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41238_826048535093_14227408_45028178_5639030_nIt was like sticking my head into a beehive or a blender. The result was a beaten down head, intellect and the sense of certainty. But, that is the purpose of any inquiry. A challenge into the baseline assumptions and then a consensus on going forward after a debate and open discussion. I am, of course, talking about the reaction to my most recent post, “Memsahibs of Dhaka – 2012”. In it I suggested that there exists a self-destructive upper crust of women who cage themselves in glided cages because of dependence on cars, drivers, and lack of movement. There was a wide range of reaction and rejoinders. The readers mainly disagreed with my premise that too with some vehemence. There were the usual epithet throwers, the name callers to be ignored but there were some really poignant and personal accounts that challenged my premise and my understanding of the particular situation in Dhaka and the terrible burden the place itself puts on people. Especially the comments by Maruf Ahsan and Sanam were informed by personal experiences, existential angst and most of all sincere and thought provoking cases that directly challenged my underlying research and my worldview.

There is this truism that says, “Check your premises if the outcome is challenged empirically”. This is a classic case of re-evaluating my premises, my research and my assumptions. The single biggest category that came across was the safety and security, OK, lack thereof in the city of Dhaka. The standard cry is that crime is really bad and law and order situation make this an inhospitable place. Hmm, that actually goes against things I thought I knew! People used adjectives like “this miserable city”, “this dreaded city”, “this terrible city” and the “second most dangerous city” in the world. People who live in Dhaka seem to really loathe the place. The other thing most people said was how bad the roads and transportation are in Dhaka. The unending traffic jams, the full to the gill buses, trains and CNGs and so on. So, time to check my premises. But before we do so let’s stipulate that there are two ways of checking one’s premise. The subjective one based on opinion surveys like the recent EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) livability survey and the hardnosed statistical ones. The surveys are sometimes based on skewed economic interest biases (like hardship bonuses for expatriates). So, I am going with the statistical data because as they say, “And the Truth shall set you free”.

Let me make a bold declaration; on a reported and verified crime statistics Dhaka is a much (I mean much) safer city than Singapore. I am using Singapore as a benchmark because it is the place most people mentioned as an example of a place with less crime. Based on 2011 analytical data compiled by The European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, that is just pure baloney. The Institute based in Helsinki tracks crime statistics for OECD and UN and crunches data nonstop. Their website is: http://www.heuni.fi/Etusivu/Researchareas/Crimestatistics . The table below shows only a smattering of the categories of crime that I think impact the lives of people directly, e.g., assaults, rapes and robberies. In each category Singapore has a higher or similar ranking to Bangladesh/DAC except for rape. Interesting data point huh? All these piety and suppression of sexuality simply manifests as violence against women, which what rape is, pure and simple act of great violence.

viewerAs you can see in any category the crime rate when measured in terms of population density is not too far off between the two places. There are outliers; serious assault is 189% more in Singapore than in Dhaka. Whereas rapes 178% more in Bangladesh. In Singapore robberies are 35 times more than in Bangladesh. Let me save you the suspense, I have done the same comparative statistical analysis against Kolkatta, London, Cape Town, New York, Karachi and Kuala Lumpur. The only place that has shown consistently better results is KL otherwise Dhaka/DAC beats the rest of the compared cities/countries hands down, especially Cape Town and Karachi. In my view Karachi is simply an ungovernable and unliveable place, period.

Another hard source of data is to go to the dreaded CIA. The swashbuckling part of CIA is a miniscule part of the organization. Most of the organization is populated by people grinding away at socio economic data. They actually make an interesting distinction in criminal acts. The Crimes of Opportunity and the Crimes of organization. For example; someone snatching your purse and running away or picking your pocket at Gausia Market is a crime of opportunity. Whereas when the Chanda folks come to your organization and asks for protection money (Chanda) then that is a crime of organization. They also have a sub-category for scams and fraud which is related to weak governance issues. The crime of opportunity is typically petty economic crime and can be rooted out with better policing and infrastructure. The crimes of organization and corruption can actually destroy the fabric of a society and hence far more serious. Despite what you may think vast majority of the crimes in Dhaka and Bangladesh are crimes of opportunity. So, the State Department warns the US citizens not to get into a CNG after 9 PM or show too much money around. As if we have to be told not to be stupid.

At the risk of inviting the wrath of the readers I am going to say that the fears of crime is overblown and mainly in our heads! Take back the streets. Someone asked/mocked me in his/her response, “walk, really?” Yes, really, really!

Now the great big mountain of infrastructure (or lack of it) that inhibits and kills the city. I am going to make another declaration, it is not the crimes but the outrageously bad infrastructure that creates the angst and labels of this “dreaded city”. I have been running around Dhaka for the last ten days. Roads are clogged day and night, no one gives a hoot about traffic laws and there seem to be no reasonable explanation as to why some car would go round to the extreme left to make a right turn! I used to be a cab driver in my early days in Manhattan. Those of you have travelled in New York know that the cabbies there are an extremely aggressive lot with a little bit of death wish in them. I tried to drive in Dhaka and promptly gave up. Not so much because of traffic or speed but mainly because there were no predictability to any of the actions by any of the beings, things and ghosts on the roads.

24248.max1024First of all let’s acknowledge that Dhaka is one of the densest cities in the world with population around 17 million and racing towards 25 million. A city that grows by another chunk every few months. I can only compare the transformation to Shenzen in China. In a place growing at a breakneck speed there will be and are problems of infrastructure. But, the stupidity of the of the government bureaucrats simply aggravates a hard problem into an impossible one. So there are too many cars on narrow roads — let’s build flyovers so more cars can get around, besides they look fancy. So what they are trying to solve is a car problem and not a transportation problem. Why flyovers over a light rail or a subway system? Every city that has tackled growth issues has tackled the problem of moving people around in the most efficient ways, which are always more and more public transport options (OK, American cities are exceptions and we pay the price) like light rails, subways and people movers. But, what do the authorities in Bangladesh do? They order up flyovers which are probably the least efficient ways of moving people around. I can list the follies till the cows come home but I will leave it for some other time.

So, at the end of my rechecking of the premises I come to the following conclusions:

• The ghosts of uncontrolled crime in Dhaka are simply ghosts. Apparitions based on fear and loathing and not reality. There are tragic individual instances but on the aggregate the fears are based on hooey.
• The enforcement of traffic laws will ease lot of the burden of day to day living. A remote possibility unless the citizen put on tremendous pressure.
• Focused programs to make efficient uses of resources to move people around should be given far more weight than the signature chest thumpers of flyovers and other projects of pride and nonsense, e.g., the military murals on the way to the airport. If you are going to make ugly things at least hide them.

My dear Memsahibs I am back to my original premise; take back your streets and your city or you will end up living inside the close cousin of Karachi. Yes, the transportation and infrastructure are huge issues but without continuous and dramatic pressure from all of you things are doomed to grind towards chest thumping rather than real solutions.

(The views expressed are the author’s own and not those of bdnews24.com’s).

Kayes Ahmed lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA with his three dogs. He runs a small yet global apparel and design business based in Boulder.

30 Responses to “Memsahibs of Dhaka — redux”

  1. Munia

    What is worse than the mastaans and eve teasers are the police. They are supposed to be the custodians of the citizens instead has gained the ill reputation of one of the main oppressors of the people and I think this is the sole reason why the streets of Dhaka are worse compared to many other countries. You can gather courage to fight the evil in the society only when you know that there’s support from the government organs. In Bangladesh there is none.

  2. Monsur Rab

    I again think the writer had good intention in writing this piece. But yet again it came out completely wrong and sounded very much like another sexist piece. Kayes Ahmed really needs to be careful about his writing i.e. what he actually wants to write and it is actually written.

  3. Rhs

    I actually liked the first article that Mr Kayes wrote and was expecting a good rebuttal but this article has disappointed me greatly. I wish he hadn’t brought up unreliable statistics to make his point. From his first piece, I just assumed he was trying to start a movement to ‘take back our streets’. And I sincerely believe in that movement; but after reading Ms Sanam’s reply I can honestly say my preconceived ideas of eve-teasing were grossly understated and my zeal for taking back the streets has gone down quite a bit.

    I admit that I’ve begun to take to the streets quite recently… about 2 years. I’ve been brought up as a typical overprotected kid but circumstances have convinced me to improve on my Dhaka street-smarts; following that and also due to my work, I have forayed into some pretty strange and downright dangerous places in Dhaka… places that make a grown man nervous (Think Jatrabari/Golapbag or Kawran Bazaar after 10pm). After reading Ms Sanam’s post I commend women like her for braving this cruel and unusual punishment everyday; I know I wouldn’t be able to if I were a female.

    The point of this long reply is to thank Ms. Sanam for giving me a reality check. Maybe Dhaka isn’t ready to be like Boston/Colorado/Singapore. What I’d like to know is… when will we be ready? When will the reign of these mastaans, mollahs, gawkers and gropers end? What is the solution to this narrow-mindedness?

  4. Shabnam Nadiya

    Yes, of course, this is exactly what Bangladeshi women need, another man to tell them how to behave and run their everyday lives.

  5. Zafar Sobhan

    Dear Mr. Ahmed:

    This was a remarkably obtuse rebuttal. You should have quit while you were behind instead of doubling down on your original idiocy. Your meticulous research does not justify your smug, self-serving conclusion. As has been pointed out already, crime in Bangladesh, especially crime against women, is hugely under-reported. This rather undercuts your main point. And the fact that you appear to be blind to this fact tends to support the argument of your critics that your piece was sexist drivel.

    Interestingly enough, even the stats you cite, would also tend to undercut your argument, if you cared to interpret them intelligently. You note that the one crime that is higher in Dhaka than in Singapore is rape (by a massive 178% and this does not even take into account the fact that many rapes go unreported due to stigma and the likely uselessness of reporting).

    By extrapolation, wouldn’t it stand to reason that other kinds of violence/crime/harassment against women might therefore also be higher in Dhaka than in Singapore? And since your original article was aimed at women, how come you were unable to put 2 and 2 together and realize that perhaps one reason that women might prefer not to brave the streets is because of the harassment and worse they are subjected to there?

    Or perhaps, in your book, the type of harassment and abuse detailed in Sanam’s response does not constitute a crime, and so she and others like her should just suck it up and stop whining about a load of hooey?


  6. Armeen Musa

    To the writer from Colorado, I won’t waste another minute on your article or you.

    This is to Sanam above. Your comment is the one that needs publishing in print. I recently moved back to Dhaka only to feel encaged in my car for my necessary outings, just to avoid such incidents. I have also walked the streets of Dhaka as I have those of London, Singapore, Boston and other places I have resided. Some days it does bring back my freedom, other days I am in constant paranoia of remarks and comments, that I know are ignorant but do not cease to hurt.

    Thank you Sanam for your honest and beautifully written reply.

  7. Nazia Tariq

    Hahaha, I have you figured out, you are one of those people who like to prove things just so you can feel better about yourself, a self-ego booster.

    Well, you can use all your statistics and data but the facts about the streets of Dhaka city are quite well versed amongst us memsahibs of Dhaka. So please stick to writing about what you actually know rather than fiction and what you think you know and how things should be.

  8. Farzana A

    So Mr Kayes, some ground work you have done checking Singaporean crime statistics just so that you can compare those to Bangladesh’s! Even a 10-year-old living in Bangladesh would know not to do that because crimes are NOT reported here in Bangladesh the way they are in Singapore! I mean seriously, what exactly are you trying to say here? Who would be stupid enough to go and report being molested by some pig of a passer-by on some pavement in Dhaka just to be mocked at and lectured by our police on how it must have been her fault to start with for strutting her stuff publicly? You have been lucky perhaps, with the police? Oh sorry, I forget you’re just an ignorant NRB MAN trying to lecture all memsahibs of Dhaka on how to exterminate the ghosts of anxiety, fabricated stories that are nothing but some twisted and exaggerated figments of their imagination in your eyes, to reclaim their streets and clear them of all the pushers, shovers, squeezers, pinchers, name-callers, muggers, and rapists. Shock them into changing their mindset. Call for a revolution!! Oh what a noble cause you’re pushing all us hapless memsahibs into! Maybe you should get breast implants and then go to Chandni Chawk, just to see how it feels to have them mauled by some sick jerk or two. To feel violated and shamed at once. To feel responsible for something that you have no control over. From what you’re writing, I fear you may even enjoy it! Why don’t you just go back to Colorado, and join a feminist cause there, mingle with your feminist friends and gloat. Please leave the memsahibs of Dhaka alone.

    • Kayes

      Yes, statistics can be under reported. Except for some little data issues. The serious assaults, homicides are reported by hospitals and they have to keep track for legal and financial reason. One or two categories can be indicative of the crime rate. What I am trying to point out is that it is not crimes per se but a set of oppressive social norms about sexuality, gender identity and equality of law that is in question. I am happy to leave the Memsahibs alone but a cancer left alone will probably get to your vital parts eventually. A quick 5-days stay in Pakistan would convince you that unless you define your freedom and zealously guard it then I am afraid they will define it for you.

  9. zubair M latif

    That was a brilliant reply from Sanam. As a child, I was fortunate enough to spend the summer of 1976 in Boulder, Colorado with my parents. It was wonderful. We did not have to lock our apartment door when we went out and people left their car keys in the ignition.

    I am pretty sure you cannot do all that now. Recently, through work I did meet someone who hails from Boulder. It has changed but not that much. You have to be more cautious, but it is still a fantastic place to raise children.

    I think the wonderful Boulder air has gone to Mr Kayes Ahmed’s head. A big part of our life in Dhaka involves logistics – namely transport. Who is going with whom to family dawats and who is coming back with whom.

    Bangladeshi female students who study in Indian institutions and cross the Benapole border on a regular basis say the basic difference between two sides of the border is the attitude of the people.

    On the Indian side foutua and jeans does not even invite a cursory glance. On the Bangladesh side, no one ever suffers from attention deficit!

    I am not trying to be pro-Indian and anti-Bangladeshi. This is just a fact of life.
    As for the statistics, they are just numbers and if used in the wrong context, they can look quite ridiculous.

    • Kayes

      Zubair, Boulder is probably the same. I never lock anything and the dogs go to work with me. Everyone bring their dogs to work so the place is a cacophony of some 13 dogs and 30 humans. Every work place is dog friendly and pet abuse can get stiff penalties. There are crimes but very little, um, statistically on par with Dhaka. The problem that we are grappling with is what Sanam points out. It is a deep rooted cultural phenomenon of treating women as either mothers or whores. Nothing in between. We simply have not learned that women are equal to men in all respects. So, women’s independence challenges our sense of equilibrium and we react from a place of fear and prejudice. The key is challenging the social stereotype. There are many societies that have accomplished it. The idea that women are objects of worship and protection is the misplaced view that drives the hatred. Women are not objects, they are humans and should not attract scorn because of the dress they wear, the work they do and the bus they take.

  10. AA

    First of all I want to clarify I am a male and second I was born and brought up in Dhaka not one of the many outstation people who come and go and care very little of Dhaka.

    Yesterday I was walking down the foot path of Gulshan Avenue Dhaka and a young girl was walking in front of me.

    As she was walking, I watched a middle aged guard of one of the many private companies standing in front of the many offices, give the girl a very close inspection albeit with his eyes only. If this is not sexual harassment I do not know what is. Mr. Kayes this kind of behaviour will never come into your so-called statistics.

    As I was walking past the guard I asked him whether he was going to swallow the girl with his eyes. He had the basic decency of looking embarrassed.

    I want to let you know that I had been stabbed and mugged once and I did not go to the police. I did not want to become just another piece of statistic.

    And, I want to quote a very learned person “there are lies and damned lies and statistics”. You live in Colorado with your dogs, please stay in Colorado with your dogs, I wish you well, but do not try to patronize us with your sweeping comments based on the so-called statistics.

    There is only one element of truth in your entire writing. I agree with you that we must have a mass transport system for this city to live and to function.

  11. shafi

    Probably you are less conversant with the ground reality in Bangladesh. Anybody living in BD knows well that people try to avoid police and other law enforcing agencies here because of their reputation in handing plaintiffs. People don’t want to invite troubles by approaching police when obtaining remedy and justice is less likely; people rather prefer to accept the loss. So, most of the crime cases in BD are not reported with police and hence I decline to accept that the statistics with respect to BD reflects the reality.

    Moreover, majority of the miscreants can get away with criminal activities in BD, which is not possible in Singapore. So, people in Singapore fell more secured. In state governance, people’s perception is more important than the statistics. And people’s perception is never baseless, it rather reflects the reality. I would urge the writer to respect collective judgement and wisdom. If the writer disagrees with my observation, he can check the people’s perceptions in BD and Singapore by himself.

  12. twisha

    You are relying on comparative crime statistics?! Have you ever heard of the dark figure of crime? In a place like Bangladesh — how many times do you think people actually report random muggings to the police? O and do you think any one from any background will report getting groped/molested to the police? Compare it to Singapore where people are more likely to do so.

    You also claim that these crimes are overblown and in our heads — okay off the top of my head, in the last three years, at least 15 people in my immediate circles (no not through various degrees of separation) have been mugged. A second cousin got ‘hacked’, and another friend got dragged on the street while they tried to grab her bag. You also say ‘vast majority of crimes in Bangladesh are crimes of opportunity’- well I don’t want to provide that opportunity- so sue me!

    O and building a subway system instead of flyover is somehow can be solved by the memshahibs too? What are you on about? I think your rants are misdirected and your assumptions are inherently erroneous. I hate to break it to you but you appear to be elitist and sexist (the very things that you are apparently trying to question) and I think you have some deep-seeded issues of misogyny as demonstrated by your denigration of women (albeit upper-class women).

  13. Golam Arshad

    What a rebuttal! carry on hitting hard! Stats and facts will care to be in its verdict on this issue.

    • Sixth Sence

      You are free to scratch each others’ back vigorously! But the fact will always remain that your friend’s rebuttal is not based on the real crime statistics which is hard to find in Bangladesh.

      Instead of encouraging him to hit hard, he may be told to reread at least the few lines of the poetry written by Alexander Pope, 1688-1744 mentioned here under:

      “A little learning is a dangerous thing;
      Drink deep,or taste not the Pierian spring:
      There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
      And drinking largely sobers us again.” etc etc.

      • Golam Arshad

        Good to have your comment! Keep on hitting square and you will hit the fence too!!

      • Sixth Sense

        Sorry, unable to accept your destructive suggestion. A sane person would never indulge in hitting a target without worthwhile reason as suggested by you. Anyway, many thanks for your response.

  14. AmiTumiShe

    Do you have any data on the approximate percentage of these crimes that go unreported in both these countries? If, say, 35% of rapes go unreported in S’pore, and the percentage of unreported raped in BD is 65%, the data you’ve presented needs to be interpreted differently.

    I’m a late-thirties woman who recently moved abroad for the first time. I’ve seen women here file complaints (and be taken seriously) about things like men touching them inappropriately. I’m sure, even here, not every woman does that. But woman at least have that choice. I’ve had men in the streets squeeze my buttocks and touch my breasts in full view, in broad daylight in Chandni Chawk, Ekushey Boi Mela, Banani Market, Mirpur — I could go on. Not once did I think of reporting these men; neither have I heard of anyone doing so. I’m sure the law exists; I also have a pretty clear idea of how the police would treat this if any woman (without ‘connections’) tries to file a police complaint. I bring this up to give a clearer idea that the gap between proportion of reported sexual assaults must be huge. Same goes for a lot of other everyday crimes. How many people who are mugged lodge a police case? I’d be curious. I’ve been mugged three times in Dhaka — I only tried to lodge a police case once, and the officer in question dissuaded me. He said they would never get my things back, and unless there was a ‘reason’ (which he explained as needing a police GD on file for official reasons-to show to reapply for a passport, academic documents, etc.) the hassle I would have to go through wouldn’t be worth it to me.

    What I think you’re failing to take into account is the environment that we live in (and I include myself, for a bare two years away I’m still Dhakaite, for my behaviour is still conditioned by my life there, whereas it sounds your behaviour is now conditioned by a life elsewhere) and its impact on everyday lives and psyches.

    In short, like your first article, this ‘rebuttal’ too, is short-sighted, arrogant, and totally fails to understand Dhaka-life lived every day.

    Oh, and last but not least, do you even begin to realize how offensive it is to all women that a man decides to lecture them on appropriate behaviour? They’ve come up with a term for that ‘mansplanation’. Until you begin to understand that you are speaking to ‘memsahibs’ in an extremely condescending tone and manner, you will not get anywhere. In which case, no matter how much you think that you’re on ‘our side’, you’re absolutely no different than a man who decides that women should wear burkhas to avoid street harassment. You, as a man, get to decide how we should behave. That’s what’s offensive, and no matter what your ‘choice’ of our behaviour is, it makes it no less offensive.

    At this point, you should just stop writing on this, and stop addressing Bangladeshi women at all, memsahibs or not. Like, seriously, just stop.

    • Mozammel Haque

      A tremendous experience you had in Dhaka.
      At one poit you wrote about putting over Burqa to guard feminine body.
      It is clearly written in the scripture to lower the gaze before advising about the Burqa.
      But it is only when there is order of the law in the society of muslim population.
      Though our Dhaka has it but there is no order of law.
      So I am bound to advocate the second advice.
      Please think over.
      Or whatever is done by a male is to be considered as the fate and some sin is pardoned to go to the heaven.
      That is also good.

  15. Sanam

    Dear Mr Kayes Ahmed,

    You took 10 days out of your vacation from Boulder, Colorado, to walk the streets of Dhaka and prove your point, that the “ghosts of uncontrolled crime in Dhaka are simply ghosts”? Gee, thanks so much. It’s totally comparable to how much the rest of us have gone through over the years.

    I am glad you read my response to “Memsahibs” part 1, because I want to remind you how I described in detail, that I have done more than you can ever hope for, to “take back your streets and your city” for nearly ten years. A woman walks in an entirely different environment than you do. Your genitalia automatically protect you from the sort of experience I am familiar with.

    I’ve walked in nearly every neighbourhood in Dhaka at widely varying hours of day and night: Moghbazar, Kawran Bazar, Rayerbazar, Tongi Bazar, it’s all on my Dhaka streetsmarts resume.

    Here is a sampling – not a complete list, by far – of a few of the words and experiences I want you to know about. And because I know there will be people who think women should try and ward off predators by being modest, rather than do something about the predators who think their behaviour is acceptable, I’ve also mentioned what I was wearing.

    – In Eskaton at noon, a bearded cleric walked past me and muttered “ha, dudh bair koira hato.” (“Yes, walk with your breasts out.”). I was wearing a panjabi-cut kameez with the orna in place. I remember that the orna was in place, because I always look at myself after one of these moments just to try to see what it was in my appearance that could possibly deserve this fate, and of course “orna thik koro magi!” is the chorus of the ballad of Woman Walking the Streets of Dhaka.

    – As I was getting off a bus one evening in Lalmatia, a man pinched my butt and quickly disappeared into the crowd. I was wearing a sari; my blouse had sleeves till my elbows.

    – One afternoon while I was walking in the roads near the Gulshan Post Office, two men on a motorcycle stopped right in front of me to say “Chudte koto?” (“How much to fuck?”). Astonished, and sure I had misheard, I asked “Ki?”, only to get, “Bujhos na? Chudte koto niba, magi?” (“Don’t you understand? How much to fuck, you whore?”). I was wearing a black short sleeved top with beige cargo pants and a carefully arranged orna hiding the shame of my breasts.
    I might add, I can dedicate a subsection to motorcyclists, because in my experience they are the worst predators. They take advantage of their vehicle to come up to women and then quickly drive off before anyone can attack them back.

    – In 2006, during Ramadan, as I made my way to the mobile phone repair shops in Eastern Plaza, I was accosted by a man who wanted to know whether or not I was fasting. Surprised, I asked him why. His angry response: “Apni ei dhoroner kapor rojar mashe porben na.” (“You shouldn’t wear these types of clothes during Ramadan.”) I was wearing a fatua and skinny jeans, and a thin cardigan to cover up my arms. He didn’t let me walk past him until we finished our angry argument, where I tried to tell him that it’s his job as a good Muslim not to look at anyone lecherously. I don’t see how I could have ruined his fast had he not chosen to look at me with that lens.

    – While walking to my workplace in Tejgaon at 11am in the morning, as I was crossing the road, a man forcefully squeezed my butt then made a run for it. He didn’t anticipate me running right after him and screaming my head off, gaining the attention of all of the commuters stuck in traffic, who all asked me what happened once I was outrun and had to resign to walking back and getting sympathetic headshakes from everyone who had seen my madwoman stunt.

    – As I stepped aside to let a man pass, he rubbed his arm into my breasts and then rushed off. This happened two days ago, in front of Rupayan Tower. I was wearing a high-collared fatua with trousers and an orna.

    – Last month a man pointed and gestured at my breasts as he walked past me – coincidentally, we were just a few metres away from the police station. That moment taught me that although I’d been through a lot of harassment, this time I had an experience that showed me harassment doesn’t even need words or physical contact. I was wearing a long sleeved shalwar kameez.

    – At the 2007 Ekushey Boi Mela, crushed in the Anyaprakash line with many other young men and women trying to get a copy of the latest Humayun Ahmed work, a young man decided to take advantage and squeeze the posteriors and breasts of many of us girls. Those outraged, enraged girls all shouted at him to stop and he wouldn’t. I decided it wasn’t good enough and scratched at his hand with my nails, tried to tear at his shirt. I gave up my place in line to follow that plaid shirt until I came across the nearest pair of policemen who were sitting and keeping an eye out, and told them this man had groped several of us. I could see the scratches on his hand that I had left. Yet, the policeman looked uncertain when the man denied he was the person who had harassed us, and took off once the policeman told him vaguely “Ei shob kaj koirena” (“Don’t do that sort of thing.”) I was wearing a long sleeved high collared short kameez with jeans.

    That last anecdote isn’t the only example of how the police have disappointed me. I want to finish with one final anecdote: what happens to me even when I’m in a car.

    In May 2011, I went to Asadgate to a friend’s house for dinner and birthday cake. Afterwards, the boys (the girls either lived on that side of town or were staying the night) very kindly offered to drop me home. (By the way, I can tell you that most of my male friends do admire my independence and courage, but are also humane, good people who always are ready to go a little out of their way to make sure I don’t have more stories to add to this list. They ask me when I plan to go somewhere and how. They let me know if they’re going somewhere in the neighbourhood and ask if a lift can help me in any way. I don’t think that makes a gilded cage for me. I can recognise it as genuine kindness and caring rather than patronisation or misogyny.)

    At 11:15pm, we were stopped at the police check point in Banani. We all had wanted to look good for our little dinner party; I was wearing a sari and two of the guys were in formal shirts and dress pants, while the third was wearing a Panjabi. We were separated and questioned in detail about our relationship to each other and why we were out late, what our studies were centred about, what our jobs were, what our parents did, whether our parents – particularly mine – knew we were out and approved of our goings on.

    This questioning lasted half an hour, towards the end of which, the police finally openly told us their suspicions: What kind of girl would be out with three young men? What did they plan to do with me, and where?

    I have done my best to come to terms with the police as well as men on the street calling me a whore. I try and ignore the hurts of these words, these abuses, and I make myself collect my courage again, EVERY DAY, so I can go out again and keep walking on these streets of Dhaka. Sometimes, it’s too much for me, and every couple of years, one day I’ll come home, wash off the grime of the city and its lechers, and I secretly let out some tears of anger and frustration. I never let anyone see them. I’ve never told anyone that I’ve learned all the curse words in the Bangla language from my years walking on the streets of Dhaka. Until I was 17, “kamina” and “shuor” were the worst insults I had ever heard. But you must think that my parents and grandparents gilded my cage by not educating me properly and teaching me that noun that I am most addressed by on the streets: “Magi” (“Whore”)

    Your second “Memsahib” post just tells me that you think either one of two things. Option one: these painful memories I have shared are a load of “hooey”, figments of my imagination and really, a few anecdotes don’t accurately match up with the pile of statistics you’ve stitched together. Or, option two: you think that my abuse is not really abuse at all, just the sort of inconsequential squeeze a secretary in the 60s in Colorado would disregard as part of life. After all, what I’ve described is not as bad as rape, for which you’ve found the statistics for. So what right have I to complain? I’ve been harassed and mugged once, but I haven’t actually been raped on the streets, right? I should feel safe with these new figures in my head!

    You are hurting me more than all those other men have, because you are condoning all of the things they have done to me. And since you condone the whole of it, it makes me want to make you the single villain to rage at. All because I haven’t been able to get the public or the state to try protect me on the streets of Dhaka, and now you are telling me to get over my imagined threats and go out there and reclaim this statistically very safe city.

    I know that you will never know my pain, nor, my humiliation, or my fear. Nor will you know how to summon my courage. There is no equivalent suffering that I can suggest for you to endure, for you to understand what I am going through, living here, with no Boulder, Colorado to retreat to. You won’t understand in this lifetime, in this world. I can only say, you and I will never be friends. If you were a considerate man, an intelligent man, or have any form of kindness inside of you, you wouldn’t wish for your sisters and daughters to go and reclaim these streets. Not like this.

    • Sixth Sense

      Thank you very much for sharing your views on the trash written by the man from Boulder,Colorado.

    • Rajeeb

      Dear Sanam,
      I feel, as a man, extremely ashamed and guilty to the core for what you have been through and what you (and many others) go through everyday being a female in this country. Of course I would never know your pain, humiliation and your fear, but being a part of the ‘minority’ I do know what it feels to be singled out and be discriminated against. I wish I could put an end to it and restore this already rotten society. But dear sister, this is not my struggle. This is for you to face and deal with. I can, unfortunately just be a supporter.

      This patriarchal society dominated by uneducated, prejudiced and morally corrupt men is the sole reason why you can’t walk on the streets. The only solution is to challenge this patriarchy…by reclaiming the streets, by going out there wearing whatever you prefer and by defending your honor. Of course this is not at all easy and the consequences can be dreadful, but isn’t this what change is all about? For every word you utter, for every action you take and for every step you take forward, things will just get better for the person following you.

      And you have already proved yourself to be a great change maker. I salute you for having the courage to write such an honest piece and for standing up to safeguard your honor. Please do not lose hope and please do not go back to the indoors. Reclaim the streets and you will find thousands of us walking beside you.

      • Golam Arshad

        Sanam: I respectfully note your concerns. Please understand, law is not enough to quell these acts of incivility, men and women should should condemn what is wrong and redress it with civic code of discipline,honor and dignity. In the ancient time Matriarchal Society prevailed, and subsequent transformation in the annal of civic responsibility and gender respect emerged… social taboos and prejudices still linger, but they are under the public domain of scan,and hold to be civilized. It is an ongoing process and it will keep on moving in twit and turn of heads in wrong and crime in punishment. Sanam I salute you, keep up your quest and add volume to your RIGHTS that affects ALL. Thanks!

    • Kayes

      Sanam, as I said before you write eloquently and you are informed by personal experiences. I am also informed by my personal experiences, but they are radically different. I cannot but give you kudos for having the courage to both live in Dhaka and loathe it all at the same time. My reality is different. If I loathe a place then I simply pick up and leave. I am lucky that I can do that. I understand that most people cannot do that. I respect your personal experiences and I cannot argue your worldview that is so well informed by personal experiences.

      My daughter Alex went around the world on her own. She bopped around Europe when she was 15 and she went around the world at 21 recently. I think she has had her share of sexist and predatory encounters. She says she has dealt with them and she is stronger for it. I respect her ability to deal with these adversities and still be a beautiful and hopeful human being. I think the key is to find a way to live and not let the fear of uglies get you to change your being. There will be uglies always. I want to thank you again for your cogent and informative posts. It is a privilege to know you through your writing.

      • Sanam

        I never said I loathe Dhaka. It’s where I’m from, where my family is from, and it’s my home no matter what. Just like parents are who they are and you will love them despite their flaws. That doesn’t mean you won’t recognise those faults, criticise them and try to change them for the better.

        When you say that you respect your daughter for being able to deal with “these adversities”, you can’t actually mean that you are happy that she did have those experiences. Why do you want her, me, and other women to suffer what we do suffer? You should be talking about how civil society can try to reform the police’s approach to this environment. You should write about how parents and teachers must make young men aware of how unacceptable this type of behaviour to women is. You should talk about why men look at us this way and what it is in our society’s thinking that makes it all right to walk up to a woman walking on the street and look her up and down as though she was a sample for your examination. Instead of saying “Go reclaim the streets!” and throwing us to the lions, you should think about how we can keep the lions out or declaw them so they can’t hurt us.

      • Kayes

        Sanam,I am actually very happy for Alex and very proud of her. Someone actually robbed her at gunpoint late at night. She was shaken but after all that she has come out with a centered view of life and all these has strengthened her. I am not sure I want her to go through these bad experiences. But, you have to deal with life as it is and not as you wish it to be. I can tell you Alex is far stronger than most people at any age and that is giving her a definite edge. Anyway, these are perspective issues and there is no one good answer. I enjoy your writing though.

    • Monsur Rab

      Sanam’s comment sums it up all. Our streets are hellholes and we citizens are hostages to the mastaans who run the show.

  16. Golam Arshad

    Kayes: A pull shot clearing the “Forbidden fence”. Memshahibs is not in danger! Statistics back up Dhaka as a safe place to walk around. Fight the Muggers when they charge, in group and stay safe !!

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