Dismantling social injustices through stories - Swayong talks about creating safe, inclusive, and constructive spaces for conversation and growth of women
Swatil Binte Mahmud, the founder of Swayong, felt quite different from her friends while growing up -- she was loud, lived her life according to her own rules and questioned everything. She had a difficult time relating to her own thoughts and behaviour to things and people around her. “Media did not show women like me, movies failed to portray me, books lacked characters like me, and nobody talked positively about women like me. In my life, I had struggles, achievements, success, failures and moments filled with laughter that I struggled to share with people or relate to in a collective manner. I grew up with a void in my life, where I was constantly trying to be like others to be relatable or to stay relevant,” said Swatil.
As she grew older, she realized that there are many more women like her -- women who fight back, women who ask questions, women who are ambitious, women who are kind, women who are powerful and women who are absolutely, unapologetically, themselves. “These women lived in my house, worked with me, studied with me, laughed with me, cried with me, and empowered me. Having conversations with these women, working with them, and seeing them live their lives ignited a warmth in my soul which started to fill the void that I grew up with,” she added.
But was it enough? Was knowing such women enough for her to be happy?
The answer is no.
“I realized there is a gap, a gap which gets bigger every time a woman decides to not talk about herself, and when a woman is unsuccessful she tries to find stories about other women like her. Therefore, Swayong happened, where we, as a collective, dismantle social injustices through one story at a time -- story of women, like you and me,” informed the founder of Swayong.
Swayong, founded in June 2020, is an online platform that aims to dismantle social injustices through storytelling. Swatil Binte Mahmud and her sister, Kazi Mitul Mahmud, co-founder of Swayong wanted to create a safe, inclusive, and constructive space for conversation and growth. They wanted to create content that aims to encourage people to interact meaningfully with sensitive topics, breaking down inhibitions about “shameful” issues of women. Swayong believes that telling stories is one of the most powerful means to influence, teach, and inspire.
Telling stories is one of the most powerful means that leaders have, to influence, teach, and inspire. Storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas. When it comes to our values, our communities, and our institutions, we understand intuitively that the stories we hold in common are an integral part of the ties that bind us. This understanding also holds true in the development world, where real stories, shared by diverse groups of survivors, help solidify empathy in a way that factual statements encapsulated in bullet points or numbers fail to.
“Swayong stories strive to create a sense of connection. They build familiarity and trust, and allow outsiders to enter the story, making them more open to learning. And stories are more engaging than a dry recitation of data points or a discussion of abstract ideas,” the sisters went on to say.
Mitul and Swatil grew up watching their mother break the glass ceiling at every step. Their father has always been supportive. There was always a very loving and encouraging family environment. There were no barriers for anything that the sisters wanted to do. There was always room for failure and learning from it. They were encouraged to do extracurricular activities like dancing, painting, playing different sports, debating, and theatre.
“The concept of feminism was instilled in us by our unapologetically feminist parents. We were always expected and encouraged to use our voice, platforms, and privilege for disrupting inequal systems wherever we encountered them. Gender was never part of our family discourse or a factor in decision-making. We understand now that that is an immense privilege given the country we grew up in and have dedicated our professional and personal lives in ensuring equality for others,” said the sisters, discussing their childhood.
The Swayong team started as a pandemic project of two sisters which ended up stirring curiosity among a lot of people. “We initially started with a team of 11. As we shared more stories, more people reached out wanting to be a part of Swayong. And now, we are a group of 60 who all volunteer their time and effort. We lovingly refer to them as Swayong Warriors, as they are fighting social injustices,” informed Swatil.
“The platform was supposed to be about sharing our own stories. Hence, we wanted to share real stories of real people. Women are so often treated as a collective; one woman does something wrong, and the entire population carries the blame for it. So, we wanted to highlight the importance of individual stories- the story of self. Thus, came the name Swayong which simply translates as ‘self’ from Bangla,” said the co-founder, Mitul Mahmud.
Swayong became the runner up at the Digital Khichuri Challenge Covid-19 Edition in the ideation level in August 2020. The Digital Khichuri Challenge (DKC) 2020 was conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) supported by ICT Division and Startup Bangladesh. The theme for Digital Khichuri Challenge (DKC) 2020 was to address the stigma and discrimination faced by Covid-19 patients and frontline healthcare workers. Swatil Mahmud and Mitul Mahmud, the founders of Swayong, knew from the beginning, whose stories they will be telling through their platform. "We decided to address the gender-based issues that female frontline warriors like healthcare workers, hospital staff, aid workers, and journalists have been facing during the dreadful pandemic. This was because female frontline workers during Covid-19 remain under-represented and their stories remain unheard. Swayong wanted to be a safe and inclusive space to share their stories."
The aim of Swayong's female frontline worker series was to choose a social injustice issue to address, highlight, and dismantle it through the platform. About 16 first-hand accounts and real-life stories were collected from the field. Among others, there were two relief workers, one development worker, three journalists, five nurses, one nursing superintendent and four doctors. They created engaging content for circulation on social media and produced 15 informative bite-size content pieces on female frontline worker issues. They also hosted a Facebook live session at the end of the series. Also, they conducted baseline and end line perception surveys to measure the impact of their initiative. All generated contents were published on their Facebook page in both Bangla and English to reach a wider audience.
“Since the type of stories, we share on Swayong are personal and sensitive in nature we sometimes face resistance and hesitation from storytellers. As we live in a world where systemic inequalities is the norm, it can be difficult to overcome our inhibitions and allow people to get a glimpse of our deepest and darkest secrets,” informed Mitul Mahmud.
“It is very common in our country to put everything under women’s issue. This way issues that harm women are piled under that list and are not considered mainstream and thus, our issues do not get the systemic and policy significance. Our stories remain unheard as we are encouraged to feel ashamed for being victims or survivors of gender-based violence,” added Swatil.
“Also, Swayong is a feminist and LGBTQIA friendly platform which is not embraced by all,” informed the sisters, while discussing the obstacles they had to overcome when they came up with the concept of Swayong.
When asked what advice would they give to the women of our country, the sisters replied, “We want to encourage everyone to personally fight against the social injustices that prevail among us. Do not get disheartened when you do not see changes overnight. If we want the world to change and how it views women and marginalized groups, we are in for a long battle, but it is important to remember to not give up.”
Your Body, Your Choice: Breasts and bra series
The goals of this topic were to start conversation about breasts/ bra and stop hyper-sexualization of breasts/bra.
Swayong and WeMen View - Sexual harassment in public places
Swayong and WeMen View collaborated to bring light to the issue of sexual harassment in public places. WeMen View along with Swayong wanted to uproot this vicious practice of sexual harassment by creating awareness through storytelling.
When WeMen View approached Swayong for the collaboration, Swayong was only a month old, and WeMen View had already been working for some time.
Swayong and RYC Global/Silent the Silence - Hijra/transgender community stories
This series was done to break the silence around integrating the stories of marginalized hijra/transgender communities living in Bangladesh.
The main reason for having this series was to share the untold stories of people belonging to the hijra/transgender communities. It was a great challenge for Swayong to gather the stories for this series because people felt afraid and ashamed to share the injustices that have happened to them. But many came forward, and Swayong shared some of the most thought-provoking stories in the history of Swayong. Also, when Swayong was approached for this collaboration, the main reason for working together was the sense of unity that this collaboration had to offer as the collaboration consisted of many different and unique organizations working for the same cause.
Swayong and Wander Woman: Horrors of travel
The number of female solo travelers has skyrocketed, but amid Instagram-worthy escapades are tales of violence and horror, raising questions about how the world is greeting women who travel alone. Hence, Swayong and Wander Woman joined hands to raise awareness about women who travel alone.
Swayong X DKC: Female frontline warriors
Swayong and Digital Khichuri Challenge came together to change the perception of our society and reduce discrimination against the Covid-19 frontline workers.
When Swayong became the runner up for the Digital Khichuri Challenge Covid-19 Edition in the Ideation level in August 2020, the sisters knew from the beginning whose stories they will be telling through Swayong. They decided to address the gender-based issues that female frontline warriors like healthcare workers, hospital staff, aid workers, and journalists have been facing during the dreadful pandemic.
World Teacher's Day 2020
In 2020, World Teachers’ Day celebrated teachers with the theme “Teachers: Leading in crisis, re-imagining the future”. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly added to the challenges faced by already over-extended education systems throughout the world. Hence, Swayong shared stories of a few brilliant teachers to celebrate World Teacher’s Day 2020.
International Day of the Girl Child 2020
International Day of the Girl celebrates the importance, power, and potential of girls around the world. It is also a day to highlight girls’ needs and the problems they can face, and drive efforts that meet these needs and fulfil their rights -- not benevolently for them, but in partnership with them. Hence, Swayong shared stories of a girl child to celebrate International Day of the Girl Child 2020.
Rage Against Rape
Swayong’s founders are members of the coalition, Feminists Across Generations, and have declared gender-based violence a national emergency.
Swayong x TransEnd x Voice Your Story: Transgender awareness week
Transgender Awareness Week takes place every year between November 13 and 19, and it's a time for transgender people and their allies to highlight the community, share their stories and talk about the issues they face every day.
Therefore, Swayong, TransEnd and Voice Your Story came together to raise awareness about transgender issues in Bangladesh.
Shadhin Music App x Swayong: Swayong Shonglap
Swayong Storytellers are sharing their stories with Shadhin Music App through podcast episodes. It is a long-term collaboration.
Stories of Child Sexual Abuse
Child rape cases and sexual abuse cases have been on the rise in Bangladesh. However, the issue has not been given enough light and action. The stories will be uploaded in March 2021.
Swayong also has its own talk show called “Angur Fol Tok” where they talk about “sour” things. It is another venture by Swayong to dismantle social injustices through interactive live sessions.