed in the autonomous rights of the individual female, I could not reconcile those beliefs with the feminist label. It was an identifier that made me uncomfortable. I felt that to be a feminist was in fact a direct threat to my femininity, to my own sense of self as a woman. I didn't think I could be a feminist and still be me.

One of the great revelations in my young life has been to come to terms with the fact that deep down in the very core of who I am lies a raging and fearsome feminist. I pushed away from feminism when I was younger because I feared that my identity would be subsumed into the swirling ideological mass that are the connotations associated with that word. But I am not pushing anymore. Through a combination of academic study and personal experience I have come to witness the power of being a woman.

I believe that is through women that we can change the world. It is by educating women, empowering women, defending the rights of women, that we can make a decisive shift towards alleviating every major crisis the world faces. And while that statement may be a bit hyperbolic in nature ( let's not forget my background is in the theater), I stand by its sentiment. In one of my classes on women and health, my professor taught me that in order to cure a problem, no matter how insignificant or how grand, you have to start somewhere. My proposition to the world of development and aid is quite simple; start with women. 

Over the past few weeks, I have had the privilege of being able to speak with a number of dedicated and fascinating people about the issues of gender and sanitation in modern day Bangladesh. But the other day I had a conversation with Professor  Fouzia Mannan, one of the creators of the gender studies program at Dhaka University, and the author whose paper was the primary inspiration for this grant. Her paper on the relationship between gender and sanitation in the implementation of sanitation policies and practices reshaped a subject I had been studying for a long while. I am so very grateful that I had the opportunity to meet with and speak to her first hand about a subject that is very near and dear to us both. But I was unprepared for how difficult I would find the conversation. Coming into this project, I was aware of many of the terrible consequences women face because of their gender in Bangladesh. However, speaking with Fouzia, a woman who has witnessed these incidents firsthand, reminded me that these are not case studies, clinical scenarios drawn up for demonstrative purposes in some scholarly text. These are real women. Real women who develop infections and do permanent damage to themselves because of how long they force themselves to wait to go the the bathroom, because it is simply too inappropriate for a man to see them, or even have the implication of them performing  a perfectly natural bodily function. Real women, who after not being able to relive themselves all day, must risk sexual assault, rape, or even acid attacks. Because to deform a woman is to render her valueless. Because what is the worth of a woman if not her face? 

The one point of contention I have with Bangladesh that I have not been fully able to resolve is the country's treatment of women. Even in the most liberal of circumstances, there is a pervasive attitude towards women that supports their status as second class citizens. I can have a fascinating and insightful conversation with a man about the progress of women's participation in education but then, at the end of the conversation, have to have him rebuff my handshake because, according to the systems of his ideologies, he cannot touch me because I am a woman. 

I was lucky enough to participate in two field visits with BRAC, an international NGO that have been an integral part of developing Bangladesh as a nation since its inception as an independent country in 1971. On these field visits, I was able to witness a diverse range of the programs BRAC offers in rural areas. One of the programs I was able to observe was a part of their human rights sector. In certain regional offices there are human rights lawyers who act as resources for those who might not otherwise have access to legal advice or legal representation. These lawyers will advise and represent clients free of charge Almost all of the people who seek out their help are women. I was very graciously allowed to sit in on the meetings between several women and these lawyers. All three women whom I spoke with were between the ages of 17 and 20. All three women where seeking the assistance of these lawyers in cases of long term domestic violence. All three women had been beaten repeatedly and tortured by their husbands for years at a time. All three women wanted the lawyers help not to seek a divorce but to get their husbands to behave so they could remain married. I asked each of them why they didn't want to seek a divorce. My guide told me that for them it was better to be married than to be a divorced woman with no rights and no place to go. 

These women, these mothers and wives all younger than me, these people with stories and voices of their own, have to make a life decision I will never have to face. No matter what happens, I always have somewhere to go, I will always have a refuge. I struggle to accept a world where the only concept of refuge and safety these women can find is in the hopes of tempering an abusive domestic life. I don't blame these women for an instant. I sit in a seat of incredible privilege. I come from a  culture and a community that, despite its problems, provides me the opportunities and the love to have a choice in this kind of situation. These women have no choice. The ideological construction of the society within which they find themselves doesnot provide for a choice, at least not one that provides them access to their basic human rights.

I found myself a bit despairing after that. How is it possible to break that cycle? To so drastically shift the cultural and ideological foundations of a society? How do you reconstruct a way of life to provide a better life for other members of that society? Is it even possible? Then of course there's the other all important question: do these women want that change? Is this their cause or the cause I've imposed on them? Because if this isn't a fight these women believe in, then it's a fight that can't be won.

But I truly do believe there is something there worth fighting for. I attended a community empowerment meeting where a group of village women all sat down to discuss the problems of the community together. Looking at that group of women was the first time I could see the color and the brightness of Bangladesh. At this end of the meeting I thanked them in Bangla and began to walk away. All of a sudden, from over my shoulder there was a piercing cry of "your welcome!" I wish I could replicate the energy of that cry. I have no idea which of those women replied to me with that unabashed gusto. But I do know that the spirit behind that voice belongs to each of them. 

Not everyone woman wants to be that voice above the crowd. That doesn't render you more or less of a woman. It's simply a choice of expression. For them and for the rest, for those anonymous female voices that catch you when you least expect it, for them I want nothing more in this world than to participate in the construction of a society that provides those women the platform they deserve. 

Sojourner Truth once posed the question "Ain't I a woman?" I think we need to go even one step further than that sentiment, and pose the question for women all over the world "Ain't I a human being?" 

                      (A local community empowerment meeting plus myself)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Little Fall of Rain

Despite having been in Dhaka for several weeks at this point, I still catch myself fumbling sometimes. I still get lost. Like extremely lost. As in I was in a rickshaw for an hour trying to go somewhere that is maybe ten minutes from where I live. Or taking so long to convince a CNG (basically a little green tin cage attached to the flatbed of a moped) driver to take me where I needed to go that I missed an appointment only to realize it was because I was asking for a driver on the wrong side of the road. My ex-pat friends have told me that Bangladesh is a place of habit, you find your center by establishing your own series of habits to ground you in an otherwise unfamiliar world. However, I have the feeling they were encouraging me to pick a regular cafe to visit, not my daily trips down the back alleys of Gulshan Avenue.

The emotional life of an expat in Dhaka is reminiscent of the pattern of a heart rate monitor; there are these immense peaks followed by these even shapers falls. You have days where you are so incredibly excited and invested in the work you are doing here and there are other days when the culture shock and overwhelming nature of the city makes you afraid to leave the apartment. Never before have I so greatly appreciated the sentiment of Bilbo Baggins's renown line "It's a dangerous business, going out your door."

I used to believe that the hardest journey a person could take was the first step. But I don't think that's true. Our first step is the easy one. At that point there's the momentum and the promise of the journey ahead to carry you through, you haven't failed yet. I think the hardest steps are two and three, the ones you need to take after you've learned that it is indeed possible, and in fact quite likely, that you will fail. But if Dhaka has taught me nothing else, it's that when you take those second and third steps you find the journey most worth venturing out for.

Dhaka is a challenging place for me to bond with. There is a part of me that wonders how much that would change over time. If I stayed here for another two weeks or months or years, would I ever come to feel more a part of the place? Or is it really possible to be too different, to be so far removed from another group of people, from another way of life, that the bridge can simply never be crossed? I guess that depends on your definition of what it means to cross a bridge. Whether it be London or Dhaka, it is difficult to ever remove the "difference" that all foreigners to a place possess. Is there a moment in time or a certain length of stay when a person can conclusively say "Yes I now belong to this place. I understand the complexities and the nuances of the region, for better or for worse, as if I had been here all my life." I don't have the answer to that. But I do believe, in spite any innate differences, any person can come to connect to any place. 

Despite the struggles I've had with it, this city still manages to put a smile on my face. The other night as I was taking a rickshaw home, I turned to my right to see a herd of cattle being walked down the street. This is the main thoroughfare in my area and there were just a bunch of cows strolling down Main Street in the city. I could not stop laughing at the absurdity and the hilarity of it all. 

Today I got caught walking in a downpour, something that seems to have become an intercontinental ritual of mine. And I found myself getting frustrated. Frustrated that I hadn't prepared for the rain, that I had just stepped in a puddle of god knows what that was now covering my foot, frustrated by all the people blatantly staring me when all I wanted to do was get from point a to point b in peace. I ducked under the awning of a shopping center to try and avoid becoming completely soaked. I stood there for awhile, waiting for the rain to end. But then I stopped waiting and just started looking. And I watched what had been perfectly clear skies before turn into a tumultuous mass of dark grey clouds. I watched the rain pick up speed and density and witnessed for a few brief minutes what the opening moments of all a full blown monsoon might be like. Standing there, watching this rain, I couldn't help but smile. Because it was beautiful. Just as beautiful has it had ever been in Edinburgh and Beijing. 

Bangladesh is so unlike any other place I have ever been and it has been a struggle for me to come to terms with that. It's not Scotland or China or America. It's not supposed to be. But it's still beautiful, nonetheless. 

It just took a little bit of rain to finally see that. 

(An otherwise dirty roof transforms into something magical after a little rain fall)