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)