Monday, May 6, 2013

The Real Bangladesh – Should I Be Scared?

Some time ago I wrote pensively and incisively about the shocking difference in the reality on the Bangladeshi streets and the one at the ubiquitous Dhaka fancy parties. What I mean by that is that everywhere in the streets you will see (if and when) women clad in conservative clothing, often with hijabs or full burka. Granted, there ain’t all that many women on the streets in Dhaka – it is about 1:10 ratio of women to the hordes of men who roam all over with seemingly little more to do than walk, talk, stare and pee in the gutter. At the same time, if you attend a fashionable dance party filled with Dhaka's young ones, you would not believe that you are in fact in Bangladesh. 

So, yesterday was a funny day. In the afternoon, I decided to take Son for his haircut since I hadn’t seen his eyes for over a week now (the kid sports an Ashton Kutcher-like awesome hairstyle). It was also a good opportunity to ride his bike on the Dhaka streets (the salon is a block away) rather than between the kitchen and my bedroom, which is decidedly not amusing for me. So, Son perched precariously on his bike and we braved the dugout street and a half to the salon – I have to say, 3 meters later and I regretted it. We would have been better off with a lunar rover given the horrendous landscape of my street. At any rate, we made it to the salon, and all of us collectively endured the haircut – at some point, 2 women were holding Son down, one was cutting and 3 others were staring (I think staring is Bangladesh’s national sport), while I was nervously sipping tea. Once done, Son hopped on the bike (he was VERY nervous about parking it outside and tried for a while to bring it inside the salon to my horror) and we headed back home. We stopped to stare at some construction site much to Son’s delight – lately, after the Savar tragedy, he acquired the morbid predilection that all construction in Dhaka will collapse. As we were standing there, a small skinny man in a wife-beater and the typical Bangladeshi male skirt on came up to me. Next to him was a younger man, similarly dressed. They were walking deliberately slowly, almost with a nonchalant swagger. They stopped next to me and the older man said the following to me:

“M’am, this Bangladesh.” I nodded, I thought he wanted to chat about “my country” and pinch Son’s cheeks, like everyone else. I smiled. He was so not amused. Instead, he said to me, in a calm, almost imperceptibly menacing tone, “You must control your dress when you here” and pointed out to my short, above-the-knees summer dress while staring calmly into my shocked eyes. His buddy kept looking at me expressionless. Then they slowly moved away and continued their unhurried, deliberate walk. I stood there for some time, unable to move, petrified, not sure what had just happened. Perhaps I became complacent. Perhaps I have been too comfortable here and have lost touch perspective of where I really am? Whatever the answer is, the fact was that I was scared. For the first time.  In Bangladesh. The place I had started calling “my lovely Bangladesh.” And that made me sad.

That same night I went to a very sought after party at the Radisson hotel, organized by a notorious party company in Bangladesh. If my street critic had been there, he might have had some serious religious palpitations. The party had many young and privileged kids who were drinking, smoking and doing some other things decidedly un-religious things. Some of the attire of the ladies (although I do fear it is a bit of a stretch to call them “ladies”) would have sent an Amsterdam night trade professional packing in view of the scantily-clad competition.

Who is the real Bangladesh? I guess it’s both – those people who warn against the evil of short skirts and demand a blasphemy law, torching everything in their way and refusing women journalists to cover their rallies, and those folks who cannot wait to don a Western dress late at night and to have a drink or two while dancing to the sounds of the latest Bangkok DJ. Clearly, both sides are the extremes of Bangladeshi society but they exemplify the profound conflict that this rapidly developing country is now facing as illustrated by the violent recent events. I remain an impassionate bystander.

1 comment:

  1. You are right to be concerned. Problem is not that Bangladesh has extremists - every country has its fair share of effing idiots. The problem is that religion-inspired idiots believe it is their God-given right (literally) to be the moral police of society, especially for groups they see as inferior - unbelievers, and especially women. They are losers whose religious smugness makes them feel hyper-empowered, and that is why they are a danger to society. I hope you will take some food/drink/other forms of support to the protesters of Shahbag Square - they are fighting exactly these kind of dangerous fools.