‘We still have a lot more to do for equality’
Noted human rights activist and academic Dr Hameeda Hossain, one of the founders of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) and currently convener of the Sramik Nirapotta Forum (Workers' Safety Forum), has recently been honoured with the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award from Bangladesh Development Initiative, a non-partisan research and advocacy group of independent scholars based in the US. In this interview with Shuprova Tasneem of The Daily Star, she reflects on her long and illustrious career and the evolution of the rights movements in Bangladesh.
What inspired you to follow this path, and what achievements are you most proud of in terms of the women's movement and the labour movement?
To be honest, I was not that conscious from a young age of the inequalities that exist in our society, or even of the unequal treatment that women receive within their families. My family was fairly progressive; in fact, my father encouraged our education. I think it really hit me after 1971, when I started working in shelters with women who had suffered violence. After that, I worked with artisans in general but particularly women. As I spent more time with them, I started to understand how they had to face the burden of survival, both economically and socially. And then within my own profession, I began to see how different it was for working women. There were few opportunities in the media world. So I think it came upon me gradually, and slowly I engaged with the women's movement. In the early 70s, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, the largest women's organisation in the country, along with a few other organisations were pressing for women's political participation in policy forums, and for equal wages at work—they were raising the issue of equal rights.
Rather than achievements, I would say it was how we did things that was very important, and I think the collective actions we took and the collective thinking/analysis that we engaged in have been a big marker in my life. For instance, in 1995, when the young domestic worker Yasmin Akhter was picked up by policemen while on her way home to Dinajpur, who then raped her and left her for dead on the streets, it wasn't just a few women or organisations that took up that cause. It became a big national movement, which ultimately led to convictions for the guilty police officials.
The struggle to free women from being subjected to fatwa penalties was another landmark. We achieved this through the legal process, with the Mahila Parishad filing cases such as in 1993, when Noorjahan of Moulvibazar was forced to commit suicide due to a fatwa—she was buried in the ground up to her waist and stoned 101 times as "punishment" for a second marriage. However, it took around 20 years for us to get a final judgment from the Supreme Court making fatwas that penalised women illegal. And even after that, you still hear of village elders holding forth against women for being "corrupt", so there is still a long way to go.
Looking back, what changes have you seen in the women's movement?
Before 1972, we were talking about economic opportunities—we thought that if women's work was visible, we would have equality. Then women's work did become visible, in garment factories, mills, construction, etc., but equality still evaded us. Later on, Mahila Parishad also took a stand on political participation, with a quota system for more women in parliament because numbers do count to some extent, but we then found that the means of selection greatly weakened the women's positions. If you are selected by the leaders of political parties, the women who get into parliament only raise the leaders' issues, not women's issues. It didn't bring about the change we anticipated. I think the real change has been in using the legal process to establish rights. The courts move very slowly but at least you have laws that allow you to claim your rights and give you some level of bargaining power. That has made a difference.
The second factor that is very important is the emergence of women workers, particularly in the export industries. They still have a rough deal—their wages are not equal to that of men, they work very long hours, and there are not enough safety provisions at work—and there are too many examples of factory fires like Tazreen where workers paid such a heavy price. Even so, you can see the changes to some extent. I remember a case in the 90s, where after a death in a garment factory, the only compensation given was a job offer for the sister of the deceased. In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy, we were able to get brands, employers and other contributors to set up a fund through which they could support workers who had been affected. Of course, it's important to remember that the fight is far from over—we still haven't established the right to a meaningful compensation, which is still under consideration by the High Court.
What other industries are there where women workers are particularly vulnerable?
A large number of women are working in the agricultural sector, in tea production, as well as in small and medium workshops/enterprises. In most of these places, there are no laws that determine their work. We need to think of, first of all, how to create the awareness amongst them that they do have rights, and then how to build up this agenda of rights, with them and for them. The women who are working as paid labour in the agricultural sector are paid very low wages. On top of that, they work long hours, which can impact their health. But overall, the system of hiring labour at hourly/daily wage rates needs to be looked at.
And across the board, we need to look at health provisions. Is it enough to have a few government hospitals where women/workers can go? Shouldn't workers be given some guarantee, by way of a card or something, which would entitle them to free treatment wherever they go? There have been suggestions by trade unions that the government should set up a hospital in Dhaka for workers. But one hospital in Dhaka doesn't answer the needs of women working in Rangpur or Dinajpur, for example. However, if they have something like an ID card that they can present, the local hospitals should be obligated to take them on.
We should also focus on domestic labour and the role of women within their families, where women are continuously working without pay/support. There should be a system of accounting or sharing for women's work at home.
When you were only 15, you won an essay competition sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune on the subject of "The World We Want". Looking back, is the world now what you imagined it would be as a young girl?
At the time, I was studying in Hyderabad, in a conservative college in a conservative place! That essay won me a three-month trip to the US, which led to my being admitted to Wellesley College on a scholarship, and my whole life pattern changed. If I hadn't taken this opportunity that came to me quite by chance, I would have been stuck in Hyderabad instead of being able to pursue a career at a time when not too many of us could; the only option then was to marry and look after your family.
I find that the younger generations of women are marching far ahead of where we were at that age—their concerns have broadened out and they are taking up very difficult issues to work on, particularly in terms of sexual violence and workers' rights. When Ain o Salish Kendra was first founded in the mid-80s, there were only a few organisations that took up such cases. Today, you can see many similar kinds of organisations all over Bangladesh. There is a great deal of awareness now of the fact that women have rights and we will fight to defend those rights. In a way, there was more of a class divide earlier and a divide between different communities, but now we do see people from different backgrounds working together, although we still need to do much more to include indigenous women into these conversations.
It's very difficult to change culture, though. It's such an age-old thing where women are supposed to fit certain roles and they are, from the beginning, subjected to their parents' wishes, particularly the father's who is the traditional head of the household, and the ideal you are meant to aim for is to get married, as if there is nothing beyond marriage in life. Now that women are taking on so many professional responsibilities and sharing the demands of work outside their family, it's high time we shared the responsibilities at home too, as equal partners. We still have a lot more to do for equality, beginning at the family level and how we raise our children.