The faces of SEXISM

The faces of SEXISM
The faces of SEXISM Desk, 08 March 2017,

Sarah Anjum Bari :International Women’s Day, widely observed all over the world on March 8, gives us an opportunity to celebrate womanhood in all its shapes, sizes, and colours. It is, however, equally important to address the harsh realities that are a part of every girl’s journey. The women from different backgrounds and age groups interviewed here have shared the instances of gender-based injustice, prejudice, or downright harassment they have faced in their regular lives. The anonymity requested by nearly all of them is the loudest indicator of just how much their right to independence and free speech is still impeded by a society that likes to take pride in its strides towards progress. Celebration of women, and women’s strength, on this occasion lies not in resting upon our laurels, but realising how much more still remains to be done in creating a safe and just society for all women in our country. The snippets of ‘everyday sexism’ revealed through this interview taken by Sarah Anjum Bari should serve as a reminder of that. 

“The chemistry teacher in my school publicly ridiculed me for obtaining poor marks on a test, and determined that the reason for my lack of intelligence was my sex. ‘I can’t actually blame you. Boys have better brains than girls. It is scientifically proven. I heard your parents are sending you to America. It is such a waste of money. After all, the ultimate destination for a woman is her husband’s home,’ he told me. I pray that he never has daughters.”

A high school student 

“I used to love riding a bicycle around my neighbourhood. People around the area protested that I ought to stop, because it’s a ‘boy’s activity’; that I’m not physically strong enough to be playing with boys.”

A nineteen-year-old student 

“I have been told by my parents that as an unmarried, bhalo ghorer meye, it would be improper of me to travel without a male. It becomes an issue of family honour followed by the clichéd silver lining – ‘You can go wherever and whenever you want with your husband.’ But if a Bangladeshi man wants to travel alone, he can go anytime!”

A university student 

“I rented a coaching centre apartment to open a martial arts training centre. The owner of the building complained that martial arts aren’t meant for girls. I should be doing things meant for women only. He wouldn’t let me put up banners or signs to promote my academy. I later moved to two other apartments where the landlords would come to the classes, scream in front of my students, and try to control my business because I am a ‘girl’ and I am ‘weak’.”

A business graduate and martial arts instructor 

“Being the only female cousin in my family, I am the target of most scrutiny at family gatherings. Despite doing great at school, and being affiliated with a newspaper, my extended family’s interest focuses around my marriage, my clothing, and my mannerisms. My male cousins, who always skip out on family gatherings, are celebrated for putting on wrinkled shirts and showing their faces.”

A private university student 

“My place of work lacks genuine commitment to the gendered needs of entry-level staff. It is expected that women’s work will be identical to that of men, who do not face the same problems with security going back home late at night. Bringing up these issues is considered unprofessional. We are also harassed through uninvited flirtation and inappropriate comments. We have no place to report these grievances. The organisation is only now drafting a gender policy, but has no mechanisms in place to implement it.”

A development professional 

“A bunch of us were sitting on the balcony at a gathering, when a young man joined us. He introduced himself and shook hands with all the men sitting with us, even a young schoolboy. As he reached me and my sister, he turned back around and sat down at the other side of the circle. We might as well not have been there at all. Similar things have happened at workplaces too, where a male peer greets and introduces himself to other male colleagues and walks away without acknowledging my existence. I understand how ironic this sounds, since women are always complaining about unwanted attention from men on the streets. But it’s like they don’t know how to just treat us as another human being.”

Founder, Bonhishikha – unlearn gender

“I was working in a firm where, on a daily basis, I was asked why I wasn’t getting married. I was told that there’s no point of me working because I would eventually get a rich husband and receive ‘monthly allowances’ from him. They said that the divorce rate in Bangladesh is so high because women these days are getting too educated, which gives them the independence to leave their husbands when they are abused physically or refrained from an activity; this wouldn’t be allowed in earlier times. They told me women should be submissive to their men. Meanwhile, my relatives keep advising me to get married because I am 25. If I wait much longer, I will become too ugly to attract men.”

A barrister-at-law

“I used to receive online messages from male students calling me ‘hot’ and other such adjectives. On entering the classroom, I would be greeted with demeaning whistles and catcalls instead of a ‘Good morning, teacher’. A student of the third grade had written that he wanted to sleep with me in his school diary. Once, while leaving the school premises, a male student came up and placed his hand behind me, with other students whispering, ‘Dekh tor bhabi jachhe’. On making complaints about the incident, the school authority and the student’s parents blamed me for my lack of professionalism. I was ultimately forced to quit.”

A former high school teacher 

“A senior lawyer at the court premises would always ask me, ‘Shundori, how is your husband?’ He knew very well that I was divorced at the time. He loved to see my embarrassment. Another very reputed lawyer once asked me to move and make space for him to sit. I hadn’t realised that he had been speaking to me. He got angry and threatened to sit on my lap if I didn’t move! While I have always received respect from the courts, certain male lawyers have often subjected me to such regular instances of sexism at work.”

A practising lawyer of the Bangladesh Supreme Court

“I was applying for a loan to buy an apartment for my mother. It was entirely my own affair, and it didn’t involve my husband in any way. The form required the details and a signed permission from my husband. I enquired as to why this was required, given that a man would not be expected to get a signature from his wife for the same purposes. The bank employee explained that it was a formality mandated by the Bangladesh Bank.

As an independent, successful businesswoman, I can manage to manoeuvre through such bureaucracies on my own. But what if I had been an underprivileged widow or a woman with no close male relatives, in urgent need of a loan? What would a woman in such a situation do?”

A leading professional at a multinational company