In Search of Equality | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 24, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:45 AM, June 24, 2016

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In Search of Equality

Dr Sayed Saikh Imtiaz speaks to the Star Weekend about his life as a student and teacher of Women and Gender Studies, and how we can look forward to achieving gender justice.

Photo: Prabir Das

"The hardships that my mother, like other mothers in our country, went through- she did not deserve it,” says Dr Sayed Saikh Imtiaz, Chairperson and Associate Professor, Department of Women and Gender Studies, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Executive Director (Honorary), Center for Men and Masculinities Studies (CMMS).

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With a single tear at the corner of his eye, he looked into thin air with melancholic nostalgia, remembering the woman, his best friend, he used to call 'amma'. “She was the reason, the sole reason I studied on women.”

After finishing his High School studies in Rangpur High School and then Carmichael College, Rangpur, he first enrolled himself into the Bangla department of Dhaka University but after stumbling across a book in the British Council about Anthropology, he made a swift turn towards that direction. “While I was studying for my Bachelor's in Anthropology, I came across 'anthropology of women'. I was awestruck reading on the past and present of women, and their plight. I felt like I was reading about the life of my mother. There was a pang in my heart that urged me to keep studying about this.” Once graduated, Dr Imtiaz then began his post graduation studies in Women and Gender. “The more I delved into the subject, the more I felt for amma.”

During his Master's studies, a professor from the Netherlands prompted him to do a PhD on this subject. In 2004, he joined Dhaka University as a lecturer, after completing a one year internship at UNDP and declining a job offer there. He went on to acquire his PhD at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He has already completed a post doctoral assignment on climate change in Sundarban area with Vanderbilt University, USA and is currently working on his second post doctoral on SRHR (Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights) issues with the generous funding support from the Dutch Government as part of the NOW-WOTRO scheme.

On the subject of Women and Gender, Dr Imtiaz's main focus lies in men and masculinity. “I wanted to learn and see how much men can contribute to gender equality. While women have the ultimate role to play, we men have responsibilities too. We need to look past this patriarchy and come up with a way to live in harmony, with equality. I want boys and men to be involved in achieving gender justice.”

“The injustice stems directly from 'male entitlement'”, says Dr Imtiaz. “According to research, the rate of divorce has increased substantially over the past few years among middle-class educated couples. What you will notice is that it began right about the time when women started going out and fending for themselves- when they began earning, when they became independent. This financial independence or becoming a bread-winner, or even the fact the a woman might have to stay out late for work, or work with other male colleagues-- these ideas become unbearable for men. They firmly believe, due to how our society has brought them up, that they alone are entitled to these things, and women must stay indoors and cook and clean for the family- like they have watched their mothers do in the previous generations.”

When it comes to sexual harassment, Dr Imtiaz believes it has a lot to do with power and entitlement as well. “We have grown up learning that 'meye der ke ghore thakte hoy' (women should stay indoors). Those who grew up learning that the streets are for men wonder why a girl should even be allowed to roam the streets freely, and they try to 'put them in their place' through the means of humiliation and harassment. They are afraid women will snatch their place on the streets, that women will take up jobs they 'deserve' to get. They are afraid of losing the power they were entitled to over the other genders. And that fright in them leads to backlash in the form of violence and harassment.” He continues, “If we want to change the situation we will have to focus on educating men regarding gender equality and the earlier we start, the better. We have rightly focused on empowering women but have not thought of preparing men to accept the change.” 

Dr Imtiaz has carried out a number of action researches based on the insights of his PhD research to identify ways to engender men and boys. The BraveMen Campaign, one of the projects led by him, included a series of co-curricular activities aimed at developing a positive mindset among school children, especially young boys, regarding the rights of women and girls. Every participant was to maintain a diary called 'Brave Man Diary' where he narrates and reflects on how he interacts with and treats his female acquaintances on a daily basis. They were also asked to imitate the chores that their mothers carry out throughout a day, which ended up receiving immense results with boys admitting that they did not realise how tough a life their mothers lead. The initiative tests how to involve boys in feminist activism to initiate long lasting change in conventional masculine practices.

Another initiative called the “Prio Baba Campaign” is organised by the Centre for Men and Masculinities Studies (CMMS) together with Promundo US and funded by UBS Foundation. As an action research initiative “Prio Baba Campaign” is conducting awareness campaigns in the rural areas of five districts of Bangladesh. The campaign involved mostly fathers to sensitise them about family planning, rights of wives and children, and the negative impacts of domestic violence. This action research is trying to develop and test a community dialogue initiative involving fathers to stop violence in their homes. The uniqueness of this initiative is to involve fathers who have educated their daughters as role models and have not married them off at an early age, and have performed their household responsibilities. Dr Imtiaz says, “We want to see whether stories of the life of these fathers can inspire the younger fathers to be different.”

With exemplary feminist leaders like Dr Imtiaz paving the way for us to join him in the journey of achieving gender equality, we can see the day when we finally achieve what we all have been fighting for. “We need to stop being silent. In the case of harassment and injustice, even silence in violence- it is supporting the bad guys. But there are people who are supporting the women they are with. These are first generation men- they are the first in our society who have begun accepting women as equals, and these are the men who give me hope. These men and women will teach their children the value of equality and justice, and as we see that roll out- I think we can be confident about a good future. I remain hopeful still,” and it is evident in his concluding smile.

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