I like to think of myself as a person who is culturally appropriate, widely accepting of many different aspects of culture – and while I may not agree with everything, at least I am able understand that different cultures have different customs, traditions and beliefs. However, Bangladesh has challenged a lot of what I believe about the way I react to different cultural practices. A lot of people have asked me what Bangladesh, specifically living in Bangladesh, is like, and in unsurprising, idealistically positive, “typical kate” fashion, I usually say that it’s different, and challenging at times, but overall wonderful and positive — people are extremely hospitable and excited to share their country with us. None of that is untrue, but there are certain characteristics of Bangladeshi culture that have recently overshadowed many of the good aspects of living here. Much of this recent attainment of my saturation point is due to being overworked and stressed, working under a great responsibility to get our students to an adequate level of English to continue onto university. It hit me, when I was sitting in the airport coming back from Dubai with 3 of our students on April 1st that, for the first time, the stress of work was infiltrating my impressions of Bangladesh and I was having a hard time preparing myself to arrive back in Dhaka.
The worst part of the Dhaka airport is the gigantic crowd, 99% male, awaiting you when you first walk out of the arrivals gate. The crowd is probably 4-5 people deep, at least, and blocks the exit for taxis until a car forces its way through. Their sole purpose for being there is to watch and stare at the people walking out of the airport. Heaven forbid you want to walk through the exit to catch a CNG (the cheaper, local transportation). Like many other crowd situations of Bangladesh, you prepare yourself to get groped.
The inability of people to stand in, or abide by, lines while waiting for just about anything that needs a line to maintain some semblence of order (bus tickets, airport checkins, grocery store checkouts, etc.) is something I can get past. Ripping off foreigners, while I do frown and do my best to bargain, is another thing I can forgive because, really, how can you blame people for trying to get a little more money out of the bideshis (foreigners) who live in a country where 40% of the 140million+ population lives on less than $1/day (even though they incorrectly assume I’m loaded because I’m white). What I cannot reconcile is the constant staring from men.
My fellow volunteer teachers and I have been speaking a lot about this issue lately, mostly because for a very long time we tried to make excuses as to why it was continuing to happen and bother us. I, especially, was continually forgiving, asking myself how it must be to see white women walking around in local clothing, when that rarely happens in Bangladesh, let alone Chittagong. But what has struck me recently (I know I’m tagging myself as fatally idealistic and naïve right now), is that constant objectification of women is not, in any means of the word, culturally appropriate, especially through staring at them. It’s no appropriate in any culture. Under any circumstance.
When I walk home, whatever time of day, there will be men who don’t get out of my way but stop and stare at me – western or local clothes. If there’s a bunch of men, some will purposely not move out of the way so I have to literally walk into them, or nudge them a little, so I can continue on whichever path I’m on. I’ve spoken to women here who are uncomfortable walking in areas of the city, or being out during certain festivals, because they feel uncomfortable with the way they’re looked at by many of their male counterparts. In a male dominated society with very little public, shared space available for women, it’s difficult to feel at ease outside of one’s home. And it’s frustrating to think of the long ways to go before gender equality can really be achieved in Bangladesh.
It is promising, however, that women are speaking out within Bangladesh (http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=83301) AND there’s been a law passed which bans this ‘eve-teasing’ (http://www.independent-bangladesh.com/2009040110788/country/parliament-passed-anti-beggar-bills-on-tuesday.html).
It’s unfortunate because Bangladesh does have a lot to offer. As someone who’s lived here for a significant amount of time, however, I can see why many tourists might feel it unpleasant and unnerving to venture out into public without locals as guides and without full covering. Even when you are appropriately, fully, dressed, however, you have to prepare yourself to be constantly objectified and stared at. As my roommate Angela has dubbed it, ‘it’s not cultural, it’s just wrong’.