Feature Img
21 February celebration at the Shaheed Minar.
21 February celebration at the Shaheed Minar.

This weekend, Bangladesh celebrated Language Martyr’s Day once again. The holiday is one of my favourites – a celebration of the genuinely beautiful thing that brought me to Bangladesh in the first place. Yet I am too afraid to celebrate.

In 2011, I came to Dhaka on a scholarship for ten weeks of intensive Bangla-language study. In 2012, I returned for another ten-week round at the same institute, this time under a Fulbright fellowship. For those five months, I studied Bangla up to 70 hours a week, finally attaining an “advanced low” ranking on an international exam. The experience altered my brain – stretching and reshaping the way I think about words, a boon to any writer.

It spoke to my heart, too – I realised that the institute was sharing an essential component of the national character and ethnic identity. The window they provided into the Bangla language showed a rich history: Nazrul Islam, Rabindranath Tagore, and the fierce, victorious bhasha andolon. I had wished to come to another country and speak the local language, rather than asking others to speak my own. I thought of this as a kind of eradication of destructive colonialism – perfectly in key with the Language Movement’s dreams of an independent nation. I realised that my Bangla education was a tremendous privilege toward that goal.

Along with my gratitude though, was deep concern. Over time, it made me stop speaking Bangla entirely. It was simple, in the end: it feels too unsafe.

To learn a foreign language as an adult isn’t easy. Arriving in Dhaka at age 28, I found myself a young child again, slowly copying each new letter and conjunct, speaking in telegraphic two-word sentences. It was hard, error-prone work. The raw focus wasn’t the hard part though, nor the humility the effort imposed. The problem was hostility.

“Everything you say sounds like a joke,” a colleague once said about my accent. Another time, a family friend interrupted me to snap, “When you speak Bangla, it sounds like you’re speaking Russian.”

“That’s Polish, get it right,” I nearly yelled back, hearing the voices of my Polish-speaking grandparents echoing in my mind. I didn’t say it. But his xenophobia made my exhausting effort to learn the language feel pointless, even self-destructive. It hurt.

Every foreigner faces that though, and not just in Bangladesh. Hari Kondabolu, an American comedian whose parents emigrated from South Asia, says, “It’s hard having an accent in this country” (meaning the US).

“When maybe my father says something and he walks away, the idea that people are laughing because what he said is funny to them because of how he sounds crushed me.” My colleague and family friend are members of a worldwide tribe of language-policing jerks.

But if ridicule was the only problem, it probably wouldn’t stop my speaking Bangla. In fact, I would celebrate Language Day in defiance. As it is though, there’s no joy to be had.

“If I speak Bangla,” I once said to a Bengali man I trusted, “I think men here will treat me very badly.”

“Yes, they will,” he said looking grave. A moment of silence hung between us, and I realised that my gut sense was right. The problem isn’t just a disdain for accents.

The people who ridiculed my accent were male. Both also sexually harassed me. One felt entitled to say rude things about my body, although he stands out mainly for giving a sinister smile when rape was mentioned in a professional conversation and saying, “That happens to every woman here,” as though raping women delighted him. It made me feel like vomiting.

The other one – the “friend” who barked that I sounded Russian – sent me pornography by email, horrifying me. (To think of it now literally makes my heart hurt.) Angry that I refused to submit to his degrading demands, he later verbally abused me so ferociously that I nearly called the police on him.

This second man was the grown son of a winner of the Ekushe Padak. The award honours elites, but also commemorate martyrs who preserved the richness of the Bangla language at great cost to themselves. It represents the same feeling of respect I had when I began studying Bangla. But my willingness to try to live in Bangladesh and function in its language meant that the inheritor of this tradition felt entitled to insult and harass me, as though cruelty was the birthright of Bangladeshi men. I felt scared, but also crushed at how he dishonoured his good father.

Both those guys weren’t the worst of it though. That came at the Bangla Language Institute.

On the first day of class in 2012, I worked with an instructor one-on-one. (All the other students were learning how to read; I had been there before, and already knew how.) Together, we read an essay he’d written about rural Bangladesh. It was a litany of difficulties — the woman in the story waited on males from daybreak to midnight, serving them food while going hungry herself. In the first paragraph, a sentence translated as “Even though the husband and the wife work equally hard, the woman has all of the responsibilities.” I asked what that meant, hoping I was failing to understand the words. But the teacher looked startled, muttered, and then admitted the sentence made no logical sense. He seemed to have failed to notice the full extent of the gender imbalance. His smile was strained, yet ominous.

It never got better. The teacher used lessons every week to present information about women being abused. When the class schedule mentioned “politics,” it meant a news story about a girl being shot. When it said we’d learn about tribal culture, he presented an article about tribal women being beaten.

“What do we know about women in Bangladesh?” he asked in that class.

“Basically nothing,” I replied.

I didn’t mean to say that I disbelieved the article. I’d found World Health Organization data saying nearly half of Bangladeshi women had experienced violent victimisation (tribal women included). I knew that there was overwhelming, long-running evidence of sexism and violence towards women here. What I could not understand was my Bengali teacher’s insistence on always speaking of women as victims of violence – and nothing else. The complexity of Bangladeshi female lives was flattened to nothing but rapes and beatings – an incredibly ugly picture of the country and a disservice to women in itself.

If he meant to speak out against that, he failed. He openly favoured the sole male student. He ignored women’s questions. I asked him not to force us to discuss violence; the next week, he deliberately wrote it into our exam. Later, after the course ended, he stalked me, creepily contacting me repeatedly by Facebook, LinkedIn, e-mail, and phone.

“Bangla-speaking women are treated badly,” his actions announced. “See, just like I’m treating you badly right now.”

“He is very patriarchal,” his supervisor acknowledged. He’d harassed another female student until she cried, she said. She also apologised for remarks he’d made that all white people should be forced to leave the country.

When I suggested at the end of the course that this teacher’s contract not be renewed, the director agreed. But then the institute rehired him. His privilege of abusing women, it seemed, was more important than their actual mission of advancing Bangla language.

The way these people behaved shaped my response to the whole nation. People ask why I say that extreme retribution towards Islamists isn’t a good idea. In part, it is because I believe the ongoing hartals, oborodhs, and counter-protests are entrenched destruction with no clear endpoint, and that revenge won’t help anything.

But I also know that people who support the ethnic nationalism and oppose Jamaatis are no saints. They will scream for grisly revenge against their enemies, but asking them to behave in kind ways towards their allies is often a waste of time. There is so much xenophobia and misogyny embedded in the culture that ethnic nationalists claim to defend that I can barely access it at all. To speak in terms of support for one side or another is not to make a moral choice; it is to choose between shadings of the same toxic hatred. It is to ask if I prefer the second-degree burn or third-degree burn, and then give both anyway.

There is a saying that a person will cry when they come to Bangladesh and cry again when they leave, first out of sadness over poverty, and then for love for the people. But I came to Bangladesh with hope, respect, and commitment to learning Bangla, and I left feeling so hated, endangered, and alienated that I could not bear to hear or read the language.

On this Language Day, I looked at my old Bangla books and felt pain, for foreign learners and for the language martyrs. I still can’t pick up those books.

“My father should be judged based on the content of his words and not the accent that comes with it,” Hari Kondabolu says. People like me should be allowed to speak too without being ridiculed, harassed, or harmed – and by that I mean all women, most of all, the ones living through violence in Bangladesh right now. I think my heart broke so badly in Bangladesh that I may never have the strength to return. I pray for women for whom it is home. For them, I hope common decency grows there.

Until that happens, we all might as well be speaking Urdu.

Sophia Newman, MPH, is a freelance writer. She completed a Fulbright fellowship in Bangladesh in 2013, and is currently reporting in Africa.

14 Responses to “A reflection on Language Day”

  1. Motiul Islam

    Ms. Sohia : “But I also know that people who support the ethnic nationalism and “oppose Jamaatis are no saints.” They will scream for grisly revenge against their enemies, but asking them to behave in kind ways towards their allies is often a waste of time. There is so much xenophobia and misogyny embedded in the culture that ethnic nationalists claim to defend that I can barely access it at all. To speak in terms of support for one side or another is not to make a moral choice; it is to choose between shadings of the same toxic hatred. It is to ask if I prefer the second-degree burn or third-degree burn, and then give both anyway.” You whole paragraph is outrageous! We express our strong resentment against your stance in favour of Jamaati demons. Your several past articles tentamounted to supporting this way or that way the Jamaati war criminals! To you : capital punishment is gruesome for them and you boldly uttered this word many times in the past. We protested in strongest language about your standing-point in those times putting forward our valid reasons. Every times, you then fled away!

    Many commentators have considered the Jamaati war criminals as miscreants, criminals, griffins, sub-humans and so forth and you are in the know of it very well. If we hang each Jamaati war criminal 100 times, that will be too low of punishment for him/them because of the magnitude of crimes they committed in 1971. These were all horrible! We, all are students here and many of our near and dear ones were brutally murdered, gang-raped, burnt alive, etc. by these griffins. It is not, all, hatred that you are propagating; it is to punish the worst genocide committers; if you want love Bangladesh, please refrain from making such unwanted, unwarranted and most undesirable sermons to us. But it is very unfortunate and extremely sad that we still hear your sermons like : “But I also know that people who support the ethnic nationalism and “oppose Jamaatis are no saints.” Who has given you this authority to say so? Who are you to say so?

  2. Jyoti

    Sophia might have made a point until she decided to rub Urdu on everyone’s face. I mean seriously, since you dedicated 5 months of your time to learn Bangla & has decided to post this article of Ekushey February, you had to go that route, no?

    Someone tired to glorify your line as a honest judgement, wow. I’m glad you’re far away & have decided to not come back. Since, Urdu seems to be way to go until we have more right & respect for woman in Bangladesh, I hope you ‘re planning to be in Pakistan to learn Urdu.

    Best wishes.

  3. Khan

    I do not think it is due to the Bangla language. Bengalies live in West Bengal as well but you will never hear anything like this from that side. In BD some of the Bengalies have made Bengali language much higher than everything. The have created “Bangla Mosque” in the shape of Shahid Minar, they have created “Bangla Democracy” in the shape of Bangla nationalism. Even they have ethnically cleansed BD with Urdu speaking people by killing and raping their women. They are disgrace for their language. They have fabricated a lot of stories to justify their hatred and bias against others. They are the only narrow minded among all groups in the subcontinent and these people one day will sink BD in real darkness with their bias and narrow-mindedness.

  4. Shahzad

    In the last line, the author of the article has rightly insinuated that
    we are indeed no different to Urdu-speaking Pakistanis when
    it comes to misogyny and attitudes to women inspite of our
    chest-thumping, ‘superiority’ in these matters based on language
    and culture. It may hurt but it is the truth. As Bangladeshis we have a
    lot of introspection to do.

  5. RA

    Actually i didn’t read a word that she wrote. Wrote the comment seeing only the title. Sorry. You on the other-hand seem to have devoured every word this American with tobacco stained yellow teeth wrote! To get the meaning of your English words i need a dictionary. I use colloquial English. Sorry to get you so emotional….Take it easy…lighten up!

  6. Yeshim Iqbal

    Dear Sophia Newman,

    I clicked on your article with enthusiasm to read someone’s reflection on Language Day. As a Bangladeshi woman currently living in New York, it is always a little sad when these Days roll around, and I see pictures of my mother and sisters back home, taking flowers to the Shaheed Minar in their black and white saris.
    It is unfortunate that your experience learning Bangla was not one where all Bangladeshis embraced you with joy and enthusiasm, as it seems you expected. It is also certainly unfortunate that you experienced misogyny and sexism in Bangladesh. I should perhaps be clear about this point: I am a woman who has lived in both the United States and in Bangladesh, and the fight against sexism is one that I experience keenly every single day; I will not, ever, endorse this behavior, and I hope that nothing I say is interpreted in that way.
    For purposes of this response, however, I choose to identify with these Bangladeshis that you describe with such passionate anger. I am not quite so foolish as to liken myself to you, all women under God, as if that would assist either of us in our struggle. Reading your article, I feel no empathy, no commiseration, and no understanding, whether or not I have experienced all the things you list myself. The slightest familiarity with the history of the feminist movement informs me of the difference with which you and I experience these issues. The slightest familiarity with the history of British and American colonialism informs me of why you might think the way you do. I quote you, “There is so much xenophobia and misogyny embedded in the culture that ethnic nationalists claim to defend that I can barely access it at all. To speak in terms of support for one side or another is not to make a moral choice; it is to choose between shadings of the same toxic hatred.” You arrive in our country, accuse us of xenophobia and toxic hatred, and continue to wonder why we did not embrace you with open arms? You describe some of us as “screaming for grisly revenge against their enemies” – I imagine you refer to the Shahbag movement, where those of us whose parents were murdered and raped demanded that the criminals be brought to trial – you speak of us in this way, and you wonder why you feel bitter upon leaving our country?
    Hari Kondabolu is an Indian-American comedian, and he is loud and proud about white people and their inherently colonialist attitudes (He is careful to point out that some white people are okay. The others, he suggested in a recent show at NYU, we should refer to as “white demons”, to always be clear who we are talking about).
    I quote him, “The theme of my set tonight will be colonialism. Which is why I will be speaking only in English.”
    I believe this would have been an apt title for your article.
    You mention that you pray for women for whom Bangladesh is home. Well, that is me, and my mother, is it not? Thanks for praying for us. However, I request, kindly, that you take your prayers back to U.S., where they will be welcomed. We Bangladeshis, misogynistic, xenophobic, full of toxic hatred, screaming for grisly revenge, second and third degree burned, do not need your prayers any more than we needed the British before 1947. Take your prayers to Ferguson, take them to Chapel Hill. Are your prayers especially for women? Take them to the women who make 72 cents to the man’s dollar, to the women who have no maternity leave, to the women killed by intimate partner gun violence.
    You end your article by saying “we all might as well be speaking Urdu.” This is probably terribly xenophobic of me to say, but I doubt you will ever be able to realize how deeply offensive this is to read. Perhaps that’s why you wrote it – you want a reaction. It is difficult to respect someone who writes with such a profound ignorance and lack of respect for people around them. I may have entertained your argument, momentarily. But that last line? You shut me off completely.
    This is the only time I will respond to your writing. I wanted to let you know how I felt. However, I will no longer be reading any of your pieces. It’s too small of a battle.

    -Yeshim iqbal

    • msn

      Wow. Moving to Bangladesh and devoting five months of intensive effort to learning Bangla, with the intention of avoiding speaking a colonial language to you isn’t enough for me to avoid the epithet “white devil”?! What would be enough? Passively endure men sexually harassing and silencing me, apparently. Yeah, no thanks.

      And you want to lecture for saying Bangladeshi people are unpleasant… Really, you seem pissed off that other people’s abusive behaviour reflects so badly on your country. But the people who speak up for safety aren’t the problem. The people who like rape and porn and violence are the problem. I’m on your side: I’d rather experience the nation upholding its liberation ideals. I’d rather be speaking Bangla. I’d rather we all be safe.

      But you’re busy with victim blaming. And you have no empathy – you said that yourself. You’re never going to part of a solution.

      I’m disappointed in you, Yeshmin.

    • Nusrat

      Aree bapre bap! Why give such a strong reply to her when you are an immigrant in her country USA? You attacked this young woman very personally. Dorkar chilona. I tend to agree with Newman about a lot of the things she pointed out. It should be obvious to any intelligent person that she had a lot of dream when she first acme to Bangladesh and from then on everything got crushed and she ended up having a horrible experience. She shouldn’t have come back the second time around to see obscene Bengali men giving our country a bad name. Who cares about what Hari says in his jokes? Since when do we take stand up comedians seriously? Here is a woman who experienced firsthand the vile nature of banglai men when she was in her host country. Sending porn via emails is totally uncool and only uncouth coward people with sick minds do such things and why wouldn’t she be grossed out by it? How would you feel if the shoe was on the other foot? Think seriously about a response and reply back to me, if you have the guts. I dare you. You sound like a all girls’ school headmistress. Bangla men have to suppress their sexual fantasies because of shomaj and if they approach any bangali girl with such vulgar propositions they will get caned. So they prey on vulnerable foreign women to paly on their fantasy thinking they are easy. That is disgusting. When the two guys didn’t get their wish, they resorted to verbal abuse which is even worse. Those guys and people like them should be castrated if you want to keep the image of Bangladesh clean as a hospitable country. To you yeshim my final words are get off your high horse! Only thing I agree with you is that the ‘urdu’ comment wasn’t necessary.

    • Sabrina

      Hi Yeshim,

      Whoa – a very loaded response. Other than being a Bangladeshi-American, who was born and raised in Bangladesh, who also served as a Fulbrighter alongside Sophia (the same year – 2013 – boy aren’t I glad it’s over!), I really don’t have much of any qualification to talk about this. Ok, well, let’s see – I went to a Bangla medium school, took the SSC in Bangladesh, worked with madressa kids (the kids that are not even considered part of the fabric of the civil society of Bangladesh), grew up in a household that was, well, not exactly rich. (I thought personal background might be relevant and hence sharing.)

      However, I did want to mention that please don’t make any assumption about whether or not Sophia was referring to the Shahbag crowd.

      While, Sophia and I had a few hang-out sessions during our year there, this writing was eye-opening for me because I know how much Sophia had tried, very sincerely, might I add, to be a part of the country and culture. It was me, the Bengali-born-head-scarf-wearing-Muslim (often called Jamati)-hence-readily-deemed-uneducated/callous who had a heck lot harder time to get over the hate I had experienced in my daily life.

      The reason I feel the need to defend Sophia is because I think I have seen her struggle and frustrations and she’s far from the person you may have pictured her to be.

      All I had to say is this – Bangladesh was hard for all of us that year – regardless of our attitude. We all went with great expectations. I personally went back to go “home”. Little did I know that my home looked down upon people like me (people that had headscarves on, or looked for places to pray), people that did not have access to high-flying politicians or leaders or business tycoons. And, it was hard on my “real-American” (I don’t know how else to put it) counterparts in myriad different ways.

      Either way, I just thought I would just share a little bit of info about the author and our collective battle in general.

      I do agree that the last sentence was hugely offensive; but, I am glad to get a real peek into Sophia’s real feelings though. Because, this kind of honesty had never come out in our conversations before. Honestly, I was a bit shocked to see that coming from her. However, I would much rather be offended and hear the real truth than hear sugar-coated things. Bitter truth helps us identify an issue.

      All the best,
      Sabrina Khan

      P.S. We all need prayers. If someone says, “I will pray for you”, to me it’s an honor. In my most intimate conversation with God (again, I am not saying anyone has to believe in God; I am only talking about my own faith), if I make room for another person, or entity or a country in that conversation, that matter has to be really special. So, yeah, if I were Bangladesh, or in Bangladesh or anywhere else, I would take all the prayers and good-wishes I can get. 🙂

      P.P.S. I am avid fan of your dad’s writing. Well, used to be. I don’t really follow much about Bangladesh anymore. It hurts.

      • MSN

        Dear Sabrina,

        Thank you for this thoughtful and heartfelt message. Of course I keep you in my prayers specifically along with the many people in Bangladesh whose well-being I find so compelling. I try to keep this different from just plain worrying. Sometimes I fail.

        Yes, it was very difficult. I think that no matter how old I grow, in a certain place in my heart I am forever standing in Rana Plaza looking at a dead woman. There was a lot of nasty behavior — much more than is written here. By that one time during Ramandan when you mentioned that learning Bangla better just meant hearing more verbal abuse, Sabrina, I already basically knew it. I was too discouraged to say what was already happening to me.

        That’s not a reason to accept sexual harassment or violence, though — although I’ve heard people attempt to justify silence on those very grounds. And there’s definitely not a reason to give it all up as hopeless. Many of the problems in Bangladesh are solvable. And I agree with you: honesty is the first, essential step.

        Thank you and God bless,

    • Nishat Shama

      When I read the article, I was tempted to close the tab with disgust and fury, but Yeshim Iqbal’s comment calmed me down a bit. Now when I am going through all the counter arguments of that comment, I couldn’t help but post a reply here.

      I won’t talk about how much the author offended me as a Bangladeshi. I would rather talk about all the feminist views which are shared here.
      The author despises Bangla because Bengali men sexually assaulted her. To those who are saying Yeshim Iqbal is blaming the victim here, let me break this to you, it’s not Bangla the language that gave the men the privilege to a assault a woman, it’s patriarchy. You people might not be aware of it, but this patriarchy is all over the world, including the place where this author lives. Violence against women doesn’t only occur in Bangladesh, but all over the world, women get like raped and murdered, suffer from domestic abuse, go through process like vaginal mutilation. So when Sophia Newman says she despises our culture and language for the abuses she had to face, she is either ignorant about patriarchy all over the world or deliberately trying to insult the people here.

      According to Sophia Newman, people who support the ethnic nationalism and oppose Jamaatis are no saints. She would rather get the third degree burn than the second, therefore she would rather want the country to be ruled by a party that refuse to give women the right of even to go outside. That really is very much related to her worries about the women of Bangladesh [sarcasm]. Finally the author goes like “we all might as well be speaking Urdu.” Again, I won’t be talking about the rage I felt as a Bangladeshi reading that line. As I said before, it’s not the fault of the language, but if she really wants to compare the patriarchal cultures of these two countries, here it goes from a feminist point of view: In one hand, she is talking about how much she is worried about the women in Bangladesh, in the other hand, she thinks it’s better to speak in a language of the people who raped 0.2 million women in Bangladesh? She prefers a language of a country that punishes women for being raped, that has one of the highest rate of honor killing of women in the world? Such symbol of feminism that was.

      I sympathize anyone who had to face any kind of sexual assault, therefore I sympathize the author too. However, blaming our language, showing support towards an anti-feminism, anti-liberation party and insulting our liberation war is not a way to protest against sexism and assault. If her intention was to degrade our country, feminism was just a mean for her, not her ideology. Or, she is really very ignorant about the patriarchal system of the whole world.

      • MSN

        Hey, it sounds like you’ve got a logical fallacy going there. The point of the article is to say that misogyny I experienced was so severe that it interfered with my efforts to learn the language, even though I really wanted to and tried to. The loss of this opportunity happened through rude comments and threats, but also through highly inappropriate, degrading language instruction and through literal refusals to let me speak.

        I’m saying that, in this case, the outcome of sexism is the destruction of language learning. In other cases — which many women in Bangladesh and everywhere know quite well — the negative outcomes are financial, emotional, physical, etc. The underlying threads are sexism and abusive behavior.

        And yeah, if you would want me to be an ally to you in some political situations based on a political ideal, you’d have to maintain some kind of minimum level of welcome or human decency that reflects that ideal. If you want me to see you as upstanding and trustworthy, you can’t do creepy, untrustworthy things. This kind of minimum decency would mean, for instance, not casually telling me how you like to rape people like me. That sort of thing. Seems kinda basic, actually.

        You can be as much of an ethnic nationalist as you want to be. I’m just saying behaving with cruelty while you do it effectively defiles the ideals you claim to stand for. It’s a bad idea on its own terms, too. So, you know, be nice.

  7. RA

    Oh again another foreigner writing & reminiscing about Ekushey as if they own Bangla language! What is wrong with this picture here? Why hasn’t Afsan Chowdhury dashed out a column on this solemn occasion? He gets to have a lot to say about the coming of Spring and so forth but i am appalled to see none of the so called dedicated journalists didn’t pen down a single column here. Where is the spirit? Is the current political climate making you all muted of feelings & the right expressions? Come on guys…you need to go with the flow. Newman should have married some Bangla guy & settle down in Bangladesh. Still not too late to come back if that is what you fancy. You will look great wearing a tater sari! Ha ha. Not!

    • Sajid Sarker

      Ms Rumana, unfortunately I have a feeling Ms Newman would prefer to avoid our country due to the unwelcoming xenophobic knee-jerk reactions Bengalis such as yourself resort to proliferating, as she mentioned clearly in her writing (had you paid attention). As a member of a more world-weary and globally conscious generation, I feel just as unwelcome among inheritors of the language and culture you profess is sacrosanct from the critique of ‘foreigners.’ That is a better takeaway than the endemic nature of sexism in all societies.

      Mr Francis wrote earlier in praise, because is Bangla solely for Bengalis and unworthy of foreign appreciation? Your comments have a selfish malaise to them. I would perhaps derive more pleasure from a nuanced write-up coming from you on here.

      Would you like my reflection for Ekushey? We have inherited a culture as any other, warts and all, of which we are both ashamed and critical of and ebullient and proud of, with fervent nationalism serving only to elevate the status of Bangla, and nothing else favourable in our culture. Ekushey is forever entrenched in the past as though a brief movement in our history with a clarity of vision and direction that our country has not held on to in its inevitable politics and progress. We strive to move on, and yet we flounder.

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