Published: Germany Online: The road to modernizing privacy policies in a digitalized world

I just wrote a guest article for the Cornell Policy Review, titled “Germany Online: The road to modernizing privacy policies in a digitalized world.” I was inspired by recent events in US relations with key allies, as well as my general interest in technology and user interface. Germany is especially fascinating since it has a high penetration of social media networks and also has some of the strictest privacy laws in the world. Click here to read.


Germany Online: The road to modernizing privacy policies in a digitalized world

Germany has been leading the European Union (EU) in reforming their data protection laws, with the aim of strengthening personal rights in the face of a digitalized economy and growing online penetration of social media networks. Germany’s push for new measures, including greater protection from foreign intelligence should not come as a surprise, especially following Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying of foreign governments. Just last year, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel accused the NSA of tapping her phone which sparked a very public exchange between her and the White House, with President Obama assuring her that she was under no such watch. Recently, it was revealed that the NSA had monitored Gerhard Schröder, the Chancellor back in 2002, following his aversion to military intervention in Iraq. While Germany has been historically able to push for rampant reforms to privacy and data collection laws, current technologies’ reach, combined with increased diplomatic implications poses new challenges.

The historical experience with spying is a well-known narrative in the study of why Germany came to have some of the strictest privacy and data protection laws in the world. The country’s preoccupation with privacy is a product of citizens’ experience with oppressive governments, from the Nazi era to the massive surveillance conducted by the Stasi in former East Germany, where knowledge of individual lives served as an instrument for state control and power. Fear of invasion of personal privacy, whether form the government or private entities is an experience that many living citizens have gone through, including Merkel who grew up in East Germany.

Today, information sharing takes place on a global scale and involves a significant amount of data being transferred between individuals and entities. German officials have not shied away from pressing (repeated) charges against companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple for violating citizens’ privacy through their popular Internet services. The present problem is that Germans are actually increasingly using internet-based services such as social media networks, with most of the new users coming from a younger generation who have not experienced oppressive governments as prior generations have. This is juxtaposed with the fact that most of these services are provided by foreign private entities, namely American corporations. With European bases usually set in Ireland, these corporations readily use arguments of differing jurisdictions and laws, posing new difficulties for German authorities and courts. Therefore, modernizing privacy laws seem necessary for Germany, but this is also seemingly difficult for policy makers as private, multinational corporations further enters the lives of German citizens and attitudes towards such services differ among generations.

Reforming data protection and privacy laws also has diplomatic implications, as observed by the NSA controversy that has hurt US relations with Germany and other important allies. For Germany, the NSA spying also revealed that even after decades of military cooperation with the US, they still have a more limited access to NSA intelligence than do Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway. EU members have been debating points of reform of their data protection laws for over two years, with concerns also anchoring on Europe’s dwindling telecom sector in an increasingly digitalized economy. During the 2013 federal election, German socialist parties have gone so far as to suggest that foreign companies be banned from operating in Germany if they failed to comply with EU data protection laws. This raised concerns among American as well as German companies operating in a country that also happens to have a robust tech hub (“Silicon Allee”) . The United Kingdom is urging for greater consideration to the importance of digital economy, as the British have historically placed more priority to business concerns over one’s right  to protective measures online. This is vastly different from Germany where individual rights to privacy have been a cornerstone in their human rights and electronic commerce measures.

Spying, whether between governments or otherwise, is one of the oldest professions in global history, and it will not end anytime soon. The  Internet was not fashioned to understand national boundaries.  Germany, along with other European governments, are seeking ways to create their own channel in what is seen as a US-controlled digital landscape. While German policy makers pride on having the strictest privacy laws in the world, they have not stopped Germans from crowding to a social networking site or downloading smartphone applications. While modernizing privacy and data protection laws are important to match current trends, as observed, German policy makers will have to balance their practice of employing stringent laws with the interest of EU members, taking into account politics, cultural attitudes, economic incentives, and foreign relations.


I am continuously surprised by the things I write

I just found this in the Tucson Citizen archives. It is a letter I had written to the Editor and I didn’t even know that it was published. This was me, a month after I turned 18 years old. It was published on February 11, 2006, which means I was done with college applications and just waiting to hear back while finishing my last semester in high school. I was fiery back then, full of opinions, and rightfully so, i expressed them. It was also when I was known as Tasneem in the publication world. Great times, I guess. Click to read or see below.

Tense times easily ignite emotions


The newspapers that published cartoons against our prophet should not be punished, let alone their editors beheaded, as some Muslims suggested. History repeatedly has proven that a free press is the best defense against oppression.


But as a Muslim, I was offended by these cartoons not only for insulting my religion, but also because they are discriminatory and racist.


One depicts Muhammad with a bomb-shaped head about to explode, suggesting all Muslims are terrorists. The purpose of political cartoons is to reveal truth. Bluntly linking the Muslim faith to brutality is ignorant.


Every religion has extremists, and actions of a few do not give the right to label all unfairly. The Quran explicitly states disapproval of violence.


The Western world’s treatment of Muslims in recent years has pushed tensions so high that any remark or small action can trigger emotions to burst.


Many Americans believe the war in Iraq is for democracy, but the Muslim world sees us as invading their lands, murdering civilians and imposing tactics foreign to their ancient culture.


Violence is not the way to peace, but when you feel you have no control, it is a natural reaction.


These cartoons are another way of telling us we are barbarians with false values. The European press is telling us we are not wanted in “their land.”


The cartoons represent the gap between the West and the Muslim world, and it is not closing. The catastrophe taking place should force us to see that – press freedom or not – democracy is intended for tolerance and understanding of every individual for the benefit of society.



senior, Catalina Foothills High

Published: Pop Ensembles. Lifestyle, The Daily Star

Speaking of pop colors, this week’s Lifestyle supplement is about pop colors and colorblocking, the new trend. I was asked to write the main feature for this week, which also happens to celebrate their new 20 page issue. This involved some research, talking to people around Dhaka, and also personal experience (if you know me, you know my obsession with bright colors). And yes, I actually wrote about fashion this time. The last time I wrote about fashion for the Daily Star was on Bangladeshi roots, for the weekend magazine, click here to see. Pick up this week’s Daily Star or read below, my fashion essay on this trend. Or click here to read. 


May 15, 2012

Olinda Hassan

If you had to sum up this summer’s style in two words, it would be: bold colours. And we couldn’t be more thrilled. Cheerful hues from mint, magenta, mango yellow, purple to neon are in, matching perfectly with the many sun-filled days to come. Bright pop colours have been showing up all over the runway, and here is the best part: they’re easy to wear and incorporate into your everyday wardrobe. We are talking about bright, solid colour pieces like a t-shirt blocked with another vivid piece, such as a cardigan and/or coloured jeans, making simple dressing look glam and dramatic. Fun accessories from neon coloured frames to replacing your everyday go-to-bag with mustard yellows and red pieces are all the rage. With makeup, we say keep it simple with your bold ensemble, but no need to shy away from bubble gum pink lip-gloss and creamy lavender nail polishes. This summer isn’t about shying away. It’s about being noticed: think vibrant and loud, and be playful with this fun trend.

Start by pairing separates, and invest in a pair of bold jeans. The easiest way to colour block is by picking separates and pairing them together, such as with two bright, solid hues. For starters, pick a neutral tone (brown, black, nude, etc.) and pair with a bold neon as your first baby steps. From there, you can slowly experiment with different colours. A violet maxi dress will look great with an emerald cardigan, for example. Think contrast, and don’t shy away if it doesn’t “match”. Think back to when you were in school and made those colour wheels stick to palettes around a colour you chose, and if you want to be especially daring, go with the wheel’s opposites.

This season, colourful denims are in and it looks like they’re here to stay. Fitted jeans in fire-engine red, mustard, fuchsia, plum, and pinks make colour blocking easy. “I bought a pair of emerald green skinny pants and my friends thought I was crazy. I wear it with a blue t-shirt I had in my closet or my pink one, and it works whether I am going to class or to hanging out with friends in the evening. It’s all the rage right now and has a fun element of risk and adventure in it,” said Nusra, a second year student at NSU who has been following the trend since the beginning of this year. “Urban Truth’s coloured denims and jeggings have been a huge hit with our customers who are young school and university students, the main trend setters in Dhaka,” said Momen.

Pink has always been a feminine colour, but a bright shade like fuchsia, neon pink or magenta screams confidence. “These are Zara pants I got at Doja and after a bit of tailoring, they fit like a glove and I love how happy they looks. This season can be hot and sweaty but that doesn’t mean you can’t dress like you are having fun!” added Sara, also from NSU, pointing to her pink jeans, paired with a white button down shirt and a choral blue chunky necklace.

GET WILD WITH PRINTS, TOO: We continue with this mix and match style when we bring prints into the picture. If you want to add prints to your colour blocked style, the shades don’t actually need to match. Animal prints, such as the leopard motif has been a big hit and can make a great combination when paired with a colour blocked outfit. Combining a colour blocked ensemble with printed shoes (e.g. Urban Truth’s python platforms or floral print flats) is also a great way to draw attention to different parts of your outfit.

Not ready for the electric hue? Even just a splash of this colour can make a statement, so get on the trend by adding a pink stoned necklace or a bright fuchsia clutch. Colour blocking may not be up everyone’s alley, but including some scarves, belts, and shoes can add a punch of colour while practicing the trend in small doses.

Once you have some hues in your outfit, take the trend to the next level by adding some rich accessories. A deep-hued tunic can be paired with bright accessories and vice-versa. A bold blue dress paired with bright pink shoes and a white belt, for example, looks polished and trendy. “I love my ballet flats from Bata, they are a cheap and fun way to add colour to my wardrobe. I have them in their engine red and lavender hues and it instantly makes my boring black and white work clothes look updated,” said Sunaya, a banking professional.

Necklaces, bracelets, and earrings in solid colours are coming out chunkier to make a true statement. A mix of vibrant stones and bold shaped beads but in one colour scheme can instantly uplift a white shirt. A bright yellow kameez can look amazing with cobalt blue bracelets. If you are going to pick a chunky necklace, stick to simple studs for the ears.

This season, even our glasses and watches are getting a colour lift. Frames in green, red, orange, and white tones are becoming popular among both men and women. Might as well go all the way, right? Wrist watches are also picking up the trend; Swatch recently released a collection of watches for women in neon colours, with the lime green being most popular. A solid block of colour on your wrist can do a lot to keep you up with current fashion.

Colour blocking can be based in our makeup too, especially if you want that dramatic look. It’s especially fun because you get to get creative and personal. The most popular and easy ‘colour blocking makeup’ combinations are coral and fuchsia, red and peach, and plum and orange. But make sure you are just focusing on one area of the face rather than using a colour blocking scheme all over. Blocking bright colours for the eye lid is especially popular. If you are feeling fierce, use a bright colour above your eyes (e.g. orange) and use a different colour to lightly shade under your eyes with a brush (e.g. pink). Dab an extra layer of mascara to make the colours pop even more. Lip sticks in berry, plum, and bubble gum pink (think Nicki Minaj or Lady Gaga) are also in. “Just remember that less is more, especially with our weather,” added Momen.

Unless you are a model hitting the runway, opt for simple neutrals to a colour blocked emsemble so that your outfit gets more of the attention it deserves. Momen suggests shimmery glosses and powders to keep things balanced and light, especially with the summer weather and humidity. Matte coloured lipsticks keeps the look understated but glamorous.

Don’t forget your nails, the endless palette for all of your colouring needs. Opt for matte finishes in the bright pink, orange, to purple and even mint and green nail liquors. It’s not about matching your outfit. Matte finish is all the rage right now, and so is taking bold step with nail styling. Using alternate colours for the nails or even colour blocking a nail with two or more options is a popular choice.

Colour blocking is not new in fashion’s history but it has returned this time with a bang. In this eye catching trend, you can use colour to enhance parts of your body that you love, while pairing with a neutral colour to minimise trouble areas. For example, enjoy a bold coloured top with a neutral bottom to bring attention to your upper body. Stick to three colours and not more to avoid looking like a waking rainbow. “There’s nothing stopping Bangladeshi girls with this trend. They should start experimenting more and be daring with this easy trend,” said Momen.

By Olinda Hassan
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Model: Airin
Make up, hair and styling: Farzana Shakil
Wardrobe, Jewellery and accessories: Urban Truth

Published in the Daily Star: Kony 2012 and the New Age of Social Media in Political Action

My interest in social media is a recent phenomenon, mostly triggered by the Arab Spring. The recent attention on Kony 2012, both the good and bad has been particularly eye catching because it has attracted the youth, and also attracted attention to issues that have already been a problem for a long time– why now? The power of Facebook- what was one laughable- is actually serious. YouTube? Twitter? These sites do not even ask for spell check on Word anymore. Anyway, I wrote this piece for this month’s Forum magazine in response to the many questions that buzz my head as I think about the way I use and don’t use social networking sites and the media. The article can be found by clicking here, or read below, or by buying this month’s copy of the magazine, available in Bangladesh.

Kony 2012 and the New Age of Social Media in Political Action

OLINDA HASSAN looks at the significance of social media in bringing political change.

Can social media be used to make an effective political change? This question highlights recent reactions by activists, academics, politicians, to journalists in the wake of Kony 2012, the video aimed at bringing public attention to Joseph Kony, the militant leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. The 30 minute video as of March 19 has had 82 million viewers. That is almost triple the population of Uganda.

Joseph Kony led the LRA under the ideology of creating a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments in Uganda. For over a quarter of a century, Kony built a sizable army of child soldiers and ordered the abduction of thousands of girls to become sex slaves. Though in 2005 Kony was indicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, he has yet to be captured.

Kony 2012 was created by a US-based advocacy group, Invisible Children Inc which has long worked in Uganda to bring access to education and quality livelihood to a post-conflict community that suffers from poverty and the memories of war. The video brings to light these issues, with the hope that it will lead to the capture of the militant leader before the end of the year.

Invisible Children Inc has been long known for having one of the strongest social media bases in the nonprofit world. The video’s viral purpose is clear as it repeats the images of people using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and of course, YouTube. The video opens with the words “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. ” Kony 2012 does not necessarily make Kony the celebrity but certainly the bad guy, and more interestingly, it personifies the viewer — that it is you watching who can bring change. Furthermore, it uses a simplistic story line — some argue too simple — and thus, misses some key facts and features of the atrocities committed. However, its simplicity was the reason why the video was able to target so many viewers — and from so many intellectual and other backgrounds. In an age of technological communication when so many millions of users utilise social media around the world, this is certainly telling.

The simple story line, as mentioned, has been the root cause of a backlash of the viral video. Critics argue that the simplification of the complex issue has instead caused “slacktivism” rather than actual activism. Slacktivism, derived from slack and activism, points to the effort of no effort — a pejorative term that describes supporting a cause through simple measures, like sharing a link of Facebook, and feeling good about it and not going further. As many have argued over blog posts, advancing awareness and social media alone will not do much to stop the atrocities in Africa, let alone capture Kony. Journalist Anthony Kosner writes, “the radical simplification of the situation in Uganda that makes Kony 2012 such an effective piece of social media is the same thing that undermines it as a piece of political activism.” (Forbes).

Social media and international politics

We have entered a new era where social media can and have shown to matter, even in as complex an area as foreign policy. Facebook and Twitter have fueled the Arab Spring uprising, giving both men and women equal footing and voice on some of the most pressing issues of governance. Videos have been coming out of Syria on a regular basis, giving them a chance to be noticed by the outside world. As author Philip N. Howard noted, “It was social media that spread both the discontent and inspiring stories of success… into the Middle East.” “Occupy Wall Street” in New York has its roots in social media outlets, the same tool used for similar protests around the United States. Young people around the world have especially been hit with the use of social media and also in actually becoming active. It has become an inspiring and a dangerous tool, mainly because so many people have the access, and thus the voice, regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic status to some extent, or language.

Since the rise of the internet in the early 1990s, the world’s networked population has increased from a million or two, to low billions. At the same time, social media became “a fact of life for civil society worldwide” (Clay Shirky, Foreign Affairs). It has involved the average citizens, activists, nongovernmental organisations, students, companies, software providers, and of course, governments. As this new era’s communication processes gets more complex and intertwined, the population of users have increased. People have greater opportunities to interact, access information, and take action. The high level of production and sharing of multimedia content makes it even more difficult to suppress information. It is redefining freedom, especially in countries where such rights are limited. This was especially true for Egypt, for example, where outlets such as Facebook and Twitter carried the message of freedom and democracy to help raise political uprising. Democracy found its footing in social networks.

The new wave of political activism through social media has certainly attracted the attention of politicians, who on average are much older and in general, of a different demographic than the average activist (who tend to be younger and more in tune with technology as evidenced by recent uprisings and activities). When protests erupted in Tehran, Iran, the US State Department asked Twitter executives to suspend their scheduled maintenance of the service so it could still be used as a tool for political organisation during the demonstrations. While the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 may have been the first modern rebellion to be recorded on Twitter, it did not bring down a government. The links between social media and revolutions are still being examined by researchers.

Egypt has almost 10.5 million Facebook users, ranking at 20, ahead of countries such as Japan (25) and Russia (29), and way ahead of other North African countries Algeria (44) and Tunisia (47). Bangladesh is ranked at 55, with a little over 2 million users on Facebook, with users from ages 18-24 making up more than 50% of the users (Source: Socialbaker). Bangladesh is also not new to enforced censorship and social media blocking enforced by the government. It is important to also note that many users of sites like Facebook may originate at one place, but the user may live in a different country, as well as the use of multiple accounts and other glitches.

Social media alone is of course not the main driving force of uprisings — on-the-field activism is. Rather, social media has been taken up to make people aware and inform them of activities taking place that they can participate in. Certainly, awareness is part of the scheme in bringing in changes.

Regulation and censorship (?) 
At first, using the words “censorship” and ” media” will inevitably bring in an abundance of negative reactions, especially in the 21st century and in an era of technology and global communication. In terms of social media, however, the debate goes further than initial reactions.

Censorship of social media sites are often compared to the censorship of books, films, or the press — most people do not support such censorship and social media in some ways fits into the category. But because of the complex nature of social media (where everyone can be an author and everyone can have access), it is hard to directly apply the same principles.

Furthermore, social media sites have been used to both organise mass protests that have fueled success (e.g. Egypt and the Arab Spring) to violence (e.g. instant messaging services facilitated the London riots). False information is notorious for appearing in, and being shared around via social media sites. Twitter users’ panic tweets about gunmen attacking schools in Mexico allegedly led to 26 car accidents. There are also notions of social media sites being used to develop and strengthen underground cults and gangs in urban centres, such as in Los Angeles to London.

With no proper means of addressing and defining social media (after all, is it really “media”?), governments are left to do as pleased given the right purposes. China, for one, has been known historically to censor internet content. But as a recent Carnegie Mellon University study has shown, Chinese web users have also cleverly found many ways to access forbidden sites and micro blogs to serve their political or social purposes. Iran similarly has just posed another ban on social media outlets, making it more difficult for citizens to communicate, repressing Iranians instead of empowering them through what used to be an easy communication tool.

Kony 2012 and the new age of internet 
Returning to the discussion of Invisible Children Inc, Kony 2012 has become one of the most highly viewed videos of recent times on YouTube. The video has attracted notable celebrities such as Ryan Seacrest, Justin Beiber, Rhianna, Alec Baldwin and Taylor Swift who used their Twitter accounts to spread awareness of the video. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has reported that the first two days after the video was released online, 77% of Twitter conversation was supportive compared with only 7% that was skeptical. However, since its release, there has also been a massive rise in actually analysing both the video and the content from bloggers and journalists so that since March 7, when the response picked up dramatically, the percentage of tweets reflecting skepticism increased to 17%.

And the criticisms are increasing. Some of the main denigration of Kony 2012 in recent days has been on its depiction of Uganda, and how the events covered in the video was the story of the past, and not the current state of the war-wrecked nation. The image of Africa as depicted in the video was also troubling. “This is another video where I see an outsider trying to be a hero rescuing African children. We have seen these stories a lot in Ethiopia, celebrities coming in Somalia,” said Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan blogger who explained that the video only showcased Africa as hopeless and constantly needing outside help. A lot of phrases like “white man’s burden” have also appeared among blog sites. Social media has both the ability to be used to increase awareness of a topic, and to also increase awareness of the details and critics of the topic itself in a very timely manner, as noted in the case of Kony 2012.

Social media is a very recent, and a very relevant player in today’s politics, as evidenced by increased government attention and also, government regulation and censorships. However, social media is also not the “only thing” and can often be misguided. The rules of checking facts, the sources, and basic common sense still applies to tweets and Facebook updates — just as it does for the press. Perhaps such caution is warranted even more for social media outlets because of its ability to be used by the masses and not just experts. Rather than information sharing, social media has perhaps been more actively purposeful for organising, whether that was in the Arab Spring, or as now with Kony 2012 in leading massive attention to a little known leader in the outside world of Uganda.

Nigerian human rights campaigner Omoyele Sowore states it best like it is: “The Internet has helped revolution; but the Internet is not revolution.”

Olinda Hassan is a graduate of Wellesley College, and continues to discusses various musings in her blog at

Published: Women in the Workplace: Gender-specific challenges in the corporate world (Daily Star)

The article can be found in this month’s Forum magazine supplement of the Daily Star or online by clicking here.

Women in the Workplace:Gender-specific challenges in the corporate world

OLINDA HASSAN explores the role of female participation and leadership in the workplace.

The last decade has witnessed an impressive rise of women in the workforce in Bangladesh. The encouraging rate of growth has been reflected in a variety of sectors. Being able to identify some women in high positions in the normally male-driven corporate industry is certainly encouraging. With change comes a social pressure for cultural shifts in perceptions. For example, today, the working women’s future ‘dreams’ are not just obtaining independence, but advancing in their respective careers. Such notions of career advancement closely resemble the historical aspirations of men. However, women’s paths towards such dreams are vastly different from men and the reaction that such women face from their peers and families continue to be problematic. Combined with the general consequences of a patriarchal society, women in Bangladesh’s corporate world are driven by additional determinants — How should I get ahead as a woman? How do I manage my life at home alongside my career? How do I deal with family expectations?

Traditional gender-roles and seeking female leadership in the workplace

A reason why women in South Asia, such as in Bangladesh, opt out of professional careers is to raise their children. Because of continued stigma attached to women and raising children at home, a woman’s continuation of work after birth remains a cultural obstacle. Women in South Asia also continue to have an uneven share of responsibilities when it comes to taking care of their elderly parents and/or parents-in-law. Combined with having to take care of children, many South Asian women find it exceptionally difficult to resume their careers at the level they left since they are unable to remain connected or develop professionally in a linear fashion.

Moreover, women’s participation in Bangladesh’s movements continue to be limited in scope. To this day, whether married or not, young or old, women face a harder time being able to work odd hours, overtime, or over weekends — the types of commitment that are needed in a competitive, corporate world. Women in general face more pressure than their male counterparts to explain and gain approval from their home as to why she would need to work longer hours, or why she would have to take a certain work trip out of town, for example.

The movements of female workers at the workplace are more scrutinised with a magnifying glass than their male counterparts. “As women, we already face advances from our male colleagues. I have even been advised to flirt with them in order to be heard. The definition of what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is definitely much more difficult to navigate for us than it is for our male colleagues. There is just too much cultural pressure,” said one female communications manager for a multinational corporation in Dhaka who asked for anonymity.

At the work place, it is more difficult for women to break into a male-dominated industry, since a woman in leadership or seeking a leadership position must showcase that she is as capable as any other man at work. She must work hard, if not harder, to gain staff respect and understanding.

Thus, women often have to choose between their career and their family life as both components require much attention and physical presence.

However, some of the difficulties listed above may be used as excuses and are self-created. In a recent article in Business Standard, Vinita Bali, the managing director of Britannia Industries was asked about how she felt working in a male-dominated industry and she expressed that sometimes, “we talk about it so much we make it bigger than what it is.” While problems may exist, embedded problems from culture can be changed. Women must thus be more vocal in defending themselves at their home and create a reasonable venue for approval and understanding. After all, more women than ever hold corporate positions in Bangladesh, and this could not have been gained without achieving understanding between families and communities.

“This isn’t a golf-playing, beer-drinking homogeneous culture,” Naina Lal Kidwai, Group Managing Director and Country Head of HSBC in India once said in an interview regarding corporate women in South Asia. “Women could join the workplace on their own terms…You still have to network; you still have to work hard, but that made it easier” (HRM Asia).

Appearances, its judgments, and why it may matter to a woman’s employment

The Bangladeshi corporate woman can instigate all kinds of images. You have the one who wears stylish, trend-setting saris and comes to work with her designer bag and always perfect hair and flawless makeup. On one hand, she embodies professionalism with her clean, clear cut modern image. On the other hand, she is seen as a bit too much — a bit too modern, a bit too smart, a bit too out there. Who does she think she is, better than all of us?– a common Bangladeshi sentiment arises. The leading corporate woman can also wear a simple sari or shalwar kameez, with visible dark circles under her eyes and non-flashy shoes and I-care-more-about-my-files bag. This can generate a nod of approval from those who want to see a hard worker, but she can also be subjected to being too simple, too sloppy, and too intelligent. Either way, no matter how she dresses and presents herself, a negative perception and related typecasting can, and most often does, follow.

With slow economy worldwide and higher competition among job seekers, men and women alike are facing new challenges in the market. Interestingly, in the array of research, articles and advice blogs written to aid women, there has been a particular assertion: looks matter.

“If you want to get a raise or a promotion, you might want to throw on a pair of heels and suck in that belly. Your looks can help (or hinder) your chances of getting a well-deserved promotion, regardless of qualifications, especially in a sour economy when advancements are few and hard to come by,” recently wrote journalist Laura Sinberg for Forbes, one of the leading publications for corporate America. According to the Journal of Labor Economics,attractive people earn about 5% more than their average-looking colleagues.

A 2009 study by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that 73% of women felt a “youthful appearance” played a role in getting a job, promotion, or getting and keeping clients. Many in the study cited difficult economic times as the reason for such a sentiment; the better-looking are the ones advancing in their careers where competition has become even more rigorous.

Such statements and studies may seem anti-feminist and anti-women’s movement. It certainly can be seen as offensive. But given the recent economy, women are certainly taking the looks-factor into consideration.

In Bangladesh, the number of working-women who are in the rising stage of their careers, between the age of 25-45 are visiting the parlours more than ever, opting for work-appropriate looks ranging from haircuts to subtle manicures. New boutiques and fashion houses are offering more and more “work-appropriate clothing” specifically created to make a woman feel and look more serious. Young women employed in major business and banking industries in the city are increasingly “looking the part.” It is not that one should ever not look work-appropriate; rather, there is a conscious decision made by many women to have to look attractive in the workplace, beyond just being “presentable”.

“The first lesson I learned as a South Asian woman is, I don’t have to compromise my values, but I really need to understand how I articulate them,” said Shahla Aly, a general manager at Microsoft at a conference at Harvard Business School in 2005 in a discussion about South Asian women at work. “My need to dress modestly can be articulated in dress that is more pervasive. At that point [when she first began her corporate job], I had not yet earned the right to be different.”

Countering stereotypes as women increase their visibility in corporate South Asia

South Asian women in business sometimes endure stereotypes exclusive to Asian women; on one hand, they are deemed as very intelligent, sharp, and able to think from varied angles. However, they are also often labelled as passive and submissive, and unassertive. In the corporate business world, these perceived qualities can hamper a woman’s professional growth. Additionally, there is a massive disconnect between an educational system in Bangladesh that now produces a large quantity of female graduates and a business climate that has not yet included this talent pool. Even if a woman is hired for a higher-end position, she will earn less and have lower chances of a promotion than her male counterpart.

A recent survey by Catalyst found that companies with female board directors consistently outperform corporations without women on the board in areas such as return on equity, return on sales, and return on invested capital. Another study posted on the Harvard Business Review cites such trends to qualities such as women invest more on preparation before board meetings and have higher attendance rates. They seek to broaden the scope of discussions and bring in a different set of characteristics that makes any corporate board unique and all-encapsulating. Given the recent economic climate worldwide, such characteristics are needed more than ever for struggling or expanding industries.

The discussion of what inhibits female growth and entrance into professional roles in Bangladesh (in an age when we have become focused on addressing gender gaps) takes place in the light that more women than ever are indeed advancing their careers in South Asia. Let us take India for example: foreign banks (e.g. HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) and the country’s ICICI Bank and Axis Bank are all run by women. Half of the deputy governors at the Reserve Bank of India are women (HRM Asia). Even though the traditional Indian society is patriarchal like Bangladesh, modern women in the region do not need to act like the stereotypical male banker to advance their careers.

Increasing the representation of women on corporate and governing boards is not singularly a women’s issue — it is a gender issue, for both men and women, and a professional concern. It is often asserted that putting women in leadership positions can broaden a company’s perspective on social welfare issues and “counteract the ’empathy deficit’ on corporate boards” (World Economic Forum). While these studies certainly place attention upon women, it is time women take on more active roles and be seen not just as female leaders, but as leaders. Women, whether they choose to dress for success and maintain traditional norms are certainly able to also juggle a career. Both women and men must make a conscious decision to champion diversity and open the path for other women — it is not impossible unless it is tried, experimented and fought for.

Olinda Hassan is a graduate of Wellesley College, and continues to discuss various musings in her blog atolindahassan.

My review of Srabonti’s album launch (as published in the Daily Star)

Click here to read online at the Daily Star.

I wrote this as an assignment when I had the privilege of going to Srabonti Ali’s first solo album, in collaboration with Arnob. It was a particularly chilly December night and Srabonti was dressed in her casual jeans and black cover, singing some of her new works while fans cheered on in the courtyard. Izumi in Gulshan 2 was booked in its entirety for the event which included close friends and followers, in particular of Arnob. Read below for details:

Album Launch

Srabonti Ali’s “Deluded”

By Olinda Hassan

On a cold Monday (December 19) evening, music enthusiasts and well-wishers gathered at Izumi in Gulshan, Dhaka to celebrate the unveiling of Srabonti Narmeen Ali’s album “Deluded”. With Buno (Bangla) on bass and Zohad (Nemesis) on percussion in an intimate setting, Srabonti, in collaboration with Arnob, delivered a stirring performance, starting with the single “Badha”. “Deluded” is an evocative, engaging debut for Srabonti, who described her first solo album as “eccentric, real, and varied.” With both Bangla and English pieces blended together to create a new kind of collection, the album was recorded here in Dhaka, a city she describes in several of her singles.

In front of a wall fountain, sitting next to Arnob on the guitar, Srabonti delivered her new music with ease — each song greeted with rounds of applause and cheers from the crowd who came to see and hear the duo. Fans cheered on from Izumi’s courtyard and balcony, especially after the performance of “My City”. Written and composed by Srabonti, “My City” describes the complexities of Dhaka which she personified through her lyrics: “…I think she’s lost her way, in the morning there’s always hell to pay. Me, I’ve made the darkness my home, I’ve found all its demons and together we roam.”

Along with her traditional Bangla music background, Srabonti also grew up with a lot of hip-hop and R&B which comes out in “Deluded”. Bringing in the likes of Bangladeshi rapper Young Hollywood in singles such as “Deluded”, and the much hyped “Shut Up and Dance”, the album echoes the voices of this ever-changing city.

“I loved working with Arnob because he is very open to my suggestions and tried to incorporate who I am in the music,” said Srabonti when asked about her collaboration with the talented musician. “For example, there is a lot of hip-hop in this album, which he isn’t used to but we were still able to incorporate it. He never made me feel like I didn’t have a say in it.”

Srabonti connected with the audience further by going beyond her album and singing a cover of the Dixie Chicks’ version of “Landslide” within her performance. This was followed by transitioning smoothly to singing Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough”, further showcasing her hold on multiple music genres. “Along with hip-hop, I also like contemporary country music, like the Dixie Chicks,” Srabonti said with a laugh when asked about her musical approaches. “I am really happy with my solo album, and excited to share something new.”

“Deluded” has been produced and distributed by Rage Records.

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.