Interview - The Woman Question - Shireen Pervin Huq

Please tell us about Naripokkho? When did it start? Where did the need for such an organization arise from?

Naripokkho was founded in May 1983. A group of us Bangladeshi women engaged in various capacities with questions of social change and development agreed at the end of a three day workshop on the need for an organised space within which the ‘woman question’ could be raised, debated, analysed and addressed without prejudice or dogma. At the time the ‘woman question’ was largely relegated to a residual category of social welfare and development or at best it was a polemical gesture on the sidelines of party politics.

Bangladesh was not even 12 years old; it was still evolving both politically and economically with few women visibly participating. One exception being the hundreds of women recruited to serve the mission of rural reconstruction and development, which was by and large implemented by international and national NGOs supported by foreign aid. Many international organizations accompanied the large influx of aid and assistance that was given to the newly independent Bangladesh by the international community. This was a world unto itself, by no means homogenous but generally characterized by a motivation to rebuild the war torn country and help the poor. It is broadly in this context, that we felt the need for a ‘third view’ on the woman question: one that would be based on the different realities and lived experiences of Bangladeshi women. Discrimination was the first fundamental in articulating a new position where women would speak for themselves, rejecting both the charitable view of social organizations and political parties as well as the instrumentalist view of developmwent agencies; a position that would clearly align itself with the notions of freedom, dignity and equality. For many, including in the women’s movement such an articulation was too radical and violated norms of propriety appropriate to the nationalist construct of the Bengali woman.

Yes, it must have seemed radical then. What were the reactions? What were your experiences with the women’s movement in Bangladesh?

If I am to speak of my experience of the women’s movement in Bangladesh then it is primarily the experience I have had as a member of Naripokkho. Personally, the first shock I had took place within a few months of forming Naripokkho when a number of women commented on our very first slogan “nari shomaj rukhey darao” (women resist!). “It is too belligerent,” they said.

The second major shock came in 1985 when a nationwide movement was being waged against violence against women. I was shocked at how leaders of the women’s movement put forward ‘important men’ as spokespersons in public meetings. I sensed an apprehension or fear that the movement must not appear to be against men! This was difficult for me to digest, when I felt strongly that the movement should have a female face and a female voice. I can cite so many more examples of encountering what was a combination of social conservatism and a general lack of analysis of violence against women as a phenomenon based on deep rooted cultural beliefs about the inferiority of women and the unequal power relations women and men are embedded in. This has definitely changed over the years. The ‘mainstream’, if I may use this term as a shorthand for the more established women’s organisations, has since engaged in the analysis, and at least as far as violence against women is concerned, the language of the movement has shifted to reflect a more systemic understanding of unequal gender relations and its ideological implications. We still have problems with the manner in which the issue is presented at times, but we have sufficient common ground to work together in the fight against violence against women.

Please give us some examples of how the language of the women’s movement has shifted in addressing violence against women.

Referring to a woman who has been raped as “dhorshita”, which literally translates in to ‘the raped one’, makes the rape an attribute of her character and identity. We prefer to use “dhorshoner sheekar nari” which means a woman who has been subjected to rape. The rape is clearly external to her; it is a crime that has been committed against her. This distinction in language makes no difference to the legal prosecution against the perpetrator, but it signals a different message as to whose burden it is. We know that in most societies women carry the burden of rape. It is imposed on her by society as well as her near and dear ones, and she herself internalises a sense of shame, guilt and worthlessness. Shifting the language we use is part of the struggle to change that.

Similarly referring to sexual assault and rape as “shombhrom hani or izzat hani”, which means loss of chastity or honour of the woman, her family and the nation, not only detracts from rape as a crime but also fails to place the burden of dishonour on the perpetrator. Even war crimes such as the rapes committed by the Pakistan army in 1971 during our freedom struggle are often talked about in terms of “amader ma boner shombhrom hani” meaning the loss of honour of our mothers and sisters.

There is a tendency by even educated and socially aware women and men to use the term “maa-bon” (mothers-sisters) to refer to women. Referring to women as “maa-bon” is symptomatic of a ‘protectionist’ approach to women and denies them their identity as fellow citizens. The politics of language has thus acquired great importance to us in Naripokkho.

Has there been a transition in the issues that the women’s movement in Bangladesh has engaged with so far or in the approaches used?

In 1987 when we started a discussion on reproductive rights, the ‘mainstream’ which was configured at the time as Oikkoboddho Nari Shomaj (United Women’s Society), a coalition of nearly 20 women’s organisations, refused to include it in their list of demands. Reproductive health and even reproductive rights is now very much on the mainstream agenda. The involvement with the ICPD process contributed greatly to that change.

In 1991 when Naripokkho organised the first meeting of women’s organisations with sex workers, there was a curious response. Some of the women leaders were surprised how alike we looked! It was another 8 years before a show of solidarity between women’s organisations and sex workers fighting eviction threats could be achieved. This too had to be carefully crafted so that we spoke of the rights of sex workers as citizens and we spoke of their human rights, but as an organisation we avoided articulating a position on sex work itself.

What is the women’s movements engagement with issues of sexuality?

The engagement with issues of sexuality has not yet acquired a place in the agenda of the women’s movement in Bangladesh. Even in my own organisation Naripokkho we have for the longest time relegated it to the occasional discussion or spurts of heightened activism as happened during the movement against the eviction of sex workers. Of course there has been a sustained effort on the part of Naripokkho to not only express solidarity with sex workers but to extend concrete support as in facilitating the formation of Ulka, the first sex workers organisation in Bangladesh, and Shonghoti, an alliance of NGOs to support the human rights of sex workers. Naripokkho continues to extend support through Shonghoti although it has long since stepped aside from a leadership role.

A more sustained effort is being made now within Naripokkho to integrate issues of sexuality and sexual rights on a broader frame and enhance our own understanding of rights work. Naripokkho organised a special workshop on Narir Jouno Jibon o Odhikar Bodh (Woman’s Sexual Life and Sense of Rights) at the 3rd National Conference of Women’s Organisations held in January 2008. This workshop generated huge interest among the representatives of more than 550 women’s organisations who participated in the conference. We have plans to take the discussion forward with Doorbar (the national network of women’s organisations) members in order to build a broad based activism around sexual rights issues.

The students of Jahangir Nagar University have led a ten year long movement against sexual harassment in campus and in May 2009 won a major victory in another landmark judgement from the High Court whereby government has been instructed to enact appropriate legislation and till then ensure that employers and educational institutions abide by the guidelines issued. Women’s organisations expressed their solidarity with this movement, and in fact the first initiative towards a policy to address sexual harassment was jointly taken by Naripokkho and Women for Women in 1998 soon after the first agitation against sexual harassment by students at the University of Dhaka.

Please tell us about the historic moments including the slogan ‘My Body, My Decision’ in the international women’s day campaign in 1994 and the landmark judgement in 1999 declaring evictions of sex workers as illegal.

The slogan “shoreer amaar, shiddhanto amaar” (My Body, My Decision) was initially used to give expression to our work on reproductive rights and as a statement about the right to bodily integrity. We decided to go public with the slogan in March 1994. During 1993-94 Naripokkho had under the dynamic leadership of Nasreen Huq engaged intensively with the ICPD process, both the inter-governmental process as well as the NGO activities and at all levels, i.e. international, regional, national and local (grass roots) levels. It seemed like an appropriate opportunity to go public with the slogan. The backlash was predictable. Journalists asked snidely if we were promoting “free sex”. Nasreen retorted on one occasion, “…it simply means I will decide who I will sleep with and when”.

The High Court verdict on the writ petition filed by a number of organisations including Naripokkho to challenge the eviction of the brothels in Tanbazaar and Nimtali in Narayanganj was a landmark judgement in that it declared the eviction illegal and recognised sex work as an occupation. However, the verdict in itself meant little for the hundreds of displaced women and children as the verdict did not include reinstatement of the brothel and its residents and made no specific provision for enforcement. It was undoubtedly a moral victory and subsequently the verdict was used to pre-empt further evictions. Eviction threats in Patuakhali, Jessore, Tangail, etc could be thwarted because of the mobilisation of Doorbar members who felt that the verdict strengthened their position in claiming protection from local administration and police.

However, in my opinion the major gain was made during the six weeks of 24 hours activism when the print media provided front page coverage and the term “jouna kormi” (sex worker) became common currency instead of the traditionally used derogatory term “potita” (the fallen one). During this time women and human rights activists marched together with sex workers, held demonstrations in front of the office of the Inspector General of Police, Department of Social Welfare and the United Nations resident mission, walked in to government offices and held meetings and press conferences. The mobilisation was unprecedented. A total of 86 non-government organisations working on women’s rights, human rights, development, etc formed Shonghoti, an alliance to support the human rights of sex workers.

It is during this movement that Naripokkho made its acquaintance with inter-sex groups, in particular the group that called itself Badhon Hijra Shongho. I think it changed the face of the women’s movement to some extent, or at least a part of the women’s movement. Who were these bold and uninhibited women at the head of the march? I would like to believe that they made it possible for many of us to also be a little less inhibited in public spaces. Most importantly for us it gave meaning to the term sexual diversity and at least for Naripokkho it has changed forever our idea of who we are. Joya1 and Kotha2 are now part of every thing we do and every event we organise.

Naripokkho was forced to engage in some self-examination when Badhon Hijra Shongho applied for membership in Doorbar, the national network of women’s organisations initiated by Naripokkho. The decision to include inter-sex people in the network was another watershed in the history of the Bangladesh women’s movement. This happened prior to the 2nd National Conference of Women’s organisations in 2002 at the end of an interesting debate about whether a hijra organisation could be identified as a women’s organisation or not. Joya asked, “If I identify with being a woman, who are you to tell me I am not?” Both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ had to be redefined….

Please tell us about the challenges you faced in the inclusion of the rights of sex workers in the dialogue on sexual rights for women.

In fact, for us the issue of sex workers rights preceded any organised dialogue on sexual rights for women. Discussions on sex work and sex workers facilitated the opening of that space. The resistance to the inclusion of the rights of sex workers in the women’s movement agenda came primarily from people, including women’s groups, who considered sex work to be immoral and a public health hazard. Views about what constituted ‘rehabilitation’ were at two opposite ends; for most rehabilitation meant a sewing machine and at best marriage whereas sex workers articulated clearly that rehabilitation could be nothing short of social acceptance. Whether sex work could be described as work was another major point of debate.

In 1997 the Kandupotti brothel in Dhaka was evicted by a horde of property speculators in the garb of religious sanctity. Prior to the eviction Mahbooba Mahmood Leena, another founder member of Naripokkho, and others had visited the brothel to learn about the conditions of women in sex work. During these visits they made the acquaintance of Momotaz a senior sex worker in the brothel. When the first eviction threats were made Momotaz along with others rushed to Naripokkho with a card that Leena had given them should they ever need to or want to contact us. Although Naripokkho members responded immediately, it was too late. The Kandupotti brothel had been demolished.

Naripokkho organised protests and press conferences against the eviction and invited other organisations to come and express their solidarity. Three organisations, Bangladesh Women’s Health Coalition, Nari Maitree and CARE responded. Together with them Naripokkho started monthly meetings with the evicted sex workers to identify possible interventions. Naripokkho provided Momotaz with a year long internship which was supported by contributions from the Naripokkho membership.

This year long internship made it possible for Momotaz to work closely with Naripokkho and learn about organisation building. During this year Momotaz worked closely with Leena who was at the time heading a project to support the formation and establishment of Doorbar. They travelled together to visit Doorbar members in many different parts of Bangladesh. Samia Afrin and Jahanara Khatun, both members of Naripokkho and at the time employed in the Network Project held weekly meetings with Momotaz and her erstwhile colleagues from Kandupotti. The result at the end of the year was the formation of Ulka, the first sex workers organisation in Bangladesh. In 1999 when the troubles began in Tanbazaar, it was Momotaz who rushed to Naripokkho and urged us to get involved.

The inclusion of Ulka in Doorbar Network in 2000 was the first milestone in this regard. Doorbar members had to be convinced that a women’s organisation could not be excluded from membership on grounds of their occupation.

The members of the central committee gave in to Naripokkho’s arguments in this regard and Ulka was made a member. However, the real resistance surfaced at the time of the first Doorbar elections in 2001 when Momotaz, with encouragement from Naripokkho, declared her intent to run for the President of the Dhaka Anchal3. Most members reacted saying how can we work under the leadership of a sex worker? Naripokkho organised an impromptu discussion on sex work for Doorbar members attending the general meeting. Only half were convinced. However, what ultimately contributed to the swing in her favour was when members from different regional committees, where Momotaz had accompanied Naripokkho during her internship, spoke up. These women knew about Momotaz’s struggle and her leadership qualities. Momotaz won the election and from that day on it did not matter whether she was a sex worker or not.

How has the inclusion of intersex people in the movement influenced the politics of the women’s movement in general and Naripokkho in particular?

The initial reaction by Doorbar members to the inclusion of Badhon Hijra Shongho for example was negative. However, our insistence on abiding by the principle of non- discrimination irrespective of sexual identity prevailed and as Joya and Kotha and other hijras became familiar faces in our meetings and functions the prejudice and fear that many had gave way to acceptance and affection.

For many Naripokkho members it has opened our eyes to the diversity in women’s lives and helped us accept difference with compassion and empathy. Sex workers have told us how the accidents of our birth, our marriages etc have determined who among us became sex workers.

What have been the useful points of learning for you and Naripokkho in the course of your work? What have been the possible deterrents?

The main learning has been how difficult it is to include sexual rights as a legitimate part of our struggle for emancipation, equality, etc. I suppose in a context where women’s economic and political rights are yet to be realised, any attempt to raise sexual rights issues is easily sidelined as peripheral and or inconsequential. Besides, the discussion on sexuality and sexual rights requires us not only as part of the women’s movement but as individual women to examine our own beliefs, practices and feelings; something that is not easy for everyone.

Please tell us about Shonghoti (alliance of sex workers) and Bondhon (organisation of Hijras). What are the strengths and challenges of alliance building in the South Asia region on sexual rights? What do you see as the scope for future work in Bangladesh or collaboration with other networks, organisations and coalitions across the region?

Shonghoti represents a unique coming together of women’s rights organisations, human rights organisations and development NGOs in support of a near untouchable group – sex workers. Of the 86 organisations that constituted Shonghoti, only three had programmatic work with sex workers. The rest shared the outrage at the manner in which the government carried out the eviction of the Tanbazaar and Nimtali brothels. The unifying factor was the human rights violations. Many members of Shonghoti did not support sex workers per se, but were prepared to defend their rights as citizens. We were glad to have the numbers whatever the reason. Moreover, I feel that it is when people join a movement that they also learn to think differently and I know a lot of people today who have changed their earlier perspectives on sex work and sex workers.

At the time in July-August 1999 Shonghoti provided a dynamic show of strength and extended a very powerful voice to the demands of the evicted sex workers. Nowadays Naripokkho is in the background, as there are many sex workers organisations now and they have formed their own network. Shonghoti’s role has also changed over the years. I think what Shonghoti did was open many doors for the sex workers organisations. Now they don’t need us to open doors. I remember at the 1st International Anti-trafficking Conference in Dhaka, I was sitting next to a sex worker friend and she was annoyed that the proceedings were in English which she could not understand. She asked me to tell the organisers to provide simultaneous translation. I said firmly that she had to do it herself. Hazera got up and asked “Why have you invited us if the meeting is going to be conducted in a language we cannot understand”? It worked.

Sex workers themselves have learnt the skills of movement work – how to write a press release, how to run a press conference, how to organise a meeting, how to mobilise, etc. Naripokkho provided some of that through the close mentoring of Momotaz and the leadership provided in the initial days of Shonghoti. Sex workers had to accompany Naripokkho members to different government and NGO offices, address press conferences, etc.

Our role has definitely changed. But we are there when they need us. For example, when the brothel in Tangail was attacked two years ago Samia Afrin and Kamrun Nahar from Naripokkho rushed there with Doorbar members from Dhaka. Local Doorbar members were already involved with the sex workers in resisting the attack by a self-appointed committee to ‘cleanse’ Tangail and many sustained physical injuries during this attack.

Naripokkho and CARE have facilitated linkages between sex workers organisations in Bangladesh and Durbar Mahila Shomonnoy Committee in Kolkata, India and we have participated in the big festival they organised for International Sex Workers Day (3 March). We have seen that this kind of exchange can be empowering for sex workers who are not only at the bottom of our society in ‘moral’ terms, but also restricted in their physical movements. I remember Nasreen telling me about the experience of pasting hand written posters in public spaces in Narayanganj at the height of the Tanbazaar movement. The few sex workers who joined the Naripokkho members and Shonghoti activists in this protest activity were feeling very inhibited and nervous as they had never done anything so public! Many sex workers had never ventured out of their brothels. The first time they joined the International Women’s Day march in 1992 was a major breakthrough for them. It opened up a whole other world for them and gave them a sense of freedom and the feeling of a rightful place in the women’s movement.

Undoubtedly, such alliance building be it within Bangladesh as happened with Shonghoti or across borders gives strength to one of the most marginalized groups of women to claim a rightful place in society and their identity as citizens.

The kinds of alliance/exchanges that we have avoided even though they have been instrumental in opening up space for different/diverse sexualities are the HIV/AIDS and anti-trafficking fora. The framing of sexual rights issues either within a disease framework or a crime framework makes it difficult to go beyond the discussion of abuse.

Please tell us more about yourself. How did you start the work you do?

I was a research student when I got involved with the founding of Naripokkho. I was back in Bangladesh to do my fieldwork for a Ph.D in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, but got distracted by the beginning of Naripokkho among other more exciting things. Later in 1987 I took up a full time job as a development advisor to Danida (Danish International Development Agency). Except for a two year unpaid leave during 2001-2002 I put in more than the 40 hour week until December 2006 when I left for personal reasons. My engagement with Naripokkho is on a voluntary basis. At the time of joining Danida I made my involvement with Naripokkho clear and whenever I had to use day time work hours for something urgent at Naripokkho I either took leave or compensated with overtime work. Because I was such a workaholic I was putting in extra hours at Danida anyway, so my weekends and evenings and holidays were frequently used up for Naripokkho. For the most part I was lucky not to have a ‘triple day’ as I lived with my mother and sister who provided not only unstilted support for everything I wanted to do but took care of many of the practical things like household management and childcare etc. They were also my greatest inspiration to carry on. My sister, of course, was a comrade in the movement, a fellow fighter in Naripokkho, my confidante and a mother to my son. My mother and my sister made it possible for example to provide shelter in our home to several sex workers after the Tanbazaar eviction.

Whew! What about burn out?

Actually, now I realise the cost of those long hours of work and how it has affected me in terms of burn-out. In those days most people within the movement had to put in that kind of work because of the necessity of having a livelihood as well as being involved in movement work. The NGO-isation of movement work has made it possible for many to have paid employment in work that supports movement building etc. I don’t know if this has been a good development or not and whether we should stop bemoaning the end of voluntarism and accept the practical resolution between livelihood needs and one’s ‘mission in life’. People are lucky if they can be paid to do movement work.

Of course my job at Danida, a bilateral aid agency, and my work in Naripokkho was not poles apart. As Adviser, Women’s Development I was often able to advance different parts of the women’s movement agenda. I was, for example, instrumental in the design and installation of the Government of Bangladesh’s Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence Against Women (MSP-VAW), a programme to put in place comprehensive services for violence survivors. I was able to use my position in a bilateral agency to leverage the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs to undertake the piloting of the MSP-VAW. The ideas and the inspiration to do so came from being part of Naripokkho and the women’s movement in Bangladesh and in particular my acquaintance with Shanthi Dairiam of IWRAW Asia Pacific through whom I had learnt about similar work in Malaysia.

What keeps you going?

I don’t think I’m really going anymore (laughs)… Naripokkho and I keep each other going…

1. Joya Sikdar is one of the founders of Badhon Hijra Shongho and the current president of the Sex Workers Network of Bangladesh

2. Evan Ahmed Kotha is also a member of Badhon Hijra Shongho

3. Doorbar Network is at present organized in to 16 Anchals (Regions) in Bangladesh.

Shireen Pervin Huq is an active member of the women’s movement in Bangladesh for over 25 years and a founder member of Naripokkho. For 20 years Shireen has worked for the Danish development assistance programme in Bangladesh, first as the Adviser Women’s Development and later as the Deputy Programme Coordinator for the Human Rights and Good Governance Programme. She has also done training on Gender, Rights and Development in Bangladesh as well as other parts of the world.