Letter to Rajon

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Rajon, 

Yesterday you were a 13-year old boy, today you are a corpse, tomorrow you will be a hashtag. That is the ultimate reality.

The thing is, Rajon, in a country where millions of taka are siphoned off by the rich, and the state-supported extortionists receive crores of money from street side hawkers, yes, for you to have stolen something worth 10 taka is the actual crime. You have to know that, we have to know that. We will scream, we will cry, we will squeeze your entire existence into the length of a hashtagged-term, but through it all, we will continue to be a part of a system that drains the life of its common people on a daily basis, to the point that when they’re pushed to the wall, when they feel tricked even the slightest, their monstrous selves convince them it is okay to not only kill…

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তোরা বিজয়ের মাসে যুদ্ধ করে,
নিজেকে ডাকিস দেশপ্রেমিক।

তোরা হৈ হৈ করে জীবন পুড়িয়ে,
নিজেকে ভাবিস জয়ের আলো।

ধিক্, তোদের প্রেম,
ধিক্, তোদের সংগ্রাম।
ধিক্, তোদের যুদ্ধ,
ধিক্, তোদের জয়।

ধিক্, আমার মায়ের “সোনার” ছেলেরা।

The Doels have stopped singing;
The Shaplas have stopped blooming.

And the green-n-red
Fluttering under the open sky?
Standing tall,
Big. Bold. Beautiful.
That thing you called freedom?

It’s been crushed under the footsteps of
Daughters and wives.
It’s been set alight with those on
Buses and trains.

That thing you called freedom?
That’s dead, my dear Bangladeshi.

Defining abuse

It started off with a light punch, or a tap on the back of your head. You laughed it off. You thought: “We’re buddies, whatever. Doesn’t matter.” Yet somehow, it was significant enough on some level that you can trace back to it now.

The next time, it was some argument between the two of you. You felt he was a bit harsh, but didn’t think much of it. He squeezed your cheeks tightly as he tried to emphasise his point, only to laugh afterwards and make light of it. You ended up laughing too. You ended up forgetting the “harsh” bit.

Then, it was the two of you in bed. You were role-playing so you thought it was all a part of the game. After a point, you didn’t want to continue, but he went ahead anyway. You silently obliged.

One day, you realised it wasn’t random dates marked on the calendar; it wasn’t light or humorous anymore. It was every now and then.

It was harsh words behind closed doors and raised hands. Hands that, thankfully, stopped halfway.

But sometimes didn’t.

Eventually, your relationship ended. You had thought throughout that it was normal. That the problem was not the relationship – it was you.

Until you heard stories of how similar it was with the next girlfriend. How much worse it was with the one after that. And you began tracing it all back to that very first friendly punch.

Suddenly, you realised the entirety of your relationship was a collage of incidents: of punches, jolts and filthy curse words. Suddenly, you learned how to tell what really “counts” as abuse.

It is often difficult to realise what abuse is while living with it, since it shares blurry boundaries with jokes and other friendly and/or intimate gestures. Moreover, it can be difficult to identify because victims often live in denial about the fact that their partner has this whole other side. In “Rape at Home,” an article on a French Consulate employee in India who allegedly raped his three-year-old daughter, the mother tells the journalist how she ignored the starkest signs of abuse as she continued to live in a “fog of denial.” She said of her husband: “Somehow, he didn’t fit my image of an abusive husband. He used to always say he was so sorry and otherwise he was wonderful.”

Except, that is abuse. They never “seem” abusive, until they are. Until little taps and punches from here and there begin adding up, and it’s everyday and it’s painful, and as you soon see, it’s unbearable. By then, you are so deep in the abuse system that you cannot crawl back out.

Abuse is a tricky issue, and a very sensitive one to discuss in our society. It often starts slowly, blends in with our daily routine, permeates our system, and becomes a silent shadow inside our own home. And it is most difficult to deal with because often we learn to recognise it only after it has grown too big for us to ignore.

We don’t realise that something – a practice, a habit – is being bred and is feeding off our silence. In order to understand and escape abuse, we must learn to tell the difference between abuse and a fun gesture, moreover we must know where the boundary lies. Sometimes, it may be tricky to identify the line, but in that case, place yourself outside the situation and try to see if you would count it as abuse if you saw another couple interacting in this manner.

When I was in school, I used to read articles about violence against women, dowry violence and sexual harassment, wondering what good could come out of these clichéd writings. I always thought the system would continue regardless and the ones who needed to be reached would probably just glance over these writings in their tenacious effort to remain in a state of denial.

But as I write this now, I do have hope, because I believe that for someone to realise they are living in a system of abuse, they need to be constantly reminded of it, it needs to be constantly pointed out to them. I hope this piece might be another reminder, another weight on the reader’s conscious, perhaps the tipping point that will eventually let them break out of their system of abuse. This piece is in hopes that you, sitting there, dreading the next time you have to convince yourself all over again that your partner “didn’t mean it,” will realise, will rise and will come out of the confines of abuse. Come out to a world that is waiting to listen to you.

Published in the Weekend Magazine of Dhaka Tribune on September 20, 2013 http://www.dhakatribune.com/relationships/2013/sep/20/defining-abuse#sthash.d61rNI4c.dpuf

Never too early for a revolution

Heated debates on same-sex marriage – or any acknowledgement of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer (LGBTQ) community – are taking place globally as the world ripples with revolutions of various sorts: revolutions for freedom, revolutions for justice, and now the sexual revolution has joined the march.

While the sexual revolution is successful in some countries, it is dismantled – or worse, ignored – in many others. As The Guardian reports, Ukraine is preparing for its gay parade next week although it was cancelled by authorities last year. On Saturday, France signed a same-sex marriage bill amid wide protests and disagreements from its conservative community. France was the 14th country to pass the bill, preceded by countries including Canada, Denmark, Uruguay and New Zealand. In the US, Washington DC and 12 states have legalised same-sex marriage, with debates going on in the other states.

But forget that. These are far-off countries with standards of living incomparable to ours, and lifestyles which would raise eyebrows of many Bangladeshis. Many in this region consider homosexuality (often thought of as a sexually deviant practice) a “western import”. But we forget that sexual preferences are not a bottle of wine or a matter of ideology – it is simply a state of being. Just the way a person’s romantic interest could depend on their partner’s personality, or their degree, or their ability to cook, some people’s preference lies in their partner’s gender, or sexuality.

Yet, our society goes to great lengths to deny its existence, chastise those who identify with it, forget to include them in many of our statistics. Why? Many argue that it is not our battle to fight yet. That westerners like America have been free for centuries and can afford to have the sexual revolution today. But the revolution has also reached this corner of the world with Nepal and India finally allowing the LGBTQ community a platform in the society. Nepal ruled as early as 2007 equal rights for the gay community, while India decriminalised homosexuality in 2009. If the revolution has already been weaved into these cultures which are similar to ours, then what is Bangladesh waiting for?

Many argue, as mentioned above,that there is a lot more to be done before we address this issue. But does that mean we continue to marginalise the LGBTQ community until we are done dealing with poverty, corruption, crimes,political instability, the economy – all on a list which anyway may never cease to exist? How long does the sexual minority community in Bangladesh have to wait until it is “time”? America recognised the community 200 years after their independence, India after six decades; that does not mean we have to wait that long for the revolution in Bangladesh. America, India, France should all be a lesson for us. It should remind us that where people’s lifestyles – which, in this case, are not hampering anyone really – are at stake, when people’s preferences are being trampled on, it is never too early for a revolution.

Originally published in Dhaka Tribune, International Page (9) on May 20, 2013 http://www.dhakatribune.com/asia/2013/may/20/never-too-early-revolution#sthash.HANsDoFp.dpuf

Hope in hell

I am a writer both by choice and profession. I don’t fail against words. Or, I didn’t until tonight. The sudden and gruesome death of Savar victim Shahina Akhter, which has gained widespread sympathy across social media, had temporarily paralysed my thought process. We had been following her story the whole of today, especially for our live blog. We were informed by reporters at 4:45pm that Shahina Akhter was one of the four women who the rescue workers were trying to bring out of the ruins. I kept calling our reporter back for follow-ups after that. But there were none. They were still “in the process” for most of the day.

Later at night, we heard of the fire. When my colleague told me ‘one of the four’ people was caught in it, I felt paralysed for the first few minutes. I went blank.

As I started writing, I sat numb. I felt vacant inside – a loss for words, a surge of emotions too crowded for me to comprehend. My colleague was dictating the story to me but all I heard were words that did not match, words that did not make sense. “The rescue workers had brought her out upto her hip. They kept trying to drill through to remove the slab, but were not being able to do so. Then, one of the civilian workers, Aziz, took up the job, and when he switched it on, it blew up…”

And that’s it. They were in flames.

How does this work? After being almost dead for four days, she wakes up to hope only to go up in flames? She had probably given up her hopes of living in the last four days. Until today, when she saw the light. Her eyes finally met the sun and there was a glimpse of hope. The sheer cruelty in the joke that fate played on her disgusted me. I sat there, at a loss for words, wishing she had died in the initial phase. What was the need for hope to play hide-n-seek with her like this? Wasn’t the fact that she was working in such dire conditions unlucky enough for her? Wasn’t she already doomed to be a part of the workforce that is so often blackmailed into working long hours? Wasn’t it bad enough she was born in a country that neither loves nor respects its most valuable population?

I sat there questioning, for the first time ever, my ability to survive in a job like this. Then a little voice inside my head sniggered at the thought: forget me, how do we console the rescue workers who witnessed this – and hundreds of other corpses?

Forget the rescue workers, how do we answer Shahina’s family and friends who dared to put their foot on the slippery grounds of hope?

Forget family and friends, how do we tell hope we’ve closed our doors to it?

Published on Dhaka Tribune’s Blog: Statecraft on April 29.

Culture of impunity behind series of grisly events

The death of nearly a hundred garment workers in this morning’s building collapse came amid increasing international pressure to improve working condition in Bangladeshi factories. The fact that this morning’s death toll included a workforce which belonged to four different garment factories only added salt to the injury of the Tazreen fire that our nation is still recovering from. Yet, somehow, we will move past this – as we have so often done.

While there is an appalling consistency in all these cases of the factory/building owners’ negligence, there is further concern in the lack of accountability of these owners. As the timeline shows, there have been scores of deaths in just the last decade, due to dire working conditions, defiance of building regulations etc., and yet there has rarely been justice. The owners have rarely been held accountable for their actions – or lack thereof. It is disturbing how these cases have become a part of the normalcy of living – surviving – in Bangladesh. These incidents take place, the government gives a statement, so does the BGMEA president, we observe a national mourning day, and, just as though in a scheduled part of this process, the factory owners are relieved of their responsibility and walk scot free. In Bangladesh, where the legal system is seldom efficient and there is a general lack of accountability, we see justice in few cases anyway. However in such tragedies as the Savar collapse, why could accountability and justice, even amid international pressure and local widespread protests, be difficult to confirm?

The lack of owners’ accountability may not entirely be a result of the nation’s ignorance. There are other factors to be considered. It appears that in three of such cases in the past decade, including today’s, the owners were connected to the government. In the 2005 shopping mall collapse in Shyamoli,the owner was a leader of Jubo Dal, the youth-wing of BNP, which was in office at that time. In the 2010 building collapse in Dhaka which saw the death of 14 people, it was soon revealed that the four-storey building was owned by a former government official who, defying building regulations and warnings, had added additional floors. The building that collapsed this morning belonged to Md Sohel Rana, the Awami League youth front Juba League’s leader.

Such glaring trends are difficult to ignore, especially when mishaps like these occur at this frequency, claiming scores of lives. Day by day, our factory owners and building owners have prioritised possible gains from an extra layer of floor, an extra day of work, an extra troop of workers in rooms too small – all at the cost of our workers’ lives. Workers who had families to feed and who, at the very least, served our nation as one of the most crucial elements of our economy. If we cannot ensure the rights and safety of these workers by holding the owners accountable, then the very owners who capitalise on the cheap labour and low wages and long work hours, will soon have to pay a difficult price as Bangladesh slowly loses its workforce to such grave incidents.

Published on front page of Dhaka Tribune on April 25 2013.