Female Aid Worker Harassed in Bangladesh

Earlier this week, I got a letter from a young lady who had interned with an NGO in Bangladesh. With her permission, I am sharing excerpts of her email below:

I’m a female Canadian who spent a summer in Dhaka and it took me over 2 years to regain my ability to think and function like the typical North American female. Even still, it’s a challenge.

Your youtube videos on Eve Teasing & Purdah, especially the conversation with Nirjhar, were all too familiar.  No one prepared me for this aspect of my trip to “volunteer/intern” for [OMITTED] in Dhaka.  I knew I was going to a largely Islamic nation, with a great deal of modesty expectations for females.  I had no idea that because I was young (21), unmarried, and female, (and the coveted white-skinned!), that [OMITTED] would pretty much hide me away in a room for the duration of my 90 day visa because it was too much of a hassle to escort (felt like babysit) me around to go anywhere at all, and it seemed as though they also somehow considered me incapable of doing anything.  At the end of my stay in Dhaka (which felt like a lifetime spending 80% of it in a single room), I was told to come back someday after I was married and maybe they would have work for me.

I returned to [OMITTED] being unable to go out in public places without this overwhelming fear of men staring at me, with vivid memories of males pointing and talking about me in words I couldn’t understand but could sense were not exactly kind-hearted, and taking millions of photos of me with their mobiles. I was unable to bare my shoulders or ankles. To this day, I still wear scarves 75% of the time to add an extra layer of coverage to my front because I otherwise feel so incredibly indecent and ashamed. It is a constant battle to look males in the eye when I talk to them. It took over a year before I actually felt safe while going out after sundown by myself.

The Dhaka experience was incredibly… oppressive. It killed my heart to know that Bangladeshi women live through even worse every single day of their lives. I wish I knew of something I could do. I would go back if I had some sense that I could be of any use; but the result of my last trip gave me the impression that my presence is only a burden and therefore not wanted, only my money. Which as a student, I still have very little of.  So in the meantime I fund a Kiva loan every month, am slowly finishing my education, and ultimately aspire to get a decent enough job so I can give half my money away to the most respectable NGOs/foreign aid organizations I can find. But this plan leaves me feeling like I’m copping out, and just handing over money for other people to do the hands-on work.

Needless to say, I have more respect for Nirjhar the aid worker than words can describe.  And I hope and pray that maybe someday I, too, will have even a small portion of the courage that she has.

I asked for her permission to post this letter because, while I am sure there are tons of women who have had great experiences interning in Bangladesh, this is by no means an outlier.

There is a lot I like about Bangladeshi culture and tradition. For example, I believe local non-NGO ways and approaches to helping the poor are just as valid (if not more so) than foreign institutional and professional methods.

But not every facet of Bangladeshi culture, habits, and tradition need to persist. And this is a prime example.

P.S. Check out my friend (and personal hero) Anika Rabbani. As a guy, I will never fully understand the kind of hurdles she faces in her job.

12 Responses to “Female Aid Worker Harassed in Bangladesh”

  1. 1 Nickgreyden

    As an American, I’m allowed to raise my voice in dissention and opposition to any aspect of anything I wish. As such, it has become a major part of who I am. A rebel with many causes. I cannot begin to imagine a place and time even as a different sex that I would be afraid to raise my voice and dare others to disagree. How many other personalities, wills, and even lives have been crushed, mangled, and mutilated due to the oppression of others? My heart breaks.

  2. 2 Shawn Ahmed

    The thing to keep in mind – and many Bangladeshis will be the first to point this out – is that Bangladesh isn’t a failed state and/or a place that’s constantly oppressing women. 

    Many will point out it’s a minority that do this. And, as my video on Eve Teasing shows, you can live in the “high society” upper classes and be shielded from this. It’s much more of a complex issue that a blog post like this can fully portray…

  3. 3 Ute Orgassa

    Your friend sounds like she has PTSD. I am baffled by the immenseness of this problem.

  4. 4 Shawn Ahmed

    I cut out a lot of the email and following discussions. But, yeah, I would say that is accurate.  

  5. 5 Casey

    The year I spent in working in development in Bangladesh was nowhere near as distressing as this story recounts. It is a place, to be sure, where you quickly discover how well equipped you are personally for confrontation of poverty and gender imbalances. One needs confidence and a proactive attitude to survive it and to make an impact. I am one of many international women who worked in Bangladesh who did not suffer this sort of distress. And I’m pretty sure we all feeling like we made a (small) contribution.

    I say this not to discount the validity of this woman’s story, but to say that Bangladesh is a beautiful country that has made some incredible progress, including to address gender imbalances. Look at the work CARE is doing there to see some examples of that.

  6. 6 Shawn Ahmed

    Hi Casey – thanks for sharing this. It’s good to hear from one of the many many non-Bangladeshi women who have had positive experiences volunteering, working, or interning in Bangladesh 🙂

    To keep this blog post short, I cut out a few stories that I had heard and also witnessed myself. Some of my friends who volunteered via the VSO, for example, always would talk of the story of one of their female friends who was pull off a rickshaw and dragged through the streets as a man tried to steal her purse.

    Similarly, an American school teacher who came to work here was walking through the streets of Dhaka’s upscale neighborhood (Gulshan/Baridara) when a car pulled up and started driving alongside her. When she turned, the Bangladeshi driver looked at her and said “I want to lick your &*$$@#” and then sped off.

    Heck, even when I was interviewing a female director of an NGO on the corner of a street, a young male riding in an auto-rickshaw yelled some vulgar stuff at her as he rode by. And, of course, there is the comments I heard from the group of women discussing the challenges of Eve Teasing:

    There were a few watery-eyes amongst some of the women as they were talking about this. But, out of respect for them, I tried to cut that out of the final video as much as possible. Again, I may never fully comprehend what they’ve gone through and/or if white or local-skin colored women have it worse.

  7. 7 AH

    ‘No one prepared me for…’ – Because it’s someone else’s responsibility?

    ‘I was unable to bare my shoulders or ankles’ – If not being able to display skin was becoming an issue for you, you should have tried baring your belly. When in Rome.

    ‘It killed my heart to know that Bangladeshi women live through even worse every single day of their lives.’ – Know that you did NOT have the experience of Bangladeshi women. You had the experience of a white girl in Bangladesh. There may be similarities but you do not have any way of knowing which are the similarities and which are the differences.

  8. 8 Anonymous

    I offer to your attention a film about six priorities of the generalized instruments of management by countries and people of Earth.
    Six Principles of Global Manipulation
    Anti-Qur’an Strategy of the Bible Project Wheeler-Dealers

  9. 9 Anonymous

    Thank you to you Shawn and your friend for sharing this story. 

  10. 10 Arul

    Posted on 07 Nov 2011
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  11. 11 Arul

    Posted on 07 Nov 2011
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