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what do your days look like in Dhaka?

This, the most frequently asked question I’ve received in the past seven months, is the one that I often feel the most hesitant writing home about.  It’s not because there’s not much to tell about or because I think my projects are particularly dull to others (hope not!), but rather because of a slight aversion that I’ve developed to day-to-day recounting of events from ‘far away’.  Back when I started the first iteration of this blog from Paris in 2008, I made a small pact with myself that I’d try to avoid ‘travel blogging’ as much as possible, convinced that such posts were boring or too self-indulgent, something that would drive friends, family, and readers to the mouse faster than I could finish a whole post.  But after hearing about the wide-spread popularity of my Mama’s blog, and considering how much I often crave to hear little details of friends’ days – of how distance makes knowing even just the mundane seem like little treasures – my opinions are slowly changing.

So I thought it was high time to write a little bit about what I actually do in this water-logged, people-packed, and lovely little nation I now fairly readily call home – or at least part of my conception of what constitutes it.

A quick note before I do – this doesn’t mean that this space will become a diary of sorts, I’m not good at doing what my Mom or other Fulbrighters in the past have done so well, in giving full-on accounts on what days and nights look like over here.  (Seriously, check out this one American in Dhaka’s blog, it’s incredible – a true log of all his daily activities, a treasure trove of memories.  And makes quite a bit of sense coming from him given his research, which chronicled the number of riders and timing of each and every bus route in Dhaka.  No easy task when they look like this.)  But I think I too often write in the abstract, and knowing details of what’s what is not only helpful in stitching together an image of what Bangladesh looks like (at least with the lens through which I see it), but also key in providing background and context for those other, more off-in-space pieces.

Afternoon traffic in Dhaka.

So. What am I working on in Bangladesh?  The first three months, I mainly focused on learning the language – Bangla, or Bengali (the former being the Bangla name, the latter the English translation – think Deutschland and Germany), taking classes five days a week, four hours a day, plus 10 hours of one-on-one with a language partner to practice conversational Bangla each week.  While the classes were only from 9 to 1 each day, between the conversation practice and the homework and the test prep (we had one every Monday!) and the courses, it ended up eating up quite a bit of my days and nights those first three Dhakan months.

But around the second week in I started feeling little ancy (didn’t take long…!) about not making any progress on my research during the classwork.  So, with the help of my affiliate here in Bangladesh, the Power and Participaiton Research Center run by Hossain Zillur Rahman, I found a research assistant to help me begin to sort through the archives at the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, the agency that regulates textbook revision and publication in Bangladesh.  Mizan, my RA (I know, weeeird), would go down to the NCTB three to four times a week to dig through the shelves, identify textbooks of relevance from 1960 to the present, and note the appropriate pages.  I would join two or three days after class to go through those stack of books and photograph large portions of them, as I wasn’t allowed to take any of them from the building.

CNG central.

While it wasn’t a particularly difficult task, it ended up being fairly challenging in some unexpected ways; as classes didn’t end until 1 pm, that meant that I had to grab a quick lunch as soon as it ended, hail down and hop into a CNG (or, cage on wheels, as pictured above), and make the hour-plus trek in post-school traffic (many schools in the city let off around that time, and the route I was taking was always a particularly popular one) down to Motijheel, the part of the city in which NCTB is, to try to squeeze in two and a half hours of work before the institute closed at 5pm.  The NCTB library itself was an interesting workspace – a dusty, ill-kept room – but worth every sneeze.  A treasure trove of information, well-supplied with textbooks from all subjects in the years since the country’s inception (and sometimes, even before that).  It was without an AC, with a fan that worked when the power was on, which was only occasionally.  That also meant we were often sifting through and photographing books by candle/flashlight, as the room was windowless.  And who says archival work is dull?

That portion of the work wrapped up a few weeks after my classes ended, at which point I began the next stage of the project – speaking with policy makers, educators, and historians about the political and educational structures of Bangladesh.  This was less about the main research question itself (how do politics influence education?) and instead more about trying to draw a clear diagram of the inner-workings and mechanisms of the Bangladeshi state.  While there have been a number of previous studies done on educational infrastructure within the country, as a fairly politically volatile state, it is highly subject to swings and shifts in its priorities and policies.  I wanted to get a picture of the institutions themselves and visualize how various agencies fit together, in order to try to isolate precisely at which decision-making levels political dynamics filter into and influence curriculum and textbook development.

This meant many phone calls, office runs, contact snowballing, flakey appointment-makers – and a whole lot more CNG riding.  I got through 200 pages or so of Infinite Jest mostly from within the confines of the green bars of those baby taxis.  That portion of the research is now just beginning to slow down – although, it’s likely that it won’t ever really feel complete.  But that’s actually quite a great feeling (if it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t have any work to do!).

In the belly of the beast.

And I’m now in the planning stages for what is, by far, the most intimidating portion of the research – the school visits.  Meaning heading out to all corners of the country to visit schools and speak with teachers, students, parents, and educational administrators about the ways in which they use textbooks in their classrooms and homes.  While it would be ideal to just take off and show up on school stoops, it’s been far more complicated than I originally imagined, from getting permissions, to arranging transportation, to finding a research assistant/translator who can travel outside of the city for a couple of weeks on end, to structuring the visits themselves.

Not to make it more confusing, but I’m also trying to double up on the site visits, so to speak, to look for women who were involved in the Liberation War in each location that beckons for educational research.  It’s part of a separate, but related project on the Liberation War that I’ve been piddling away at since arriving, slowly gathering information on the role that women who took up arms, or served as spies, nurses, caretakers, and so on, in Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971.  Women Warriors, as the project is called, is an oral history and photography project born out of a similar work I did during the VII/Exposure workshop in Hue, Vietnam this past summer, which focused on the post-conflict experiences of women who fought for the North Vietnamese Army in the war against the United States.  The Bangladeshi component of this project proved far more challenging than the work in Hue had been in the beginning; locating women and finding their contact information in Dhaka always felt just a couple degrees out of reach.  But with the help of a few fantastic women from three organizations – Nijera Kori (We Do It Ourselves), Mohila Parishad (Women’s Council), and Naripokkho (Women’s Society) – this incredible network of female Freedom Fighters began to emerge.  Many are still close friends with each other, meeting often to share memories and meals and family.  And a few have been kind enough to share some of their time with me.

Maleka Khan, a social worker who directed centers for women raped during the Liberation War, at her village home.

The next challenge of the project as it is emerging is to find women outside of this circle – and outside of Dhaka.  The women that I’ve spoken with thus far are incredible, with beautifully strong voices, speaking often about the importance of recognizing the plethora of roles women played in the Liberation War, of creating a narrative that extends beyond that of woman as victim, which remains the most common in the country still.  But there are many other lesser known voices of the Liberation War, many belonging to housewives and farmers residing in the rural areas of the country.  Yet much like arranging school visits, finding them has proved startlingly difficult while in Dhaka.  This most likely means that it will simply involve picking up and heading out to villages, to walk around and talk to people about their lives as they were in 1971.  There are all sorts of challenges associated with that, from the cultural taboos surrounding women that fought and families’ subsequent hesitancy to speak about it, to – again – the language barrier that is much higher for me outside of Dhaka city.  But it’s an exciting challenge, and the enthusiasm that I’ve received from those within the city thus far has been incredibly encouraging.

Taken together, this basically means that my days are open to scheduling as I see fit – both a rather overwhelming and simply fantastic prospect.  In a city that can wear you down quite quickly, having the ability to swap a dedicated workday from Wednesday to Saturday, granting yourself some time off in the middle of the week to decompress and re-evaluate, is simply invaluable.  It also means that it’s afforded a flexibility in the work that has allowed it to go off in all sorts of directions, linking with a plethora of people and organizations that I never could have anticipated when writing this proposal.  It’s meant that I’ve seen first hand the importance of long-term, on-the-ground research, the power of actually researching where your research is.  That I now realize how vital learning the language of where you’re working is, even if just at a basic level.  The kindness extended, and especially after individuals find out that I know even just a little conversational Bangla, has been astonishing and heartwarming.

These past few months have taught me a great deal, about living and operating in an entirely new culture and mentality, about learning how to pick my battles and what is in fact worth fighting for, about planning and organizing my own schedule and deadlines, about not being a student.  Thinking back to September 2010, it never ceases to amaze me that I knew no one in Bangladesh other than a few fellow Americans and a handful of contacts passed along by friends and family.  When my phone got nabbed a few weeks ago, it was saddening not because of the loss of that junky $5 handset, but rather because of the potentially unrecoverable contacts, of all the numbers saved to that little limegreen Samsung.  And something in that frustration was simply wonderful – that there was a community here, in this place that all of a year a go was just be a dot on a map in my mind, for me to fear losing.

 

Sonargon, Bangladesh.

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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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the dangers of dolls

This past December, some fantastic people had me join the dancing crew for their friend’s wedding – in Bangladeshi weddings, both the groom and the bride have the equivalent of bride’s maids and groom’s men, and each group choreographs a number of dances to perform at its respective gaye holud, the turmeric ceremony that happens a couple days before the wedding itself.

Over the course of the three weeks of practices, I got a pretty stellar crash course in some of the top Bollywood tunes of the day.  Most of them I had never heard of, although a couple were surprisingly familiar – one being the hit song from last year’s Bollywood box office topper, Love Aaj Kal (translates from Hinglish to Love These Days).  I saw the film during a flight from Germany, and while I think one’s perception of a movie’s worth is directly proportional to the height at which it’s viewed, I was pretty thoroughly involved in Jai and Meera’s romance by the end.

Its top song – “Twist” – is the biggest dance number of the film (and that’s saying something in a Bollywood flick), marking the hero’s move to a new city and his discovery of the various temptations and frivolities London has to offer.  It progresses from him dancing in the streets, to dancing in a club, to dancing with (spoiler alert!) what is soon to be his romantic interest for a significant portion of the film.

It’s a dreadfully catchy tune that was a hit at the gaye holud, with eight of us fairly successfully reenacting most of the moves (I’ve still luckily managed to avoid getting any footage from that night, so sorry – no clips!).  But one thing that occurred to me, as I was watching and re-watching the clip, trying to figure out which way your hands go when your feet twist left, was that all of the female backup dancers are, well, white.

Okay, he’s in London, so it makes some sort of sense that the girls would be caucasian (putting aside the vast diversity of London proper for the time being).  But check out the dudes in the back.  They’re not.  White, that is.  The majority of them are South Asian, or at least look to be.

I didn’t think too much of it – that is, until I started seeing the same pattern again and again in other Bollywood music videos.  For example, take the one for “Love Mera.”  Set in some sort of bizarre futuristic space ship, it even features half naked white girls (well, their torsos at least) gyrating blearily in the foreground of the scene at one point.

And “Dil Hara,” with the leading lady chastely running away from the man’s advances, albeit at the last moment possible, while the white gals (literally) throw their legs in the air.

And one more, a personal favorite of mine (Denise Richards, what are you doing there?), with a hoard of white girls dressed up as Indian brides throwing themselves at the male lead for a significant chunk of the video.

As you’re watching these, you may notice that a number of themes carry through from video to video.  There’s always a huge pack of backup dancers (white), which are generally less-clad than the South Asian leading lady; both usually sport some sort of sari blouse, but the latter with a long skirt and the former with something resembling short-shorts or bikini bottoms.  The girls in the back always stay there, in the back, never interacting with leading lady.  Occasionally they do, well, brush up against the male star, but they’re not given a passing glance.  The shots never focus on their faces, with any close-ups there may be centering on their bodies.  And, while this is an editorialization on my part, they tend to look pretty dumb – their dance moves are always a little sloppy, their outfits absurd, and they even look a little uncomfortable – out of place.  But there they are, pumping out the subcontinental dance moves to Bollywood beats in the background of each of these videos.

So, what’s the reason for their presence here?  I’m sorry to say caucasian ladies, but it’s likely not for your dancing prowess – the backup ladies (and men, in some cases) are clearly outshone by the South Asian stars in each video.  Well, yesterday a friend forwarded this article along to me, which speaks about the “white skin industry” of India.  In it, tales of white girls on extended stays to the subcontinent recount getting paid – significant amounts – to act as sorts of hostesses/hustlers in bars, to make appearances at parties in skimpy outfits, or even to simply pose for photographs at important events.  The article reads,

The white skin fetish has created its own cottage industry. Sai Hospitality India’s proprietor Rahul (no last name) says blithely, “I provide white girls for parties, business conferences, weddings: tequila girls, Arabian night dancers, pole dancers, bartenders girls and girls who only stand around at parties. My charges range from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 1.5 lakh for a girl per night. Whichever country you want, I can provide.”

Richa Singh, who works at Delhi’s KamaKazi wedding planners, raises the snobbery stakes. “We provide authentic English girls, not Lebanese, Chinese or Indian. Many companies colour the hair of Indian girls and pose them as foreigners. We’re not into such things. We charge Rs. 5,000 per girl for only standing at parties. They’re only eye candy for the guests. They’re like dolls…” she says.

This is a leaping off point for quite a few topics of conversation, one of the first being – why, exactly does this happen?  Theories of internalized racism of inferiority complexes spring to mind, but neither are by any means my specialty, so I’ll leave that to a later post, perhaps after consulting someone who knows more about these issues than I.  But the question that strikes closer to home, and that I think about on a near daily basis, is – what influence do these sorts of images have on perceptions of white women in the subcontinent?  And specifically, in Bangladesh?

In a country where the number of foreign visitors is relatively low and the number of television sets is sky-high, I think it’s fair to say that most Bangladeshis interact with caucasians much more through the screen than they do in real life.  And now, they don’t have to turn to ‘Western’ media to receive images of barely-clad white chicks.  As they begin to populate these roles as backup dancers, a new image of white women in South Asia is emerging.

Furthermore, while I have no idea what part Denise Richards plays in that other film above, the white girl that (temporarily) steals Jai’s heart in Love Aaj Kal is also played as inarticulate and unintelligent   Dumb as dirt, in fact.  So it’s not just that they’re are shown mostly nude – they’re played as easier, in both a physical and mental sense.  Meera, the Indian female lead, is depicted as a sharp and driven girl, clever and funny throughout the entire film, while White Girl barely speaks English, more often than not on screen in silent mode.  Which actually might be for the best, considering that she sounds like an airhead whenever she opens her mouth.

What with the pervasiveness of American films in the subcontinent, one might think this wouldn’t add up to very much – there are a number of movies from the U.S that could counterbalance this image, providing a much more positive, or at the very least stronger image of caucasian women.  But these are not the stereotypes, by and large, that make it across the globe.  Friends have confided, and leers and stares have reinforced, that white women are perceived by a number of Bangladeshi men as looser and more forward.  Admittedly, I am far more assertive and confrontational than a traditional Bangladeshi woman is expected to be.  But the danger of these images is that assertive, professional behavior is interpreted as an invitation for advances.  Nods and enthusiastic remarks at business meetings can be read as being ‘interested’ in the man rather than in the topic of conversation.  And when one’s work centers entirely around making contacts and connecting with individuals to conduct research and do your job, the feeling that you need to edit yourself and your behavior – to make yourself seem less interested in what you are speaking about and doing – can be deeply frustrating.

This post surely sparks a number of other questions – questions that have been at the forefront of my mind since beginning work in Bangladesh, ones that I have spoken about at length with women of all colors here, as many of the negative perceptions about working women extend beyond race and ethnicity.  These are questions on which I’m searching to hear others’ thoughts.  Questions that are currently being raised in the press, with the detention and subsequent sexual abuse of Lynsey Addario in Libya and the sexual assault of Lara Logan in Tahrir Square.  This is only just the beginning of this examination.  Where will we take it next?

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