Published yesterday: Recognition of Domestic Workers (Daily Star)

This is a piece I worked on for the past few weeks, in reaction to the International Labor Organization‘s convention for protecting domestic workers what took place over the summer. I was especially interested by the fact that countries like the United Kingdom and Malaysia both abstained from voting on a convention that directly works to protect basic human rights for the millions of house helpers out in the world. The convention is a milestone especially for women, who make up 80% of domestic workers worldwide. With research based on media reactions, the Human Rights Watch, and local sources, I looked at what the conventions means, and also in relation to Bangladesh.

The article was written for the purpose of International Migrants Day for the Daily Star.

Read this month’s Forum magazine found anywhere in Dhaka, or online, or below.

Recognition of Domestic Workers:
Responses to the ILO’s Convention on
Protecting the World’s 100 Million

With International Migrants Day in the offing,
OLINDA HASSAN examines the plight of domestic workers abroad.esh.

Domestic workers who travel abroad for employment are also a form of migrant laborers, currently populating in the millions for Bangladeshis, concentrated in the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia. Bangladeshi domestic workers abroad, like migrant laborers, have also been subject to human rights violations over the years, both as an employee and an ethnic minority in the host country. However, while migrant laborers have some loose form of protection laws, domestic workers have largely been ignored in this respect.

Domestic workers from Bangladesh are mostly rural women and even children, many with dependents back home. The difficulty in calculating protective measures for domestic workers lies in the fact that they are severely isolated in the homes of the employers. For example, while many migrant laborers have the ability to live with fellow workers from their industry, domestic workers are far singular and divided. They are subject to double discrimination, first for their gender and then for their immigrant status directly linked to employers whom they are dangerously dependent on for all aspects of their livelihood.

On June 16 of this year, a remarkable breakthrough came when the International Labor Organization (ILO) signed the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. It is the first of its kind to establish standards for domestic workers abroad, such as those from Bangladesh. The three years that it took the ILO for the convention’s development included resisting amendments, convincing international participants, and developing crucial legal bindings, such as limited working hours, family visitation rights, fair wages and preventative measures for forced confinement, trafficking and sexual harassment, to name a few. Despite early reservations, Bangladesh later supported the convention.

However, is the ILO convention a real breakthrough, or will it merely serve as recognition of exploited domestic workers worldwide?

During the ILO contentions, the European Union expressed the most concern and advocated lowering provisions for flexibility. This puts a light on the “peculiarity” of domestic work in Europe. Over 90% of domestic workers in Europe are women, and the employers are mainly women themselves. They are the same women who have historically taken pride in their gender equality and advancement, like most other women in advanced societies. However, the employers complicate this notion of gender equality when they employ, and in many cases, abuse the rights of the women hired for their households. It is a complex paradox in which the lines of gender equality are clearly blurred along social classe and ethnicity (Gallotti, Maria, The Gender Dimension of Domestic Work in Western Europe).

Most would not even consider that there is an issue with domestic workers in Europe, home of some of the strongest global human rights organisations. A majority of migrant domestic workers are undocumented in Europe and have largely been invisible in the media. In most parts of Europe (e.g. Germany, Netherlands), domestic workers do not qualify for immigration as they are categorised under unskilled labour. Many households will bring female workers from Asia as tourists and then keep them undocumented in order to make the position of the workers binding to the household. And since domestic work is unregulated, abuse and human rights violations are rampant. The new ILO convention addresses the complexity of migration statuses and the dangerous dependencies that are created between employers and vulnerable workers. The United Kingdom is one of several countries that abstained from voting on the new convention.

Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand also abstained from voting on the ILO convention. The three members are also among the largest exchangers of international domestic work. Almost 30% of the migrant labour forces in Malaysia are from Bangladesh, and a significant number of women are involved in domestic work. Talat Mahmud Khan, the Labour Counsellor at the Bangladesh High Commission, once described Bangladeshi workers as hardworking, multi dimensional, “obedient”, and undemanding of a high salary. In 2009, when almost 70,000 Bangladeshi workers were brought to Malaysia, women were technically forbidden to work as domestic workers. However, irregular evaluation has continued the employment of Bangladeshi women in Malaysian homes.

Khan had assured that the Bangladeshis, despite their increasing population, would not impact Malaysian society as they were “confined” to their work and never went outside of it. The ILO convention seeks to counter this form of abuse in which migrant domestic workers are purposefully kept aside from society, forbidden to travel away from their work. Khan also added that he did not discount the “possibility of a few Bangladeshi youths getting involved with local girls”, addressing the increased concern of the diversifying culture. While Malaysia’s economy demands cheap, obedient laborers from abroad to do under-paid but hard work that the local population stay away from, the idea of integration into the very society laborers must work for is somehow deemed impractical.

Migrant workers in Malaysia by law are protected with regulations on working hours, medical benefits and holidays under the Malaysian Employment Act of 1955. However, the law does not cover domestic workers, with their terms often left solely to the employer, similar to the case of Europe as discussed earlier. Many of these maids have no holidays and shifted to employer’s relatives’ homes to work on the weekends, and must be able to care for children and the elderly, and in practically every aspect of the household, from cleaning, cooking, laundry, babysitting, to car washing. Verbal abuse, sexual harassment, unreasonable working hours and non-negotiable holiday terms have defined the culture of domestic work in Malaysia, the very elements of which the ILO has addressed in its Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Seeing as Asian countries account for over 40% of domestic workers worldwide, the abstained support from Malaysia, as well as Singapore and Thailand, places the ILO convention on a weak point, if efforts for creating environments through proficient policies are to ever take place for domestic workers.

Astoundingly, Bahrain, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, voted for the ratification of the convention. The Gulf region has had a notorious reputation in its treatment of migrant laborers, with some of the worst cases of human rights abuses stemming from many of the countries that have shown support for the convention. There are over 3 million migrant laborers from Bangladesh alone in the Middle East. While the official number for female migrant workers in the region is small, if unofficial numbers are accounted for, the numbers from Bangladesh is considerable enough to raise concern.

With stricter migration laws for women, combined with economic desperation at home, a large inflow of illegal migration by women is still widespread from Bangladesh, many of whom turn to domestic work. A comprehensive survey of the actual number of female migrants from Bangladesh to work as domestic laborers have yet to be conducted, even though field surveys from rural regions of the country prove that the numbers are higher than expected. Further, how members of the Gulf region will actually implement some of the key elements of the convention is yet to be determined. The fact that domestic work has become a cultural aspect of Arab households over the years makes it especially difficult to apply the protection of domestic worker’s very basic rights.

Because over 80% of migrating domestic workers are women, they are discriminated in a multi-fold sense. Not only are many the key breadwinners for their families back home, they are a key element of the enormous influx of remittance that many of the home countries are dependent on. Furthermore, they must also perform the role of a minority woman which in itself is a cause for discrimination in many of the host countries. Finally, while facing the challenges that come by virtue of their gender, female domestic workers must also fulfill cultural roles of a mother and daughter. It is common to see Bangladeshi women traveling abroad for work, leaving behind several children at home whom they must still support fiscally and socially as culturally expected.

The ILO convention is interesting because it seeks to specifically protect domestic workers with guidelines that have already been placed for other laborers. Thus, it becomes widely acknowledged that domestic workers, whether legal or illegally living in a host country, are still deserving of basic rights. While Bangladesh in many ways prohibits sending women abroad to work as domestic help, it has not stopped middle men from hiring rural women under false pretenses. It has also not terminated Bangladeshi women from seeking to work as domestic help once they are abroad out of desperation.

With Bangladesh’s vote of the ILO convention in June 2011, perhaps policy transformations will start to take place both at home and abroad. However, with several key nations showing a lack of support for the convention (e.g. Malaysia, one of the largest intakes of domestic help, to the United Kingdom, which has always advocated global human rights), it is still difficult to conclude how the new protocols will actually take effect. While data on domestic workers are difficult to come across due to the individualised and irregular nature of their services, the abuse that they face as a woman and a worker are irreconcilable. It is an international problem, and thus international support is crucial.

With a history of scarce work opportunities in Bangladesh, women migrating to become domestic workers represent a significant fraction of the national workforce abroad. They also remain the most marginalised. Bangladesh’s economy has the ability to continue to depend on remittances while at the same time, ensuring a safe environment for the workers themselves with practical policies. Instead of waiting to see what neighbouring countries or the most industrial will accept the ILO conventions, policy makers in Bangladesh need to advocate training programmes and screening processes to guide domestic workers. For the thousands of Bangladeshi domestic workers that exist worldwide, the country will need to actually implement ILO policies, and seek the guidance of existing human rights organisations to amply start creating a more sustainable migrant-labour environment.

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

© thedailystar.net, 2011. All Rights Reserved

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

BY OLINDA HASSAN

“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: http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2011/November/street.htm

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.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

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

OLINDA HASSAN

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) thedailystar.net 2011

link: http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2011/08/04/fashion.htm

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.

Conclusion
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.

Kacchi Biryani: eating in Bangladesh

Kacchi Biryani at Star Kabab in Banani. Taken by Tarfia Faizullah

Kacchi Biryani, the most popular type of biryani is pictured here, taken by Tarfia during dinner at Star Kabab in Banani. We love it so much I had to post a photo. This does not even begin to describe what this plate of rice mound tastes, feels, smells, and means.

Originally started in Old Dhaka, Star Kabab has spread to all parts of the city with its growing demand. If you mention kacchi biryani, you are likely to be pointed to either a wedding, or Star Kabab. The taste of this national sensation in the multi story restaurant makes up for the fluorescent lights and stark interior. It will probably be the best 250 taka you will spend on food, for a long time.

Taking a moment: it’s raining in Bangladesh.

Its been raining randomly during the day for a couple of weeks now. Sometimes it rains in the morning when you wake up to see your room still in the dark. You step out to get a rickshaw, having to tip toe your way as you circulate mud puddles. You have to carefully place the blue plastic blankets the rickshawalla will give you to cover yourself, if you choose though really they do nothing to prevent the vengeful rain. You forget to not wear white today and there goes the just ironed, perfectly tailored tunic of yours.

Sometimes it’s late at night when simultaneously electricity would go out and you would be forced to stand in the veranda overlooking the view of the city from the third floor. From that view you will see random pockets in empty, half built apartment buildings in Baridhara where temporary tenants rush to use their scraps of tin to hold the water from gushing into their makeshift beds. They do this while managing their already wet lungi wrapped haphazardly across their thin hips and a half burnt, 2 taka cigarette.

The afternoon is the best. Kids rush out  in my school in the middle of a lesson during fifth period into the long patios that circle every floor, facing an open courtyard. They face the wind they miss in their stuffy classrooms with fifty others, uniformed, hair tied, shoes neat, clean. Even the teachers, the masters of model behavior are temporarily distracted. I am asked to go to the roof with one of them even, where just before it gets to be a real storm I get to see the entire cityscape of Uttara about to be cleansed of its pollution for the day. In that roof there are rows and rows of vegetables planed carefully by the students- tomatoes, baby bitter-melons, okras, chilli peppers, as well as jars of pickled olives and green mangoes. Neat laminated rectangles are attached to these terracotta pots where neat handwritings pop up from the stark whiteness of the papers.

Many kids don’t remember to bring their umbrellas on purpose. There is a particular liking here in Bangladesh for getting wet in the rain. Commercials for local mobile networks on the television will always include the scene of a wet rice paddy or a busy side street in the city drenched in rain with people running gleefully. At the same time the aging aunty living in your building will tell you to be careful, don’t get wet, cover your head, you will get sick. But she too probably loved and still wishes to be young again and in the rain when it used to be appropriate, half listening to her mother say the same.

American Culture Lesson: Magazine photos and observations in an 8th grade Bangla Medium Class

For my weekly Class VIII Bangla Medium of 50 students, I decided to put their critical thinking and creative side to work by posing a particularly out -of- the- box activity for them. This involved cutting out random photos/ads/pictures from an American magazine (I used Cosmopolitan March 2011, for example) and passing them around to groups in class (ideally groups of 4-5 would work, though in my class they were larger due to the volume of students and the lack of space). The groups were asked to work together and analyze what the photos meant in terms of the American culture as we know it, and write their responses accordingly in limited words.

Organization of the Activity: Method, tools, and how it was conducted.

My collection of photos included: two cutouts of women in Vera Wang bridal gowns, a picture of a mixed-ethnic girl eating a vegiterian pizza from the health section of the magazine, a photo of fried chicken and salad served in colorful platters from the recipe section, a few fashion cutouts of women posed in different clothes, a photo of celebrities clumped together, a photo of a white female and a black male model, of several wo nklmen dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt from the “trends” section, an ice-cream sundae article that describes “America, Italian, and Turkish” toppings, etc. to name a few.

The questions I asked them to consider were: 1) What does the photo in front of you tell you about the American culture?, and 2) How does the topic of the photo differ from your culture and lifestyle in Bangladesh?. My helping questions were the typical that I alway use: Who, What, When, Where, How, Why. My students have gotten used to hearing these types of questions to first help identify what is actually happening in a given scenario (I have used the 5Ws/ 1H for readings and lectures before or whenever a chance is posed).
Before the groups started to do this, I showed them two enlarged photos from my collection to give a sample of what I am looking for. For example, I used a photo of an open market in Atlanta and talked about the difference in prices, what kinds of vegitables were being sold, what kind of people were selling and buying, and how the market looked compared to those in Dhaka.

Each student was given a pice of paper to write their responses. The space was limited however so that the students were forced to put their thoughts down in just a few sentences, forcing them to be direct (I did this by cutting a 8 x 11 white paper into four sections).

When there was about 7 minutes left in class, I switched photos between groups and asked them to do the same but just write me one sentence about what they found most interesting.

Responses from students while working in the classroom:

In an ideal situation I would have liked the groups to be mixed but in a classroom with barely any space to move and with only 40 minutes to work with and where genders were physically divided, this was almost impossible.
First, the students laughed at some of the photos. Then they became very serious and started to quickly talk about the pictures. I had to go around the class to each group and help them understand the activity and what I was looking for. I also had to emphasize that there was no right or wrong answer, which is always a bit shocking for the students. Some groups did not like their photo which they openly exclaimed, especially the male students.

The positive reaction was that everyone was amused and thus, interested. It was rare to find, if at all, any student in the group no engaged in trying to understand what the photo stated. The photos were from magazines and random on purpose- they demanded an explanation and they proved their “authenticity” by coming from an “American source”. And because there was no concrete answer to the activity, and it was not based on prior knowledge and such, they had to talk to each other in order to analyze.

Written responses: Sample

Photo: A black male model with a white model whose arms are around him, dressed in neon colors from the “fashion” section.

“In the picture there is a married couple. One of them is black in color and one of them is white in color. They are standing together. This picture says about America that, in America people of different races, tribes, and color marry each other. But in Bangladesh it is not so. In Bangladesh they make differences between the people who are white and who are black in color. Those who are white in color don’t want to marry those who are black in color.”

“…The boy is wearing a jacket and T-shirt, like the Bangladeshi boys wear. The girl is wearing a frock. But the Bangladeshi girls don’t wear that kind of dresses. It also indicates about American culture. The boys and girls can meet and talk to each other freely in front of everyone. But in Bangladesh it is not acceptable.

Other sample responses:

“The American fashion is more artificial than Bangladesh.”

“Bangladeshi ice cream is very good but not as costly. It is also not as good to look at. They are made of unhealthy things.”

“The famous Bangladeshi ice cream is kulfi. It’s only 2 taka. It’s made from milk. It’s very different from the picture of the ice cream in the picture because kulfi is very cheap and it’s not delicious at all.”

“In American almost everyone likes pets. Well, sometimes they take it in fashion. They carry pets in their bags. And like every schools and houses they keep pets. But in Bangladesh we usually don’t see that because they don’t really like pets. They are ignored.”

“There is a funny thing in USA that they carry pets in their bags.”

“In this picture we can see some models of different countries wearing dresses of American style.” (The photo showed American models of different races featuring a skirt trend)

“This photo is about the wedding ceremony of America. In this picture we can see a bride wearing white wedding gown. She is looking happy and holding some flowers. There are some differences between Bangladesh and American wedding dresses. In Bangladesh, usually the bride wears colorful sharis. They wear heavy ornaments but in America, the bride wears a simple dress without heavy ornaments or makeup.”

“Bangladeshi celebrities don’t care about their health but the celebrities of USA care about teir health. They have a balances diet.”

“There is a girl who s eating pizza. She is wearing a red-white T-shirt. he looks so good. But her hair style is so common in Bangladesh. Her skin color is also common in Bangladesh. What she eats, this is a pizza. It also common in Bangladesh. But American people eat this food much more. Her nail polish is looking good.”

About the same photo another girl writes: “The girl is looking horrible. Her hair style is so common in Bangladesh. Her skin is rough (the model had freckles). The pizza is not looking tastey (the pizza had broccoli and mushrooms). Her t-shir tis found in the foot path in Bangladesh. Her nail polish is not so bad. But I don’t know how can this type of pizza be good for me? I don’t think this is a good picture.”

“In order to decorate this meat some green vegitables are used.”- referring to the salad on the plate.

Conclusion:
* Encourages dialouge and group work, especially since it is an unknown topic so they are forced to talk. Everyone is in an even field of exepreince.
*Encourages studetns to write directly and concisely instead of writing too much and not getting to the point.
*Students are made to share and develop and opinion, especially since there are no right and wrong answer (this must be emphasized).
* They learn to look at magazine photos and ads in a different, critical way.
*They are forced to think about my past lectures about the United States and put that to use instead of getting information from a book or other written sources.
* Some groups had the same answer among all its members; some are still uncomfortable to have differing opinions.
* Single-sex groups are forced rather than mixing them up which could be a disadvantage for critical thinking in the classroom.
* Time management is always an issue with 50 students with 40 minutes.

Rajuk Uttara Model School Tops Again in SSC Exam Scores.

I am proud to say that Rajuk Uttara Model School has topped the list again in having the highest number of students passing and scoring high in the SSC (Secondary School Certificate) exam this year. As a result, Rajuk has been ranked the best school by the Dhaka Education Board.

RUMS on Thursday, May 12 2011 after 12 pm was a sea of students and parents in the courtyard, cheering and showing the victory signs. There were reporters and press vans from various channels in the city present to record the scene. Among the crowd can be seen teachers who eagerly entered the crowd. Given how rigorous the exams can be, and the time commitment issued to the students (those who took the exams were given days off from school to prepare), this news indeed was one for celebration. About 1.3 million students in Bangladesh took the exam this year that began in February.

I remember right before the students went on vacation to study for the exams, they held a pre-celebration in the auditorium with music, prize giving to teachers, cake cutting, and food (from their local favorite, Best Fried Chicken). I had just started at Rajuk and many of these students did not know me. While most Rajuk students greet me with great enthusiasm and curiosity, these 10th graders’ reaction was a bit more somber- they were clearly distracted about the examination and the hours of rigorous study that was about to fall upon them.

Not that many were surprised at the passing rate and Rajuk placing at the top again. The celebration on Thursday was already in the air well before results were to be announced. Two of my students who were about to take the exam next year came to my room and told me all about how crazy the scene would be yesterday at noon, despite knowing if everyone had passed or not. The supreme confidence exerted my students at Rajuk is perhaps one to admire.

More students pass the SSC exam this year. 

Exam Time at Rajuk Uttara Model School

There are about four hundred students seated to the take the HSC exam, one of the national exams for 12th grades in the central hall on the bottom floor of the school. The hall, usually home to cultural events for students has been transformed into a room of intimidation: rows of wooden chairs and tables, and desks in intervals for proctors and board members to sit and observe late teenagers sweat their way through a live or die exam. None them look up when I enter the room to speak to one of the teachers, their faces showing the strains of studying for months being finally poured out.

The HSC result will determine the students’ ability to succeed in the sense that if they do not do well, their hopes of getting into a national university are slim to none. Getting entrance into the prestigious public institutions such as Dhaka University, Dhaka Medical College, or Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology will all be essentially determined by the HSC exam. Likewise, the fate of the school rests on its students’ scores as well. The more perfect scores, the better the school will be ranked among all. In a country there hierarchy is engrained in the everyday social construct, this becomes particularly important. Rajuk has been ranked at the top as an educational institution based on these results. When I tell someone from Bangladesh that I work at RUMS, they usually respond with raised eyes and by telling me that I work at the best schools in the country.

The exam culture of schools that follow the national curriculum consists of intense memorization, attention to detail, and unorthodox organization. Not only do they have to memorize information (often word for word), but they must be presented clearly and neatly. I have seen some of the best English handwritings at Rajuk, ever. When I write on the board in class I am sometimes embarrassed as my writing (which I have always considered to be pretty good) looks illegible compared to kids ten yours younger than me. In fact in some classes I have to warn before hand that my handwriting may not be clear (to which I get amused smirks and laughs).

RUMS students from all grade levels have also had exams over the last four weeks. These exams included midterms, papers, and lesson exams. I eagerly took about fifty of these English exams with me home to grade. My most important conclusion: I have a new appreciation for all the teachers I have ever had for what they had to go through. I finally understand why it took them so long to turn back midterms and finals. Grading takes a type of effort that I have decided that I do not enjoy- attention to detail, reading sometimes excruciatingly boring paragraphs, trying not cringe at grammar mistakes, and checking final scores, making sure there are no rooms for students to appeal decisions.

Further, there is an indirect grading deflation policy at RUMS- no one is allowed to have full marks. This unwritten policy can be observed in many Bangladeshi schools, especially the competitive selections. For example, in the essay section of the exam, while it says that it is out of ten points, the highest they can get is a seven (which is when it is exceptional). The student may or may not know this. Thus, getting a score in the range of 70s is considered to be good- a score that translates to a ‘C’ in most schools in the United States. You do not ever give full marks- an important rule with ethical bindings for me. So no matter how much these students study and write amazing answers to questions (which were several in this sample case), they will never be rewarded what they probably deserve.

It is hard to compare these systems with those in the West as the implications of results are so varied. Whereas in the United Stats many factors count towards college entrance, in Bangladesh the exam results are exclusive in that category. And yet Bangladeshi students from these national schools who pursue their undergraduates in the United States have an unusually high rate of success in their SATs. Usually, financial considerations are the reasons for declining entrance to American colleges rather than not getting an acceptance. Their SAT scores tend to make up for the lack of sufficient extra curricular activities, for example, which is still an up and coming component in Bangladeshi schools.

Nostalgia…Being Taught to Draw: Classroom Art

 These sample art work from students at Rajuk Uttara Model School (RUMS) illustrate that a common theme to showcase in classroom art work are scenes of the Bangladeshi village. Huts, rice patties, hills, rivers, boats, and figures in traditonal clothing are some of the most common subjects present in art by students from all grade levels. They are usually drawn with crayons or water colors, and are usually very bright and vibrant on paper. The second most popular theme is the revolutionary war of 1971. Abstract art was not included in any of the samples I had a chance to see.


The village theme’s popularity in children’s art is interesting because almost all of the students at RUMS were born and raised in the city. Additionally, increasinly it can be observed that the parents of 1990s children were also raised in Dhaka. Thus one must wonder why villages become a repeated topic in art since the village scene is so different from that of Dhaka city.

One student told me that they are asked to draw “something beautiful” in their art class and that usually resonates the village scene. He explained that the village is more calm, quiet, and shows “natural beauty” that is present in most of Bangladesh but not in the city. Thus, being told to draw something beautiful meant drawing something outside the city.

Another student told me that often art class means drawing what the teacher tells you to, and what the teacher wants to see. These teachers will often assign the drawing of village scenes, and this initial teaching sticks to the children afterwards. In order to get the grade, you have to please the instructor, who has made his or her desire for such themes apparent. These teachers are also more likely to be more connected to the village than their students in Dhaka. This logic follows for art competitions as well where to win, drawing the most splendid scenaries does the trick.

Village scenes represents a certain nostalgia for what is missing in the city- cleaner air, people not in hurry, landscapes void of clumped together buildings, trees without the residue of pollution, and such. These scenes as represented by children of the city in school art classes showcase a divide of the urban and rural. It also works in an interesting way to connectgenerations widely different in history, lifestyle, and mobility.