It’s a SHE thing

Namira Hossain writes how young women are fighting back against the toxic messages in our society

012Every year since 2010, V-Day Dhaka has put up performances of the acclaimed ‘The Vagina Monologues’ which are a collection of stories depicting the reality of being a woman living in a man’s world. The performances range from the outright hilarious to heartbreakingly poignant.
These performances are arranged to build awareness about violence against women that prevails in our society with the proceeds from the performances going to different charities geared towards women empowerment.
This year V-Day Dhaka will have a similar stage show titled ‘it’s a SHE thing’, which will bring to the stage true stories collected from women living in Dhaka. The performances will  reflect how pervasive sexual abuse and harassment in our society is hidden under a veil of cultural silence, since the burden of shame inevitably falls on the victim. These are perpetrated by the messages that Bangladeshi culture sends to its’ young women.
New Age Xtra spoke to the performers about their own experiences, which although are not part of the performance but also reflect the messages they are trying to send and why awareness is needed in order to fight back against the marginalisation of women.
‘We wanted to have a mix of issues that reflected some of the violence related topics, and some everyday types of discrimination that women face,’ says Tasaffy Hossain, founder of V-Day Dhaka. ‘We portrayed a lot of these diverse issues in serious, casual, humorous and even sarcastic ways. I think all the pieces reflect and talk about culture and social norms – even as we talk about celebrating womanhood, we are recognising how our culture defines what it is to be a woman,’ she adds.

A woman is not entitled to her own identity
How often do you hear people referring to a woman who has maybe been a victim of rape or harassment as ‘someone’s mother, sister, wife, daughter’? As though a woman is not a human being with her own rights but instead her identity and image are tied to her family’s honour and image, and of course, this extends to the family she would marry into.
‘When my ex-fiance’s mother discovered I ride in rickshaws she was mortified. She insisted that from then onwards that she would send the car for me to be picked up and dropped off whenever I visit their house, because imagine what people would say about the family if the notun bou (new bride) is seen riding on rickshaws?’ says Poroma Kanya, Programme Officer at ActionAid, in mock horror.
One would never expect a man’s image or his family’s image to be tarnished if he were to be seen riding a rickshaw or out late at night, but it is not unusual for women to be subjected to such inane notions. It may seem trivial but it is because of these notions of familial shame that are attached to women, that perpetrators of abuse and harassment constantly remain unpunished as women have to resign themselves to silence, say the performers

Women are removed from the decision-making process even when it is about their own lives
Women are expected to hand over the reigns of control over their own lives by their parents and then by their partners once they are married. About where they go, what they study, where they work, often having to turn down job offers or opportunities because their parents or partner do not approve.
Roopali Rawat, consultant, shares, ‘I was once giving an interview for a position at a big organisation in Dhaka and the man who was interviewing me actually asked me if my husband would approve of me working there. I said I didn’t need to ask him and tried to move on with the interview, but he would not relent. When I tried to explain that I do not need to ask him since I am the one that would be investing my time and energy into the company for my own income, he thought it was absolutely hilarious and said “Oh! You are one of those!” I still don’t know what he meant!’
Once again an anecdote that may seem amusing shows a basic underlying message through which power over a woman’s own life is taken out of her hand due to antiquated cultural values.

What a woman wears is responsible for how others behave towards her
It is perfectly usual for people to justify vile behaviour towards women based on the clothes she is wearing, a notion often taught to young girls here as though in some way they are responsible for their harassment through the clothes they wear.
Adita Hasan, a lawyer by profession, shares, ‘One day it was raining terribly and I was stuck in the lobby of my office building in Banani with my car across the road. I was the only female there and feeling uncomfortable as it was. Suddenly, an old man who had come in from the street to seek shelter from the rain, started to reprimand me on wearing a kameez with no sleeves, and said he would never allow his daughter to be dressed like that. I was absolutely outraged that he thought he could come in from the street into my office building and speak to me about what I was wearing, and of course there was not a single man in the lobby who protested, as though they secretly agreed with him’.
Adita also recently appeared as a guest speaker on Colours FM to promote the performance where her stance that ‘a woman’s clothes do not justify rape or harassment’ was met with much resistance. Callers of the show protested with lame excuses of ‘living in a Muslim country’ and gave the analogy of ‘sugar being left out to attract ants’. It begs to be asked, which religion permits rape or harassment in the first place? This notion that a woman’s clothes justify others’ behaviour towards her only promotes a culture of victim shaming so the aggressors never have to face the consequences.

Maintain silence to avoid embarrassment or shame
Girls in our society are rarely encouraged to speak up, even against violence or abuse. An NGO worker shares her frustrations of being silenced, ‘I was on a rickshaw when a silver Nissan 1998 model slowed down and the people inside spat at me. It was only a minute away from the police station. So I went and reported the matter and was told to wait outside. As I sat raging outside, they all continued to judge me. The men on the street stood by and when the duty officer showed up, he said to remove the crazy people from the place – referring to me.’ It is highly ironic that our society finds it acceptable for a woman to be subjected to harassment but finds it unacceptable for them to speak out against it, she says.
It is through these messages and many others that are subtle ways in which our culture and society encourages violence against women through promoting a culture which holds the women responsible rather than changing patriarchal attitudes – that is what V-Day Dhaka hopes to make people aware of through their performances.
The proceeds from this year’s programme will go towards Himawanti, a grassroots NGO based in Rangamati, that is working to empower women and help survivors of violence regain their footing in their communities.
Tickets for ‘it’s a SHE thing’ are available at Just Juice in Gulshan, and at The Stage from their Dhanmondi and Uttara locations. They are also available online at imdhaka.com. The performances will be on May 29 and 30, 2015 at ISD school and The Goethe Institute respectively.

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