Stop sending them back!

July 10, 2012

by Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was published on the Jun 28, 2012 issue of the  New Age]

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu — the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our inter-connectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality ‘Ubuntu’ — you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
Bishop Desmond Tutu (2008)

OUR xenophobia is reflected in the words we use — ‘malus’ to talk about Indians or Hindus, ‘mauras’ to talk about Urdu-speaking communities in Bangladesh, ‘chinkus’ to talk about indigenous communities, ‘phiringee’ to talk about Christians, and so on. Anyone who is slightly different from us needs a name that is derogatory and we put all our venom and spite into the name and spit it out. And this spite does not stop with national, religious or ethnic identities. We also pick on our other favourite targets — the gender minorities. The hijras have many names, effeminate men are referred to as ‘half ladies’, homosexual men don’t need names because they can just be beaten up in public, and then there are the women, who have many different names, we can pick and choose from the various terms to harass them on the streets, abuse them inside the homes or publicly humiliate and torture them and justify it using the convenient term ‘fatwa’. Let’s face it, we are a pretty intolerant society. If you don’t fit into the majoritarian formula you better watch out! Read the rest of this entry »


Kalpana and the Jumma women’s movement today

June 16, 2012

Hana Shams Ahmed

[A shortened version of this piece was published in the Kalpana Chakma Special page on 12 June 2012, New Age]

Feminist researcher Bina D’Costa and I were recently discussing a range of obstacles faced by the Jumma[1] women’s movement as well as all indigenous women’s movement today. D’Costa observed that one of the challenges that confront women’s political activism and rights based movements is to forge meaningful alliances and re-build linkages with indigenous human rights and women’s groups that the latter could also embrace as their own. Although in recent years a lot of mainstream Bengali women’s rights activists have spoken out about violence against indigenous women, there are still some communities, like the tea plantation workers and Saotal and Khasi women, whose issues have only been very sparsely addressed. And this is reflected in a lot of the national and international reporting on women’s rights.

The other side of this is of course how the indigenous leadership, including women leaders, has persistently failed to include women’s voices in high level forums. This year, despite the increasing number of cases of violence against women and girls in the indigenous areas in Dinajpur and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, there were no indigenous women representing at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). Also, of course the debate is much larger than the Forum itself. It is just a symptom of the crisis in the women’s movement, a crisis that plagues all nationalist or even issue-based movements. It reminds me about how some men, demonstrating for their own democratic rights at Tahrir Square during the  ‘Arab Spring’, had swooped on women journalists and sexually assaulted them, about how, questions about race and gender marginalization continue to be raised at present in America’s Occupy Wall Street movement. Read the rest of this entry »

The ‘Indigenous’ Experiment

February 16, 2012

Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was published in the February 2012 issue of the Forum magazine, The Daily Star]


Photo: Mahmudul Hasan


The nation as understood by the nationalist, is a substitute god, nationalism of this sort might be called ethnolatry.” – Hugh Seton-Watson (Nations and States, An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism)

Ever since I started working with indigenous peoples’ rights activists, I have come to expect a broad range of reactions when I talk about my work — from a very blank look to one of complete contempt and a list of reasons why the activists are doing barabari (overindulging) about issues that go against the state.

Why advocating for the rights of people who are citizens of the same country equates to ‘anti-state’ activities is anyone’s guess. But anyone who thought that Bengalis, after having struggled for the right to self-determination based on their ethnic and linguistic identities from the start of Partition until the birth of Bangladesh, have learned to treat the minorities of the new country with special care and understanding, has been completely wrong. And the very government that has always promised to bring harmony in ethnic relations and respect, and to ensure the rights of minorities with swanky peace accords, election manifestos, UNESCO awards, and cravings for Nobel prizes, has in fact been doing the exact opposite. Read the rest of this entry »

Rumanas, and Why they Stay

July 6, 2011

Rumana Monzur Hema, Photo credit: UBC

Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was published in the July 2011 issue of The Forum magazine, The Daily Star]

When Zobaida Nasreen called me up to tell me what had happened to Rumana, I was on a busy street in Dhanmondi and I thought I had heard her wrong. I kept asking her to repeat. She must be talking about someone else, I thought.
But she wasn’t.

It was Rumana Monzur Hema, one of my childhood friends with whom I had intermittent interactions after we grew up and finally reunited last year when her daughter was admitted to the same school as my son.

When I heard about what her husband did to her I was in disbelief and shock.

We had looked up to her as the girl who always came out either first or second in her class. She had come out First in her Masters finals from the International Relations department of Dhaka University and had started teaching right away. Last year she was elated when she won a scholarship to the University of British Columbia. She had been unsure whether to take her four-year-old daughter Anushe with her. In the end she decided to leave her daughter with her mother.

She never discussed what was going on between Sumon and her. He was a graduate engineer who was involved in some business, that’s all we knew.

And that’s why the brutality of the story along with the identity of the victim seemed overwhelmingly unbelievable.

Eyes gouged out. Nose bitten off. Lip bitten off. Dragged by the hair and attempted to be strangled. Saved by maids with an extra key to the room. Of course we presume that if a so-called ’emancipated’ woman is threatened with abuse, she would have the support mechanism to walk out of that marriage, that she would not care what her family and relatives or those meddlesome people in our society say, that if she is financially independent she did not have to worry about her and her children’s future.

All those assumptions and presumptions fell apart when we heard the sadistic brutality of what happened in Rumana’s room on June 5, 2011. Read the rest of this entry »

Disregarding the Jumma

June 17, 2011

Andrea Carmen, Director, International Indian Treaty Council speaking at a rally for the implementation of the 1997 CHT Accord outside the United Nations during the 10th session of the UN Permanent Forum. Photo by: Ben Powless

The Bangladesh government’s continued failure to protect its indigenous peoples has forced them to seek international help. 

Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was published in the Web Exclusive of Himal Southasian on 15 June, 2011 and shorter version for Himal magazine was published in its July, 2011 issue]

This year, Bangladesh was a subject of heated discussion at the tenth session, held between 16-27 May, of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). The starting point was a report commissioned by the Permanent Forum.  Written by former member of the Permanent Forum Lars-Anders Baer, who went to Bangladesh last year as a Special Rapporteur, the report entitled ‘Study on the status of implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997’ received statements of solidarity from the delegates.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.
Read the rest of this entry »

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.]


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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