Tag Archives: bangladesh

Bangladeshis take part in the world’s first cross-border election

Published in The Independent on 1 May 2010

The national voting polls haven’t yet opened in the United Kingdom, but the Liberal Democrats have already had a “major landslide victory” in Bangladesh, said Clemmie James, the Bangladesh coordinator of the Give Your Vote campaign.  Up until midnight yesterday, thousands of Bangladeshis cast their votes in the UK elections via text messages.  They used the votes donated to them by UK citizens who have pledged to represent their votes on election day.  It is the world’s first ever cross-border election.

The Give Your Vote campaign has also enabled people in Ghana and Afghanistan to participate, on the premise that the results of the UK election will have a major impact on some of the world’s poorest – particularly in the areas of trade, aid, immigration, war and climate change.  Bangladeshi economist and member of the Nobel-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) team, Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmed said, “In the highly iniquitous global order, the developed countries call all the shots. Give Your Vote invokes the inherent equality of all human beings to take part in global, political, economic and climate change related decisions by developed countries, that affect their lives and livelihoods.” 

Give Your Vote has run a month-long campaign in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Ghana to raise awareness about the opportunity to take part in the UK elections.  In Bangladesh, the manifestos of the UK’s three main parties, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, were translated into Bangla, and screenings of the election debates were televised live in Terra Bistro and in an open-air forum at Dhaka University last Tuesday.  But it didn’t stop there – the campaign team also visited slums in northern Dhaka, and returned yesterday to present the slum dwellers with answers to the questions they posed to the UK’s political parties.  Five or six slum dwellers also attended the rally and human chain for global democracy that was held at the National Press Club yesterday morning.

Atique Chowdhury, Bangladesh campaign organiser said, “I am from a small island in the Bay of Bengal. Two islands in the area are already disappearing due to rising sea levels.  As a victim of climate change, I believe I have the right to vote for the people who are making decisions on my behalf.”  Muttaki Bin Kamal, 22, who is currently undertaking peace and conflict studies at Dhaka University, said, “For me, it was key that the Liberal Democrats did not support the war in Iraq.  My least favourite party is the Conservatives.  Conservative policies, including those outside the UK, always have a very negative stand.  They say, ‘We cannot let the immigrants in so easily, and we cannot have their goods in our markets so easily.  We must be hard core realists.’”  He added, “Personally I support liberalism rather than realism.  Liberalism can bring peace, solidarity and brotherhood.  We have been fighting for these ideas for a long time – since the French Revolution, the Revolution of Islam and the Gaudan Buddha Revolution.  I think that realism, like Machiavellianism, is no good.”

Mohammad Feroz Ahmmead, 30, a development worker, said, “Some may say I have no right to vote because I do not pay taxes in the UK.  But there are many people in the UK who are in solidarity with Bangladeshis because they know we are affected.”  One such person is Margarita, 72, who runs a cafe in a London market.  In a press statement she said, “We have one world – not seven.  I want to be in harmony with the people around the world who are affected by the UK and by giving my vote I am helping others have a voice.”

Clemmie James said, “It’s been really exciting. The major thing has been the realisation that for certain countries, electing a national leader is not enough – because those national leaders happen to be global leaders. The UK is a global superpower, so whoever runs it has to be accountable and has to have a foreign policy that is fair and just to those it influences.”  She added, “We have had some criticism from people who questioned how much people in the slums know about UK politics. But the people in the slums knew about the Iraq War and they knew that two million people in London marched in protest against it.”

The idea behind Give Your Vote first formed when Clemmie’s friend was watching the US election in Syria with Iraqi refugees, who said they wished they could take part.  Clemmie said that since the campaign started, Give Your Vote has received emails from people in Venezuela, Israel, Palestine and Zimbabwe who want to be involved in the next cross-border election.

Give Your Vote has its sights set on the 2012 US elections, and it will join forces with Bolivia, who is seeking a global referendum on climate change.  Clemmie said, “We want to work with people around the world who are starting to consider what global democracy would look like.”

It may not be a win-win situation for the British politicians on May 6, but it just might be for the people.

“I can dream colourful dreams”- Dhaka University’s female halls

Published in The Independent in May 2010

I passed a dark and stormy night last week with some of the young women who live in Ruqayyah Hall at Dhaka University.  Ruqayyah Hall in central Dhaka accommodates around 1,500 female students, making it the largest of the four halls available for women.  Until partition in 1947, Dhaka University was one of the few residential institutions of higher learning in Asia.  And even today, its residential facilities of the nation’s top public university provide a wonderful opportunity for students who live outside Dhaka, many of whom come from lower-income families, to attain a degree in higher education.  It also gives young people a chance to live independently from their families whilst in a safe environment, which fosters their self-confidence and sense of individuality.  However this is not to say that life in DU’s halls is perfect, as these girls will be the first to tell you.

Kuasha Paul, 25, from Chittagong, is doing an MSC in microbiology and she is also the captain of DU’s debating team.  She has lived in halls for the last six years.  Kuasha said that she still misses her family and that if she were given the choice she would prefer to live at home.  However she was quick to point out that she has been enriched by the experience.  She said, “Hostel life has given me a new introduction to myself.  It has taught me how to live alone and how to be established in my own life.”  Israt Jahan Tamanna, 24, a law student from Madaripur and the debating club’s general secretary, agrees with Kuasha.  She said, “I have learnt much from hall life.  I used to ask my mother what to wear.  Now my family phones me to ask for my opinion about any decision.”

The lack of personal space appears to be one of the biggest frustrations for women in the halls.  Each room has six occupants, but only four single beds, so only those who are Masters or final year Honours students do not have to share a bed.  Jesmin said, “Sharing a single bed is very difficult.  In summer, when the temperature is high, we cannot enjoy our sleep.”  The mattresses are pitifully thin and the rooms themselves are very basic.  Many windows are cracked or broken and the paint looks as though it peeled off the walls years ago.  No storage facilities are provided, so the girls must buy small plastic shelves.  Each desk was overflowing with books, papers and personal items.  Notwithstanding such shortcomings, at just Tk 12 a month for rent, the halls of DU are effectively open to everyone if they can make the grade.

The girls agreed that the biggest problem they face in halls is the food.  Kuasha said, “There is enough food, but there is no quality or taste.  So we have to manage our own.” Noorana explained that she has begun cooking her own food rather than eating at the canteen or buying more expensive food from outside.  However when she shows me her cooking area, I see that it is nothing more than a few containers stacked by a cracked sink outside her bedroom.  Without refrigeration, there is little that can be prepared safely.  Noorana said, “The common food we eat is rice with egg and potato.  Sometimes all we can do is fry it together and then we call it ‘fried rice,’” she joked.  And sure enough, when we went to the canteen for a cup of tea, we found it almost completely deserted, despite the fact that the study and recreation common areas were packed. 

Women who live in Dhaka University’s halls must be at home each evening by 9.30pm, whereas male students are “free to move all night,” said Israt.   Female students can seek special permission to extend their curfew to 10pm on special occasions. “There will be a problem if we don’t get permission,” confirmed Israt.  The girls’ feelings about the curfew are mixed.  On the one hand, Mohsina Hossaina, 21, a student at the Department of Bengali, said, “The authorities have fixed a time limit for our security.  Our parents have less tension because of it.”  However whilst the young women acknowledged that the streets of Dhaka are not safe for them at night, they wish that this was not the case.  Kuasha said, “We are waiting for this situation to change.”  Jesmin went further, saying, “We need to change the mentality of boys.  But by not doing anything, we are indirectly supporting them, which is the main problem.”  Jesmin recalled a negative experience she had quite recently.  She said, “When my examinations were going on I started to feel bored.  So I decided to go outside the campus sometime between 7pm and 8pm with two of my female friends.  My elder sister said that it was unwise to walk at night without a boy.  I denied her advice and off we went.  Some boys in a rickshaw teased us by saying, ‘Don’t you have any parents?’”  Jesmin said that girls who go out at night are regarded by men as being “like prostitutes.”  She added thoughtfully, “This is a real shame to me.”

The girls believe that they have more opportunities than their mothers did at the same age.  Only one of the six young women I interviewed had a mother who had attended university.  Kuasha said, “Our mothers lived in a different society.  They didn’t have the facilities that we have.  We are now living in a digital age.  But our mothers want us to be independent even though they are not.”  She added, “When I am in a better environment, I can think and dream better.  When I am in a limited area, I cannot.  In our present situation, we can dream colourful dreams.  But ours mothers did not have that.  They were living with their in-laws and all the relatives.  But although my mother was living in that situation, she was thinking higher for me.”  Noorana comes from a rural area, and her father is a teacher and her mother is a housewife.  Most of Noorana’s female friends in the village are now married.  She came to Dhaka for the first time to sit her entrance exam, and her brother also lives in DU’s halls.  Noorana said, “It was very difficult for my parents to send us away.  It is a sign of a great mentality, because every parent wants their children to be around them.  Now my parents live alone.”  The girls said that if they have daughters, they most definitely want them to attend university.

When I asked whether eve-teasing is a problem on campus, the swift reply was, “Obviously.”  Nuasha said, “I am confident that not a single girl in this country hasn’t suffered from any kind of eve-teasing.”  Noorana said, “In Western societies, if a boy says that a girl looks sexy, it is not eve-teasing.  But in our country, we feel anger.  Our moral code does not support it.”  The girls also said they believe that eve-teasing is more of a menace in rural areas than in the capital, and that the most attractive girls will suffer the most.  The girls cited severe forms of eve-teasing as being plagued by phone calls at 3am or 4am – “just to disturb you and for nothing else,” said Noorana, and one student said she heard of a boy threatening to kidnap a girl if she refused to speak to him.

Overall, each of the girls I spoke to felt positively about their life in DU’s halls.  Kuasha said, “I will miss my hall life.  They are the special moments of my life.  Some girls have had a bitter experience, but many have also had a positive experience.  It’s made us more independent and confident.” Mohsina shares a similar sentiment.  She said, “Despite some problems, we will seriously miss dormitory life.  We come from different places but we have become like a family.  Like all families, we have learnt to compromise.”

Strong Backs, Magic Fingers: The dying art of indigenous weaving

If you know how to weave the pinon and the hadi

Everyone will praise you, say the girl is good.

But if you do not know how to weave, daughter,

Your mother-in-law will never let you hear the end of it.

This is an excerpt of a poem called “Song of the loom” by Chiranjib Chakma, which is included in full at the beginning of a beautiful new book about the traditions of weaving in Bangladesh.  The poem’s inclusion in “Strong Backs, Magic Fingers” powerfully demonstrates how times have changed – whereas the practice of backstrap weaving used to be learnt in indigenous communities as a matter of course, nowadays such skills are becoming increasingly rare, due to social and economic changes.  “Strong Backs, Magic Fingers” aims to raise awareness of the perilous state of weaving by showcasing its beauty and skill, as well providing as an insight into the communities engaged in weaving. The book was launched at the Radius Centre in Gulshan last Saturday May 29.

The luminous hardback is co-authored by Manjulika Chakma and Niaz Zaman and it is published by Nymphea Publications and the Independent University, Bangladesh.  The book includes accounts of weaving by indigenous communities in Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban, as well as the Manipuri community, who live in northeast Bangladesh.  Readers can learn about the distinct styles of each indigenous group through detailed descriptions of methods and patterns, which are accompanied by striking photographs of contemporary and historic textiles.  

During the launch, Razia expressed regret on Manjulika’s behalf that she was unable to attend, before describing the book’s modest beginnings.  Funds had not been obtained prior to undertaking the field research, so arrangements were made on a shoestring budget.  She said, “It was difficult to travel – I took all sorts of public transport because I didn’t have money, and a friend arranged for me to stay in a house because I couldn’t pay for a hotel. My son lent me his digital camera.”  Razia told the audience that at one point she said to Manjulika, “We are two elderly ladies – what are we doing traveling around like this?” So they found a young male student who was willing to accompany them, and obtained a jeep and a driver.  Manjulika said, “With every bump I was nearly falling out of the jeep. I risked life and limb, as they say!”  When Manjulika returned to Dhaka she met with the vice-chancellor of IUB and he agreed to publish the book. 

Australian High Commissioner Justin Lee attended the launch as chief guest.  He said, “I congratulate the authors for producing an outstanding reference book that captures in great detail the beauty, diversity and practicality of indigenous handicrafts in Bangladesh.  The book is beautifully presented – it is a work of art in itself.”  He also said that the book was a pleasure to read and that it serves an important function as “a permanent record of one of Bangladesh’s finest indigenous traditions.”  Mr Lee added, “I think this is very important, given the threats to traditions as exemplified by modernity and change.” A spontaneous burst of applause rang out as Mr Lee pointed out that both he and his Timorese wife were wearing her clan’s weavings that evening.

During his address, Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam, Department of English, Dhaka University, said that he grew up in a town in Sylhet where the Manipuri came to shelter after being driven out by the British in the 1880s.  He said, “When I was growing up I saw people weaving their handlooms. I could see the dedication they devoted to making the quilts.  Their very life depended on it.  I am saddened by the loss of this tradition, which still exists in remote areas but not in Sylhet town itself.”  Manzoorul also commented on how much the Chittagong Hill Tracts have changed, particularly since the “good old days” of the 1970s when communal tensions did not exist.  He said, “The indigenous peoples are very good, non-violent people and I will our political leaders and members of civil society to improve the situation.”

“Strong Backs” estimates that Bangladesh currently has around 888,115 weavers, around half of whom are female.  Numbers are dwindling though, due to a variety of reasons.  As the introduction of “Strong Backs” states, “The necessity of having to adjust to a dominant majority, differing in race, religion and social attitudes often causes [indigenous people] to adapt, and in the process modify – if not entirely lose – their traditional practices.”  Many indigenous women, once assimilated into mainstream Bengali society, have reported feeling obliged to cover themselves up in public and therefore abandon traditional dress.  Others have given up creating intricate designs because they are so labour intensive, and because weavers often lack access to the retail market.  Nowadays, many indigenous people find it more profitable to work for day wages than to weave.  Weaving used to be done in between household chores or during breaks from traditional slash and burn cultivation, but with less land to cultivate due to settlements being established by Bengalis, indigenous people now often work away from home and are deprived of the necessary time required.  The authors warn readers that unless weaving is given the recognition it deserves as an art form, younger generations will simply look elsewhere for a livelihood. 

“Strong Backs” also contains some fascinating nuggets of information about backstrap weaving.  For example, in Katachhori, Rangamati, the Chakmas moisten the strands of the yarn fringe using their saliva.  The strands of yarn are then twisted by rolling them down their shins.  The Chakmas create a dazzling array of woven pieces, including a bag to keep pan with separate compartments, with motifs that  include pineapples, flowers and starfruit.  They even produce stitched chessboards.

Manjulika has been involved in indigeneous weaving for several decades.  She is the owner of Bain Textiles, which markets both handloom and backstrap textiles.  In 2009 she received the UNDP seal of excellence for her weaving.  Co-author Niaz is supernumerary professor, department of English at the University of Dhaka and advisor, department of English, IUB.  She has been writing about women’s art forms for several years.  Both women are passionate about promoting weaving, and make some convincing arguments in the book’s conclusion about how best to do so.  Amongst other proposals, the authors advocate making weaving an option in the school curriculum, the creation of apprenticeships under master weavers, and holding regular competitions so as to bestow prestige on the most skilled craftspeople.  They urge readers to consider that unless such steps are taken, backstrap weaving may one day become extinct.