When did I become a feminist? There are lots of moments in every woman’s life that make her stand up for herself and her sisters, and there were many in mine. But the first one that comes to mind is the day I was told I couldn’t take a seat on the bus, simply because I was a woman.
I grew up in East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a country where women were raised to see their lives as leading up to marriage. Especially in the countryside, that meant you were totally obedient to your husband inside the home, and totally silent outside it. After I finished my formal education, I watched as my friends were pressured to find a husband. I was from an unusual and wonderful family where my parents wanted me to be free and to choose my own path, and they always treated me as the equal of any man. I knew I was in a privileged position, so I wanted to understand what life was like across my country for women who weren’t so lucky. That’s why, in the aftermath of our War of Independence in 1971, with much of the country in ruins, I went to work for an aid agency. After two years of working in Dhaka, I felt I needed to work in the field so I told them to send me to their most remote field areas, where the need was greatest.
My boss was very unsure of sending a very city-bred, single, young woman to live and work in the villages. “You have never been to a village before.” Well, I said, there is a first time for everything. Then his real concern came out: no woman would be accepted as a figure of authority. Well, I replied, not if we don’t start somewhere. He tried to give reasons why I couldn’t go – like the impracticality of me living there. He said there was no separate room for me to stay, because there were no other women working either in the aid agency or anywhere in this remote area. There were no proper toilets. “Do you,” I asked, “have a private room when you go there?” He admitted he did. “Then I will take your room,” I said.
I began my travels in the third class compartment on the train, on river launches and in overcrowded buses. Women’s compartments were separate on launches and trains, and we were jammed into tiny airless compartments, crammed tightly, with the windows kept shut and covered up so nobody would accidentally glimpse them. On the bus, there were only two rows, with six seats, for women. It was unbearably hot. In that tiny space, women had to carry their children and often their chickens, sometimes even goats, crammed with them. They would only ever travel from one home to another – their father’s home to their husband’s home. The women were required and forced into being submissive and meek. I would sit in the men’s compartment, which was more open and had more space.
I got the bus for my next stage of the journey, and I was often told I had to buy two tickets, because no man would sit next to me. “That’s their problem, not mine,” I said. Other times, the bus conductor would say there was no seat for a woman. I looked down the bus and saw plenty of seats – but they were next to men, so he would refuse to let me sit. I barged and took my seat anyway. People would look astonished. They could hear from my voice that I was from the city, and educated – if I had been a rural woman behaving this way, it would be very nasty.
When the conductor came down the bus to collect tickets, he would not speak to or address the women in any way. He would say loudly: “Who does this woman belong to?” Later, I would travel with my male colleagues, and whenever anyone said this, I would say loudly: “This woman belongs to no man. You see those men at the back? They belong to me.” Years later, I would read about Rosa Parks, and I would understand why she took her seat, no matter what happened.
The village that I first went to and lived in was like a tiny island – for much of the year, during the flooding, it was cut off, and it could only be reached by row-boat. During winter, which is our dry season, it was a 10 mile walk to the nearest launch, and the a five hour ride to the bus and then the train. It was very remote, but that is where I spent some of the most wonderful years of my life and where I learned about people, societal pressures and became what I am today.
Initially, our task in the villages was to help with reconstruction. The Pakistani army had burned their way through villages and destroyed everything in their path, plundering, raping women and killing hundreds and thousands. The boats were ruined, the housing was ruined, the fishing nets were ruined. For desperately poor people, the prospects were catastrophic. Most of them owned no land. I thought at first it was our job simply to replace these goods – to hand out alternatives. But as I lived in a very remote rural village called Anandapur in Sylhet for four years, I began to see that what was needed was not outsiders handing out goods, but for the people in the village to be empowered to demand what they needed for themselves – especially the women.
I would go and sit with the women in their homes, and they would tell me about the domestic violence and sexual abuse they were facing. At first, it seemed many of them had accepted this despairingly as their fate: they didn’t see an alternative. I noticed that often, women who insisted on having a mind of their own – who wanted to write songs or poems, or insisted on speaking out – could go through a terrible pattern. They would be labeled as mad – indeed, many would have breakdowns and act erratically – and it would be announced that they had been possessed by demons. An exorcist would then be called.
The exorcist would burn chillis directly under her nose, to drive the ‘demons’ out. I don’t know if you have ever had a chilli burned close to you, but it is agony – it burns your eyes and nose. If that didn’t work, he would break her finger, or subject her to choking smoke, until she ‘admitted’ the ‘demons’ had left her, and that she would ‘behave.’ This is one of the many methods that was used to force women to be totally submissive.
I was also struck that women were not allowed to own property if she was a Hindu or control and manage her property if she was a Muslim. In Bangladesh, personal laws are governed by the religion you profess or have been born into. According to Hindu practice, women have no right of inheritance, whereas amongst Muslims you inherit half of what your male counterpart gets. If a young Hindu woman was widowed and there were many in the village I first lived in having been killed as a part of genocide during the war, she was not allowed to remarry, and she was not allowed to own her house nor go back to her parents home. She was trapped.
Women could receive no accountability from the men, and the men – who were poor – could receive no accountability from the extremely corrupt authorities. I believed the solution was to organize both groups to defend their rights. I began to help local people to set up co-operatives – and to organize forums where women could talk about their grievances. I wanted to change the situation where you would not hear women’s voices.
The men insisted they did all the work and women had no economic role, but it turned out women did an extraordinary amount. The men would get ‘paddy’ from the fields, which is unprocessed rice, and the women would then be the one that decided which seeds to keep, husk the rice, keep the straw, and do what was necessary to get it to market. I asked the men – how much is raw paddy worth? They would say 100 Taka. And after the women have worked on it, how much is it worth? They would say 200 Taka. So, I explained, the women add half the value: they deserve half of the control. Women were also responsible for growing vegetables, keeping cattle, poultry, and daily repair and maintenance of their homes. But of course, none of this was ever valued.
I began to talk to the men about their daughters, and their hopes for their daughters. I found that was one of the moments when they began to think, and listen. A lot of these men had simply never thought about it – it had never occurred to them that this gender segregation wasn’t just something handed down by nature. It wasn’t something natural, I explained. It could change.
In the forty years since I first went to the villages, I have seen a revolution take place. This process – of women organizing, of uniting with other women, of speaking out – has been happening all over the country. Now, protests are often led by women, whose voices are some of the most articulate and powerful in the country. For example, I was recently in a village where a group of corrupt businessmen have bribed the authorities to seize a large part of the water supply to build a private fishery. A local woman took charge of the fight against this corruption. She organized the men and the women and took charge. Somebody asked her – what about your husband? “He’s at home,” she replied. “I have my own shop. I make my own living. I don’t depend on him. He depends on me.”
All over the country, women are at the forefront of resisting corrupt land-grabs and all other forms of abuse all over the country. I see women routinely challenging conservative imams. Recently, we began work in another village, and representatives of an extreme Islamist group tried to drive us out. The local women – who were poor and landless, they didn’t even have sandals – stood in front of our offices and said to a mob of fundamentalists: “We are the women of this village, and these people are our guests. You have no right to interfere, and you will not get past us.” The young men and there were over a hundred men from a militant group, confronted by so many village women standing strong, were totally shocked – and then they left.
Now, if a woman is a victim of domestic violence, the other women will rally to her, and get her medical help, and legal assistance, and they will shun the man who attacked her. I have seen this happen with so many women – the discovery that they don’t have to be beaten; that they can be stronger than their attackers.
And it goes even deeper. I have seen the attitudes of men change. When I first went to the villages and suggested men share the housework with their wives, people laughed in my face, they laughed at the men who attempted to share housework. Today, it is spreading across the country, and some men talk about sharing with pride. Women aren’t forced to put up with being attacked at home like they used to. They have hope. When I hear how they speak now – it is amazing to me. It makes me think that anything is possible.
It’s very easy to stand outside a situation and say ‘I will do this for you.’ I have tried to work differently – to stand alongside people and say: how can I work with you? If you are beaten up, if you are intimidated, if you are afraid, I’ll stand with you.
For me, that’s what One Billion Rising has been all about. Women are engaged in this fight all over the world. Every February 14th, we come together to resist the violence against women that is happening to women all over the world. In Bangladesh, we had around 400,000 women and men who came forward and rose and danced in our streets, in villages and cities, held rallies, human chains, sign petitions, for freedom for women from violence and sexual abuse. I looked across during our rising in Dhaka, our main city, and I saw all kinds of women, women in saris, women in pants, women in hijabs, all dancing as one.
None of these women are ever going to be told they can’t have a seat on the bus because they are a woman – not ever again. I’ll dance to that.
As told to the One Billion Rising team
Khushi Kabir is the Global Coordinator for One Billion Rising Bangladesh.
1 in 3 women across the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. That’s ONE BILLION WOMEN AND GIRLS. Every February, we rise – in hundreds of countries across the world – to show our local communities and the world what one billion looks like and shine a light on the rampant impunity and injustice that survivors most often face. We rise through dance to express joy and community and and celebrate the fact that we have not been defeated by this violence. We rise to show we are determined to create a new kind of consciousness – one where violence will be resisted until it is unthinkable.
This year we are rising for Revolution. We are initiating a new series, “Building to One Billion Rising Revolution,” where we will be sharing stories of extraordinary activists who embody the creative radical shift in consciousness required to bring about CHANGE.
Grassroots Activists who fight for justice and liberation with passion and joy.