Last year, I met Hameeda Hossain for the first time at a private party hosted for notable Dhakaiites. Of course, I went there as just a reporter to cover the scoop, rather than as one of them, but it was remarkable enough to be able to stand next to these extraordinary personalities.
This year, when the interview of the famed human rights activist, founder of Ain o Salish Kendra and a renowned academic was up for grabs, I did not hesitate for a moment before seizing the opportunity. And luckily, our meeting was scheduled at her residence.
Her home is nearly invisible from the street. To get to it, you have to go through a gateway, and then navigate a mini garden and several houses before someone actually points out to the actual residence. The one-storied building is somewhat classical, a true resemblance to the golden days: gigantic rooms, large paintings, shelves packed with books, and a study.
When I arrived, Hossain said, "I hope you didn't have a hard time finding the house!"
Face to face, Hossain has the same intensity and forthrightness, as expected from a human rights activist. We discussed many subjects, talked about the challenges of feminism; she shared her views on the prevalence of discrimination by class or ethnicity, that are symptoms of social injustice and much more.
LS: How do you feel about feminism? What does it mean to you?
HH: Feminism is a complex struggle for justice. It forms the basis of a struggle for equal rights and opportunities, and the right to individual choice. But feminism is more than dividing resources or power between men and women, I think it should be a struggle for justice at work and at home, in the community and the state; feminism challenges patriarchy which is an assertion of power, just as it challenges class domination.
A feminist discusses the needs of people from all ranks and classes; it can't be limited to gaining some advantages for a few influential persons. That would make it an excluding struggle. And that's not feminism.
LS: During times when we can proudly say that we have achieved a lot in terms of rights of women. There are people still looking down upon the expression and misogyny prevails. What do you have to say about this?
HH: Men criticise women's rights or their public participation. They need to understand what the struggle is about. They think a feminist only craves for financial equality – like 'if they earn Tk 10 then we have to earn the same' – something like that.
But that is so wrong. The struggle for gender equality is only part of the feminist struggle for justice, for tolerance of differences and diversity, recognition and respect for different ethnicities, paying heed to all social structures that generate inequality, etc.
LS: Let us go back to our point again. Why are so many domestic violence cases and rapes taking place every day when we have come so far in terms of establishing the priorities of feminism?
HH: I would not say that discrimination has increased over the years. It's just that women were too afraid to report assault in the past — today they are more willing to talk of violence, therefore they choose to report cases. Even so women survivors of violence face a lot of pressure in their community when they raise their demand or report their experience of violence.
But there are women's organisations and legal aid organisations which are able to support women in resisting violence. This can be seen as bringing about change.
LS: Why is there such prevalent misogyny?
HH: There are many reasons: an unhealthy level of competition between the genders. Men think that women are getting preference at jobs, whilst they are being deprived of these opportunities. But what they do not realise is that these very women — also have a double role to play. They work in the morning as labourers and later, when they come back home, they need to cook food for the family and carry out other household chores without any support, since the concept of sharing housework is not yet accepted.
It is for us to challenge this mindset! We must learn to share our work burdens.
LS: Any other discrepancies from the aspect of feminism?
HH: Oh! So many actually. Where do I even start? Let's begin with the state; a small number of women are represented in parliament, but they are selected by their political party and not through direct voting. In a largely male dominated parliament, they have not played a significant role.
Then there are so many laws enacted, but implementation is difficult? Why are we so slow in putting into operation what we have made official? For example, there has already been a mandate to establish a sexual harassment committee at every institution, but how many have actually complied with this directive?
My point is, since we have already moved five steps forward – it is about time we take five more steps.
LS: An equal world is an enabled world — What does it mean to you?
HH: For one, I have certainly not seen an equal world as yet. In my own life, I have had to face small cases of discrimination during my childhood, even though I came from a very progressive family. And while working for Ain O Salish Kendra, I met so many women, especially from the slums, who faced insecurity on a daily basis. Many don't even know who or where to turn to!
But things have slightly improved today, with the advent of numerous women organizations women can now share their experiences, and get help.
LS: How can the media help?
HH: Cover more about these subjects — voice your opinions and continue to follow up your reports. Find out who the perpetrators are, and why they are carrying out harmful activities. Assess the psychology; try to change the archaic culture that leads to mental degradation.
LS: Today women are included in the board-rooms; they are becoming top level executives and CEOs. Does this signify as progress to you?
HH: Gender equality in the boardrooms represents a certain class. To assess real progress, we must find out the representation of women workers in the trade unions. What 'say' do they have in these associations? A board-room representative is just one person, while grass roots level employees are many. Therefore, a true representation of progress is indicated by the advancement of the latter.
LS: Collective Individualism, a catchphrase of the 2020 IWD celebrations. Does it ring any bell?
HH: I will be a little sceptical here. Of course, the fact is when people work together, they go forward in leaps and bounds. We need a stronger collective effort that cuts across differences in class, ethnicity. We also need to make our institutions more open, so that people can express their views freely. We will have to go a long way before we have proper representation in state structures or in the community.
LS: As a forthright human rights activist who has been vocal for such a long period of time, what would you say are your major frustrations?
HH: We have certainly come 'forward' in ratifying conventions. But there are so many details that are written in these conventions that need to be implemented. Rights in the constitution — right to life, right to work. Why is it so difficult to implement these laws and policies? Why do cases of violence drag on for so long?
Domestic violence is still very high. Where is the solution?
We need to collectively work for a social transformation and a cultural change.
LS: Do you have any solutions in mind?
HH: Challenge the system, the culture, and etch out ways to deal with obstacles. For example, women face abuse when they ride public transport. But this usually happens when a woman travels alone. So why not travel in groups to prevent harassment. And this is perhaps the case with 'women' garment workers. They move in groups whenever they go to work.
Then there is a significant role played by the media: encouraging the society at large to take help of various human aid organisations in the country. Victims can now make use of the 'one stop crisis centres' and other legal aid organisations or institutions available in the country.
You have to speak more about it and write more about it. You are actually doing that here, aren't you? And I guess that is what progress is all about.