Wednesday, 30 November 2016

When Are You Getting Married?

By Wisam Gangari via UN Online Volunteers

“Congratulations on your (insert significant milestone)! Here’s to your wedding!” This (or some variation of it) has become a standard salutation, which I, and many other young Arab women have heard upon the accomplishment of a significant milestone in our lives. It is the 21st century, yet social norms in the Arab world still hold tight to the notion that a woman’s goal, nay, destiny must be to get married. Any other ambition or desire must be secondary, and is therefore, less important.

            Growing up in a predominantly Arabized culture, dating at a young age was never socially accepted, that is, by families. Couples that were brazen enough to publicize their relationship were often expats, or individuals who came from “liberal” families.  Parents instead emphasized the importance of education above all else and instilled within their children the notion that good grades led to a successful future. In turn, this mentality, more often than not, inspired the youth with a sense of purpose, ambition and the desire to achieve greatness, all of which are admirable traits. In my case, and in the case of many other women like me, however, this proved to be a burden more than a blessing.

            I always strived to excel academically, so that I may pursue a career in which I can make a difference, accomplish a sense of fulfillment and self-worth, and ultimately live my truth. Upon graduating from university, I’d planned to get a job working for organizations or think tanks, diplomatic missions and so on. I dreamed of working in establishments that aimed to improve lives. I saw for myself a future in which I was a successful workingwoman, proud of my accomplishments. I never expected that, what is objectively seen as an admirable goal could also be a source of shame.

            I found that not many within my society found my dreams and ambitions to be as admirable and noble as I did. On the contrary, I found that many criticized my choices. Because my priority wasn’t to “find a husband” (as if husbands were to be picked from an aisle in a grocery story), I was wasting my child bearing years and was going to end up forever alone. My desire to pursue a career, for some reason unbeknownst to me, somehow meant that I was anti-marriage. Many women who seek to fulfill their professional goals are frowned upon and are considered, by society, as too liberal or intimidating, and therefore unapproachable.

In the years since I’ve graduated university, I’ve been faced with comments like, “Why are you still single?” or “When is your wedding?” or “Have you found someone yet?” While these questions in and of themselves may seem harmless, they are really asking a different question altogether: “When are you going to abide by the social norms that have been prescribed to you and stop disgracing your family?” Of course not all families are adamant to have their daughters married off before they are ready, because society deems it necessary. However, in a society where social and familial ties are so strong, it is always harder to defy the status quo and reject social standards that are so deeply embedded in the culture.

The concept of marriage loses its value, its worth, and its sanctity once it becomes an obligation that is forced upon you, and for all the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, I believe that marriage is a beautiful and sacred notion that everyone (who wants it) should be blessed with. It is the start of a new and exciting chapter in life. It can be an exhilarating ride. It should be a source of comfort, love, and safety. Marriage isn’t at odds with wanting to pursue a career, it isn’t at odds with having the desire to travel and explore, it isn’t at odds with wanting to complete your education. You are not forbidden from pursuing your dreams just because you want to get married and you are not forbidden from getting married because you are pursuing your dreams.

So here’s to you, to the ones who want to climb Mount Everest! To the ones who want to get their PhD! To the ones who want to save lives or become the next CEO! And here’s to you, to the ones who want to get married! There is nothing wrong with that. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Don't Let Stereotype Impede Your Success

By Mitchelle Khadenje via UN Online Volunteers

My very first lesson that a girl had no place to prosper was in high school. Despite the normal public system where majority of the schools were ‘single gender’, I found myself in a mixed school. At first, I took no notice of any differences-we were all brothers and sisters, just like in primary school. But with time, things got clearer. The boys population was near three times the girls population, so the boys almost had their way unanimously.
As a teenager experiencing changes and not being sure of how people would perceive your utterances or actions, it can be difficult to stand up for yourself. Most of the girls would end up consoling each other in the dormitory; crying themselves to sleep because ‘the guys said something about them’. I have always been a calm, almost reserved kind of child- passing my tests, assisting others. I however, was not in the habit of lying to myself and others, so I was always in trouble for speaking my mind.
One incident that I would never forget was when I stood up to one of the greatest ‘taunters’ in my class. As young ladies starting to ‘develop’, it was sometimes uncomfortable to embrace the changes. Majority of us were shy, wearing baggy sweaters or skirts, while our male counterparts took pleasure in chanting all forms of ‘praise’ for these changes, an emotionally derailing routine for the young ladies. It was in the midst of this miscreant hullabaloo that I found myself the source of a chant one evening in class as I was walking out during a quiet evening session. I wanted to ignore this, as I would call it, childishness, but my nature couldn’t allow it. I took a turn, and gave the gang leader a piece of my mind on how much he ought to grow up. Need I say that apart from the uproar and unedifying spectacle that unfolded, he and I are good friends to date.
Ever since the incident, I became less or practically not ashamed of who I was, accepting myself as I was, and standing up for myself when need be. I have since experienced many more incidents where it is believed that the girl-child should not advance ‘too much’ academically, neither should she be witty. At some point I was sabotaged at the workplace and my workstation cleared, leaving my items lost because someone thought I would impede their success. Some elders would tell me that I would not attract a husband if I continued with the path I was treading, some would classify me as a feminist and others would call me a mere prude. Not to say that the road has been smooth, but believing in oneself has been a significant factor that has enabled me gain mileage academically and professionally as a young woman in sub-saharan Africa.
The African culture depicts the woman as the house-hold manager, a good wife and mother. Sometimes, great intellectual capacity, academic advancement, strong-will and focus to not only improve oneself but also the society can be perceived wrongly. Despite civilisation, innovation, economic development and women empowerment in the continent, the ‘girl-home’ mentality is somewhat prevalent in at schools as well as workplaces. It sometimes can go by default that one’s male counterpart is presumed to be a better option for a promotion or good at Math and Science just because it’s an apparent ‘norm’. However, one should not allow such stereotypes to bring them down and impede their success.
I have learnt to appreciate that sometimes people find themselves stereotypical or judgemental probably because of how they have been brought up, or the people they associate with often. Teach a baby that a vice is good and the child will grow up knowing that the wrong thing is actually right. As is my case, I have been privileged to work with great people who believe in one’s skills, knowledge and potential rather than gender or appearance for a given job. I have met male professors who acknowledge a young lady’s wit and hard work in a chosen science as well as a male counterpart’s without any bias or prejudice.

Standing up for oneself, in my opinion, should be a basic habit inculcated in us. You can be treated with a negative bias maybe due to your race, gender, intellectual capacity among others, but it is up to you to prove them wrong. Let your work or art speak for itself. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Similarly, seeing is believing. Once others witness your worth and importance, they will almost naturally change a certain preformed opinion of you to what they now actually know of you.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Banda - Bound to Home

By Mehvish Ally via UN Online Volunteers

Life tests our vim and vigor at the best of times and seems an insurmountable challenge at the worst of times.  But in our world of low, middle, and high-income nations, some lives are inherently more privileged and systemically valued than others.  
This neither means that wealthy people lead easy or care-free lives nor that the poor are relegated to the depths of irreversible misery: it is an illustration, albeit merely one, that the world is a place where complex dualities abound.  Masculine, feminine, rich, poor, these are all roles assigned to society by its own machinations and until we question their presence, meaning, and necessity, humanity’s eyes will be collectively shut to a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive.  Our anatomies and our economic stature are nothing to be ashamed of.  Though they may shape who we are, such identities should not be considered shackles but weights that increase our muscle and mettle.  
Like other countries around the world, Bangladesh has a tradition of having servants for the upper class.  Though domestic workers were initially considered to be ‘banda’, Bengali for bound to the home, and had little formal legal rights, contemporary society and the law no longer permits this as people have realized the inequitable ways of their past.  
Today, many former domestic workers have found more ‘official’ jobs as janitors or cooks in restaurants.  Some are able send their children to college to ensure a fate less chained to the whims of employers’.  Others, though, grow accustomed to their surroundings and feel they would not be able to cope with the life that awaits them outside.  In fact, their employers become a family whom they can’t imagine leaving, a feeling which their employers even reciprocate.  The latter category is where Ms. Mirda falls.  There is still a stigma within Bengali culture of being ashamed of one’s class, though it is dissipating over time.
Rizia was born in the former East Pakistan town of Boro Pasha in Mirda Bari around the year 1969.  She does not have a birth certificate, as most villagers at the time did not have a formal system of birth registration, so her age is a rough estimate.  Her village is still home to many agricultural workers.  Her father, Hamid Uddin Mirda, was a rice and wheat farmer.  Fieldwork is no mean feat, as the workers wake up before dawn and labor until dusk.  Rizia has no recollection of her father, as he died when she was very young, likely before she turned 4.  This left her widow mother and her two brothers Abdul Majid and Abdul Aziz to fend for her and her two sisters.  
Her fondest memories are of her mother and eldest sister, whose names she can no longer remember.  But when she does reminisce, it is about her mother cooking for the family.  She also speaks fondly of her eldest sister and remembers her braiding her hair and running amok in the village with her hand in hand.  After her mother died, Rizia’s eldest sister cared for her like a mother.  These recollections of her sister and her mother are the only instances of love she has from her life before beginning domestic work.   However, as tradition went, her older sister was soon married off. 
The memories she has of her brothers aren’t positive ones and she was reluctant to share them.  When asked if she ever thought of them her reply was an abrupt, ”never.”  Her brothers could barely take care of their widow mother and themselves and could no longer afford to keep another mouth to feed around.  When she was 12 years old, Rizia’s paternal uncle brought her to the home of her current employer’s mother, to be a playmate and caretaker of her current employer, who was only a year old at the time.  It was a common practice among the nobility in Bangladesh to keep a ‘companion’ servant for their children, who would both feed them, put them to sleep, and play with them. 
Rizia still says that her current employer’s mother and the kindness she showed is the biggest blessing in her life.  Clearly, those of a contemporary mindset will disagree - how can becoming a child-worker be a blessing?  However, the fact is that relative to most other children her age, she was well clothed, well fed, and not beaten and therefore, better off.  We cannot dismiss this notion as cruel moral relativism when the same is done when economists chart development in poor countries.  It is not feasible to apply the same standards of healthcare for a mother in a rural Bengali village and a mother in the Upper East Side of NYC.  Similarly, it is not feasible to compare her life to that of a child in America.  Whether you find international disparity to be a fault of colonialism or a self-inflicted problem, the surrounding circumstances in each country are completely different and must be taken into consideration. 
After about a decade of working, she had reached marrying age and was married off to a rice farmer.  The marriage broke down in about 2 or 3 months.  When asked of her husband, Rizia makes sure to clarify that he was neither cruel to her nor beat her (again, a rarity both for her era and now).  It was the in-laws that caused problems, were cruel to her, and led to the ultimate breaking down of the marriage.  She believes that their cruelty was spurred by the fact that her dowry was not properly paid, though they might have been abusive regardless.  Domestic violence committed by in-laws is unfortunately still a serious issue in rural Bangladesh.
After her marriage ended, she did not go back to her brothers, as she knew what awaited her there: another forced marriage.  Instead, she went back to her former employer for work.  She was welcomed back and began working again as a nanny to her employer’s newly born son.  Through her work, she says she found a solace and reprieve, and though she never had children of her own she felt her employer’s children to be hers in a sense. 
After her mother died in 1994, Rizia lost touch with her family.  She no longer felt a bond as she did before , and didn’t bother to keep in touch with her brothers.   Her younger brother’s son is now an assistant for clerical workers in the High Court of Bangladesh, which is a big step up from being a rice farmer’s grandson.  Rizia’s  nephew had contacted her and asked her to live with them but she fears would try to dispossess her of her small but ample inheritance and savings.
When asked about any regrets in her life, Rizia wishes she were educated as she feels her life would be very different, however, she has no regrets of her own making.  She feels the few decisions she did have the luxury to make herself were good ones. Even after her employer’s passing, which she still mentions with tears in her eyes, Rizia remained in the household and is now nanny to her two grandchildren, the youngest now nearly 3.  She has cared for an entire generation of a family and they will be forever indebted to her
This is just one snapshot of one person’s life in a world of over 7 billion people.  Rizia’s story brings up numerous complicated issues that illustrious economists and politicians barely scratch the surface of.  Rizia is content.  Caring for children, though not her own, gives her purpose to wake up in the morning.  She is treated well, can go out when she pleases, and does not face the wrath of an abusive husband, which many women of her nation and the world over do.  Yes, she has sadness in her life that most readers and I will never have to experience.  But the human experience is not a statistic – it is an ongoing visceralness. She is not ashamed of her life, and no one should feel sorry for her.  Rizia feels at peace with her life, and ultimately, that is a feat most people would be fortunate to accomplish. 


Mehvish Ally is an American law student of Bengali heritage. Multicultural from birth, she was born in Kuwait, raised in the United States, and for the last 4 years has been living a confusing expatriate life in Bangladesh.  She met Ms. Nirda when she stayed at her employer’s home for a time.  Initially, their relationship was distant and had a forced politeness to it, but over time, a sort of kinship grew.