Tag Archives: bangladesh

A traveler’s guide to Dhaka, Bangladesh

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Dhaka is so much more than just a city. It is a whirlpool that pulls anything and anyone that comes close to it – sending them around and around like some wildly spinning fairground ride bursting with energy. It is organized chaos – millions of individual pursuits churning together into frenetic collective activity. I cannot guarantee you’ll fall for Dhaka’s many charms, but sooner or later you will start to move to its beat. And when that happens, Dhaka stops being a terrifying ride and starts to become a unique blend of art and intellect, passion and poverty, love and hate.

The charms of Dhaka are not immediately visible to the naked eye – they are dhaka (hidden in Bengali). Not that there are hordes of visitors trying to uncover those charms; this is a city that remains largely untouched by tourists. The city is what it is, a place in perpetual motion, the glorious chaos of which is perhaps best viewed from the back of one of the city’s half-a-million colorful rickshaws. As someone who has called this place his home for some 20 years, here is my list of the essential things-to-do/sights-to-see while in Dhaka.

1. Take a rickshaw through the busy streets

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There are cycle-rickshaws all over Asia, but in Bangladesh they are more colorful, more prevalent and more integral to everyday life than anywhere else. Rickshaws are an art form in their own right. They are plentiful around Dhaka, and the best way to explore the city like a local. They are cheap, fun, environmentally friendly and are often the quickest way to get through the busy streets. And speaking of busy streets, might I add that Dhaka has some of the worst traffic in the world. You may find yourself amongst a standstill – rickshaw drives screaming, buses honking, traffic lights functioning as mere decorations. But this is just part of the city. So sit back and enjoy this organized chaos!

2. Explore Old Dhaka

Dhaka from above

For some, the assault on the senses is too much to handle, but for others, the unrivaled mayhem that is squeezed into the narrow streets of Old Dhaka is simply delightful. No matter where you’ve come from, or what big cities you’ve visited before, Old Dhaka will knock you for six (a cricket reference) with its manic streets and nonstop noise and commotion. Nestled in the cacophony are structures from a bygone era – Ahsan Manjil, home of the Nawabs, and the Lalbag Kella, a Mughal fort. Some of the most amazing food in the city is to be had in hole-in-the-wall stores such as Haji Biryani and Nana Biryani.

3. A boat ride on Buriganga

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Running calmly through the center of Old Dhaka, the Buriganga River (Old Lady Ganga) is the muddy artery of Dhaka and the very lifeblood of the city, and perhaps the nation. To explore it from the deck of a small boat is to see Bangladesh at its most raw and gritty. The panorama of river life is fascinating. Boats of all shape and size compete for space and motion, with children dotting the foreshores, fishing with homemade nets. On the banks of the river is Shadarghat, perhaps one of the busiest loading docks in existence. You can take a rocket (steamboat) to other cities in Bangladesh – Barisal, Comilla and Chandpur to name a few.  As you cross from Dhaka to Old Dhaka to the Buriganga, life speeds up, and then hits the brakes to arrive at a watery sunset.

4. Drink a cha, eat some fuchka

 

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Dhaka runs on cha (or chai). These sweet, milky, hot cups of tea are a Bangladeshi style caffeine fix. Add some street food, and you have got yourself the perfect desi snack. The local street food fare includes fuchka, chatpati, and jhalmuri to name just a few. Head to Dhanmondi Lake or just about any intersection in the city to get your daily dose of some of the best street food you’ll ever taste.

5. Sangsad Bhaban

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The parliament building of Bangladesh is a true architectural masterpiece – the magnum opus of the American architect, Louis Kahn. It blends motifs from ruined monuments and Bangladesh’s topography, with a remarkable use of natural light. The Sangsad Bhaban lies on a vast area in the middle of the city, seemingly floating on a lake, a refuge within the bustling city.

6. Festivals

Festivals have always played a significant role in the life of the people of Bangladesh. They are parts and parcels of Bengali culture and tradition, and no matter when you visit Dhaka, there’s indefinitely one to find. Here’s a list of some of the bigger ones:

Colourful Celebration of Poyla Boishakh-Dhaka

  • Pahela Baishakh – The advent of Bengali New Year is celebrated throughout the country. The best place to celebrate is Ramna Park, where perhaps a million people will take part in an exhibition of Bengali culture. Make sure to grab a plate of panta rice with Elish fish while you are there. Pahela Baishakh follows the Bengali calendar and takes place mid-April.
  • Shadhinota Dibosh – The independence day of Bangladesh is March 26. Independent for four decades, the war is still a huge part of society here and the independence day is a show of nationalistic pride. Citizens including government leaders and sociopolitical organizations and freedom fighters place floral wreaths at the National Martyrs Monument at Savar. At night the city is illuminated with lights.
  • Ekushey February – The 21st of February is observed throughout the country to pay homage to the martyrs’ of Language Movement of 1952. It is now regarded as the World Mother Language Day. This is quite a unique occasion – somewhere in between a festival and a mourning day. The Shahid Minar (martyrs monument) is the symbol of sacrifice for Bangla, the mother tongue.
  • Nabanno, Eid, Durga Puja, and others – There’s almost too many to list here, but Nabanno (festival of the new harvest), Eid and Durga Puja just have to mentioned. No matter what your religion, Eid and Puja are cause of celebration in Dhaka.

7. Explore the history

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Bangladesh is probably one of the few nations whose citizens have experienced two independence struggles – from from British colonial rule and then liberation from Pakistan in 1971. Although the war was over four decades ago, its presence is everywhere. It’s hard to open a paper, speak to a writer, or discuss politics without hearing the words “71,” “martyr” or “freedom fighter.” The Liberation War Museum is a fascinating if at times gruesome look at that struggle, with lots of press clippings and other memorabilia from that time. If you’re new to Bangladesh, this is an important starting point for understanding the national obsession.

8. The mosque and the temple

Tara-masjid

Dhaka is dotted with numerous mosques and temples. These are more than just religious institutions, since religion and culture are so intertwined in peoples lives in Bangladesh. Head to the 1,200 year old Dhakeshwari Temple, the center of the Hindu religion in Dhaka and then to the Tara Masjid, the beautiful 18th century mosque adorned with mosaic stars. You don’t have to belong to any particular faith to appreciate the beauty of these structures, and in doing so, you’ll get a glimpse of an integral part of culture and society here.

9. Art, music and literature

An art and dance exhibition of children doing domestic work held at the Bengal Gallery

An art and dance exhibition of children doing domestic work held at the Bengal Gallery

Bangladesh is rich in art, music and literature, and there are few better places to get a taste of the arts than Dhaka. Head to the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts or the Drik Gallery to sample some of the contemporary art, which frequently makes a social commentary. The music scene in Dhaka is HUGE! From the classical works of Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam, to pop and heavy metal – there’s a concert to go to for everyone. Follow ConcertNews to find the next one.

Bengalis love to read, and there’s no better place to experience this passion for books than Nilkhet. Sandwiched between Dhaka University and New Market, this labyrinth of bookstores will satisfy and enlighten even the best-read visitor. Dhaka also hosts one of the biggest book fairs in the world, the Ekushey Book Fair.

And if you’re in the mood for shopping, you are in luck. Dhaka is one of the shopping hubs of South Asia. Head to New Market, Doyel Chattor, Bashundhara or Chandni Chawk and you will find pretty much anything.

10. Add yours here!

I started to write this thinking I’ll list 10 things. But to pick 10 things to do in this megalopolis that is home to me, is almost impossible. I’ll keep adding recommendations as comments, and I ask my readers to do so too. I don’t expect, or want Dhaka to turn into a tourist destination. But I want it to be appreciated for what it is – a city in perpetual motion, an experience that will side-swipe you with its overwhelming intensity, leaving impressions that will never fade.

Gender in Development : A Case Study of Bangladesh

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Headlines and reports would have us believe that women have reached gender parity in Bangladesh. The female under-five mortality rate is 20 per cent lower than that of boys; girls are participating more, and better in primary education; and female work force participation rate has rapidly increased in the past decade. The prime minister and leader of the opposition are both women, and have ruled back and forth for more than 20 years. However, a thorough gender analysis reveals intrinsic gender inequalities imbued into Bangladeshi institutions and the social fabric, making a profound impact on development, cultural and economic outcomes. Efforts to promote gender equality has been undermined by a patriarchal social structure reinforced by religious, economic and political norms. This report analyzes the status of women in Bangladesh, and the role that gender plays in development outcomes.

Introduction

The socio-cultural environment in Bangladesh contains persistent gender discrimination that hinders the development outcome of women, and the country. The political institution has made great strides towards gender inclusion, however the cultural institution has made significant progress in women’s empowerment impossible. Girls are often considered to be financial burdens on their family, receiving less investment in their health and education from the time of birth. However, recently there has been noteworthy advancements in the health and educational outcome of girls due to laws promoting education – both for girls and mothers.

As girls approach puberty, the differences in the way that they are treated in comparison to adolescent boys, becomes more prominent. Adolescence is viewed as an abrupt shift from childhood to adulthood, and not as a distinct phase of life. In rural communities, where the majority of Bangladeshis live, adolescence is when boys start working. For girls however, mobility is often restricted, limiting their access to livelihood, learning and recreational and social activities.

Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage and adolescent motherhood in the world. In 2011, the maternal mortality rate was reported as a high 220 per 100,000 live births[i]. Violence against women is another major impediment to women’s development.

The following is an analysis of the status of women in Bangladesh across several pertinent issues. It will be evident that although the political institution and emerging democratic values have seen the country make great progress in gender equality, the sociocultural institution reinforced by religious norms has hindered progress and perpetuated patriarchal values.

Health and Education

Traditionally in Bangladesh, preference has been given to the boy child, and this discrimination led to higher girl child mortality due to unequal provision of health care and less attention for girls. However, over the past decade girl’s health and education have improved drastically. Today, the female under-five mortality rate is significantly below that of boys, indicating that at this early stage in life, there is no sign of a non-natural gender bias[ii].

However, a closer analysis of the sex ratio reveals a disturbing picture. There are 107.5 males for every 100 females in Bangladesh, a ratio that is worryingly higher than the normal human sex ratio[iii]. There is a strong cultural preference for boys over girls in the male-dominated society of Bangladesh which exacerbates this imbalance. As girls grow up, reach puberty and become adolescents, the biological advantage with which they were born yields to the weight of cultural and societal norms which shape gender differences that limit the full enjoyment of their rights.

In education, the gender parity is strongly tilted in favor of girls (gender parity index in primary education is 103 and in secondary education a very high 117). Girls are participating more, and better, in primary education. A disproportionate higher number of girls are reaching grade 5(national definition of literacy), which will eventually result in a society where more women are educated than men. However, in adolescence, female school dropout rates soar. These rates are strongly related to social conduct norms such as not allowing girls to leave their home unaccompanied, being subject to sexual harassment (eveteasing), and physical violence. School drop-out rates are also strongly related to child marriage, a pervasive practice in Bangladesh despite existing legislation banning it.

Ownership Rights and Civil Liberties

Despite women’s growing role in agriculture, social and customary practices virtually exclude women from having direct ownership of land. A woman’s lack of mobility, particularly in rural areas, forces her to depend on male relatives for any entrepreneurial activities. While microfinance has expanded throughout Bangladesh, there is a growing concern to whether or not these women actually retain control over the loans they receive. According to the national law, men and women have equal rights to property, but in practice women have only very limited access to property. Their situation is further impaired by discriminatory inheritance laws that are dictated more by religious laws/norms than state legislation. Moreover, due to perceptions of women’s role in society and the household, Bangladeshi women are most often not likely to claim their share of family property unless it is given to them.

Despite being a predominantly Muslim country, most civil liberties extend to women in Bangladesh, particularly in urban areas. In rural Bangladesh, depending on the traditions of individual families, the Islamic system of Purdah impose some restrictions on women’s participation in activities outside the home, such as education, employment and social activities. To engage in any such activities, a woman generally needs her husband’s permission. Discrimination in civil rights and liberties in Bangladesh result in decreased economic and social outcomes that are felt both at the household and national levels.

Employment in the Formal Sector

Women’s participation in economic activity has increased in both rural and urban Bangladesh. The established garments production sector employs over 1.2 million workers, 74% of whom are women. Women’s employment rates remain low despite progress, and their wages are roughly 60-65 per cent of male wages[iv]. This wage differential by gender is widest in nonagricultural employment, in both rural and urban areas. In rural areas, women are primarily employed in the lowest productivity sectors. The Bangladeshi government has introduced legislation that guarantees women a specified percentage of public sector employment but the quotas have never been filled, and there is no system for monitoring or implementing them[v].

Political Representation

Although the prime minister and leader of the opposition party are both women, there remains an unequal power relation in the political arena. Many women politicians, including the prime minister and leader of the opposition, hail from influential political families. Despite the low participation rate of women in the political arena, state policies promote equality. For example, at the regional (Union Parishad) parliament, 25% of seats are reserved for women[vi]. However, the Bangladeshi cultural institution discourages women from entering the political world through the pre-existing social norms that associate leadership with men. Overall, women’s participation in the political arena on the local, regional or state levels remains a rarity. The under-representation of women in parliament results in legislation that is gender insensitive.

Access to Capital

Bangladesh has seen a boom in organizations active in the area of credit provision. The government also operates subsidized credit programs targeted towards rural women that reaches over 20 percent of the rural population[vii]. Although women participate in such programs, the extent to which they alleviate women’s poverty and improve their position as economic actors is not so clear. There exist sociocultural barriers that prohibit women from entrepreneurship. Moreover, due to historically low rates of education and training among adult women, the productivity of loans tend to be lower than that for men. There needs to be a focus shift on improving women’s access to market as a means of enhancing the use of capital and also meeting women’s empowerment objectives.

Gender-based violence

The different manifestations of violence against women have the same premise of deep-rooted attitudes and beliefs that are perpetuated by the cultural institution in Bangladesh.  The government has enacted numerous laws protecting women, and has passed landmark court decisions over the last decade. However, the patriarchal legal system that governs rural communities allow crimes perpetrated against women to continue unabated. In 2000, the Supreme Court ordered every incident of eve-teasing to be considered ‘sexual harassment’[viii]. Other laws protecting Bangladeshi women from various forms of violence include the Acid Crime Control Act 2002 and the Dowry Prohibition Act 1980. The existence of laws is an important first step towards social justice for girls and women’s rights, however without full enforcement, the laws are meaningless. Moreover, without a shift in the underlying attitudes towards women’s role in society, any initiative to abate gender-based violence will be unsustainable.

Poverty

One third of the Bangladeshi population lives below the poverty line. While poverty stimulates gender inequality, the reverse also holds true. The aforementioned factors of gender inequality has sustained poverty among women. In spite of increasing awareness of the economic and social values of women’s role in Bangladesh’s development, the economic progress of women has been mired by cultural dogmas. In Bangladesh, 62 percent of the women are economically active, which not only ranks above the average of 50 percent for developing countries, but also is the highest rate in South Asia. However, despite a high proportion of women in the labor force, the share of total earned income for women is less than one quarter.  Overall women have made little gains in economic well-being and Bangladesh has seen the “feminization of poverty”.[ix]

Conclusion

The political and sociocultural institutions have divergent impacts on women’s development in Bangladesh. Perceptions of women’s role in society has negatively impacted the country’s economic and social output. Cultural and social influences and practices, including the distorted interpretation of religious texts have resulted in an imbalanced society. Concerted efforts are required to raise awareness and educate on gender equality at all levels of society – from grassroots initiatives to governmental policies. Moreover, women must be empowered to challenge social norms that are detrimental to the human rights of women.  Education, change in social norms and conditions, a conducive political and legal environment, and girls and women’s empowerment will help break the vicious cycle of gender disparity. Only when the political and cultural institutions in Bangladesh act in unison will this be realized.


[i] Every Mother Counts, Bangladesh Factsheet 2012

[ii] UNICEF, Women and girls in Bangladesh

[iii] UNICEF, A perspective on gender equality in Bangladesh

[iv] The World Bank, Whispers to Voices: Gender and Social Transformation in Bangladesh 2008

[v] War on Want – Stitched Up – Women workers in the Bangladeshi garment sector

[vi] Asia Foundation, Are Bangladeshi Women Politicians Tokens in the Political Arena?

[vii] Jonathan Morduch, The role of subsidies in microfinance: evidence from the Grameen Bank

[viii] Prevention of Women and Child Repression Act, Bangladesh, 2000

[ix] Sylvia Chant, The ‘Feminisation of Poverty’ and the ‘Feminisation’ of Anti-Poverty Programmes: Room for Revision?

International Mother Language Day

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Jatiyo Sriti Soudho - National Martyrs' Memorial in Bangladesh

Jatiyo Sriti Soudho – National Martyrs’ Memorial in Bangladesh

February 21st is considered as the International Mother Language Day. It is a day to celebrate one’s mother language, and also the linguistic and cultural diversity that exists on this planet. As a Bangladeshi expat who seldom gets the chance to converse in his mother language, I take time on this day to think about what Bengali means to me, and what it enables me to do. Bengali is not just the language I feel most comfortable speaking, but it is also the language of my dreams and of my cultural narrative. The story behind why February 21st is regarded as the Mother Language Day is closely related to the story of Bangladesh.

With the partition of India in 1947, the Indian subcontinent was divided along religious lines – majority-Hindu India in the middle with majority-Muslim West Pakistan and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) on either side. In 1948, the Government of the Dominion of Pakistan ordained Urdu as the sole national language, sparking extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Pakistan. The Pakistani government was staunch on maintaining one religion (Islam), one language (Urdu) and was determined to suffocate the Bengali culture and heritage.

A Language March

A Language March

The Bengali Language Movement (Bengali: ভাষা আন্দোলন), was a political movement in what is now Bangladesh, advocating the recognition of Bengali as the official language in government affairs, use as a medium of education, use in media, currency and to maintain its writing in the Bengali script. In the face of rising tension, the Pakistani government banned all public meetings and rallies. It was on February 21st 1952, that political activists and students of the University of Dhaka defied the law and organized a protest. The Pakistani army opened fire, and in process killed countless many students. The events of that day served only to add fuel to the language movement. Over the next four years Bengalis protested relentlessly for their rights. This is the first and only time in the history of humanity that a population organized to demand the right to use a language. After years of struggle, the Pakistani government relented and granted Bengali the official status in 1956. Many lost their lives in this struggle, and the mode in Bangladesh on this day is one of somber pride. In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21st as the International Mother Language Day, in tribute to the Bengali Language Movement and the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the world.

Language Extinction Hotspot

Language Extinction Hotspot

One’s mother language is ingrained in his/her cultural identity and history. As we celebrate our mother language, let’s also recognize that there are over 6 thousand languages in the world, each of which is someone’s mother language. Let’s also recognize that 50% of these languages are dying. As a language dies, a society’s history and cultures dies with it. Every human being deserves the right to use their mother language, and to take pride in it as we do. You can learn more about Endangered Languages here. Also, please consider making a donation to Living Tongues, an organization that works to document endangered languages.

Quest for Justice, 40 years after Independence

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A child protesting in 1971

A child protesting in 1971

Four decades have passed since Bangladesh got her independence. It came at the climax of one of the bloodiest wars of our times. It came at the cost of three million lives, and 20,000 women raped. Independence ushered a new hope for a country in her infancy, one of equality and justice. And thus began our experiment in democracy. We were naïve to think that with the oppressors, the oppression would end. We knew only that we were free at last, that justice and the rule of law will now prevail.

For forty years, Bangladesh as a nation has failed to try the Razakars – the pro-Pakistani Bengalis who committed some of the gravest atrocities during the 9-month liberation war. The Razakars supported the Pakistani army, and helped them infiltrate the country. Their leaders were absolved after the war, and have been prominent opposition figures. They were free, had full citizenship and had their own political party with seats in the parliament. These are the men who supported the killing and rape of Bangladeshis; religion is more important to them than nation. And it is in their freedom that Bangladesh has failed to respect the sacrifice of so many.

"Ar kono dabi nai, Razakarder fashi chai."

“Ar kono dabi nai, Razakarder fashi chai.”

In 2010, the Bangladeshi government set up a tribunal to prosecute those accused of committing war crimes during the 1971 war of independence. Three years later, on the 5th of February 2013, the tribunal has handed down a life sentence to Abdul Quader Molla, assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which supported the cause of undivided Pakistan in 1971. Nine other top Jamaat leaders, including its former chief Ghulam Azam and current chief Motiur Rehman Nizami, are also standing trial in the two war crimes tribunals for alleged crimes against humanity.

Shahabag - the new Tahrir Square

Shahbagh – the new Tahrir Square

This war trails have reopened old wounds among Bangladeshis. The youth of Bangladesh have rekindled the spirit of 1971, and have gathered on the streets of Dhaka, to demand capital punishments of war criminals and an end to religion-based politics. Hundreds of thousands of people are gathered in Dhaka’s Shahbagh intersection, in the biggest public gathering since 1971. This is neither about politics nor religion. This is about national pride and justice. The protesters have been in the streets for four days now and have vowed to stay until their demands are met. People around the country are boycotting businesses, social and cultural organizations that are owned by Jamaat leaders. In the words of the prominent author, Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, “The year 2013 has turned into 1971 and those of you who did not see 1971 are now witnessing it this year.”

The youth of Bangladesh is not trying to overthrow a regime. This is not our Arab Spring, but the parallels are striking. Shahbag is our Tahrir Square. Social media is our means of organization. The time is now to end what we started in 1971.

As a Bangladeshi in expatriation, this is my tribute to the protesters all across my country.

Birangona : The forgotten women of the Bangladesh Liberation War

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh, my home country. I thought it is just fitting that I write something about the founding of my country, and what it means to me. Even though I am now living half-a-world away from home, Bangladesh is in my veins, and my story is never complete without a telling of hers. The history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and the events leading up to it, has been told many a time. Almost every rendition of the history is unique, at times convoluted and altered; as if the pages of history were a mere tool for the manipulation of the present. And then there are those tales, those lives that “history” has forgotten.

The female muktijoddha (freedom fighter)

40 years ago, Bangladesh emerged victorious from a gruesome war for independence from Pakistan (Muktijuddho). After nine months of intense guerilla warfare, the freedom fighters were victorious, only at the expense of three million innocent civilians. The war did not discriminate between man, woman, Hindu, Muslim, children or adult – the war was equally brutal to all in Bangladesh. Yet there are many whose suffering has been forgotten by history.

A woman’s war is unique – she has to fight not only on the battlefield, but also at her home, as the anchor of a family during the hardship of war. They were guerilla fighters, mothers, nurses, wives, informants, daughters, spies and so much more. Their suffering was as manifold as their roles: death, physical debilitation, mass rape and associated pregnancies, psychological trauma and the obliteration of their homes. After the war, they were the ones expected to reconstruct families, while dealing with the scars of war.

Birangona [Bengali] – brave woman. That’s the title given to the 200,000 women who were raped during the war by the Pakistani army. Many of them were disowned by their family; others migrated to India to give birth, while many committed suicide or where murdered by the Pakistani forces. Those who survived bore the scars of the horrendous ordeal, both physical and psychological. They were outcast by society, and the word Birangona became synonymous with dishonored and violated woman. They were casualties of war, who bore the seeds of evil in them, reminding us of resentful times. For their struggles and their role in the war, we Bangladeshis don’t even afford them a page in the history books. Their suffering, both during and after the war remains unrecorded and unrecognized.

“The army tied our hands, burned our faces and bodies with cigarettes. There were thousands of women like me. They gang raped us many times a day. My body was swollen, I could barely move. They still did not leave us alone. They never fed us rice, just gave us dry bread once a day and sometimes a few vegetables. We tried to escape but always failed. When the girls were of little use they killed them.”

-Aleya Begum, who was kidnapped at the age of 13, gang raped for seven months and rejected by her family after the end of the war.

Ferdousi Priyovasini – sculpture, birangona, freedom fighter

In a conservative culture, where society views female sexuality as sacred, there was no dignity granted to the abused women. The government did nothing for their rehabilitation and there were almost no groups working to support them. Although most got abortions (performed in secret clinics by untrained people), they were still ostracized by their communities. People pressured them to either leave, or pick up prostitution since they were already “scarred”. As a result of this exclusion and emotional torture, many Birangonas migrated to India, while others chose to take their own lives.

Forty years after the fact, we have come a long way as a nation. We have a functioning democracy and laws protecting the rights of all human beings. Throughout the years few Birangonas have stepped up to tell us their story. We still choose not to discuss them. They still don’t have the support and recognition of the country they helped liberate.

Women have been at the center of the struggle of Bangladeshi Freedom. Without their sacrifices, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this. The passing of forty years might have scabbed the wounds, but unless we as a nation reassess our history and tell the story of the Birangonas, we shall never be free.

NBC coverage of the war against women in Bangladesh

Without the right to have rights

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Thousands in the newly found South Sudan face statelessness

Thousands in the newly found South Sudan face statelessness

If they were all together under one nation, they could populate a fairly big country, somewhere between Zimbabwe and Chile. They however are spread across the planet and cannot call any country “home”. We do not know their exact number, as they are undocumented and unrecognized – fallen between the cracks of conflict, geopolitics and discrimination. They are the stateless – no country recognizing them as citizens and thus devoid of the basic human rights derived from citizenship. In 1958, the UN branded citizenship as a human right, stating “Citizenship is man’s basic right for it is nothing less than the right to have rights.”1

Some of the most invisible people on the planet, there is somewhere between 12 and 15 million people who are stateless (depending on how the term is defined). The stateless are often times confused with refugees, the later might have some travel document and a particular country might claim his/her allegiance2. A stateless person on the other hand, is barred from healthcare, education, formal employment and a national identity.

At a Palestinian Camp

At a Palestinian Camp

The lack of any legal binding between such an individual and a state, results in the person not being able to own property, start a business, hold a driver’s license, open a bank account, etc. Worst still, he/she is unable to vote, thus lacking the power to elect representatives who can voice their concerns.

Statelessness aggravates poverty, creates social tension and in some cases, fuels wars. It is a self-perpetuating condition with children being born stateless as a result of their parents being stateless. Unrecognized by the state, they are denied government assistance and protection making them vulnerable to exploitation. Forced labor and slavery are common among such groups, as are other poverty-driven forms of human exploitation.

How people become stateless

So how does one become stateless? How does one lose the right to have basic rights? The reasons are myriad, but here are some of the leading ones:

A Bihari camp in Dhaka, Bangladesh

A Bihari camp in Dhaka, Bangladesh

  • Redrawing of borders – when borders change, so does the identity of the ones who live on either side. Some however, like many after the dissolution of the USSR, are left without a state.
  • Citizenship laws – Different countries have different sets of citizenship laws. Some grant citizenship by birth (jus soli), while others by descent (jus sanguinis). Depending on the laws of the country, the parents’ descent and the location of birth, a child may be born stateless.
  • Arbitrary revocation of protection – Sometimes states intentionally snatch rights from a subset of its population. This is mainly due to cultural (Biharis) or religious (Rohingyas) differences.
  • Discrimination against women – Many countries have citizenship laws that discriminate against women. Women in these countries cannot claim citizenship for their children. UNHCR claims that there are over 30 countries with such laws.

Aside from these reasons, there are millions around the world who lack proper documentation to prove and claim citizenship. However, lack of identity documents is less of an issue in underdeveloped countries, where birth certificates, social security numbers, ID cards, etc. are pretty much nonexistent.

Who are the stateless?

The following are some stateless groups around the world. This list is by no means complete and it is not a ranking of any sorts. There are countless other such groups who share the same fate.

The Rohingyas of Myanmar

The Rohingyas of Myanmar

  • Rohingyas (Myanmar, Bangladesh) – The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority group of the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar. They have been subjected to systematic discrimination by the ruling military junta and in the 1990s, nearly a quarter of a million fled to neighboring Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the Rohingyas live as illegal immigrants in abject shanty towns. Many have migrated to Malaysia and Thailand, where they can earn money to be sent to their families.
  • Palestinians – Easily the largest stateless community, the lives of four generations of Palestinians have been shaped by a lack of national identity. Living in a disputed and geopolitically charged zone, many have moved to neighboring Arab countries, where they continue to lead a stateless life.
Bedouin women in Palestine, 1880

Bedouin women in Palestine, 1880

  • Bedouins (Middle East) – The nomadic Bedouin (“without” in Arabic) tribes have roamed across the Middle East for centuries. After the division of the land into what are now Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, many countries used tribal affiliations to determine citizenship, leaving hundreds of thousands stateless. Today, the Bedouins are concentrated mostly in Kuwait.
The Roma of the Balkans

The Roma of the Balkans

  • Roma (former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) – The Roma belong to the ethnic Romani people (Gypsies) living in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Many European governments do not allow these gypsies the same rights as their other citizens. Thousands of Roma in Europe were left stranded without a state to call home, when Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia broke up. Decades of conflict in the region, has made the Roma an easy target to ethnic violence.
Black Mauritanians

Black Mauritanians

  • Black Mauritanians (Mauritania) – In 1989, Mauritania’s Arab-dominated government revoked the citizenship of an estimated 75,000 black Mauritanians.Most were then forced to flee to neighboring Senegal and Mali, where they continue to live as stateless.  Since then, there has been a slow trickling of black Mauritanians back to their homeland, only to be treated as second-class citizens.
Hundreds of people of Haitian origin were persecuted in the Dominican Republic in 2005.

Hundreds of people of Haitian origin were persecuted in the Dominican Republic in 2005.

  • Dominicans of Haitian descent (Dominican Republic, Haiti) – Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island (Hispaniola) and have a long history of cross migration. Yet, the Dominican government systematically refuses to issue passports or other proofs of citizenship to people of Haitian descent. The government’s claim: it is merely trying to “clean up” its civil registry rolls3.
  • Hill tribes (worldwide) – Millions of tribal people living in mountainous regions worldwide, are denied a true national identity and state privileges. Governments in Thailand, India, Bangladesh and many other Asian countries, do not recognize these indigenous tribes as citizens and have led “campaigns” to integrate them to mainstream culture.

The State of the Stateless today

Civil war in Darfur has displaced 2 million people

Civil war in Darfur has displaced 2 million people

Statelessness has been historically overlooked by people, governments, aid agencies and also the UN. You hardly ever hear about the almost 15 million stateless on the news, or find scholarly papers at the library or the internet. In 1961, the UN organized a Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, although to date, only 34 countries have signed this. One UN agency, the UNHCR has recently launched a campaign to highlight the global statelessness problem. One thing this campaign achieves to do is to clearly define the term statelessness, so that the true scale of the problem becomes clear.

There have been some notable successes in alleviating the problem. In 2009, the Bangladeshi High Court ruled that Biharis (who sided with Pakistan during the 1971 independence war) born in Bangladesh after 1971 would be granted Bangladeshi citizenship. Several North African countries, including Egypt and Morocco now permit women to pass their citizenship onto their children. After 25 years of gruesome civil war where millions have been victims to ethnic cleansing, Tamils can now obtain nationality in Sri Lanka.

One hopes that this UN campaign and the positive actions taken by governments across the world will bring this issue to limelight and grant the basic human right of statehood to those who don’t have it today. The world needs a coordinated effort in recognizing those around us who are not recognized by any states. Statelessness is an issue whose time has come.

In search of Lalon

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Singing Lalonsangeet (songs of Lalon)

Singing Lalonsangeet (songs of Lalon)

Over a century after his death, the debate rages – Did Lalon Fakir, one of the greatest mystic-singers the Indian subcontinent has ever produced, belong to the Hindu or the Muslim faith? Where was he born? What inspired him? The debate is fierce among his followers, especially in rural Bangladesh, with the Hindus claiming he was one of them, much to the disagreement of the Muslims. The answer lies in his prolific work; and upon closely studying his work, one realizes how by questioning his identity, one violates his teachings.

The details of Lalon Fakir’s birth and early life are vague. What is known is that he was born around 1774 in an obscure village in the district of Kushtia or Jhenaidah, in what is now Bangladesh. The ambiguity in the details is part because of the controversy presented by

An artist's rendition of Lalon Fakir

An artist's rendition of Lalon Fakir

scholars representing communal tendencies among Muslim and Hindu writers, and part because of his life-long denial in revealing his social identity. Lalon had no formal education and lived most his life in abject poverty. He grew up to be a prolific songwriter, his songs providing spiritual and social inspiration to the Bengali peasant, his voice, one of the most radical ones in British India.

Lalon’s work celebrates the sovereignty of the body and soul. His songs exemplify the free will of the soul, untainted by religion, caste, colonialism or sectarianism. He is the personification of the Baul, wandering singers of Bengal who draw inspiration from within and the simple yet harsh rural life.

Lalon never revealed his social identity (heritage, religion, caste, etc.). He refused to take part in the politics of identity, which he considered as a root cause of communal conflict and unrest. His view on religion is elegiacally expressed in one of his songs:

Click here to listen to the song, \”Shob loke koi Lalon ki jaat shongsare?\”
People ask, what is Lalon’s caste?
Lalon says, my eyes fail to detect the signs of caste.
Some use the mala and some the tasbih
And so they are known to be different
When one is born or when one dies
What mark does one carry?
If circumcision be the mark of a Muslim
Then how do you mark a woman?
A Brahmin male is known by the thread he wears
But how do I identify a female Brahmin?
All over the planet, people talk about race
But Lalon says: I have only dissolved
the raft of signs, the marks of caste
in the deluge of the One!
Mala: Hindu rosary beads 
Tasbih: Muslim rosary beads 
Brahmin: The priestly Hindu caste
A Baul akhra (mystic meeting)

A Baul akhra (mystic meeting)

In a world of social and religious divisions, Lalon preached that the kingdom of God is within oneself. Lalon’s songs lay in a timeless space, between Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism, a place where human beings and not ideologies meet.

In simple yet deeply moving language, Lalon spoke of the day-to-day problems of society. Lacking a formal education, like everyone in the Baul community, a plethora of his composition was lost. The ones that survived remained in the heart of his followers, who to this day lead their lives on the footsteps of Lalon.  Long before philosophers and activists around the world began to think of a society without any classes, Lalon had already composed countless songs on the theme.

Today, many of his followers are ostracized and sometimes tortured because of their progressive views of equality. Their denial of absolute standards of “right and wrong” and their rejection of the material and spiritual divisions within society, has let the globalized society to outcast them. When they sing of Lord Krishna, they are beaten by mullahs; when they sing of Mohammed, they are thrown out of their homes. So much for cultural pluralism and secularism in a country that produced great multicultural giants like Nazrul and Lalon!

At the Lalon Mela

At the Lalon Mela

Some 130 years have passed since the time when Lalon would freely roam the dusty paths of rural Bengal. A period that has seen independence from the British, the partition of India and the liberation war against Pakistan. A period that has made the people of Bengal question their identity even more. Who is the real Bengali?  Is he a Bangladeshi or someone from West Bengal? Is she a Muslim or a Hindu? Does he sing songs of Rabindranath Tagore or those of Nazrul Islam?

If Lalon saw us today, he would laugh. He would then pick up his ektara and carry on the path to the next village – singing songs of unity, songs of freedom.

Listen to my Lalon Fakir Playlist!