“There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you–just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.”
— Shel Silverstein
From a very young age, my brothers and I attended a private Christian school. We didn’t come from a particularly wealthy family, but my parents always felt they wanted to do this for us. They grew up going to Christian schools and so they figured it would benefit us. It took me a while to realize this growing up, but most kids my age didn’t go to private schools. There were public schools and private schools, and private schools were expensive. And the kids who went to my school were, on the whole, exceptionally wealthy.
In Canada, I found there exists a specific story about the middle-class and its universality. It’s supposedly a class that we all, as Canadians, belong to. I seldom talk about wages and salaries as it seems impolite to do so and well, I feel like we are all middle class so what is there to talk about? I find people are often embarrassed by wealth and many rich people would deny or downplay their wealth.
Habitually after Christmas vacation, as is common among school-age children, I would take a strict inventory of my presents. I remember distinctly when I was twelve, one of my friends got a Play Station 3. The PS3 had just been released and retailed at more than one thousand dollars. And his parents had just bought it for him – nonchalantly – among other things! When compared with my new socks, chocolate, nail clippers and CDs – which my parents struggled to afford – a PS3 seemed like total insanity! How could they afford that?!I never really wanted a PS3 – itwasn’t my style – but I remember being very aware of how expensive it was and how its value compared to what I received.
“As soon as you stop wanting something, you get it.”
— Andy Warhol
As I got older, this disparity resurfaced time and time again. Friends would take trips to Hawaii, Mexico and Disneyland. And I would travel to Surrey or to Cowichan Lake. Classmates would return to school in September with brand-name clothes, new shoes and fancy school supplies. And I would return with a mix of handy-downs, consigned clothes, and Wal-Mart purchases. Kids played organized sports after their piano lessons. And I watched TV after walking the dogs and playing with my street friends. Some lived in upscale Oak Bay, others in gated Gordon Head or near the school in Saanich. And I lived in a one-bathroom duplex in Langford – far from both the school and the city-centre.
“Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?”
— Chuck Palahniuk
I mean this to be no indictment of my parents or the choices they made. In fact, I think my childhood was generally quite good. My parents did their best and there were countless times where I was spoiled absolutely rotten, but at the end of the day, it never quite measured up materially to the others at my school. If I was spoiled rotten, then they had already turned back into soil.
This endless comparison-making and insatiable thirst for things, things and more things is deeply rooted in our capitalist society. I admit I suffered from it for many years, especially during my youth. And I must continuously audit myself and try to weed out this pointless greed.
“To be content with little is difficult; to be content with much, impossible.”
— Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
By the time I graduated from high school, I remember being really upset with this inequality. In the last years of high school and the early years of college, as one’s mind begins to mature, I became more and more aware of the problems plaguing our society and our world. So much of it came down to inequality. University presented complex economic scenarios and case-studies in different countries, but it really is pretty simple… Why should one person live a life of serenity and luxury while another toils and suffers to simply stay alive?
Before even arriving in Bangladesh, we had numerous conversations about our privilege and position. Sometimes, these differences are easy to see… sometimes they are more difficult. At times I don’t pay attention to them or perhaps I deny that they exist. As a student of a rather liberal university, these topics became quite central. And I am glad that they did because I began to realize how much of my life I had gone without ever questioning these things… After all, I live in Canada. It’s a free country, and everyone is equal, right?
Today, I find myself confronted by me. I am who I am and I’ve become what I’ve become… That is not to deny my capacity for change or agency, but here I am – part nature, part nurture. Arriving to Bangladesh might mean physically transporting me to another country, but mentally, I find am still just a result of the culture I’ve matured in. I am used to certain things being a certain way. French bread, fancy cheese, good beers and so on… I like being outside in the fresh air. Swimming, I love swimming, especially in nice cold clean lakes with the mountains around…These privileges have surrounded me my entire life. Coming to Bangladesh, I knew I would have to adjust. And on the whole, we have…but we don’t live like Bangladeshis… We live like Canadians in Bangladesh. We find places to eat that remind us of home. We live in a safe apartment with good water, electricity, and internet. We plan regular trips to go out of the city – just for fun… because we can…
And what a privilege it is…
I tell myself: it is beyond my control; the problems here are too great and too deep. I am but one person.
I make myself small and I make excuses.
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ”
— Paulo Freire
Narratives and assumptions are formed around all kinds of people in lower socio-economic positions. They exist in both Canada and Bangladesh. In Canada, I’ve heard people say that people are too lazy… if only they would go and get a job. In Bangladesh, I’ve heard it said that many of the street people do drugs or sniff glue and so I shouldn’t give any money. Maybe some are lazy, maybe some do sniff glue… but does that legitimize turning a blind eye? I’ve heard blame used to discharge pain and discomfort.
I come out of Pizza Hut to the street and having spend an exorbitant amount of money on pizza, I meet a young child on the street begging for money…
I finish eating two burgers (because the first one was so good) at Mr. Burger and again, I see a young child leaned against a lamppost staring into the distance, dirty and malnourished…
I go to the grocery store. We buy four Snickers bars and a Toblerone for our bus ride to Cox’s Bazar a.k.a. vacation town for those who can take vacations. I feel deeply ashamed as I walk down the street holding not one, but five chocolate bars. Elderly women lay along the dusty street…
Every time I spend money, I make a choice – an active and informed choice. And without fail, each time I choose for myself. I treat myself. I reward myself.
It’s funny because my whole “adult” life, I’ve always actively opposed things like slave-labour, or child-labour. I’ve always believed the wealthy should pay “their fair share.” I’ve always wished that transnational corporations would pay employees a fair wage. But do I pay my fair share?
“If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.”
— John Lennon
There are no easy answers. Everyday, I need to negotiate between making myself happy and doing what is right. I need to be hard on myself because I deserve to feel that. It should be uncomfortable. “You think you’re uncomfortable?!”
Zachary and I often talk about how we don’t like to be physically touched by people on the street. Again, it makes us uncomfortable. But do these people really wanna be where they are? Do they really want to grab me to beg for food or money? And wouldn’t I do the exact same thing in their situation?
I want to live in a world with much less inequality. That can seem like a daunting task, but don’t we all bear a responsibility to make it happen?
“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 
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. And with climate-change-induced weather volatility expected to increase in intensity in the coming years, this need is only going to grow.
 Kimberly Copeland. “The UN Global Forum on Migration and Development.” Last modified 13 July 2016. http://students.capi.uvic.ca/sites/default/files/capi_internblog_kimberlycopeland_blog2.pdf
 Included along with the VOA and VF categories are also countries that provide easy electronic clearance to passport holders.
 Oliver Smith. “Revealed: The world’s most powerful passports.” The Telegraph. Last modified 31 August 2016. Accessed: 31 August 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/lists/The-worlds-most-powerful-passports/
 “Rain paralyses life in 4 districts.” The Daily Star. Last modified 23 August 2016. Accessed 31 August 2016. http://www.thedailystar.net/country/rain-paralyses-life-4-dists-1273993
 Lipika Pelham. “Enslaved Abroad, Oppressed at Home: Modern Slavery in Bangladesh.” The New York Times. Last modified 29 October 2014. Accessed 31 August 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/30/opinion/linka-pelham-modern-slavery-in-bangladesh.html?_r=0
 Siddiqui, Tasneem. “Impact of Climate Change: Migration as one of the adaptation strategies.” RMMRU Working Papers. http://www.rmmru.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/workingpaper18.pdf
 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. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2013/06/19/warming-climate-to-hit-bangladesh-hard-with-sea-level-rise-more-floods-and-cyclones-world-bank-report-says
Public space, loitering, and feminist activism may seem like disjointed entities. So, it might be even more confusing for you, dear reader of this blog post, if I say that really what I’m talking about is all wound up in a chai stall.
Public Space, Loitering, and Feminist Activism
Yes, I am talking about the delightful chai carts that can be found on almost any corner in a busy Indian city. Served in wonderfully small cups, the delicious chai is made hot (a lesson I learned after burning my mouth the first time) and fresh through a complicated process of straining and boiling accompanied with an incredible aroma. Even in the limited spaces that chai stalls are set up, such as street corners or the side of a road, there is always a sense that a chai stall is a “hang-out” place. The one I stopped today had a few stools set up and newspapers to read while sipping on the heaven-in-a-cup that is a chai in India. Yet as a woman (and also a sociologist cursed with the habit of obsessively studying people) I can’t help but feel the gendered dynamics of the chai stalls I visit. There are exceptions of course, but in general a chai stall is a male-dominated space. The people sipping on chai while reading newspapers, chatting in circles, sitting on benches near the stall, are mostly men. This is a pattern not just limited to chai stalls. The public parks and sports fields are often a male held space. Cafes and restaurants and other kinds of food stalls are also highly gendered with the significant presence of men in comparison to women. Even out on the streets men often hold more space than women. Through my conversations with women here in India and my own experiences, the more I have become interested in the gendered dynamics of public space and how this is embedded in wider systems and forces in India. In this blog post I will describe some of the academic ideas on these topics in the context of India, highlight some of the feminist activism in India around public space, and include both my own and my friend’s thoughts. So, feel free to make yourself a chai, cozy up, and keep reading!
A public space historically has meant “open space” such as parks or sidewalks that are publically owned and managed spaces in opposition to private spaces such as the home. Yet, the social management of these ‘public’ spaces are often contested through dynamicssuch as class, race, or gender to name a few. In India, the conversation around public space and women is often linked to the lack safety of women in public spaces as well as connected to social norms and cultural values about gender. Interestingly, although they acknowledge that the safety of women in public space is a serious issue, writers of the book Why Loiter Phadke et al. (2011) argue that the way in which safety of women in public space is discussed is problematic. They argue that stressing safety without acknowledging the structural violence that makes safety a gendered issue is to turn a blind eye to the many dimensions at play. Furthermore, it also works to construct women as agentless victims who may end up ‘in the wrong place’ at the ‘wrong time’ and experience violence. The authors further discuss how although safety of women is key, it should not be used as a way to justify their lack of presence and engagement in public space. To do so, is to reproduce the same kinds gendered ideas that make public spaces more unsafe for women in the first place. The authors write that “most debates on public space are disproportionately focused on danger rather than pleasure…Pleasure or fun is seen as threatening because it fundamentally questions the idea that women’s presence in public space is acceptable only when they have a purpose” (Phadke et al., 2011).
So, this is where loitering is connected. The authors emphasize that loitering, such as hanging around a chai stall, can be a part of shifting from a politics of safety to a politics of pleasure. In this way, the public space can be re-claimed as a space of enjoyment for everyone and contest many ideas of what a woman can or cannot do. The authors describe how the “right to loiter has the potential to change the terms of negotiation in city public spaces and creating the possibility of a radically altered city, not just for women, but for everyone” (Phadke et al., 2011).
Discussions about public space and women takes place in both in the online and real world of India as well. Feminist activists in India have engaged with public space in a many inspiring ways. Inspired by Phadke et al.’s (2011) book Why Loiter women have used social media to take action by posting pictures of themselves in public spaces by using the hashtag #whyloiter and claim space both physically and online
In the online sphere, in 2012 following the horrific rape of a female student in Delhi after boarding a bus, a campaign called #Boardthebus aimed to create a public conversation around the safety of women and their right to public spaces. This trended online through its hashtag and raised awareness as well as solidarity for women’s “right to mobility and public spaces” (Eagle, 2015). This online activism was also coordinated with a call for women to ride public buses on March 8, 2014 (International Women’s Day) to take up more public space rather than less.
Other inspiring forms of activism have been organized by the group ‘Blank Noise’. Formed in 2002 to address street harassment in India, ‘Blank Noise’ uses activism, street experiments, and art in their campaigns. One of their interventions in public space is described by Gupta (2016):
A solemn line of ten men and women arranged themselves across a pedestrian signal on a crowded street in Bangalore, India. Red reflective tape formed English alphabets across their chests. When the traffic signal turned red we assembled on the zebra crossing staring back silently at waiting commuters. Together the letters on our chests spelt a question for onlookers to ponder: “Y R U LOOKING AT ME?” The signal turned green in some minutes and we dispersed, mingling with crowds on the sidewalk to disperse pamphlets about street sexual harassment.
To wrap things up, I’d like to share some words from my friend Sudha Samyukta reflecting on public space and gender in India:
We (Indian Women) live in a situation where we have accepted and institutionalized “gendering” of spaces. How else could a chai stall be a “space” only for men? Where else will I feel like an achievement going to one of these little chai stalls around the corner and feel like I have conquered something? Why do I even accept it within my head, that this particular “space” is not for me/other women? As I ponder, it makes me sad and angry at once. I feel an achievement when I enter the space, when I return, I wonder, in amazement at the way I have gendered a space. Women need to claim public spaces, reclaiming is a later stage. If we can ensure that a group of girls in their most comfortable clothes can walk around the cities without fearing for their safety even if they are not in a group, maybe we can start a discussion on reclaiming any lost space. At this stage, women don’t have a claim to any space whatsoever, forget the “male” spaces. I would however add that it is not just the corner chai stalls. Any public space, including the upper class spaces are not fully accepting of a woman. A woman that walks in alone is stared at, sized up and made to feel uncomfortable. Somehow, as a society we have not been able to make women feel safe, secure and contented. She is somehow uncomfortable and worried for herself, and that is acceptable. How else do you justify women only in groups, accompanied more often than not with male companions and seen only in the acceptable spaces which are not essentially “male” and definitely never alone?
Learning about the complexities of gender in India is a huge learning and unlearning process for me that will continue far beyond my internship. In both Canada and India, gender plays a powerful role in each of our lives whether we are aware of it or not. In both contexts, gender is deeply embedded within the unique social, economic, cultural, and historical forces at play. For me, gender has also become a way in which public space, feminist activism, and ‘loitering’ are intertwined as well as raises further questions. What kinds of lens am I biased with when looking at these issues based on my own culture and socialization? How does ‘loitering’ in public space operate in diverse cultural contexts? What are the impacts of feminist activism around public space in India? How do these actions affect how women and men feel about public space?
Ahh I think I’ll go ponder these questions with another cup of chai…
Bowles Eagle, R. (2015). Loitering, Lingering, Hashtagging: Women Reclaiming Public
Space Via# BoardtheBus,# StopStreetHarassment, and the# EverydaySexism Project. Feminist Media Studies, 15(2), 350-353.
Gupta, H. (2016). Taking Action: The Desiring Subjects of Neoliberal Feminism in India.
Journal of International Women’s Studies, 17(1), 152.
Phadke, S., Khan, S., & Ranade, S. (2011). Why loiter?: Women and risk on Mumbai streets.
Penguin Books India.