Stories from the field

Day 2016-10-02

Zahura Ahmed – Blog 2: Different values for different lives (GE)

Below, I have shared some of the thoughts I have had since starting my placement with BOMSA. Any reference to migrant workers refers only to domestic migrant workers. While I do discuss gender in this blog post, please note that I do not touch upon non-binary aspects of gender and how this affects migration, as this is something I have yet to learn much more about. Thank you for reading!

In my experience, a woman’s voice is often silenced. She is excluded from conversations that concern her, and from being an active contributor to solutions that concern her. In many contexts, she must suffer silently, as speaking out would put her safety at risk. In others, she must bear the brunt of being labeled “bossy”, “out of place”, or “troublemaker” if she dares speak out. Her experiences, knowledge, and thoughts are dismissed. I have noticed that this is something that transcends culture and society- it is a reality for all women, though, through different avenues and to different extents.

 I have always been cautious of drawing parallels between different women’s experiences in different contexts, as one’s problems in Canada cannot always be comparable to one’s problems in Bangladesh. Often times, the problems one faces cannot be compared to what another faces even within the same country. A woman’s perceived place in society is complex, and those within certain paradigms suffer more than others. This is something I have been thinking about a lot since arriving to Bangladesh and starting my work with BOMSA, and I have begun to think more and more about borders and the rights they allow for certain people while oppressing that of others. This is such a vast topic, and I cannot begin to describe all of its complexities. In this blog post, I will share an incident that challenged me to think about my words and actions when witnessing or facing oppressive environments.

On our first day in Dhaka, we had the opportunity to accompany our boss to a collaborative meeting concerning migrant workers between civil society members, government officials, and the CEO of an overseas recruiting agency. The aim of this meeting was to bring forth different points of view, and inform future policy and practice to improve livelihoods of migrants and their families. In theory, this sounds very useful, important, and necessary. I thought so too. I was disappointed to see only men sitting around the table, discussing the issues, as a handful of women observed from the sidelines. I asked my boss why she was not seated with them, and she said something about how “attempt to empower herself might disempower other women.” I did not quite understand how her being at that table would disempower others; rather, I believed it would have been a great opportunity to share an important perspective. In any case, I found that the CEO of the recruiting agency was doing most of the talking. He emphasized the importance of migrant women being trained properly before leaving for their destination countries. He stated that if this happened- if the women were trained to perfection- then there would be zero possibility of them encountering troubles once arriving to the destination country. This view completely shifted any responsibility the employers within destination countries had towards their employees, implying that any trouble or abuse that migrant workers faced was of their own doing- their lack of training, to be precise. No one countered this assumption. The subject of sexual abuse was brought forth. The CEO stated that any sexual activity that occurred between the migrant worker and her employer was always consensual- that there was no way someone would forcefully engage another in such actions because of the laws in place that would persecute them and protect the victim. From the experiences I have and the stories I heard, when he said this, I felt like he completely dismissed the reality of sexual abuse that countless female migrants face in their domestic work. He completely erased the lived experiences women have shared with me, claiming their absolute impossibility, suggesting that women with such accusations were liars. No one countered this assumption. When I spoke to the CEO moments later, and asked him whether employers were being trained on appropriate behaviour towards employees, and the rights of employees, I was told how ridiculous a question that was. He explained that no employer would agree to such a training, again reiterating that if migrant workers knew what they were doing, there would not be any problems. It was clear that he placed these employers on a pedestal well above those of domestic migrant workers. I pressed on, indicating how these assumptions were problematic. I was interrupted as I spoke, and it felt as though my views were dismissed as unintelligent. I reflected on the situation and thought that perhaps my boss did not join the table full of men to avoid exactly this. Did she believe that her attempt to empower herself in this situation, and speak out in support of these women, would inadvertently make her feel disempowered and her message futile?

I left this meeting feeling very uneasy. What was this mindset that was so deeply engrained and why was it so difficult to challenge? I thought about how it seemed as though my views were so easily dismissed, and I thought about so many other times where this has happened to me, or other women in my life. I thought of the brave domestic workers who have stood up to this mindset, and were subsequently punished for doing so. While the response I received from the CEO made me feel a sense of deep injustice, from what I understand the responses these women receive often become violent. BOMSA has been involved in cases where women have been sexually assaulted, physically abused, have had food withheld, for stating that they have been treated unfairly. While I was safe to express my views and return to my life unharmed, these women were not. How is that just in any way? My positionality as a Canadian passport-holder afforded me rights that these women did not have.

 This ties back to an oppressive structure that values certain lives over others. Until people rise up and challenge this troubling perception, justice will not be brought to migrant women. BOMSA does a good job of this through their work – the training and advocacy that they are involved in informs migrant workers and their families, as well as civil society members and government officials, of the respect one deserves as a domestic worker, as well as gaps within policy and practice. However, a major challenge seems to be effectively communicating these messages to key decision makers. To be honest, I struggle to imagine a safe and effective way of doing this. I definitely think that it is a collaborative effort that requires the support of various stakeholders, where those who are traditionally silenced are given a platform to speak and are respected. And this is why organizations like BOMSA exist – to learn and unlearn, and guide others in this process.

This experience has reminded me that issues do not exist in black and white. We cannot simply identify a problem, then fix it. Ultimately, there are goals that everyone must strive towards. We must stop valuing the lives of men over those of women and others, or the lives of employers over those of employees. It is important to unlearn that certain passport-holders deserve more respect than others, or that certain professions are worthy of our respect while others are not. People must respect and listen to oppressed individuals, and award them the rights that are rightfully theirs.

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