A thought about spreading the women’s empowerment movement in Bangladesh

Rukhshan Fahmi

Another year passes by as we joyfully celebrated International Women’s Day, uniting our voices to achieve gender equality by breaking biases. We vocalized quotations, presented statistics in forums that numerically presented the evidence of women empowerment in the past few years, portrayed success stories of women from various sectors of life. While we nudge fellow women to move forward down the path of empowerment, we come across many reluctant men folding their hands refusing to nudge.

For years, I tried to understand why and how this reluctance forms in the minds of men. I was introduced to a number of concepts like ‘patriarchy’, ‘masculinity’, ‘culture’, and ‘identity,’ but I was not satisfied with the answers and remained bothered. It bothered me that in spite of the rising literacy rates among both the male and female populations in my country, Bangladesh, there was this apathetic vibe about women empowerment that was also met with a rising number of cases of violence against women. In addition to physical violence, verbal bullying seems to have become a mode of entertainment for many men. As a victim of cyberbullying, I noticed that primary school educated men were bullying and condescending towards women empowerment movements. I began to wonder if the latest curriculums and reading materials in school were not enough to provoke thoughts in young minds to instill a practice of openness to women empowerment.

I recently went back through women empowerment and gender studies textbooks from my school days, this time not as a student facing exams, rather as a community member looking to learn. With this different sets of eyes, I found that the government of Bangladesh has designed a wonderful curriculum that not only focuses on women empowerment issues but also designed the testing and evaluation system in a way where the students must critically deduce a situation in base studies.

As fascinating as the system sounds, I came to realize that when applied, students were not encouraged to take it seriously. To the students, critical thinking became a practice of imagining impractical situations rather than analyzing practical contexts. I even approached a cousin of mine who is male and of a younger generation and realized he experienced the same issues with women empowerment curriculums in Bangladesh.

While talking we came to realize that the books may have lists of the causes and effects related to issues of women empowerment, but we hardly discussed these book chapters in our classrooms. There were guides but no guidance over the topic. It was typical for us to read passages while our teachers silently listened to us. This picture would solidify when the classes were conducted by teachers of opposite genders. We were scolded over our ‘imaginative explanations’ but hardly were we enlightened with a different perspective. As a result, we adolescents grew up to be clueless about the crux of women empowerment. For some it meant, ‘women earning money and the families having a luxurious life.’ Some thought, ‘violence against women meant “physical violence” only’ because that is the picture we saw in our books. There were little to no discussions or introductions around mental violence and trauma.

Did we feel betrayed by these teachers? Yes and no. No, because deep down we understood that as easy as it is to read about these topics in print and digital medias, it is equally hard to have discussions with one’s own relatives. Growing up in a conservative culture and a newly birthed country, we often remain confused and hesitant about sharing our stories with younger generations. We are often afraid of being judged, getting shamed by them, and losing the respect we inherited from them as an ‘entitlement for adults;’ however, this continued to perpetuate young men to continue to judge and mock women empowerment movements on social media such as the #MeToo movement or women empowerment stories in the media.

My project focuses on relying on channels of media to disperse behavior change communication (BCC) materials to promote health care seeking behavior among parents of children with hydrocephalus. During the initial phase of the project, I noticed that many of the BCC materials primarily addressed encouraging mothers to make decisions about their child’s health seeking practices at medical facilities. Some wonderful approaches that struggled because the patriarchal society of Bangladesh was not yet ready to embrace those. This is why I hope to equally focus on both parents to nudge them to participate about their child’s decision-making in my BCC materials.

Of course, I do not mean change the whole nation’s idea with my materials. Because no matter how much we push men, the chain of thoughts remains indestructible unless my fellow women share their deepest feelings candidly with their sons, young brothers, and even grandsons. It can be during the evening coffee or during a chitchat. Indeed, it will be a hard step, but it would not be much harder than the accomplishments each woman around the world achieves every day. Women empowerment is very important and can change the world, but the steppingstone to that far away goal is giving proper respect to women. And that can be possible if we just put our phones and jokes aside and ask our moms, sisters, and grandmas, ‘Tell me how you felt about it as a woman?’