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Tasneem Bhaidu – Community Engagement Project: Gender and my Reflections

The following is a podcast for my community engagement project post-internship in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It has been over a month since I have returned to Canada from Bangladesh. In my podcast, I talk about me experience as a woman in Canada versus what I noticed the experience for women was like in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Please keep in mind that these are all my opinions only and come from my experiences only. 

Tasneem Bhaidu – Blog 4: The Sundarbans (ES)

In this blog, I discuss the impending risks facing the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, which is located in Bangladesh. I was lucky to be able to visit and spend three days in the Sundarbans during my internship!  

The Sundarbans

The last 6 months in Dhaka have been quite eye-opening for me from being deprived of fresh, clean air, blue skies, clean water bodies and greenery. I realized how much I had taken a clean environment and flora for granted back home in Canada. Now don’t get me wrong, Bangladesh is a beautifully green nation, but the city of Dhaka lacks the nature that it desperately needs. Stepping outof Dhaka and exploring other parts of Bangladesh has really helped me appreciate the nature and breathtaking environments it has to offer. Driving past beautifully-groomed paddy fields in Moulvibazar, running through tea gardens in Sylhet and watching the sun set over the beautiful beaches in Cox’s Bazar were some of the best moments for me in this country.

Best of all was taking a break from Dhaka and adventuring through the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. This will probably be one of my greatest memories of Bangladesh. A 3-day excursion to the Sundarbans, a 3-day cleanse from the heavily polluted and populated Dhaka was a breath of fresh air (quite literally). The Sundarbans are a vital part of Bangladesh and offered an enriching and refreshing experience for someone like me who desperately needed to be immersed in nature and a detox from daily life. It was an experience like no other that might not be possible anymore in a few years.

Unfortunately, there is an impending risk of serious environmental harm by a coal-fired power plant, potentially Bangladesh’s largest power plant, that is likely being built only 14 kilometres north of the Sundarbans. Financial benefits are being privileged over environmental sustainability and from the looks of it, the chances of the coal power plant being built in very close proximity to the beautiful forest are high. Along with the flora itself, the already endangered Bengal tigers and the other 100s of animal species in the Sundarbans will also be further endangered.

It breaks my heart to think that a few years from now, the beautiful Sundarbans might not even be in existence. The key parties that will be profiting off of the power plant are overlooking the immense ecological damage that will take place and destroy the Sundarbans and surrounding areas. The environment is being neglected for the capital gains from this development. Bangladesh is already a very vulnerable country to climate change and its damaging symptoms, yet this coal plant is very likely being built, only contributing to climate change and environmental degradation.

From the looks of it, the coal-fired power plant will be built but activists are still protesting. There are groups protesting this development in the Khulna area near the Sundarbans and also in Dhaka. People are not happy and are demanding that this power plant be reconsidered. Although I am feeling quite pessimistic and hopeless, there is still a small chance that somehow this power plant could be reconsidered. I am anxious to see what decisions are made in the upcoming months and in which direction the decision-makers go with this issue. I hope that the Sundarbans are preserved and protected, as they are some of Bangladesh’s greatest beauty. It’d be a shame to lose such beautiful wildlife for mere financial gain.

Tasneem Bhaidu – Blog 3: The Hijra Community in Bangladesh (GE)

The following is an informational and reflective blog on the transgender community in Bangladesh called Hijras.

A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop on sexual health and rights which was hosted by an NGO in Dhaka. This was the first time since I arrived in Bangladesh, that I came across people openly discussing sexuality and LGBTQ issues. LGBTQ activism in Bangladesh has proven to be very difficult to do due to potential threats and attack from ‘extremist’ and homophobic individuals. In addition, homosexuality is still illegal and a criminal offense outlined in Bangladesh’s penal code under section 377 (unnatural offences), which states, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

During the workshop, we discussed the Hijra community that exists in Bangladesh and South Asia. I found it very interesting that although Bangladesh has laws against homosexuality and that LGBTQ are marginalized and stigmatized, the Hijra community exists and is legally recognized here as a “third gender.”

Transgender is not a term widely used in Bangladesh. On the other hand, Hijra, is a term commonly used in Bangladesh and most of South Asia to identify transgender women. Society acknowledges this group of transgender women as Hijras, a third gender. Hijras are not considered fully men or women, but a third sex or gender. Hijras often live in all-Hijra communities and live specific lifestyles. Due to being ostracized and marginalized by society, Hijras are often involved in sex work and/or “begging.” Other work to earn money for Hijras includes putting on song and dance performances, blessing new born babies by singing and dancing (Baccha Nachano), and collecting money from shops in markets (Bazar Tola). Hijras are discriminated against and have many barriers to healthcare, housing, employment, and law. Furthermore, in many bureaucratic processes, they are excluded or are put in difficult positions when the can be only put into two categories, male or female.

I have learned about the Hijra community from childhood, growing up in an Indian family. I would see some representations of the community on Indian TV and film, usually as the object of jokes. When I visited India several times throughout my childhood, I did witness Hijras asking for money in local trains, on the streets during high traffic and/or going door to door through neighbourhoods. My family members told me their versions of who Hijras are and what they do. For the most part, I was given very discriminatory and negative explanations of Hijras. I was told to not look them in the eye, to ignore them at all costs. I was told that they would hit me or do magic on me if I got them angry. As I grew older, I learned that giving them a few rupees was the best way to avoid being harassed or cursed by them. I was told very intimidating stories and explanations of Hijras. I saw them as aggressive and scary. Even at the beginning of my internship in Dhaka, I reacted quite nervously to Hijras. I was at a clothing market when I saw some Hijras in the shopping complex. I told my friend we should turn around rather than walk past them as they will harass us. It turned out that they were simply shopping, just like the rest of the people in the market. I was still uncomfortable walking past them. Unfortunately, my prejudices got the best of me.

Just like I did, many people in South Asia have a prejudice against Hijras. The community is largely marginalized on a micro-level by people on a day-to-day basis. But, along with dealing with the daily discrimination by everyday people, the community also faces greater barriers. Not until a few years ago, they had no recognition as being a third gender. They had to choose between identifying as male or female on identification and documentation. In 2013, the Bangladeshi government approved for the Hijra community to be able to identify as a third gender in government documentation, passports, and national identification in order to have access to their rights. Although this was a huge step in advancing the rights and inclusion of Hijras in Bangladeshi society, it has not played out so well.

It has been over 3 years that Hijras have been legally recognized by the Bangladeshi government, yet they are still waiting to be identified as such on National ID cards and in voting documentation. Bangladeshi passport forms have implemented the third gender identity, but Hijras have a hard time checking it off, as the National ID, birth certificate and other important IDs do not have the option and so it would not match. Because of the lack of implementation of recognizing Hijras as a third gender, they have still not been able to secure their rights like the new government decision promised.

The fact that Bangladesh has recognized Hijras as a third gender shows that the country is progressing in terms of giving this community the rights and recognition they deserve. If the third gender recognition is improved and Hijras are able to tick this box on their identification and documentation, I think many barriers will break down and the community will be able to access a lot more services. Bangladesh still has a long way to go for LGBTQ rights, but starting with the Hijra community is a good step.


Tasneem Bhaidu – Blog 2: The Power of English (GOV)

The following is a reflection piece of how I perceive the English language holds so much power, even in Bangladesh’s civil society. I write about the two co-founders of my host organization, BOMSA, who do not speak English and have expressed that they feel because of this, they are closed off to many opportunities.

Tasneem Bhaidu – Blog 1: Introducing Myself Pre-Departure

This podcast is an interview of me done by my fellow intern, Luke Yang. I introduce myself with a short background, talk about my host organization/city, discuss what I am looking forward to in Dhaka and what I hope to gain from the experience. 

Zachary Brabazon – Blog 4: Privilege, Mobility, and the Passport

This blog primarily focuses on interpersonal interactions, the kind that hammer reading points home in an emotional way.  I really value the ‘living context’ that these encounters give to all that I read about migration in Bangladesh, and this is why I chose to write what I did. For those eager to know more about the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), my good friend and colleague, Kimberly Copeland, has written an excellent post on the Forum, outlining its history and main aims.[1] I urge anyone interested to read it.

(Disclaimer: the following is a post centered around my own personal experiences and reflections. Any definitive statements are only worded as such because they save space, and may thus be treated as entirely anecdotal and subjective)

What the readership must know before reading the Blog:

I am Zachary, and I am interning with an organization called RMMRU in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Due to the personal nature of some details in the following, the names of certain persons have been altered to respect their anonymity.

               Before beginning my internship in Bangladesh, I was prepared, by pre-departure orientation and through conversation with former interns, for the keen understanding of my own privilege that would confront me daily in my tenure here. The reality of my daily life in Dhaka has not only substantiated this advice, but indeed has proved so pervasive that I am concerned I am becoming de-sensitized to it.

               Every now and then, however, a particular conversation or interaction knocks me out of my numbed state, and I am forced (thankfully) to reconsider the power of the structures that allow me to live how I live, while simultaneously limiting access for countless others. Yesterday, I was fortunate to encounter two such scenarios.

               Just before lunch yesterday, I was chatting with a co-worker about travel. As I was discussing my post-internship travel plans, my friend asked me whether I needed a visa for any of places I wanted to visit. This, in turn, led us to bring up web pages comparing countries that Canadians and Bangladeshis, respectively, can travel to without a visa or otherwise by receiving a visa on arrival.[2] I was, of course, intellectually prepared for the enormous mobility discrepancies between the two passports. And yet, I still couldn’t help linking these realities with the stark contrast that I have experienced between Canadian and Bangladeshi attitudes toward crossing borders.

               Among my community back home, the opportunity to travel is generally considered to an economic consideration, delineated mostly by financial liquidity.  This attitude is due to the fact that Canadian passports bestow great mobility privileges upon their holders, meaning that the biggest border-related worry that most Canadians will face is a long wait in customs. Meanwhile, I have tended to forget that just being stuck in that proverbial customs line is a privilege in itself. A recent study ranked the Canadian passport as the sixth most powerful in the world (tied with Ireland and five others), according to the visa-free access (VF) or visa-on-arrival (VOA) access to 174 countries that it granted to its holders. By contrast, a person holding a Bangladeshi passport has VF or VOA access to only 39 countries.[3]

               The irony here, for me, comes when I think of how much more important it is for Bangladeshis to be able to migrate across borders than it seems to be for many Canadians. To be fair, I am incredibly thankful to have the ability to enrich my life with the experience of living and learning in another country. However, it simply doesn’t seem fair that I have the passport privileges I have when many Bangladeshis, who rely on labour migration to battle poverty, climate change, and other economic ills, would comparatively benefit so much more from such privileges (in my view). Illustrating this fundamental role of migration, a 2014 study done by my host organization, RMMRU, found that the poverty rate among Bangladeshi migrant families was 13% lower than among non-migrant families.

               A second experience drove this point home for me as I was headed home from the RMMRU office after work. Joel and I were sharing a rickshaw ride back to our apartment, and we got talking to our rickshaw-wallah, a kind man named Mahmoud.

               I am loath to admit it, but the truth is that, when I first got in Mahmoud’s rickshaw, I was more fixated on the fact that he had six fingers on one hand than any other aspect of his person. Writing this now, knowing the impact our subsequent conversation has had on me, I feel a little bit of shame at my shallowness. It’s funny how, in my experience, exchanging life details with a stranger causes their striking physical features to fade from my perception, giving way to the rarefied and complicated picture of what lies beneath. I only knew Mahmoud for fifteen minutes at the most, but the story and personality that emerged in that conversation now loom much larger in my head than any aspect of his physical appearance.

               Given our limited abilities in Bangla, our conversation was limited to basic topics – the country we hailed from, the district he came from outside of Dhaka, our names. As we talked, trading details, I was struck by how much Mahmoud’s story lined up with the theme of mobility that had been so stuck in my mind since my earlier conversation with Kamal. Mahmoud told us that he came from Pirojpur, a district in South-western Bangladesh, and that he had a wife and two children. He also described the process of circular migration that he went through regularly: seven days riding rickshaw in Dhaka, two days back home with his family in Pirojpur.

               I asked a co-worker today what they knew about Pirojpur and they responded that “nearly all of Dhaka’s hawkers and merchants come from Pirojpur.” I asked him why this was, and he explained that, at certain times during rainy season, agricultural work dissipates in this district. When this happens, my friend explained, Pirojpur residents come to Dhaka to supplement their income.  “The people of Pirojpur are industrious,” according to my co-worker, “they do not want to spend their time in [idleness].”  

               Last week, Pirojpur bore the brunt of heavy flooding. The Daily Star, a Dhaka newspaper, reported that “continuous heavy rain from Saturday night [Aug. 20] has flooded different areas in seven upazilas of the district, causing damage to fish enclosures, vegetable gardens and trees.” Massive “tidal surges” also proved destructive, according to the article.[4]

               These stories weigh upon my mind. Right now, as I write, I’m thinking of Mahmoud and his family. I’m wondering what happens if, during one of these storms, Mahmoud’s family loses their garden or their fishing equipment. Will his rickshaw earnings be enough to replace it? What if he needs more? Maybe he will be pressed to find work abroad, and, given the difficulties faced in securing formal migration, maybe he will be one of thousands of irregular migrants crossing the Bay of Bengal at great peril. And out there, the sea is not always the most dangerous player.[5] [6]

               Because of conversations like these, I am routinely reminded of how desperately the GFMD needs to get things right when it happens here in Dhaka in December. International labour migration in Bangladesh, as RMMRU’s research papers will tell you, is right now a crucial adaptive strategy for countless people.[8] And with climate-change-induced weather volatility expected to increase in intensity in the coming years, this need is only going to grow.[9]

[1] Kimberly Copeland. “The UN Global Forum on Migration and Development.” Last modified 13 July 2016.

[2] Included along with the VOA and VF categories are also countries that provide easy electronic clearance to passport holders.

[3] Oliver Smith. “Revealed: The world’s most powerful passports.” The Telegraph. Last modified 31 August 2016. Accessed: 31 August 2016.

[4] “Rain paralyses life in 4 districts.” The Daily Star. Last modified 23 August 2016. Accessed 31 August 2016.

[5] “’Thousands’ of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea.” BBC. Last modified 11 May 2015. Accessed 31 August 2016.

[6] Lipika Pelham. “Enslaved Abroad, Oppressed at Home: Modern Slavery in Bangladesh.” The New York Times. Last modified 29 October 2014. Accessed 31 August 2016.

[7] Siddiqui, Tasneem. “Impact of Climate Change: Migration as one of the adaptation strategies.” RMMRU Working Papers.

[8] Warming Climate to Hit Bangladesh Hard with Sea Level Rise, More Floods and Cyclones, World Bank Report Says. World Bank Press Release, 19 June 2013. Accessed 31 August 2016.

Luke Yang – Blog 1: Introductory Interview

This is an interview of Tasneem Bhaidu with Luke Yang, who will be working with Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

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