There is still a long way to go before Bangladeshi women attain equality
Last evening, I experienced burnout.
Well that’s normal, you are thinking. Feeling burnt out is not only something common in today’s performance-oriented world, that too while surviving a pandemic; in fact, people seem to equate feeling burnt out or heading towards a burnout as a mark of making professional progress.
But last evening, I did not feel burnt out from overworking. I felt burnt out for being a woman.
Yes, I was exhausted and tired of having to face and live in a society where women are constantly trivialized, abused, assaulted, disrespected, played with, bashed, thrown out, and simply ignored. I was tired of having to accept that I have to live on in this society for a good part of my life, that while things are changing, the change is not enough to actually ensure equality for women.
It happened with all the news on violence against women with misogynist comments in news portals that flooded my newsfeed. It is truly a feat of art, that portrays the horrors of gender based violence women face across societies, communities, race, religion, colour, profession, economic condition, and yes, age.
Facing representation burnout
While scrolling through it, and trying to unsee what my eyes were seeing, it hit me in an unexpected way. I could not accept how I have been surviving in Bangladesh as a woman, and I cried for 15 minutes. While the Noakhali news might have been my breaking point, my burning out had silently started way before.
I might sound hyper-sensitive, but know that such burnout can exist. This is called “representation burnout” -- when people face exhaustion for navigating non-diverse spaces bearing an identity that is constantly under stress and pressure. Representation burnout manifests itself through stress and exhaustion of having identities as a minority in their given environment.
These identity-bearers go through not only physical labour at work but also an additional amount of emotional and psychological labour that emanates from facing disparity on a daily basis at work and sometimes even after work. Representation burnouts produce uncomfortable feelings, and hold you back on speaking up because you know your perspective is different and that will not hold well with the others in the room.
Often, there are interactions on the basis of identity that impact your daily performance, and conversations that stick with you for a long time after having taken place. But these burnouts are rarely identified for being what they are. These are more often dismissed as signs of weakness, hyper-sensitivity, and inability to handle difficult situations.
Especially when it comes to women.
Silence and reluctant acceptance
As a sociolegal analyst, talking about gender challenges is a part of my daily work. I talk about the gender insensitive laws we have, court procedures that are women-unfriendly, and policies that sound very apt but in fact are bare.
I have to meet female survivors of gender-based violence for research. I receive a significant amount of calls from people I barely know to advise on how to deal with domestic abuse, I have to put up a straight face on live TV shows and answer indignant men who question me on why I have not covered my hair.
At the university, I regularly receive a fair share of female students who show me screenshots of being slut-shamed by their male classmates (yes, boys studying law to become lawyers and judges) and counsel them on tackling these attacks. Every year, I have to work with first year students to help them understand misogyny, abuse, and discrimination. Every year, someone dares me to explain why the burkha is not the ultimate protective shield for women.
I constantly receive micro-aggressive comments from colleagues, that for a young faculty member I have too many opinions, that my straightforwardness is nothing but rudeness. In professional activities, I am either too arrogant for speaking up or too entitled for being silent. No matter what I do, it’s always judged not by who I am, but as the daughter or wife of someone.
I step out of work, and like every other Bangladeshi woman, have to ensure we are not physically assaulted, groped, or bumped into by men while braving our way through crowded Dhaka streets. Even Uber is not safe, as I have seen multiple times when Uber drivers feel entitled to shout at women passengers.
In the family, we listen to relatives talk about our biological clocks ticking, or how lucky we are to have partners who cook with us (or for us when we are meeting yet another official deadline).
So this is the space we Bangladeshi women live in. While Bangladesh has definitely made significant strides in terms of female empowerment and can boast a ranking in the gender index better than its South Asian counterparts, the data does not practically make us safer or equal at all.
In December, I travelled to a village in Bhola where not a single woman was allowed to matriculate, where despite knowing dowry is illegal, women themselves advocated for it as a social protection.
I had to sit through while a judge lectured me that it was wrong of women in a town like Bhola to roam around alone till 10 pm at night unless the husband escorted them. I had to agree with police officers that it was okay if husbands occasionally beat up their wives, unless to the point of death.
I had to collect data for my research, and I had to listen to the patriarchal upheaval and accept the reality for what it is. I had to hold silence when a bunch of development professionals told me that it was wrong to highlight disability, poverty, or inaccessibility as discriminations to teenagers unless I sugarcoated the examples. I received the brunt of a radical feminist when I said women deserve reserved seats in buses.
These often invisible and frustratingly hard challenges women overcome on a daily basis are hard to measure, and are both psychologically and physically taxing. At some point, our professional and personal struggles become one. It builds up on your mind and body, and at some point you give in and break down. Like I did last night.
A lifetime of subjugation to prevail over
This year’s theme for International Women’s day was Generation Equality. No, women in Bangladesh have not reached equality. It can’t be equality when we feel afraid of being a woman in the public and private spheres of Bangladesh. Admitting this fact does not mean belittling the achievements of our state, but a nod to what we have already accomplished and what more needs to be done.
Let us think about these emotional burdens society heaps upon women, about the stress we suffer simply for being women. Unless we fail to reach equality at the psychological level along with the societal, financial, physical, and legal levels, there will be no equality.
So, here’s to a lifetime of subjugation, oppression, and resistance to prevail over.
Arpeeta Shams Mizan is a sociolegal researcher and teaches at the University of Dhaka.