Trimita Chakma, Tasaffy Hossain, and Tahmina Shafique
February 14, 2013 was a different day in Bangladesh. People from all walks of life took to the streets across the country. Women, men and children, countless adorned in red, joyously singing and shouting and demanding an end to a culture. A culture that has been “normal”, “private” and more importantly, “silent”. A society, which otherwise reflects significant lack of prioritisation on violence against women issues, came together to show their support. Almost 3 million men and women, through more than 335 organisations, occupied the streets in more than 40 locations in Dhaka and across all the 64 districts in Bangladesh, demanding an end to violence against women with joy, empowerment and exuberance. There were human rights activists, factory workers, union workers, lawyers, bankers, parliamentarians, tea garden workers, UN employees, school children, university students, farmers, teachers, domestic workers, adivasis, artists, writers, local government personnel, homosexuals, heterosexuals and hijras (transsexuals), young and old, survivors and allies.
“Silence — NO MORE”, they chanted, hoisting red banners, their red clothes signifying the colour of fire, of rising and more importantly, of power. ‘NO MORE violence against women,’ they sang in unison as they took to the streets. These were people who stepped out of small shops, factories, construction sites, stations, schools, universities, offices, homes, corporate houses, banks all across the country.
Human chains were formed in Lalmonirhaat, Faridpur, Magura, Barisal, Khulna, Rajshahi, Kushtia, Gaibandha, Chittagong Hill Tracts, and all other districts across Bangladesh. “It made me feel significant, like I am not alone,” said a woman from the crowd.
Six months earlier, a bunch of women came together in a meeting with Kamla Bhasin, a renowned South Asian feminist, who came to Bangladesh to strengthen the collective movement in South Asia and join a global campaign. These women have been advocating for women’s rights and play a significant role in the feminist movement in Bangladesh. Thus began the path to making Uddomey Uttoroney Shotokoti aka One Billion Rising (OBR) Bangladesh happen.
From small meetings, to very few organisations as partners, the coalition expanded, bringing numerous diverse organisations and individuals to stand under the same umbrella, to strike at the core of violence and RISE against violence against women.
In Bangladesh, violence against women has, historically, been a focal point of the feminist movement. Yet, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Bangladesh ranks fourth among the world’s nations with respect to violence against women. Almost every day, numerous women in Bangladesh are subjected to different forms of violence including rape, murder, acid attack, trafficking, domestic abuse, forced marriage, tortures related to dowry, and abduction. Since 2001, there have been 184,422 reported cases of violence according to the police headquarters. In 2012 alone, there were 19,617 reported incidences of violence against women in Bangladesh and this is just the reported number.
It was within this context that the rising in Bangladesh was imperative to bring this issue to the forefront. The campaign gave the women’s movement in Bangladesh a different dimension for reaching out to the general public, particularly the youth. Social networking, too, has helped this reach. The OBR Bangladesh page on Facebook currently has 11,151 men and women following, of whom 42% are men and 60% are below the age of 34.
The One Billion Rising campaign mobilised men and women all around the world in a joyous manner, bringing together coalitions of groups and individuals from different nationalities, ethnicities, cultures and religions that have never worked together before.
The OBR campaign began as a call to action by V-Day based on the staggering UN statistic that 1 in 3 women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. With the world population at 7 billion, this adds up to more than one billion women and girls. It was a call for people across the world to come together to express their outrage, strike, dance and rise on 14 February 2013, V-Day’s 15th anniversary, in defiance of the injustices women suffer, demanding an end at last to violence against women.
V-Day is a global activist movement to end violence against women (VAW) and girls. V-Day is a catalyst that promotes creative events to increase awareness, raise money and revitalise the spirit of existing anti-violence organisations. V-Day generates broader attention for the fight to stop violence against women and girls, including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM) and sex slavery. In 2012, over 5,800 V-Day benefit events took place produced by volunteer activists around the world, raising awareness about the different forms of violence against women and girls prevalent across the different societies and nations.
The Vagina Monologues, one of V-Day’s events, was brought to Bangladesh in 2010 by a group of women who felt that a platform needed to be created for both men and women to start off dialogues about women’s sexuality and the social stigma surrounding rape and abuse.
When we started The Vagina Monologues it was already being performed in more than 140 countries. We piloted this platform under the name of V-Day Dhaka in 2010. The audience was largely people who had considerable exposure to western culture but most of them were not familiar with the controversial play. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive — especially, from older women who really appreciated the openness. The response from men was also very encouraging and some of them have been our strong supporters. Over the last three years, we have reached at least 1,500 audience members in Dhaka and raised over 10 lakh taka, which went to grassroots organisations working for women’s rights.
Critics pointed out that the play focuses on the urban (mainly Dhaka) population whereas VAW is more relevant among the grassroots. Another criticism was that the issues represented in the play were not relevant to Bangladesh and alien to our culture. In reality, most issues that women face regarding their bodies, sexuality, abuse and violence are global.
VAW, even though extremely prevalent in grassroots, also exists in the urban population significantly. In fact, cases suggest, the norm of silence and issue of preserving the idea of ‘honour’ exists in urban population.
Many women have said that they could relate to the monologues such as “Hair”, “The Flood”, “My Short Skirt”, “Because he liked to look at it”, “Say it” in ways and levels that show that these issues surpass cultural and social boundaries.”My Short Skirt” particularly was very popular with the female university students who often felt judged because of what they chose to wear. Many women connected to these monologues that depicted stories of reclaiming women’s bodies, sexual pleasure, rape, sexual harassment and more.
“In a strange way, this really helped me reconcile with my story,” said a woman. She was a survivor of rape, and listening to the monologue about another survivor made her find a certain strength in herself she had not been aware of before.
“You hear about rape every day, so much that you forget to think about it in a personal manner. The monologues brought back the human, the personalized face of rape,” another woman wrote.
It really made me love my body the way it is and love myself even more.
That monologue was a tight slap on the repressive patriarchal psyche across the world.
We also learnt that last year the provost of one of the women’s universities in Bangladesh banned the performance of The Vagina Monologues on campus because of the word ‘vagina’. The students organised a protest against this ban where more than 500 people including men participated; they chanted the name of the play. This year in March they will be performing it and raising money to donate to a One Stop Crisis Center.
With each year we performed, first in closed spaces, then at more and more public events, many more women and men came out. Complete strangers. People whose stories we had never known. We have had many young women and men open up to us about issues they have faced in their own lives — eve teasing; to be asked to be ‘the man’ after her father’s death; how men can help their close female friends deal with their abusive boyfriends; concerns about young men learning aggressive ways of sex from pornography. They all wanted to speak, to know, to make changes — and events organised by V-Day Dhaka and OBR, in some way provided that space to open up without inhibition.
As we move to another year, the vision of V-Day Dhaka expands beyond the play — to provide a platform to start off discussions about gender and sexuality among men and women, to give voice to issues that are rarely discussed in society — confronting themes such as rape, birth, menstruation and sexual awakening. During Eve Ensler’s visit in January 2013, V-Day Dhaka performed monologues based on real stories of violence and abuse faced by Bangladeshi women. We wish to have these performed in Bangla catering to the larger Bangla speaking community in the future. We hope to focus specifically on the youth, who will be the advocates for the next generation, in creating a more educated society. We envision the Bangladeshi students performing the play at universities, creating a space for the youth to come together and add to the lack of education regarding these issues.
When we started V-Day Dhaka in 2010, we did not anticipate that we would be involved in a global campaign. The initiators of OBR Bangladesh included many of the veteran activists of the grassroots Bangladesh Women’s movement who were core in making this campaign a success. This platform brought together young feminists like ourselves to work closely with these extraordinary, energetic and powerful women, from whom we have much to learn.
The OBR campaign demands a universal platform for autonomous feminist movements through which we hope to originate changes in policy and reshape the normative and social understanding of violence against women, both nationally and internationally.
By being a part of One Billion Rising, alongside 202 other countries, we discovered solidarity and a potential for immense possibilities. In one day, three million men and women in Bangladesh were out on the streets, questioning a society — a society where patriarchy holds a solid ground; a society where violence against women is common practice denying them equal opportunity, security, self-esteem and dignity within the family and in the society as a whole. Uddomey Uttoroney Shotokoti perhaps is the beginning of a new consciousness for Bangladesh. Because when you penetrate into a people’s consciousness, society begins to shift.
Trimita Chakma works at Coffey International Development as Alumni/MIS Manager. She is also a campaigner for the rights of indigenous peoples both in Bangladesh and internationally. She is currently working on research on access to justice for indigenous women of CHT for Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD).
Tasaffy Hossain works in the development sector. She was pioneer for bringing VDAY’s controversial play “The Vagina Monologues” in Bangladesh for the first time in 2010.
Tahmina Shafique works in the development sector. She has been engaged in various women’s rights initiatives. Earlier, Tahmina worked as a researcher and writer in the areas of women’s right, indigenous people, and economic development for media and research organisations.
This article was originally published in the Daily Star http://archive.thedailystar.net/forum/2013/March/rising.htm