I never knew how active Bangladesh, as an entire country, was virtually until the Shahbag story broke out on social media this year. You can have your opinions about the movement, be dismissive or inspired, but one thing few can argue is that online activists played a critical role in using the Internet to organise and spread the story, and got thousands of young Bangladeshis to work together.
The role technology is playing in current events in Bangladesh is revolutionary. It was Bangladeshi online activists and bloggers who first protested Kader Mollah’s verdict, demanding the death sentence, used social media to spread the word, and staged sit-ins. That set off the series of events which have brought us to the present day. The recent crackdown on bloggers confirms the power online activism enjoys.
The participation of women in this movement is also unique. Many attribute this to the fact that women in Bangladesh have been organising at the grassroots level for decades. Seeing female leadership in Bangladesh is not really something new to us, despite our patriarchal cultural roots. We have managed to have women in major leadership roles across the board. The Arab Spring may have showed the world how to use social media to build one’s political platform, but this generation of Bangladeshis showed the nation, and the world, how to use the Internet to try to finally gain closure from a bloody Liberation War from which the nation is still struggling to fully recover.
The view from abroad as a Bangladeshi was electrifying. Almost immediately my Facebook and Twitter feeds became consumed with the word “Shahbag.” It did not take long to figure out what my fellow Bangladeshis were talking about, or reach across the oceans and find one another. As the “Western media” grappled with why thousands of youth were pouring into Dhaka’s streets, and holding images of the hang-man’s noose, Bangladeshis from Dhaka to Dallas were tweeting one another, connecting online, and reaching out to Bangladeshi writers around the world to ensure accurate coverage of Shahbag in the mainstream media.
In the first few weeks of the Shahbag story, my posts were a direct result of the information I received from my social media contacts. Those who reached out to me did so to get the word out on a story that was largely being overlooked and misinterpreted. People I had never met were emailing me links, articles, and pictures to tell the world that the youth in Bangladesh would not sit idly by, while politicians paved their future without their participation. Bangladeshis, in Dhaka and across the world, were creating uproar on the streets of Dhaka and in the pathways of the Internet. The energy was palpable, and I felt an instant patriotic connection with my fellow Bangladeshis, a majority of whom were people I had never met.
Although millions of people organise nearly millions of causes every day online, I had never experienced this camaraderie amongst my fellow countrymen. I grew up being told that my generation was passive and uninterested in the future of our country. As our parents recovered from 1971, we grappled with a Bangladesh in many ways at war with herself.
What the Shahbag movement showed me, as a Bangladeshi not living in Bangladesh, is that my generation is informed, politically aware, protective of its history, and is online. It showed me that we are not apathetic about the future of Bangladesh. We may have fallen into a coma spanning four decades since 1971, but the youth of Bangladesh, across the world, are awake. Barriers that separate Bangladeshis across social customs, class and gender all seemingly disappear online. When “Internet trolls” harassed female writers online, myself included, fellow Bangladeshis I had never met came to my defence. Sometimes groups even organised online to stand up for us, and defend our work.
So, while what is being done is nothing new, what is exciting is that Bangladeshi youth are doing it, too: Using the Internet to connect and communicate so as to cultivate a better path for the future of this country.
This generation of Bangladeshis understand the power of online organising and is using it. Call me idealistic and naïve, but it is so electrifying and inspiring that it makes me believe and want to work for the kind of Bangladesh whose dream we keep nestled deep in our hearts.
By positioning themselves at the forefront of these protests, Bangladeshi women and Bangladeshi youth are using their voices, and breaking an age-old myth that this generation is voiceless when it comes to our country’s politics and future. Shahbag changed all that. The voice of the new generation of Bangladeshis is informed, organised, aware, active and online. The question is: Are you listening? Anushay Hossain is a Washington based policy analyst. She writes the blog: www.AnushaysPoint.com