photography, research

women warriors: Rabeya Khatun

Rabeya Khatun sits on her bed in her home in Barisal, Bangladesh. April 2011.

Apni amar meye, Rabeya Khatun says as she presses me in a tight embrace.  You are my daughter.

I had met Rabeya only an hour and a half ago. With the sun quickly darting from the sky, she gathered herself quietly in the corner of the sofa in the beginning of our time together. What are you doing here, she asks, why have you come? I want to learn from you about what happened in 1971, I say, how did the Liberation War affect your life? She holds my simple question for a moment, looking down slightly at her hands, before beginning a story she has told in full only a handful of times before.  As she speaks, memories fill her eyes and I watch as the war opens in front of her.  Her tale gains momentum, twisting from her childhood to her home life to the battlefield.  Her voice becomes shrill as she leaps up, bending over, motioning how Pakistani soldiers held her back as they killed her son.  Her eyes become electric, her stories continue without prompting, with words and memories she has not shared in years spilling out, tumbling onto our hands and notebooks folded quietly in our laps.  The diary she kept during 1971 shakes in her grasp as she sings a few lines from it, songs from the war camps.  Her voice breaks at the melody’s end, and she settles back down onto the sofa, gazing down at the pages clutched in trembling fingers.

We share tea as she leads me around the house, pointing out pictures and objects that help bring the memories back.  The time grows short and I have to catch the launch back to Dhaka, but first she takes me up to her roof to view the setting sun as it comes over the tops of the trees, spilling bright orange light onto her like-colored sharee.  It is there that she looks into my eyes, and this women, who lost her husband and son in a war to which she gave herself fully, calls me, an American girl she has only known a couple of hours, her daughter.

Rabeya, and a handful of other courageous, beautiful, and remarkably strong women have become a part of my life through an inquiry began six months ago upon my arrival in Bangladesh.  Since then, I have been exploring the post-conflict experiences and struggles of the Bangladeshi women who played frontline roles as combatants in Bangladesh’s war of independence, and who, since the creation of the nation in 1971, have had to struggle not only for justice, compensation, equal rights and recognition, but also for their dignity, honor and womanhood.

The project started as a kernel of an idea, sparked by photographs I saw in Drik Photo Agency’s 1971 archives of Bangladeshi women in beautifully draped white sharees, marching in perfect lines, rifles perched on their shoulders.  Images led to questions – What was the role of women in this war? Why isn’t their history as readily known as other narratives in the mainstream? – that have blossomed into what is now this “Women Warriors” project.  Though a largely independent endeavor, the work is now supported by The Aftermath Project, an organization founded by documentarian and storyteller, Sara Terry, which supports projects focusing on challenges faced and coping mechanisms developed by communities following conflict.

The women that I have met and the stories that I have heard through this work have been fascinating and heartbreaking.  Conversations have included women who formed the movement, meeting every week under a banyan tree at Dhaka University to protest the continued oppression of the West Pakistani political elite; those who dedicated their lives to the war, losing children and spouses, parents and siblings, all they felt closest to; women who provided unwavering care and shelter to extended family and fellow fighters, strengthening the war effort and moving it forward; those who stepped into spaces that even many men would not dare to go.

“Women Warriors” aims to highlight these stories, to find and record the histories and accounts of more women like Rabeya.  It hopes to create a broad and in-depth visual and oral documentation, one that focuses on the courageous and crucial role these women played in Bangladesh’s struggle for liberation, and the challenges they have encountered in reconstructing their own lives since. This project explores the demands of the dual-identity of fighter and caregiver, and what it means for those women who have assumed it.  It investigates the individual efforts that were required to overcome the rejection by their community, which so many had to face upon returning from war.

The conversations that I have had since moving to Bangladesh have made the purpose and urgency of this project increasingly clear.  Each woman I speak with has a beautiful and vital voice, and while some have been heard loudly and clearly in the past, far too many have not.  Like Rabeya’s, some have come pouring out having been held inside for years, decades even.  Acknowledging and documenting these histories is a crucial part of the reconciliation process, and vital if Bangladesh – and the women who fought for its independence – are to find justice and peace.  As these women share their stories, I will share them on here, along with a few images from the trips to speak with these extraordinary warriors.

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travel logs, 1: southeast asia logistics

The sites detailing where, when, and how to visit Asia are far from numerous.  But in planning recent trips, I’ve found information scattered across multiple sites, hidden within sub-pages, or just a bit too ill-formatted to enjoy reading.

So, in the interest of encouraging visits to Asia (new testimonials from Mama D’Amore to come!), I’m going to start posting travel information in segments on this site.  It’ll be grouped by region (South Asia versus Southeast Asia) and will include details on flights, visas, and health prep, as well as where to go and how to prepare to get there.  This first entry is a slightly more logistics-oriented one on Southeast Asia – a favorite destination on account of its high-value & low cost accommodations, fascinating history, and stellar beaches (really stellar).  Where to go and what to do will come in a later post.

Conveniently, as Bangladesh serves as some sort of boundary between South and Southeast Asia, it’ll be included in both groupings!  Surely no bias here, though.

SOUTHEAST ASIA-BASED AIRLINES:

Are numerous!  Often Singapore, Kuala Lampur, and Bangkok are the origins of the cheapest direct flights, so routing your trip through those locales will often save you time and money.  A few of the best/cheapest carriers are:

The airlines above that are bolded are the budget ones, often with crazy cheap tickets (read: $0 fares + taxes and fees, translating into $20 one-way rates).  There are other ones as well, but these are some of the best and most reliable.  For example, one other large Bangladesh airline is Biman (literally means plane in Bangla), but it’s notorious for delayed flights and shotty service.  If you’re in a pinch, though, it’s a good standby with non-stops to many locations – so if none of these have what you’d like, don’t be discouraged.

TO ASIA FROM THE UNITED STATES:

Airlines that fly from the east coast to Asia include Continental, United (the American, not Bangladeshi one), American, and Cathay Pacific.  Many Asian Airlines (like Singapore Air) are also beginning to offer transcontinental flights for cheap, often with pretty exceptional web-promos, so checking those sites sometimes works, too.  The Asian airlines listed above often fly direct to the west coast of the U.S., so it’s definitely worthwhile looking if you’re starting from anywhere west of the Mississippi!

Interestingly, roundtrip flights to Dhaka right now are relatively inexpensive compared to those that go straight to Southeast Asia than those to (1400 v. 1700 USD) – unfortunately, likely a result of the trouble in the Mid East.  While gas prices have risen for nearly everyone, it’s less of a worry for the mideast airlines (which are the ones that fly to Dhaka) – as the same governments who control the flights also control the wells.  Suggested airlines to take from anywhere in the U.S. to DAC are Etihad (the best, I think!), Qatar, Emirates, Gulf Air, and Kuwait Airways.  Flying on to Bangkok or Kuala Lampur is often exceedingly cheap from Dhaka (with one-ways starting at $100).

I usually find bookings on Kayak and then book with cheaptickets.com, which often has the cheapest fairs and decent customer service.  Which is very, very important.  I would NOT recommend airfare.com – when trying to switch my flight to Dhaka back in the Fall, I was put on hold for literally seven hours.  And then the call dropped.  Ask my mother, it wasn’t pretty.

VISAS

  • Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia: not necessary for US citizens!
  • Cambodia and Laos: visas are about $25-$50 upon arrival for each.
  • Vietnam and Bangladesh: are the challenging ones in the region.  Travisa is an excellent visa processing service that doesn’t cost much more ($5 extra?) than just walking your passport over to an embassy/consulate yourself, so I’ve always gone through them.  You FedEx them your passport with all the various forms and a self addressed envelope, and they FedEx it back with when it’s done!  The length of time it takes to get a visa varies by country and  – unfortunately – your personal background (what your country of origin is, etc.), but for each Vietnam and Bangladesh I would allow about two weeks.  If you can do it a month or two in advance, that’d be even better.
    • Vietnam: tourist visas cost different amounts dependent on their length and whether they’re single or multiple entry   – the single entry 1 month visa is $75, while the multiple entry 1 month is $105.
    • Bangladesh: single, double, and multiple entry tourist visas for up to a year all cost the same amount ($155, SORRY!  we need the money?).  So if I were you, I’d just apply for the year-long one.  The ‘desh is a lovely place, why not come back??

VACCINES

As someone who was once called a pincushion by a travel clinician, I can tell you that getting vaccines has become virtually painless – most health insurance plans cover all vaccine-related costs, and the nurse practitioners who take care of such things are extraordinarily well informed.  Your primary care provider will likely have an in-house travel clinic, but if they don’t, you can search for one near you here.  Going to see the travel clinicians is actually quite fun – a trip to Asia inspires a few ooohs and aaahs, and they love doing the research needed for more oddball destinations.  It may be a few extra needles, but the security provided by getting these vaccines is great.  Cause often, hospitals where you’re going are not (although, increasingly they are!  But still get vaccinated!).

  • MalaysiaSingapore, and ThailandHepatitis AHepatitis B (three shots, spread out over six months, with the second shot 1 month after the first, and the third shot 3 months after the first ), Typhoid, and Japanese Encephalitis (this one requires three shots spread out over a month – at days 0, 7, and 30);
  • CambodiaLaos, and Vietnam: same as thailand, plus rabies (good if you’re planning on hiking or being in remote areas at all – as the vaccine doesn’t protect you from rabies, but does give you an extra 12-24 hours to get to a hospital after a bite);
  • Bangladesh: all the above!  Plus polio.
  • Yellow Fever Vaccine: many countries in Southeast Asia (Thailand included) require that you get vaccinated against Yellow Fever and then certified that you were vaccinated (they give you a lil’ yellow card that says so) before you can enter the country.  You have to present the card at immigration upon arrival, so do make sure you keep it after the travel clinician gives it to you at the end of the appointment.
  • Malaria: the best malaria prophylactic medicine is Malarone – while it’s a bit more expensive, the alternatives can give you nausea/hallucinations, so I’d not recommend those?  Worth the extra $20!  You need enough to take one pill a day 1-2 days before entering the affected area, then throughout the time you’re there, and a week after you leave.  Risk areas for different countries are:
    • Bangladesh: all areas, except in city of Dhaka
    • Cambodia: present throughout the country, except none at the temple complex at Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, and around Lake Tonle Sap. (more information)
    • Laos: all, except none in the city of Vientiane. (more information)
    • Malaysia: present in rural areas of Malaysian Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak), and to a lesser extent in rural areas of peninsular Malaysia. (more information)
    • Singapore: none
    • Thailand: rural, forested areas that border Cambodia, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar). Rare local cases in Phang Nga and Phuket. None in cities and in major tourist resorts. None in cities of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pattaya, Koh Samui, and Koh Phangan. (more information)
    • Vietnam: rural only exceptnone in the Red River Delta and the coast north of Nha Trang.  Rare cases in the Mekong Delta. None in Da Nang, Haiphong, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Nha Trang, and Qui Nhon. (more information)
  • Cipro: it’s also a good idea to get a prescription or two of cipro, an antibiotic used for travelers’ upset stomach that will generally kill anything that’s hiding in your stomach if you get bad food poisoning!

And that’s all for now.  By no means comprehensive, but hopefully a bit helpful in demystifying the process that is planning a trip to Asia.  For the actual length of the trip, I’d recommend at least three weeks, if not longer – the most expensive aspect of the trip, by far, is the flight.  Once you’re here, cost of living can be exceedingly low (depending on the kind of vacation you’re looking for) and there’s a great amount to see.  One aspect on which I differ from many travelers is the itinerary, often preferring to spend longer periods of time in fewer places, rather than trying to bounce around and hit every locale on the checklist.  Most places take at least a couple of days to get your bearings in, and so allowing yourself time to wander the streets and really get a feel for the place is, IMHO, well worth the price of not seeing nearly as many new spots.  But everyone has their own style, so feel free to completely disregard this portion of the post.  Or any part of it!  Hopefully it’s helpful, and do feel free to drop a line with any questions you may have.

Happy planning!

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conversation on the dangers of dolls

Alisha and I met last year in the Institute for Global Leadership’s EPIIC Colloquium on South Asia; she was always one of the most inquisitive in the class, always posed the hardest questions to the guest speakers, was always staying late and doing more work than was required.

So I wasn’t surprised, but was certainly excited, when a message from her as a response to a previous post on portrayals of white women in Bollywood videos popped up in my inbox a few days ago.  It’s evolved into the start of an interesting little conversation, and so I asked if I could share the exchange on here – she’s agreed, and so here it is now.

The original post, The Dangers of Dolls, can be found on the other side of that link.  Below, you’ll find her response in full, followed by the little note I wrote back.

The idea of the white woman as more loose, and less clad, is not recent. I definitely carried this stereotype with me to the US and I don’t think it was because of the background dancers I saw in films, I think it was because of what I saw in mainstream American films, particularly chick flicks. It’s the cheerleader phenomenon, and that image created by the Hollywood industry is just something the Bollywood industry is now using because of two things: 1) the Indian fascination with white skin 2) the mistaken belief that an Indian women’s modesty is more pure, important and intact than a foreigners. I’m sure you can relate to the second point from what you’ve told me about and written of your experiences in Bangladesh.

I don’t know if you’ve discovered the phenomenon of “item numbers” yet. They are basically sexy cabaret songs and we have a slew of women in Bollywood famous for being “item girls” – and these are the women (for the most part) in the industry seen at the bottom of ladder because they are Indian women choosing to play the role seen as only fitting for the white background dancers in the minds of the Indian audience. They are the subject of trash talk and lewd jokes.

While the white dancers aren’t chosen particularly for their dancing skills, they are chosen because they cost less and provide the same value. For example, Shiamak Davar’s Dance Co. – what is now one of the premier Bollywood dance companies – has dancers that are ready to provide skimpy clothing along with sexiness and high quality dancing.  For example,

But the skin will never be bared in quite the same way, and I think this is also because (having been part of the amateur group in the company for some time) most of the Indian dancers just aren’t ready, especially en masse, to bare it like that. There is too much at stake – being disowned from your family, marriage prospects, reputation. Not that it doesn’t happen these days, and isn’t happening more, but it’s more of a struggle with the Indian female dancers. I remember that in our dance shows where our directors wanted us to wear some of the type of clothes you’ve described in the videos you chose, we wore full skin leotards underneath if we wanted to. More often though, we weren’t asked to bare skin in a way that made us feel cheap.

I don’t know if there’s one particular point im trying to make. I’m just giving you some more info, and saying that I don’t think what you’ve experienced as a white woman in Bangladesh stems simply from a Bollywood desire to denigrate the image of the white woman.

P.S. For a good depiction of a white woman, watch Lagaan. Even though the white female lead isn’t American, she’s British, she’s as white as it gets. The caveat there is that the film is set in pre-Independence India.

-Alisha Sett, Tufts University (A’12)

And my response:

Alisha, thanks so much for writing this – yours is a fascinating insight into an issue that I’ve only just begun to explore.  The points that you make are spot on – Bollywood is just following the lead of Hollywood, and so it’s no surprise that the image of white women is essentially a mirror of many of those portrayals seen in the US.

The aspect of this all that is most troubling to me is that the depiction is so one-dimensional; while white girls are certainly portrayed as sex objects and ditzes willing to don just about anything (or nothing) in American films, they are also shown in other roles – as brilliant lawyers and secret agents and powerful single mothers – and the list keeps growing as women continue to fill more roles in American society.  These certainly do not eliminate the idea of woman as sex object that we receive so often from the American media, but they do make it more layered and complex.

The danger with recent Bollywood films/music videos, as I’ve seen, is that there is only one role for white woman, and it is one that it is seen over and over again. I’ve yet to watch a Bollywood film with a white woman in a strong, confident, sassy role like those the leading South Asian women play. (To be my own devil’s advocate, there are far too few Hollywood films with women of color in such roles as well.  But really that’s a whole other issue – that women of color just aren’t cast in films nearly as often in the States, in any role.)  Where in contrast, white women seem to be being sought out more and more often in South Asian films – a number of my white friends here in Dhaka have been recruited for such films – but only in this one familiar part.  And that’s where the problem lies.

In the end, the point of the piece as I intended it was not so much a critique of Bollywood – I don’t blame the industry for assuming the image projected by successful white actress after successful white actress in the US – but rather to speak to how it’s affected my time as a white woman in South Asia.  How I think it has directly influenced the way that men treat me at work, on the streets, everyday.  That they speak to me and approach me and, at times, touch me in a way that they would never dare to do with a Bangladeshi woman.  And that the reason for that lies beyond the fact that I am different – they would likely not act the same way with a Black or East Asian woman (although, this is again something I’m just surmising, and open to be proved wrong by the experiences of ex-pats in South Asia!)  – rather that it lies in the fact that to them, white skin equals open, easy, and ready to bare all.  And that now they don’t just have to turn to American media to receive that.  It can be found in local – and therefore more familiar and understandable – media and entertainment.

Mine is not a rigorous or conclusive analysis by any means, it is more just my own musings on this idea that popped into my head recently, and has remained there ever since.  I really appreciate your taking the time to write, as I think it’s helped me clarify ideas, and made me challenge a number of other ones I came up with in the first place.

And so I’m curious to know – are there any other voices that would like to weigh in on the conversation?  Bollywood fanatics?  Fellow ex-pats?  Otherwise interested individuals?  I’d love to have my ideas questioned, and to know more about this all in general.  So do write (elizabethdherman (at) gmail (dot) com) or leave a comment if you’d like to add your opinion.  And thanks for reading!

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