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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Empire to ashes

Update : 30 Apr 2013, 04:24 PM

Oh, Bangladeshis. We’re everywhere. There are 160m of us: living, working, studying, raising families and building intricate networks. We are teachers, activists, health care workers, artists, scientists, writers, politicians, business owners, doctors, drivers, sellers of wares.

Yet, we’re nowhere. Our “unfinished revolution” permeates the consciousness of every single Bangladeshi living on this planet, whether we realise it or not. Those who survived 1971, and we the children of those who survived, living in America, Britain, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Japan, Australia and elsewhere — we bear witness to the memory, the healing and old horrors.

Bangladesh seems to have overtaken India in terms of social indicators of development. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen spoke at a lecture at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, less than a month after the Delhi gang rape.

Sen asserted that a “large number of women health workers or school teachers has actually helped [Bangladesh] to overtake India in every aspect of the Human Development Index.”

Without gender equality there can be no development, as the refrain goes.

At the present moment, post garment factory fire, post garment factory collapse, there’s much more progress to be made. Buried under the rubble, among the dead, with more to be found — are mostly women.

With the feminisation of Bangladeshi labour, women compose the rickety backbone of Bangladesh’s ready-made garments industry, which is 77% of Bangladesh’s total export economy.

They are indispensible, one would suppose. But conditions within the factories make us realise otherwise: low wages, decrepit buildings, eight to eighteen hour days depending on the expedience of the order, constant bladder infections, sexual abuse and coercion are among the many horrors workers face in Bangladesh, and in garment industries worldwide.

Sumi Abedin, a survivor of the November 24 fire at Tazreen Fashions describes her salary to Democracy Now: “I was making $55 per month as a senior sewing machine operator. And including overtime, I was making $60 to $65 … working 11 to 13 hours per day and six days in a week, sometimes seven days.” As garment factories collapse into rubble and burn to ashes, it’s high time to demand the unionisation of garment workers and all other workers in Bangladesh.

Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch says: “Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionised, workers could have refused to enter the building the day it collapsed. This tragedy shows that the right to organise a union in Bangladesh is not just a matter of getting fair wages – it’s a matter of saving lives.”

Workers’ livelihood is at the forefront of change. Bangladesh cannot simply churn out ready-made garments with zero human rights accountability. Racking up the GDP in the globalisation rat race won’t buy a world where the war is a thing of the past. And when these tragedies happen, it is apparent that the war is still very much present.

Flash-forward to the Shahbagh protests, which swelled to grand proportions after a former war criminal was spared the death penalty. His irreverent and unapologetic thumbs-up after his verdict catapulted folks onto the streets. A collective roar called for his death, justified, they believed, for his murderous, rapist ways. But why calls for death?

The torturous murder of Aminul Islam, a leader of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, reminds us of how quickly dissidence is met with depravity. It’s almost as if collective muscle memory expects dissidence to be dealt the hand of violence. We believe we cannot depend on the police, the army, the government to guide us with compassion and democracy. Or protect us.

Until her death, African-American futurist and science fiction author Octavia Butler, wrote stories of a dystopian world. She foretold a future ruled by violence, chaos. She wrote: “The past … is filled with repeated cycles of strength and weakness, wisdom and stupidity, empire and ashes. To study history is to study humanity. And to try to foretell the future without studying history is like trying to learn to read without bothering to learn the alphabet.”

Without bothering to learn the alphabet. If the alphabet was one of the first movements toward independence, certainly forgetting our alphabet is to forget history. Forgetting history? Well, we all know about that. No future. 

Tanwi Nandini Islam is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her debut novel will be released by Viking Penguin. Follow her on Twitter @tanwinandini.  

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