Published today: “Experiencing the ‘Student Visa Syndrome'” on the Daily Star

An outreach program on U.S. student visas that was hosted by the Consular section of the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka last week was covered by me for the Daily Star, and it has been published today. The program took place in Floor 6 lounge in Banani and included interactions between students, embassy members, comedians, and Bangladeshi students who had gone through the visa process and succeeded already. To read, check it out online, or buy a copy of the Daily Star today for the Star Campus magazine, found in practically every corner of Dhaka, of course.

Or, read below.

Experiencing the ‘Student Visa Syndrome’

Olinda Hassan
Photos : IMS

Getting a US student visa is like asking a hot girl out on a date. As local students gathered around the stage, comedy duo Naveed Mahbub and Muhammad Solaiman performed with a simple message- anyone can study in the US if you follow some easy steps- you do not need to go through one of the many visa- agencies around Dhaka. The performance was part of an outreach programme held by the Consular section of the US Embassy, designed and executed by Integrated Marketing Services Limited. Not just this act, the programme also comprised of an information session with consular members and a discussion with local students who have successfully obtained the go-to signal on their passports.

Naveed Mahbub and Muhammad Solaiman.
The question and answer session.

Bangladesh has a history of sending a good number of its brightest minds to further their education in the US, but even then, a stigma is still attached with the process of getting the actual student visa. The fear of rejection can sometimes deter students away from even trying. “Getting a visa to study in the United States is something that each one of you in the room is able to do by yourself,” said Vice Consul, Brigid Ryan from the US Embassy.

But why do students from Bangladesh still get rejected from obtaining a US student visa?

“Actually most student visa applicants are issued visas. Generally, Bangladeshi students are going to good schools to get a good education and they have the funding or personal finances to pay their way. The requirements for obtaining a student visa are posted on the State Department website and consular officers adjudicate accordingly,” explained Ryan.

The three things to bear in mind for a US student visa application are: 1. Intend: showing that the sole purpose of your trip is to be a student, 2. Qualify: exam records, I-20 forms, academic marks, and proof of admission, and finally, 3. Fund: proving you can actually afford to study in the US, whether through scholarships or personal support.

Often, prospective students may miss out on one of the sections, or use a middleman to go through the entire process which will guarantee a rejection.

“I found the session really helpful, especially on factors like CGPA, GMAT and TOEFL scores,” explained BBA major Synthia Afreen from North South University who would like to pursue her MBA from the US.

Sometimes funds are not easy to come by for you, despite being accepted by a top tier American university. In that case, the US embassy will try to assist you in going abroad. This is when high results on standardised exams such as the SATs, GMATs, and GREs become especially crucial for the US student visa.

As for intend, not only do you have to prove that you will only be a student when you go to the US, but that you also plan to return to Bangladesh after completing your desired degree. “I was a bit worried about the intention to return. In case this question arises, it will be easier for me to prove because I am a faculty member at BUET,” explained PhD bound Mukhlesur Rahman, who will be entering Northeastern University in Boston this fall, while sharing his experience with the visa procedure with the audience.
Acquiring an American education is still highly popular among Bangladeshi students, many of whom cater their academics around the prospect from an early age. Not only for the Ivy League academic rigor, but many students aspire to study in the US to experience the American cultural lifestyle. To get more information about the US student visa process, find information on facebook under “US Embassy-Dhaka”: bangladesh.usembassy.

Published in Hollaback! today: Playing Word Games- “Eve Teasing” in Bangladesh

I just had a piece I wrote for Hollaback! published in their blog today. I discussed Eve Teasing and what the phrase actually means and plays in a society that has recently focused a lot on sexual harassment against women, both in the courts and  media. This is a follow up to the article I wrote on street harassment in Bangladesh for the Daily Star this month.

To read, click here where you will be directed to their front page. Or see below where I have pasted the article.

Playing Word Games- “Eve Teasing” in Bangladesh


“Eve teasing”, or sexual harassment is problematic in Bangladesh, especially when we want to talk openly about the aggression South Asian women face day to day on the streets. The phrase has a biblical link- it refers to Eve, the tempting, beautiful woman who inevitably attracts attention from men. So, while “eve teasing” in South Asia refers to the day to day sexual harassment that women face, whether it’s an unwanted touch from a passerby or a cat call from the boys in the corner, the phrase itself blames women, she is tempting, men can’t help it.

Bangladesh’s high courts recently stated that the term “eve teasing” downplays the serious nature of the harassment that women in the country face in their day to day movement. I have seen and experienced my share of eve teasing. I have watched a store clerk eye a girl half his age’s chest and ask her to bring her assets to the store as her mother walked right beside her. This is not something to be ignored, neither should we blame the girl, who could not have been more than 13 years old. The high courts have made this clear, let’s not call this “eve teasing”, let’s use the correct term, sexual harassment.

So how important are words when we talk about these kinds of crimes? When I interviewed several male students at Dhaka University for an opinion-project last year, I was surprised to hear a few of them say that girls are asking for it, even at a time when sexual harassment has been making headlines in Bangladeshi media. Alam, a 20-year old History student said, “What am I supposed to do, when the girl is wearing such a tightly fitted kameez [the traditional dress worn in Bangladesh]? She is at a University, she should be dressing appropriately. I can’t help but look and tell my friends, and try to get her attention when I am bored.” He went on to tell me how girls know that they are going to get attention, so they should protect themselves by dressing accordingly, rather than “complaining” about getting harassed.

In an increasingly globalized world, I particularly enjoy watching girls in Bangladesh dress the way they want and not follow social norms in their clothing. I think that fashion holds a unique story telling power. So why should women have to dress in a way that makes them less vulnerable? Is she taking on the role of Eve when she wears clothes that could, potentially, tempt men? Or is she simply exerting her independence and her right to be who she wants to be on the streets?

Women don’t get harassed on the streets just because of what they wear in Dhaka. Men in Dhaka have basically been allowed to harass women because they were never caught and punished, until now that specific laws have made it a crime. Dhaka’s streets, once dominated by men, are beginning to change as more women are taking on professional roles. Women are increasingly getting educated at one of the highest rates for a developing country. Bangladesh has several female political heads, including its Prime Minister. It is one of the most liberal Muslim-dominated countries in the world. Nevertheless, a patriarchal culture still exists.

Referring back to the notion of words, how important is it to make sure that we use the right words when we talk about violence against women? I followed up with Alam and asked what he thought about sexual harassment against his female peers that take place regularly in Dhaka University. Alam hesitated and said that what his friends did, the cat calling, and sometimes following women was not sexual, or harassment. Then, I asked what he thought about “eve teasing”, to which he responded that it was all innocent and fun.

Calling sexual harassment “eve teasing” makes the aggravation seem harmless and amusing against victims who are purposefully tempting. How do you make a society start saying “sexual harassment” where the culture never really talks about sex and sexual behavior openly? And an even bigger question is, how do you convince a society that victims are not purposefully tempting perpetrators, that men don’t harass women because they are asking for it? Although it may seem like a mountain to climb, there is an answer – education as education fosters change. Both men and women need to be educated about exactly what constitutes sexual harassment, the impact of it, what is acceptable and what is not, only then can we move forward.

Published: “Street Harassment is Still Serious: The violation of women in Dhaka’s public realm”

I wrote this piece for the Forum magazine regarding the issue of street harassment in Dhaka, and why we must still pay attention to this issue, which many may not consider a form of “violence”, but rather a soft approach to sexual harassment. To read, pick up a copy of the Daily Star today. Or follow this link for an online version:

Or, read below:

Street Harassment is Still Serious:
The violation of women in
Dhaka’s public realm

Sexual harassment on the streets is also a form of violence, argues OLINDA HASSAN.

Zahedul I Khan

The laws governing violence against women have made their presence in Bangladesh. From Acid Crime Control Act (2002), to legally declaring eve teasing as a form of serious sexual harassment early this year, crimes that violate a woman — verbally, physically, emotionally — have been, and continue to be addressed by politicians, advocacy groups and NGOs. Violence against women has a history in Bangladesh.

Street harassment against women has also been addressed in some form or the other, usually categorised in the eve teasing form. Defined as being violated — usually verbally — in the streets, this form of harassment is not just limited to the common traits of female victims, or those of a lower social standing, poor and uneducated. Unwanted or solicited attention is given to women of all backgrounds in the streets, in all parts of the city, by all “types” of men. In most of the cases however, commonly, the woman is the subject, the man the predator. It is also something that women face worldwide; The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights reported that 83% of their women faced street harassment at least once in their life, and similar statistics were found for South Africa, Mexico and France, to name a few.

With urbanisation and the rapid population growth in Dhaka, women inevitably become more prominent in the streets. Women from all social backgrounds are joining the work force or institutions for higher education in large numbers in the capital, as opportunities for female participation increases. This trend is certainly a triumph in the modern women’s movement of Bangladesh.

But with participation comes the notion that sheltering these very women is absolutely necessary. Families with vehicles — another increasingtrend in the capital — will go out of their way to make sure that the women in the family have the priority in transportation. Women are being told to be careful every time they leave their homes, or being told to not go out at all. Working, educated women from the middle to upper middle class are deterred from taking public transportation and being out late at night, both for safety and for preserving certain societal reputations. It is very evident therefore, that the ratio of the two genders in the streets of Dhaka is still overwhelmingly in favour of men. The fear of violence and harassment has led to a series of rules and regulations (often implied than said) imposed on women and their mobility.

Because of these imposed rules by society regarding the movement of women, when they are in the streets on their own, especially during the evening, they are suddenly subject to the high possibility of harassment. This could happen in many ways — it could be a cat call from street vendors, stares from rickshawallahs, sexual innuendos from passersby, being purposefully touched by the young boys in the crowd — all usually men who are the dominating gender in the streets. As one male student in his third year at Dhaka University (anonymous) explained after asking him about street harassment, “these women are not supposed to be in the streets, so of course they are going to get harassed. If they didn’t want that attention, they should have stayed home, and not dressed inappropriately which is going to get them the attention they claim they don’t want.”

Women have also been long taught to ignore such harassment, especially in the streets. Since childhood, women, whether educated or not or wealthy or in poverty, have been told to avert their eyes, look away, and keep walking, and not say anything when they are verbally violated in public. This comes from the fear of being further endangered, but more to do with being humiliated in public. The concern is the disgrace of the victim in public, not of the aggressor whose action goes unnoticed and in turn, avoids his humiliation as he is not confronted but ignored. This then gives him the false idea that he can continue his behaviour in public.

Bryony Beynon from London of HollaBack, a worldwide technology-driven anti-harassment movement that first began in New York explained to The Guardian (March 8, 2011) how “people need to understand that street harassment has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power.” Aisha Zakira, the founder of HollaBack in Mumbai in their press release explained how street harassment incidents “are rarely reported, and are culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman and living in a city like Mumbai.” She further went on to explain how this type of violence is a “gateway crime” which creates a “cultural environment which makes gender-based violence okay,” and how while a legal method exists in countries like India and Bangladesh to tackle abuse at work or home, “when it comes to the streets — all bets are off.”

Women are also being told to ignore by other women, as commonly observed by mothers and other older female family members. These members from a young age are giving the impression that they are powerless and must thus simply ignore, that being harassed in the streets is inevitable but avoidable via ignorance. The long standing ideological belief in the “modest” Bengali woman of this culture often promotes such ignorance. Poor urban women for example are often stereotyped as having lower sexual morals, further making them not speak out in public for the consequence of being even more marginalised for their gender. Women, especially those who do not have an access to a private car must change their lifestyle, such as in the way that they dress as a social protection and in order to fit into this ideology and avoid street harassment instead of waiting for the act itself to terminate in society. The violators in turn quickly realise that they will not be held responsible, and gain further confidence to continue harassing in the streets.

Are women supposed to follow the social norms of staying home after sunset and dressing “appropriately” in order to avert such attention? What would happen if more women were to act out and confront the violators, in public? Would it really be that threatening to their modesty as a “good” Bengali woman? Let us assume that public transportation has suddenly become much safer in Bangladesh, for men and women: the rate of hijacking, robbery and threat has significantly decreased, if any at all still occur. Would the roles of women in the streets then change? This question must be asked because, along with violence against women being part of the country’s history, oppressing women by forcing preventative measures (such as ignoring violators) have also become rooted in the historical culture of Bangladesh. And cultures are difficult to change.

Women are increasingly sharing the household income and participating in higher education in Dhaka, a city that is also urbanising at a rapid rate and in a suffocating way. Modern politics encourage such female participation. And for those that are able, women are often being sheltered away in their activities, being told not to be in the streets too much and be in their private shells. Thus, the streets are still overwhelmingly dominated by men. However, what if more women did make their presence known? What if more women had the courage to be independent in their travels? Would the streets still continue to be a boy’s club? We all know of a woman, if not ourselves, who have had at least one form of a story to tell about being harassed in the street. The consequence of ignorance is the continuation of a type of crime that while it may not be considered violent, is as cruel as any other form of violence against women in Dhaka today.

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

Published: “Noise Pollution: We have gotten used to it too soon”

For October’s Forum magazine (Volume 5, Issue 10, October 2011), I wrote an essay on the continued problem of noise pollution in Dhaka, and how it is felt in the growing city.

Implementing policies related to noise pollution is complex, as discussed. In 2005, when India’s government restricted the use of firecrackers, loudspeakers and vehicle honking, residents reacted, wondering how they would carry on late night religious and marriage festivals. It is also difficult to impose directives related to noise pollution when the general population may be unaware of what type of pollutant this is, and if it is a pollutant at all. Thus, along with addressing it, educating the masses and especially the causers of excessive honking, for example, becomes crucial for a growing urban city.

To read more, click here. I have also pasted my writing below. And if you are in Dhaka, the Forum magazine can be found in your copy of the Daily Star from October.

Noise Pollution:
We have gotten used to it too soon

OLINDA HASSAN runs a critical eye over the sounds of Dhaka city.

The description of a city that stretches only a few miles in radius, a city that is instantaneously described as one of traffic and crowds houses over 15 million people in one place. Fifteen million people. This is perhaps an understated number considering all of the unaccounted people who live in every bend of the city’s narrow roads, slums and streets. With people comes noise, which if one word is to be used to describe, would be chaos. And chaos runs this town.

During this last humid and rainy Ramadan season, six individuals from Dhaka streets were asked, what noise describes your life in the city? A rickshaw peddler in Mirpur, an older woman selling chai in Gulshan 2, a Dhaka University student, a half naked child in Rayer Bazaar and a well manicured woman at the tailors’ and the tailor himself in Dhanmondi had hurried responses. The rain, the honking, the ringing of rickshaws, children yelling, the thump of rubber shoes against the roads, the motorcycles, bricks grinding against each other in construction sites, voices of mothers, the gas pedal being pressed by drivers; these were some of the similarities found among these six individuals who were all in a rush to get away from their respective street to the next. As the woman at the tailors’ pointed impatiently, she had to run before the traffic swept her, her driver and in turn, her son’s and husband’s and mother-in-law’s day.


Chaos gives people the city attitude, the description of being a Dhakaite. People of this city breathe, eat, smell and maybe, even adore the chaos that illustrates the scene of the mega capital today. This chaos is also to an effect, noise pollution. And noise pollution is ultimately, human created. The word noise is literally taken from the Latin word nauseas, or, vomiting sensation and sickness, and the concept of ‘noise pollution’ is far used by environmentalists, lobbyists, politicians and transportation specialists to pound on the extreme unease and health hazard that result, due to traffic and poor infrastructure management, for example, in Dhaka. And pounding they do — noise pollution has gotten some popularity as a means of trying to push other anti-traffic laws, being an easily relatable concept for the average city resident.

Taking some of the above descriptions of noise in Dhaka by the six random Dhaka residents: The honking — the most common part of noise pollution in Dhaka, naturally due to the fact that honking is created by vehicles, usually done to warn other cars to maintain road safety. Excessive honking is however the real issue; drivers honk more out of stress and frustration than to warn other drivers of the fact that they are about to pass them on the road, for example (this is not even really possible, since cars are rarely not in traffic and thus, don’t actually have the space to pass each other in Dhaka). The rain — while this is seasonal and albeit uncontrollable by humans in terms of noise, acid rain is increasingly common in Bangladesh, caused by human practices, such as electricity usage and car pollution, which is high in roads where cars must stay stagnant for long periods of time in traffic, and then create certain sound effects in retaliation. The ringing of rickshaws — while attempts have been made to reduce the number of rickshaws, they still prevail, and perhaps this is not the largest issue to traffic control, though the bigger and faster modes of transportation that surround them think so and thus react with honking. It will be difficult to eradicate all of the city’s rickshaws, entailing the removal of a country’s major cultural element, as well as thousands of jobs. Construction — in the middle of the night, my neighbourhood often wake up to the noise of workers piling bricks from a truck that just pulled in, making all the noise as they please for the manual labour, even if it is at 3am. Construction work takes place around the clock, and because its noise can never be independent from its surroundings (traffic, shouts, yelling instructions, music, etc.), they have become one of the more annoying noise pollutants for Dhakaites today.

While noise pollution in the developed world can seem like a luxury, in the developing world, it is an unforgiving health and social concern. It is an issue that does not discriminate along age lines or socioeconomic barriers for the residents of Dhaka and other mega cities in South Asia such as Mumbai and Karachi. Premature deafness, high blood pressure, to heart conditions as a result of noise pollution can trigger anyone, from children to the retired, slum dwellers to the upper class. Epidemiological studies have made the link between excessive noise and hearing loss pretty obvious. Excessive noise pollution has proven to lead to high blood pressure, low attentiveness, bad temperament and as a result, increased chances of confrontations — behaviours that are well illustrated in the streets of Dhaka.

Noise pollution is an especially saddening impediment to growth in the cities of developing countries, such as Bangladesh, and also a problem that faces little direct attention from policy makers, even if used to back up other policies. The fact is that noise pollution and the very idea of it is still, in large, subjective. There are few direct ways to, for example, measure a group of residents’ high blood pressure as directly related to the noise pollution of the neighbourhood. Because noise complaints are subjective, you will need to prove that you are experiencing a noise problem, which can get problematic with the plethora of variables working around and against you. For example, hearing loss could be related to other factors such as toxins in the air. While some research has been presented by both domestic and international groups, noise pollution still remains a bit unclear. It is a territory that we are pretty sure exists, but not enough information is given to draw attention to it, let alone do something about it. After all, noise pollution will be put aside on the tables of policy makers when thousands of quantitative data is being presented on other (but related) items such as traffic congestion or gas pollution.

Further, noise pollution poses a more dire threat to developing countries. This factor is especially disturbing because, as many would complain, do we not have enough pollution issues to deal with? Environmental issues in general — manmade and natural — are often acknowledged but touched on the surface because they have yet to become a “serious issue” for policy makers. After all, imposing environmental policies are usually the slowest to prove a direct result, unlike other development policies. Further, environmental policies’ indirect effects on other sides of development, such as economic growth, are still sometimes subjective, hard to prove, and thus all together, set aside.

As economist Anthony Heyes described in the Journal of Regulatory Economics (Volume 36, Number 1, p. 1-28), environmental quality is often overlooked in development. He looked at Taiwan, where its sudden boom has decreased the people’s welfare in the long run, due to the environmental degradation that resulted from obsessive attention to economic growth. This obsession came from the coalition of the government and capitalist who wanted to achieve economic success “at any cost”, resulting in Taiwan’s “growth with pollution”. Taiwan is an example of others in the region, whether formerly a poor or developing one is pressured to keep up and felt the need to only focus on the economic, an obsession that leads to the continued degrading environmental issues, such as noise pollution in Dhaka.

Implementing policies related to noise pollution is complex, as discussed. In 2005, when India’s government restricted the use of firecrackers, loudspeakers and vehicle honking, residents reacted, wondering how they would carry on late night religious and marriage festivals. It is also difficult to impose directives related to noise pollution when the general population may be unaware of what type of pollutant this is, and if it is a pollutant at all. Thus, along with addressing it, educating the masses and especially the causers of excessive honking, for example, becomes crucial for a growing urban city.

This generation growing up in Dhaka has perhaps gotten used to the noise — the ringing of the rickshaws are romanticised as much as the arguments they see taking place on the streets to construction sites that flourish in different corners. The 15 million plus that live in the city may have forgotten or simply have no idea how to separate noises that have polluted their streets. And those who come to Dhaka from the outside need weeks, maybe even months to get used to the sounds. When we first arrived in Dhaka last year for our projects, adjusting to the weather and modes of transportation was one thing, but no one had warned us of getting modified to the sounds of the city. Some found it charming, and now it is hard to describe Dhaka to friends back home without describing the same things that the six Dhakaites asked above about what noise defined their everyday lives. Dhaka, like many other developing, urban cities, is plagued by the piling of environmental problems that are also deeply intertwined with the economic and the political. It has become tricky to separate one from the other, with tribulations like noise becoming a by-product of a plate of troubles that are waiting to be addressed. And this will be difficult to do so unless people are able to recognise that the very noise they grew up with is actually a pollutant.

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

Published: “The Bangladesh in Bangladeshi Fashion”

An article I just wrote on the fashion industry in Bangladesh for the Star weekend magazine of Dhaka’s Daily Star:

The Bangladesh in Bangladeshi Fashion


Fashion in Bangladesh is much like the streets of Dhaka. They reflect changing patterns, unexpected colour mix, and is the meeting point of sudden chaos and quiet. It’s moody, it’s traditional, and it is also in a transition between the old and new. Fashion in Bangladesh doesn’t want you to forget its history.

As more styles and materials enter the market from the outside however, it can sometimes be difficult to hold onto this Bangladeshi fashion that we speak of.

With the demand to look unique, an abundance of new boutiques with distinctive names have started to crowd Dhaka. Designers and fashion houses have begun to fuse influences from abroad and within, creating new lines of work that are meant to be contemporary. Additionally, more from the outside is coming in- Indian katan, Pakistani cottons, Jaipuri colours, South Indian embroidery, etc. The hustle to look exclusive has led to an increase in this demand for foreign clothing and often, foreign styles. Namely, Indian fashion has flourished, not only with its import but also with the rapid copying of designer’s items from Mumbai and Delhi. Many boutiques will proudly boast that they only sell imported and thus “exclusive” pieces. While this takes place, we must ask, what then, is the Bangladeshi style? What makes Bangladeshi fashion, Bangladeshi?

While clothing from the “outside” is heavily popular, a number of boutique houses have also started to claim clothes and accessories only bearing roots to the homeland, whether that’s reflected in the jamdanis, the muslin, cloths bearing prints from local artists, or bringing in tribal motifs from far edges of the country.

“When speaking about ethnicity, I fuse tribal with East and West, and I incorporate my own prints, take from the history of Bengal…a huge diversity of culture is used, from languages and scripts and applying typography in my work”, explains Aneela Haque, prominent fashion designer and founder of her line, AnDes.

“The uniqueness of Bangladeshi fashion is made through those who decide to deal with Bangladeshi material for designs,” says Khaled Mahmud, Director of the ever expanding Kay Kraft boutiques. Khan describes how in order to discuss what makes Bangladeshi fashion unique, we must talk about the weavers and their handlooms in the country. The blend of traditional weavers and today’s designers’ inputs has brought together distinctive deshi materials, allowing for more experimentation with hand weaving. Maheen Khan, leading designer and head of her own boutique Mayasir describes how a piece that uses our tradition and our own textiles is what makes it Bangladesh. “Our middle men’s work, our cultural intervention, the calligraphy, folk art, Dhaka’s jamdani…this is what makes our fashion,” she adds.

Bangladesh is also famous for its khadi, dating back to the 1930s when Mahatma Ghandhi excited the regional people, advocating wearing clothes from the homeland to express nationalism and an appreciation for tradition. Hand spun cotton thus became popular in Bengal, continuing its wear beyond independence. “Although it has been thought that only the intellectuals wore khadis, I somehow always liked this rugged, uneven, rough textile which is very unique and something that makes you stand on your own…it has that ethnic feeling about your own homeland,” says Aneela who has been inspired by it and uses it along with tribal motifs to contrast Bangladeshi fashion in her line.

The way that the clothes are worn, and the way they are cut and composed is equally important in defining and motivating Bangladeshi fashion. “The traditional sari is very symbolic, but only if it can be worn nicely and encompass her as a whole,” expresses Khaled Mahmud who encourages not only the creation of quality saris bearing our roots but wearing them appropriately. Further, while many cuts exist for the shalwar kameez, the Bengal region used to be known more for the long, lean, floating kameez combined with fitted churidar styles, layered heavily at the bottom. While this style has been the rave in Pakistan for some time already, it actually originates from Bengal and has just started to appear this season in Bangladesh. “The churidar makes one look slim, but many won’t try it because they are not comfortable in it. I have tried to encourage it with different cuts that are more pant style, and also used a lot of ethnic cuts and straight, long churidars,” says Aneela. Attempts to introduce the long, flowing kameezes both in simple cotton and heavier material with ornamentation, combined with wider ornas has been observed recently, such as at Aarong and Mayasir on the runway.

In the city, you will be struck by vibrant colours and contrasts, along with the more subdued and tame, working together to create the feelings that have defined the urban culture. AnDes for example use very vibrant and solid colours that signify the low paddy fields, the changing blue skies and green fields that plaster the subcontinent. Beads and shells are used in the saris to incorporate the flat lands and the hill side of Chittagong and the seas, and calligraphy from our famed poets who spent time travelling around the country. Designers in Bangladesh have also tried to fit their latest clothing to the current seasonal changes in their colour palettes. Since Eid will fall near the end of the summer this year, fashion houses such as Kay Kraft consider this fact by paying attention to the colour schemes that represent the summer and its rain by incorporating a palette of blue hues and whites to vibrant oranges in their salwar kameezes and cotton saris.

Block prints, hand woven materials and dyes made of ingredients that pay homage to Bangladesh have been gaining prominence among many designers, finding its place on the shelves of many leading boutiques. Aranya’s locally produced silk saris in purely natural dyes has continued to attract attention, and it has expanded its collection this season by including more endi cottons and block prints that capture the traditional Bangladesh, especially in their saris. These native elements as integrated by designers work to define the Bangladesh in fashion, among shelves of other South Asian work.

Even then, with all the movement for bolstering domestic goods, there is still a strong preference for the outside, such as those from India. Many designers for example will bring in cloth and materials from India and patch them together in Bangladesh, confusing its association- is this Bangladesh that I am wearing, or India? Further, the line between carefully crafted designer fashion and designs that are simply copied in bulk claiming to be boutique also makes it difficult to look for authentic styles. With a partiality for India ever present, the Bangladeshi market in turn is being interrelated and even changed. Thus, sometimes identifying what is the Bangladeshi trend becomes complicated.

As fashion moves forward, this question will have to be asked, and it will inevitably be on the minds of designers and buyers. The return of the jamdani saris for example is deeply attached to the tradition of weavers in Bangladesh, albeit the cutting and infusing it with other materials that has appeared recently. “It took a long time to achieve a standard for the jamdani,” said Maheen Khan, however “adding chiffon and embroidery to it and calling it a trend is mutilating the tradition. We should encourage weavers to produce better weaves instead of making a big mess of the jamdani. The weave itself says a thousand words.” Browsing through the many new boutiques, more and more people are purchasing jamdanis, block prints, Banarasi silks, etc. that have been mixed, cut, and contrasted with different materials and styles in an attempt to make it look contemporary and individualised. With this trend, it can be observed that fashion in Bangladesh is not only trying to hold onto its own creative roots, but also finding a way to change it so that they will be worn by those who also want exclusivity.

As Bangladesh itself is being increasingly exposed to the outside, it is inevitable that this will come with outside influences, especially with fashion. And fashion is very much alive in Bangladesh, just like the world; it is estimated that people spend over USD$1 trillion per year on fashion worldwide, after all. Fashion extends to everyone, to all generations and economies. As Khaled Mahmud echoes, “We have to use all the techniques of ornamentation available in our country and strategically so that people from a wide range of backgrounds can enjoy our Bangladesh’s fashion.” As for today, keeping up with the transitions and an increased focus on just looking good and different does not mean that the modern individual should forgo their own country’s fashion, even if mixed and matched, but most importantly, represented. “Every culture has its own heart and for us, if we lose our culture we don’t have much left,” points out Maheen Khan.

Copyright (R) 2011


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.