But did we eat our words! Jessore was a wonderful little town: quiet, clean, driving with battery operated scooters. People were endlessly polite and not intrusive towards us two foreigners. Friends of friends took us to their village where we spent a day with a beautiful, warm family: a father who coaches the girl's cricket team, a mother who loves her straight-talkin' daughter-in-law, and a son who worships his girl child. And the town was filled with interesting, progressive and thorough NGOs.
We were both surprised at the progressiveness of a place that is dyed at rural, ignorant, traditional--and unswayed. However, after interviewing a few NGOs, looking at their groups and services, and attending a probing round-table discussion, we felt that this little town was doing substantial work, even more progressive than many of the programs we've seen in Dhaka.
For example, we met with an organization that is supporting over one-hundred women's empowerment groups in the state of Khulna. The org gives training, information and confidence building to men and women to go into their communities and establish groups that fight for community rights including women's rights. Through these trainings, they learn how to seek justice for domestic abuse. We met one beautiful, humble woman, Iti, who quoted a member of her community saying, "If you hit me again, I'm going to set Iti on you!" She has almost singlehandedly supported the women in her community from the training she received.
I've been thinking a lot about the important of rights trainings, confidence/empowerment groups and space. What I view as a huge problem of Bangladesh is it's limited space, not in the sense of it's crowded population, but it's expression. For surviving through a hectic day, whether a poor rickshaw-wallah, a troubled student, or a homesick ex-pat, there isn't much space to release all the pent up energy and anger. Part of has to do with the inability to pay to use space, but there aren't many free or cheap public or private spaces to let go: no bars, arcades, parks.. safe spaces to express yourself. That negative energy stays inside, builds up and is released in destructive ways, like domestic or child abuse. Man have more options with street-side tea stands to shoot the wind and relax, but women don't have those options.
Women's groups seem a vital way to permeate human rights into culture and society. It's not that women don't seek empowerment, it's that they don't have a space to even discuss it let alone take action on it. Groups as these give a space that is 1) safe, and supportive to share their frustrations and experiences of living as the second gender, 2) creative resource to fight for their rights and develop ways to create change and 3) encourage confidence that they are not wrong or alone and to stand with conviction.
One interesting note from the trip was the presence of technology. Mobile phones are as common as ever. Hotlines for human rights and legal justice are ever present and many groups mentioned how they can communicate to find information (ie. safe migration for example instead of trafficking). But with mobile phones, traffickers can also communicate to each other in forcibly sending people across the border. Now, as in the West, information is easily accessible--what skill in now needed is how to critically judge what is good information and what is bad.
Also, it was mentioned that there are a lot of extreme religious schools established in the area than ever before. Wahhabi Islamic money is flowing into the country from Saudi Arabia funding extremist schools. Slowly, this subversive ideology is penetrating Bangladesh's religious morals and I'm afraid of how it will rear it's ugly head in days to come.
Note of thanks to my Fulbright colleague, Diya Bose, and her endless patience, understanding, energy and intelligence, of whom I view more as a fabulous mentor than research partner.