Fighting sexual harassment head-on

April 4, 2011

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Hana Shams Ahmed
[This article was published in the 20th Anniversary special issue of The Daily Star in March 2011]

Sometimes a comment from a perfect stranger can have a profound effect on a person’s life. When I was about 13 years old one such comment was made over the phone to my parents. The caller was anonymous and told my father that if I continued to wear ‘western’ clothes in public I would be stripped of my clothes and paraded naked in public. When my mother told me about this caller, her tone never indicated that this was a wrong being done to me, that I should not let something like this bother me, and that they would protect me from such harassment. My father’s complete silence on the matter spoke louder than words. I remember having felt that I had brought shame to my family and my mother followed up by becoming more vigilant about the way I dressed outside. As part of the bhodro middle class, I was powerless to resist at that age. That was almost two decades ago.
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Multiple forms of discrimination experienced by indigenous women from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) within the nationalist framework

April 4, 2011

Hana Shams Ahmed
[This paper was presented at a consultation with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Ms. Rashida Manjoo. The consultation was arranged by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) in Kuala Lumpur in January, 2011.]

Introduction

To understand the discrimination faced by indigenous women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), it is very important to understand the geopolitical background of the CHT in the larger context of the Bangali Muslim majority of Bangladesh. Pahari women are among the most marginalized and vulnerable groups of people in Bangladeshi society. They live as quadruple minorities under present social and political institutions. In a patriarchal and male-dominated society, they are a gender minority. In a Muslim-dominated country they are a religious minority. In a nationalist, Bangali-dominated society they are an ethnic minority. Within their own patriarchal community they face marginalization, exploitation, and increasingly, violence. A strong political movement exists to resist these multiple marginalization, but it has not been able to create enough resonance within the wider political structure.

This paper looks at the various sources of discrimination and violence faced by the indigenous women living in the CHT and looks at how and why the indifference from the state and the majority civil society further detaches them from the mainstream women’s movement in Bangladesh. Society and the infusion of religion into societal norms already play a huge role in the discrimination and marginalization of the majority Bangali women. In a Muslim majority Bangali society, indigenous women have a further factor of violence against them. Discriminatory family laws, along with discriminatory national laws, add a new dimension and further marginalize women within their own communities. Militarization and the presence of Bangali settlers have been terrorizing Pahari women since the beginning of the insurgency. The insurgency is over but CHT still remains fully militarized and the politically motivated violence against women still continues.

The information for the paper was collected through secondary documents and a series of interviews with grass-roots level women activists in the CHT, activists involved with NGOs and Pahari political groups and Pahari men and women lawyers.

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