Published in The Diplomat: ‘Authorities Make Arrests in Bangladesh Garments Factory Fire’

My article on the recent arrest of the owners of the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh has been published in The Diplomat. This is in response to the factory fire that killed more than 1,000 people in April 2012. I focus on the police force and the lack of justice served in Bangladesh, and what this much-talked about disaster could mean for the system. To read, click here.



Authorities Make Arrests in Bangladesh Garments Factory Fire

Their track record is not promising, but will the authorities finally deliver justice?

By Olinda Hassan

On February 8, the owners of the garments factory in Bangladesh that burned and killed more than a hundred people in April 2012 finally surrendered to the police. Delwar Hossain and his wife, Mahmuda Akter, along with eleven associates are charged with homicide for the fire, which prompted an international debate on corporate responsibility in developing countries.

The charges are significant because it is the first time that Bangladesh has sought accountability from leading players in the lucrative garments industry, a powerful political and economic player. It is a test of Bangladesh’s police force and the legal system, at a time when they are coming under increasing public scrutiny for what is perceived as their laissez-faire attitude towards the rich and powerful.

At around $20 billion, the garments industry in Bangladesh accounts for a significant portion of the country’s export industry, with shipments mainly going to the U.S. and Europe. A poster child for development economic research and nonprofit work, the industry has been hailed by academics for increasing the role of the private sector in what is a late bloomer emerging market. With women accounting for the majority of workers, researchers and international development bodies alike have credited garments manufacturing for increasing employment opportunities for women and helping to bridge the rural-urban divide in Bangladesh, praising the industry for its indirect facilitation of gender advancement in Bangladesh socially and economically.

Following the fire in April 2012, along with several other deadly fires in the following months, this praise has been overtaken by stories of harsh working conditions and poor pay, attracting attention from human rights organizations, mainly from the West. While authorities and global clothing companies have vowed to improve safety standards, it is often forgotten that the issue goes beyond the rights of workers, to the very nature of the country’s police enforcement and legal system. The arrests of Hossain, Akter and their associates has shone a light onto an uncomfortable arena: the power of the police, one of the most mistrusted agencies in Bangladesh.

The power and fragmented nature of Bangladesh’s police force is an uncomfortable discussion. Following the fire in the Tazreen Fashions factory, local police cited insufficient evidence to bring a case against the owners. However, further investigation found that some managers had in fact closed the gates that would have allowed workers to escape the fire, and even told workers that it was a regular drill. The building had no emergency exits or a proper monitoring system. Even getting this far in the investigation was a power struggle; everyone knows that there is something profoundly wrong with the way that these factories are run, but no one does anything about it because of their lack of faith in the police.

In incidents involving garment factory fires, factory owners are rarely charged or held responsible. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a quasi-governmental body that is supposed to regulate export relationships, rarely faces charges, such is the influence of its leaders. Look no further than its glittering headquarters in Dhaka, which the Bangladesh High Court ruled sits on illegally obtained land. Despite a court order for it to be demolished more than two years ago, no action has been taken.

Yet the Tazreen fire was the deadliest factory fire in the history of garments manufacturing worldwide. The EU and the U.S. have placed and continuing to threaten Bangladesh with trade sanctions. In the meantime, stories were heard of protests abroad, from people far removed from the Bangladesh experience, against companies like Wal-Mart.

Whether this sustained international pressure was what finally motivated the police to file charges against the owners of the Tazreen factory a full year and a half after the fire will remain a point of contention. The police in Bangladesh are seen as both powerful and indifferent to the public they serve. It will be interesting to see if in this tragic case authorities can successfully separate justice from political power.

my maid’s home burned down.

My maid came to my house after missing one day at around 8 am, crying, and then screaming. She first apologized for not coming to work the day before, and then explained that her home had burned down from a fire. You didn’t know? she asked me. I didn’t. I left for work early and came home at night and in between, fire ablaze the slum area where my maid, Parveen had lived with her children and husband. It was a makeshift home of bamboos like so many others, built above a bed of water with illegal electricity and water running through the hundreds of homes. 150 makeshift homes, gone. Another reports 250. It was on the TV. (click here for the story.) Even my parents saw it from abroad, but I just had no idea.

I hired Parveen just a few days earlier. I have less than two weeks left and needed better help at home and she came in the mornings, around 6:30 am. She cleaned the floors, washed my clothes, cleaned my bathrooms, polished this and that, and occasionally cooked and made my morning tea. She was very, very talkative. I was not annoyed yet. And she was different than other maids I have seen– she accessorized more, wore cleaner clothes. She worked for about four homes in the area and used her money smartly. She even had a bank account. She bought a television, and she managed to purchase a cupboard. She fed her children with her money, one of whom suffered from a disability. Her husband was an occasional rickshaw puller, occasional gambler, and occasional abuser. Like all the other maids’ husbands, my aunt once told me.

She didn’t have shoes and I gave her a pair of flip flops. I gave her 500 taka. I didn’t have anything else to give at the time.I really didn’t. She wouldn’t take food–apparently she doesn’t have the appetite and they are already being fed by an NGO there. But here is the troubling part. I have been talking to some neighbors and people are sympathetic. She just lost everything. But they are also cautious. They told me, be careful, she is going to start asking you for a lot of things and emotionally blackmail you. But she just lost everything, I would respond. She works for four homes and has connections to ten others, she is getting a lot more than other victims who don’t have such connections. So what do I do, just ignore that the poor woman’s house burned down? I mean, she is poor after all, and you can’t deny the fact that house being burned down…I can’t even imagine. At the same time, my neighbors told me, you have to be careful because they are used to wanting more and asking for more and you don’t exactly know for sure how much she has and what she is exactly doing with all of the money and clothes. Cunning, selfish, greedy, and they are used to hustling, they tell me.

The conversations go on and I am left frustrated because I just don’t see how one can ignore that a person is a sufferer and a victim no matter their status in the social ladder of losing everything from a disaster. As someone who has a lot more, am I not obliged to help? If not obliged, shouldn’t I, if I can? How can I check that my charity is actually helping? But how can it not, for Parveen is very, very poor  despite everything.

And how about the rest? my neighbors ask back.

hartal hartal hartal. Writing from home on a national political strike day.

Since we are all talking about these hartals (political strikes declared by the opposition party where basically you stay home all day, etc. Click this link to read the basics), I should perhaps discuss some of my feelings too. Today is indeed hartal and I spent it out eating a lot—pepper steak and potatoe gratin for lunch at Timeout, strawberry cheesecake at the American Club while working on some ‘important’ things, and street-side fuchka in Gulshan 2. Just another day.

The thoughts about these things like hartals are mixed for me, as an expat with some but limited knowledge of Bangladesh’s politics, even though I have a minor in South Asia Studies. So who better to turn to than the pretty great piece written by Aasha Mehreen Amin, or as I call her, Aasha apa of the Daily Star, the Editor of the Star weekly magazine. I have known Aasha apa for a few months now and love working with her, whether that’s attending an album launch in Izumi or taking her guidance to write about Bangladeshi fashion. She wears a sari almost every time I’ve run into her—those nice cotton ones just pressed, with up to date prints, wrapped around her perfectly. She has a great way of speaking and making comments at the right time. In sense, I not only enjoy working with her but also talking to her about non-work related things (what are girls wearing these days?).

In her article titled “What People Say and What They Mean” Aasha apa in her usual funny way deciphers the past week and a half’s popular quotations by our famous political leaders in relation to this hartal and mess of the missing BNP leader, and other disappearances.


‘We will solve this case in 48 hours, we are doing everything to try to find the criminals.’

Decoded: 48 hours just sounds good, but actually I should have said 48 weeks or even months since we have no clue how to go about this; plus, hopefully other gruesome events will take place to divert public attention.

Click here to read the piece or grab this week’s newspaper for the Star Weekend magazine. Or read below for more.

What People Say and
What They Mean

Aasha Mehreen Amin

‘We will continue with our hartal programme until the government finds our leader who is still missing.’

Actual meaning: we really don’t give two hoots about what’s his name, we just need some excuse to create a situation that makes the government appear incompetent, petty and corrupt.

‘We will solve this case in 48 hours, we are doing everything to try to find the criminals.’

Decoded: 48 hours just sounds good, but actually I should have said 48 weeks or even months since we have no clue how to go about this; plus, hopefully other gruesome events will take place to divert public attention.

‘The law and order situation is in a better state than before (during the opposition’s rule). These are a few isolated incidents, which of course, we will investigate.’

Inner thoughts: I must say this mantra over and over until even I begin to believe it.

‘We would like the opposition to join hands with us to find what’s his name instead of resorting to such destructive activities as calling hartal.’


Yeah right. We know they will never, in this lifetime do any such thing, unless we find another dictator to topple, but then again now we are the dictators so forget that. We just say these things because it makes us sound reasonable, open-minded and ah yes, democratic.

‘We were just holding a peaceful procession. There was no reason for the police to attack us. This is another example of how fascist this government is.’

We were just holding a peaceful procession. There was no reason for the police to attack us. This is another example of how fascist this government is.’

What was not said: We burnt a few buses along with a driver, terrorised a few CNGs and vandalised private cars and property. This will ensure that no fool brings out his vehicle the next day.

‘Hartal is a democratic right and although we know the public suffers the government has left us with no choice.’

Real meaning: Hartal means, burning, playing chase and counter-chase with the police, getting a few leaders bloodied, making sure a few dispensable ordinary people get killed, wrecking cars and generally creating enough panic among the general people so that they don’t come out of their homes.

‘We have to stay on guard to keep peace and to prevent activists from getting violent. We are just trying to do our job.’

Reality: It’s a good way to vent our anger against our poor salaries, uncomfortable uniforms, the unbearable heat and the fact that the rest of the people are lazing at home or are off to their villages while we have deal with these ruffians. We can beat the daylights out of these rascals without any impunity, even smash a few cameras of those pesky, arrogant journalists who make us look so bad in the next day’s news.

‘I have never been involved in any corruption. I have no idea where this money came from.’

Inner thoughts: That fool, what was he thinking.

‘A naughty nexus is wrecking our railway system. I am smelling a rat.’

Inner thoughts: The rat died a long time ago. One sort of gets used to the stink.

‘The people know that we are here to lift Bangladesh from the grip of poverty and put it on the map of the world as a growing, flourishing nation.

Inner thoughts: We just want to win the next election so a few empty promises are necessary.

Copyright (R) 2012

It’s Raining ya’ll: Dhaka

View from my patio window last time it rained and I was home, few days ago.
View from my patio window last time it rained and I was home, few days ago.

I used to think rain was crazy in Arizona. The desert state’s monsoon season was nothing to joke about- it was severe and the nightly news was all about which car got stuck, which dry river beds filled up, and what to expect next. People got very, very excited.

The rain in Bangladesh is kind of crazier, especially because unlike Tucson, there’s people everywhere. As I write it is raining absolutely deliriously outside—in my room, even thought my bathroom door is locked, the wind has managed to rattle it. I can feel the wind through the thin cracks of my patio doors. The noise outside is that of the wind that you only read about in books, combined with the shouts of people who don’t have a covered home to go to and line up under the stores. Unlike the U.S., the store keepers here don’t mind that you enter to escape the rain. They get it. They know. The temperature is cooler, which is saying something for this tropical country of sweat and sun. The lightning’s glow is felt in my room, literally (A bright crackling noise, like in the fireplace once in a while, back when I was at Wellesley, studying in the LuLu).  Noise of car honks get louder—as if that solves anything. The crowded city of Dhaka gets a breather and pockets of random people form.

There is a lot of romance around rain in Bangladesh’s culture. Lots of poems and writings that I can barely translate, let alone read. Just Google “Bangladesh rain” and see for yourself. But I see what they mean, after having been caught in the moment now, thrice (the first time while I was on a CNG on my way home, the plastic rolled up covers doing little to help). Last time it was at BICC on my way to events coverage for the Daily Star. This time it was to my home where the desperation was different. A great excuse to stay inside. Not so much for the many who will stress about the leaks in their homes, the roofs of makeshift homes being blown away, what it means for their meals and the night’s sleep for their children. Very, very real problems most of us will never phantom to imagine.

I just got home from getting caught in the rain, again. This time, I had to run through the overpass in Shymoli to get to the other side. Two women in front of me yelled at each other as they ran. And then I had to get a rickshaw which was a battle since no one would go. I am already drenched at this moment (and wearing white of course). I paid 2.5 times the fare to my apartment building. My rickshawallah took a chance on me because he knew that he would earn double tonight with the rain, even if he might be in bed, sick the next morning. Money is now. Money has to be earned fast.

Currently, the prayer’s call is going off, mixed with the noise of the rain, though the voice of my nearest mosque is even more powerful. Nothing wrong with the microphones there. Mosques will be crowded, mostly by people who look on to shelter rather than prayer. Life goes on.

Bangles bangles bangles

Bangles are my favorite accessory. Most people who know me know this very well. Rarely do I ever NOT have something dangling/cuffing/twining/sparkling on my wrist. Bangladesh is the home of bangles and I love them. The following is a feature I wrote for the Lifestyle section of this week’s Daily Star. Click here to read or see below, or of course, buy the paper today.

Chic Bangaliana

lam sits with his basket of glass bangles everyday in front of TSC, the prime location to target students who often stop their busy schedules just to look at his colourful collection.

“Of all the bangles I sell, the glass ones are the most popular, especially around this season,” he said, as he unwrapped a dozen red bangles that dazzled in the sun, reflecting the light.

Glass bangles can be seen everywhere these days, especially as we prepare for Pahela Baishakh. Men and women sellers alike line different parts of the street around Dhaka University where their collection of multicolored bangles do all the talking to attract customers.

There is something about glass bangles that never gets tiring. While metal bangles and plastic spray painted ones in various colours and ornamentation seemed to have taken over store fronts, simple glass bangles have never really lost the competition.

“I think it’s the noise that keeps making me come back and buy more and more. They are traditional and classy, so never out of style, which I love. Every time they break, it just means I get to buy more!” said Nishat, a second year student at Dhaka University.

Indeed the sound of glass bangles as they glide against each other on your wrists puts us in a celebratory mood. “My mother bought them when she was a student, and now I am doing the same. We sometimes come here and buy glass bangles together and walk down memory lane,” said Tasnia, also of DU who plans to only accessorise with glass bangles this year for Pahela Baishakh. While glass bangles also come coated in metallic specks and glitter for design, she still prefers the simple, one-tone bangles that her mother used to wear.

While red and white continue to be the most popular colour for glass bangles around Pahela Baishakh, the blue, green, and pink tones are catching up. This season, many sellers agree that women are opting more and more for mixing two to three bright, bold colours for their wrists. “Girls love to come and try on as many colours as they can, and the biggest problem that they have is usually which ones not to buy, along with bargaining with me of course, said one elderly woman who has been selling in the Dhaka University area for years.

Nowadays, she sells bangles in all sizes, as glass bangles are catching up with small children as well. “You can’t go wrong with glass bangles, which makes them popular among boys too, who buy them as gifts,” she added as she unwrapped the white paper off of a bright purple set designed with indentations.

It is perhaps the slightly translucent finishing of the bangles that makes them more special, with their light paint coating and smooth texture. Glass bangles also hold a strong tradition in South Asia, as well as various meanings; it is often thought that because glass bangles match the colours in nature, they can express the natural energy of wearers and even bring luck.

Folklores of this region often include glass bangles. And of course, in this season of festivities, glass bangles continue to be a fashion staple for women of all ages. If you haven’t bought them yet, don’t worry: expect to find lots of glass bangle stalls with a rainbow of selection this Pahela Baishakh around the city.

PhotoSazzad Ibne Sayed
Makeup and stylingFarzana Shakil
WardrobeFarzana Shakil
Location: Coffee World, Road 27, Dhanmondi

Bangladesh’s cricket- the final match of the Asia Cup game.

The final match between Pakistan and Bangladesh for the Asia Cup was certainly an emotional ride for Bangladesh, and the millions of Bangladeshis living abroad who tuned in at odd hours to listen and watch the game from their computers. I was watching  the 8 hour match at Pan Pacific Sonargaon hotel at the restaurant where I found a prime seat at a table in front of the TV. It is the same hotel where the teams from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, and of course Bangladesh stayed for the tournament. There was a program going on that night at the hotel which I skipped to watch the game, taking as much time as I can with my overpriced Chef’s Salad so that I wasn’t kicked out of my table.

An emotional ride was exactly what it was. Bangladesh played incredibly on the field- perhaps too well, as some spectators speculated with rumors of game fixing. At the end, the entire restaurant was filled with staff and people from around the hotel who stood there watching. Managers didn’t scream at the waiters and cleaners who have been taking peeks at players as they go in and out of the hotel rooms for the past two weeks. Well suited men stood next to ground staff. Everyone watched until the last ball- because that was what it came down to.

While Bangladesh lost the game, people have been talking about how well the team played this year in the series. They were not like the old Bangladeshi team, in that they actually played to win and did not give up. Still, fans were skeptical, as we are so used to being after years of supporting a losing team. Even when there were only 4 runs to score to win between Sri Lanka earlier, I was thinking something just might go wrong. You just never know with the tigers.

This time, people cried after the game. We were that close. Articles and comments of fans crying and also, backing the team filled the news, rather than rage over why we didn’t win. We were just not used to ever playing this good for so long.

It is also a game that has taken over an emotional nation. One would think- how can you keep supporting a team that is so unpredictable? The answer lies in the fact that it is a national team that plays against countries with political histories with the young country whose memories are too sharp. The emotional capacity is felt during and after the games (reportedly, the captain of the team pleaded with the fans to be strong after reports of fan suicides).

It is interesting to be in Bangladesh at this time. Cricket is one of the very few things that unite the country together. It is if not the only source of entertainment that doesn’t see a mark on social status and wealth of individuals. It’s a game that anyone can watch, does watch, and understand. I find it fascinating how sports can actually do this to people, communities, cities, and nations.

It is still unpredictable what could happen to this team after the Asia Cup. However, beating Bangladesh at a cricket match can no longer be considered an ‘upset’. They do actually play pretty well. This is the message that has been echoed by the millions living in Dhaka and abroad who try just as hard to better the image of the country from whatever angle possible. Take us seriously- we are here to play.

You must feed your guests.

The most frequent question that my aunt asks me is: did you eat? This is followed by: what did you eat? As if to check that I was not lying. Since I live by myself in Dhaka, my relatives’ concern is if I eat or not, before they will even ask me how I am, or how work is going. When I meet strangers and they learn that I live by myself, I am always amazed at how many people will serious questions regarding my meals. How do you eat? Who cooks for you? Aunties will ask me this question with a smile that hides real concern. In the West where I suppose living alone is more common, I have never been asked this question. In Bangladesh, a different story. People are really, genuinely concerned about what goes into my stomach and if it is done often enough.

Likewise in Bangladesh, if you go to someone’s home or office, you are most likely offered something to eat, and also insisted upon. There is no refusing, unless you want to offend. This is not a matter of class or wealth. Two weeks ago, I was at a village in Bogra, in Northern Bangladesh doing some field visits for BRAC, and the women we visited at their tin-roofed homes insisted on serving us tea. One woman even forced entire bag of puffed rice to one of the students with us. The puffed rice lasted for days among a dozen people. In another village where I was working as a translator to a group studying microfinance in rural Bangladesh, a woman fed us her homemade sugar-syrup dripped cakes that she sold for 3 taka each in the market (we refused at first but it was too late, her husband was off plating it before she even finished asking/demanding out attention). I was at an urban slum recently in Mirpur conducting house visits with the same group of students and yet again, women were insisting that we enter, sit in their one bedroom homes in the slum, and drink their tea.

All of these women are poor, on the brinks of poverty, if not below poverty, insisting on feeding us drinks and snacks that they save up to purchase. They have barely any money to pay their rent, let alone send all of their children to school.

The same can be said when visiting offices. I cannot think of many offices that I have had to go to in Bangladesh for meetings and interviews where I was not fed at least tea; usually, biscuits and fruits follow. When I visited ASA, a microfinance lender in another remote village, after our meeting, there were plates of apples, oranges, grapes, and bananas set forth by the maids. After visiting a milk chilling center in Bogra, we were directed to another room where plates of hot samosas and again, plates of fruits lined the table, along with tea made from the very milk they packaged for the cities in Bangladesh. At the Yunus Center in Mirpur, I was served Grameen’s Danon yogurt, tea, water, and vegetable crackers in their state-of-the-art conference room.

The hospitality of Bangladesh and the relationship that people have with food is fascinating. A country that faces increasing rises in food prices and with a large number of the population living in or below the poverty line, food is certainly an important commodity. Feeding guests crosses social boundaries. It is not about class, as I have said. It is about respect and showing gratitude for visits, no matter what they were about or how long or short. Furthermore, it is also about pride. And in a society where class and hierarchy defines just about everything, being able to feed (no matter what, black tea or meals) matters more than affordability itself.

Though we in the second generation often make fun of our parents who still hold onto this custom 3,000 miles away from their homeland (I am talking about those of us who are South Asian Americans), I am pretty sure I will be doing the same when I become an “aunty”. Already, when people visit my home in Dhaka, I start panicking, wondering what I have to offer for drinks and food (which is usually, nothing since I spend so much of my time at work or outside and thus, eating out). It is interesting how this thing we do with feeding strangers and friends alike has become ingrained in our culture beyond out great grandparents’ generation.

My tailor in Banani Bazaar, Anwar Bhai

This is my tailor, Anwar bhai. He has a shop in Banani Bazaar in the second floor in a tiny shop where  with his apprentices, they stitch hundreds of dresses for customers a week. I was introduced to Anward bhai by my friend Rifaiyat’s mother when I first came to Bangladesh. Rifaiyat is currently a senior at Wellesley College, and when she had first heard that I was going to Dhaka on a Fulbright, she insisted that I call aunty who ‘loves to be able to help and asked for help’. Aunty has always worn something new every time I saw her. She also has two tailors and has been my go-to person in Dhaka. The natural pick to ask about a tailor recommendation- the very first step to creating a long lasting relationship.

In this country, clothes are made my tailors. They are the people you go to to make the perfect kameez, tunics, pants, and saree blouses for you. The tailor, usually a male, will know your body size probably better than your significant other or your mother who fusses over your clothes.

Also in Bangladesh, you don’t just go walk into any tailors. You usually come with a recommendentation from someone close to you. On the floor of Anwar bhai’s shop, Satata, there are probably at least fifty more tailors, side by side. Thus, word of mouth is how they run their business. Naturally, I asked aunty for the recommendation since you can’t just trust anyone to make clothes to fit your body like a glove. All of the stores are bustling with women, in and out. Banani Bazaar from the outside looks like a very old, dirty, and abandoned building. But on the second floor are some of the best designer stores, tailors, and also customers ranging from political wives, models, to students and expats. It is a magical space in a country that loves exclusivity.

Anward bhai has been working with me for the past one year, creating amazing dresses for my everyday wear to evening kameezes. The thing I love the most about him is his supreme confidence when he measures me and makes designs (often overriding my ideas and forcing his ideas which often turns out to be better anyway). Unlike many tailors I have encountered, I never feel uncomfortable when he measures my waits, arms, thighs and shoulders. He does everything swiftly and needs very little direction. He also rarely smiles or gets angry, even when I have to scold him for giving me something two weeks late or putting a particular lace in the wrong side. I am surprised he even smiled for me in this second photo. He argues with me with the same monotone voice when I think that he charges too much. Despite our few problems, I keep returning to anward bhai because he is simply too good (most times). And he knows that I know that, too.

New Year’s Eve in Dhaka, 2011

This year’s new years eve in Dhaka will again include memorable scenes of miles of traffic in airport road across the Radisson or on the way to the five star hotel, puking teenagers in the sidewalk at 3 am, some of whom have probably never drank before or know what the tonic on vodka tonic is, and glittery, salon-done makeup that makes 15 year olds undistinguishable from 35 year old mothers  who left the kids to the maid who can’t go to sleep until 5 am. It is one of the few days in the year when the conservative city (but a thriving underground scene) has don’t ask don’t tell parties for Dhaka’s young generation who have been waiting to dress up and flirt like they only get to in new year’s. One wouldn’t think such a scene takes place in Dhaka (10,000 BDT, or approximately $140 tickets to parties at the Radisson, anyone?) where only foreigners have access to alcohol, technically, and barely any skin can be seen during the day and night, otherwise. But yes, even Dhaka knows how to party, or rather how they perceive parties to be like from the multiple cable channels that hook them up to New York, Dubai, London, to Bangkok.

This year however, the number of public parties has gone from 9 to 2. Police and security have almost doubled, and alcohol-detectors and breath analyzers have been in the hands of some. I have been personally asked to carry around my passport, just in case. At least 5,000 RAB personnel would be deployed to maintain “law and order.” Last year, half of that figure was deployed. Entrances to the tri state, specifically Gulshan will be closed from 11 pm (more likely 9 pm) and the harassment will begin. The life of a boring police and security guard in the blue army suits changed.

BDNEWS24 reports, “Warning of stern actions against revelers for any misconduct, the DMP commissioner urged people to refrain from careless driving and anti-social activities in the name of celebration.” Misconduct? Anti-social activities? For the good of the pure and constructive society that Dhaka is? The Daily Star notes, “Anyone arrested with drugs or alcohol will be tried on the spot by the mobile courts, he said, adding that roadside bars have to be closed by 6:00pm.” Last year, they were asked to be closed at 7 pm.

In an age of transition for Dhaka’s youth and elites, more of whom are going abroad and coming back with new accents that they fault to their one week vacations in Europe every year, the police have been equally aware and determined to maintain “order”. The problem is, problems do occur. The rate of crimes, offenses, and sexual harassment seems to increase tri-fold on January 31st, more so than most other countries, like those that party-goers want to imitate. With a society still new to the concept of parties and night life, extremes take on a new definition in Dhaka.

So to those who will be confined to their rooftops, happy new years!  Next, year, I call for fireworks (the pretty, sparkly, nice kinds that actually hit the sky) since the rooftop will probably become the “it” place as more and more are done to keep the city safe on the eve of a new year.

A version of the Christmas Tree

Over the weekend, I attended a party hosted by the lovely Monica Chowdhury and Akku Chowdhury at their beautiful home in Old DOHS. The party was in honor of Bangladesh’s 40 years of independence. It was a really nice gathering and as always, their house was warm and lovely, all of their art work and antique collections to be viewed with curiosity. In particular, their Christmas tree was especially, well, cool. Akku Sir has had the tree for years which his son  would decorate when he visited Bangladesh.

Alam the CNG wallah.


Alam came to Dhaka from Sonargaon almost two years ago to support his family by driving a CNG around the city. We were stuck in an unusual traffic the other day when he started to talk to me as he lit a cigarette. Through the cage-like barrier between Alam and myself the passenger, his first question was, Apa you are not from here, right? Why do you think so? I asked back. You don’t talk like the woman here, and you were just on the phone. You don’t speak Bangla that well, he responded in the ever brutally honest way that people here in Dhaka sometimes do.

After the usual introductions- where he is from, where I am from, he asked me why I was on a CNG. Well, I suppose it’s easier, and I don’t have a car. But you have money, apa, he said. I work, and that doesn’t mean I have money.

Well, not all women are alike. If I were educated like you, I wouldn’t be in a car either. This was his response me taking a CNG home on a path filled with other cars around me with their tinted shades. What do you mean? I asked Alam, as I did not understand the connection between an educated woman and modes of transportation. He finally looked me in his mirror, made a quick eye contact to determine if I was offended, and didn’t respond.

So are you married? He asked, smiling an apologetic smile for the first time as we made a turn into my neighborhood. No, are you? He said no. But my brother married before me, and I work in Dhaka to feed his wife, Alam explained with a laugh. I want to get married but I am the only one who decided to come to Dhaka.

Where did you study apa?

In America, I said.

Wow, America? I want to go abroad too.

Why do you want to go abroad, I asked Alam while directing him to my house.

Everyone wants to go abroad, apa.

It’s not that easy, life abroad, as you think. Not everyone is happy there, and when they come back to their villages, they never tell the real story, I explained to him, recalling my interviews with laborers in Saudi Arabia from Bangladesh.

But you went abroad. And you aren’t the one driving a CNG. I am.

We reached my building and I gave him a final look. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he did let me take a photo of him. You are a writer too? Sometimes, I said and he thanked me for taking his picture. Alam lives in Jatrabari, near Old Dhaka and earns about 500 taka per day after giving the owner of the CNG a certain percentage. His final words were, apa I hope to see you again, sorry I asked so many questions, really I just wanted to know where you were from.

As Published today in Forum magazine: “Education in Transition: English based learning in Bangladesh today”

I wrote this for Forum magazine, part of the Daily Star. It was published just today. It is pasted below. It is basically a piece written about the English education and its usage in the Bangladeshi society and the differences that it has brought to the sector, academically and socially. Read for more:

Education in Transition:
English based learning in Bangladesh today

By Olinda Hassan

OLINDA HASSAN examines the social divide between Bangla and English-medium students.

The growing availability of English medium education in Bangladesh attests to the increasing demand for the global language, both domestically and internationally. Even traditional, national-curriculum following Bangla medium schools, such as Viqarunnisa Noon School or St. Josephs have established “English medium” sections. These sections teach the basic national curriculum as translated in English, and usually have only one Bangla class, for at most 45 minutes per day. In the O’level exams in English medium schools, the Bangla section is easily passable, as discussed by several alums of such schools for this article. “Since Bangla is taught as a second language, the section is fairly easy, and almost everyone will score an A,” explained a graduate from Sunbeams. This trend, along with the rise in British-curriculum English medium schools in the country, attests to the language’s continued prestige in the region.

The rise in the usage of English, beyond schools and corporations, testifies to the effect of globalisation in Bangladesh. As the country promotes foreign investors, for example, the importance of having proficient English becomes crucial, for everyone. Since the mid-20th century, or when independent nations started forming from colonialism, English-based educational institutions started to flourish in order to speed up the process of development; in Bangladesh, the rise in such schools was concurrent with the liberalisation of the market and flowing international aid. In Bangladesh and around the world today, governments are increasingly making English classes compulsory at younger ages, though often without providing the necessary funding for training teachers and for teaching material.

The rise in English has also created a cultural change, especially in urban areas; complete fluency of the language has become a new medium for defining social hierarchies at a very early age. English has become the tool to eliminate people from inner circles; at schools, the work place, to neighborhoods, etc. The extensive trust in the power of English is causing many to hold a negative image of their own language. It has also raised another interesting question — what will happen to the Bangla language itself as more parents and children are picking English as the mode for life instruction? From being under British to Pakistani rule, Bangladesh has gone through a vastly emotional language movement, fighting for its right to use Bangla. Today, such a history is compounded with English becoming the preferred language of elitism, intellect, as well as the venue for the nation’s development.

Understanding perceptions: English medium and Bangla medium students
“We don’t really talk to them in the Bangla medium section, they are not like us,” said one student in Class 8 who studies at the English medium section at Rajuk Uttara Model College (RUMC). He is wearing green, the colour that distinguishes him from the Bangla medium students who wear blue at RUMC. While he is sharing the same school grounds as the hundreds of others in Bangla medium, it is notable that the two sections often do not mix socially. If one looks out at the playing field, the greens and blues can often be seen in dividing clusters during breaks. Yet the two sections have combined to make RUMC stand at the first place in rankings yet again, scoring at the top in the recent national SSC exams.

The national-curriculum following schools also have vastly differing tuition fees within the institution; the Bangla medium section is usually cheaper. Since this information is widely known, in addition to the differences in uniform, location of classrooms, teachers, etc., it is easy to separate and discriminate. English medium schooling has always been a privilege for the wealthy minority, engrained in the country’s sociological history. The demand for English medium school for the children of wealthy families and nouveau riche led to the speedy creation of these schools in the private sector.

Furthermore, it can be observed that those who have studied under English medium education have higher chances of applying to and attending universities abroad. This does not indicate that the Bangla medium students are any less interested, however, their chances decrease and they are also often discouraged from going abroad, due to their education’s primary mode of language. In a society where a foreign degree (often no matter what type of university, known or not, vocational or unranked) gives an individual and their family a powerful social advantage, one can understand why the preference for English medium education has increased.

In addition, the expanding private universities in the country that sometimes replace going abroad for higher studies are also like an extension of English-medium education, and therefore, “very elitist in their admission”, with their language entrance exams ten folds more expensive than public institutions, as discussed by Rahel Banu and Roland Sussex in “English in Bangladesh after Independence: Dynamics of Policy and Practice”. They further explained how elitism in education is expressed “not only in terms of the fees paid, but also in terms of the overall exclusiveness of the environment, not the least of which is the use of English in the classroom and whenever possible, outside the classroom” (Banu and Sussex, 131).

“The Bangla medium girls…they are just not like us, they can’t speak English well, so there is not much to talk about,” said Nishat in Bangla, one recent graduate of Viqarunnisa Noon School when asked if she had friends from the “other section”, as they termed it. When asked to explain what differences she saw, she shrugged and said, “They are just different, we don’t share the same culture, you know?”

However, it is not that the two sections may differ significantly in their lifestyle. They may be neighbours, their parents could be colleagues. The students from the two mediums will often listen to the same music, watch the same movies and television shows, recognise the same fashion, enjoy alike local hangouts, and may even come from analogous economic and family backgrounds. They will often identify with similar religious beliefs, cultural norms and political viewpoints. However, receiving an English-based education can crush these existing similarities between students of the same school, the same neighbourhood and the same city.

There are many attitudes associated with defining the power of language. Using a specific language, such as English in Bangladesh can determine what one thinks the language can provide for him or her, and likewise, what others can think of the individual when the language is used. English, the language that has been associated with power and prestige (due to its legacy from colonialism) has become the suitable vocabulary in society. Whereas in India English has become the primary language of communication and politics and thus, people have become comfortable with its usage, this has now become the case concentrated only among Bangladeshi elites. Observing how school and college children interact with each other based on the language of education proves the capacity and influence of English in Bangladeshi society.

Today’s generation and the emergence of “Banglish” 
English has diffused deeply in the country, resulting in the use of several varieties of the language in Bangladesh. “Banglish”, as popularly termed today, is the use of English diction inserted randomly in the Bangla dialogue. This can make a conversation as much as 30% to 40% in English. The use of Banglish is especially popular in media today, such as in television and private radio stations such as Radio Foorti. Hosts of public events and concerts are often specifically asked to speak Banglish. The development of Banglish is connected with historical and social factors, having its own function, context and usage. Banglish’s popularity has likewise raised questions concerning identity and its realistic usage in a non-native English surrounding.

Rifaiyat Mahbub, an alum of Sunbeams in Uttara explained how learning both Bangla and English is reducing the authenticity of each of those languages today. Further, the improper development of English education itself has complicated this problem. “Our English isn’t good, but then we are focusing on learning English and so, our Bangla is not so great either. So, we talk in a mix where we use both English and Bangla words together, like Spanglish,” she explained. “Many don’t like this in our society, causing a disconnect, especially because of the politics of Bangladesh that is engrained in our everyday lives,” Mahbub added.

The prevalence of Banglish is important because language is deeply rooted in culture, and any cultural movements tend to bring broad changes to a community. There is an openly known notion that Banglish is creating a type of modernisation (or, Westernisation as is popularly paralleled in Bangladesh) that can be seen as threatening. Gerry Abbott from the University of Manchester in “Development, education, and English language teaching” (1990) explains how the need to develop through teaching a non-native language such as English “overshadows an arguably more basic need to transmit indigenous inherited cultures” and thus, because “development has been interpreted as ‘becoming more like the West’, western aid donors and cultural agencies [that work to promote English] have been accused of cultural imperialism” (Abbott, 174). The wide usage of Banglish or the purposeful usage of American or British-accented English by today’s generation (who may have never even lived abroad) can often be seen by others as limiting and threatening. However, today’s generation can argue that such usage is their homage to trying to get the country to develop and modernise. Languages, native and Western, can even have the capability of excavating generation gaps.

In 2010, the General Administration of Press and Publication in China banned the use of English in Chinese media such as books, papers and on the web, explaining that the ever increasing usage of English and half-English phrases are damaging the “purity “of the Chinese language and upsetting the nation’s “harmonious and healthy cultural environment”. It must be noted that the Chinese government also lowered the age for compulsory English from 11 to nine in 2001 and English teaching has emerged as a booming private business. Even in Bangladesh, the demand for English correlated with personal advancement and job placement has created a profitable market for coaching centres that exist in every turn.

In Asia, the use of English is astounding; India houses one of the largest English-using populations in the world. English literature is increasingly becoming recognised as part of education, as well as policy making in many nations in the region. The escalating use of English, as well as the purposeful build up of educational institutions promising English, along with the language’s firm grip on defining social elites in Bangladesh certainly asserts the language’s overwhelming power.

The authority of language goes beyond its linguistics; its place in history, sociology of the population, politics and economics must be considered. In Bangladesh, English is also connected with social hierarchies and power, going beyond just a linguistic divide. The language can be used to persuade entities, used as a code to get things and suppress and or elevate groups. It entitles some to things that others can never have. English has come to represent modernisation and development, whether that is right or wrong in Bangladesh, and native children learn this as soon as their first day in school.

Olinda Hassan studied Political Science at Wellesley College, USA, and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh, teaching English at RUMC.

Rajuk tops in HSC Results: Ranked first in Bangladesh

Rajuk Uttara Model College (RUMC) just placed first in the national HSC results! They scored 94.64 points in Dhaka Board, and 891 students scored GPA of 5 in their exams (e.g. perfect score). Last year, they were ranked at 4th position.

The news comes just a few months after scoring 1st place in SSC results.

Like last time, the courtyard was packed with students and news vans, even though results were not given out yet. Confident students surrounded the are and parents filled up too, waiting for the celebration. It was a great scene to see when I was done with the day and having an air of excitement once again. It was refreshing to also see the months of the stress on the students’ faces slowly disappear. It would be an understatement to say that RUMC’s students are really some of the most hardworking group of youth I have seen in a long time.