Monday, January 15, 2007

Fulbright Blog
Place: Dhaka
Date: January 15, 2007


Today was an interesting day. This morning my new boua, Hamida, started. She is very nice and is exactly what I was looking for. She is young, quiet, punctual, and a hard worker. Plus, she only speaks Bangla so I will be forced to practice mine! It is so nice to have someone help with the housework again, especially in a place this big! You really need help with the cleaning here because there is so much dust that you have to dust and sweep your apartment every day to keep it clean. Plus there is the daily cooking and laundry that needs to be done. Bouas here also go to the market for you to buy your food so that you pay Bengali prices instead of bideshi (foreigner) prices. Delegating these items to someone else means that I have more time to focus on my project and exploring Bangladesh.

Hamida was only here for two hours this morning, however, because I went to Old Dhaka today with some of my Fulbright friends. Even though I have been here for three months, I had not gone to Old Dhaka yet. After my visit today, I realized that was the right decision, because a single woman would not be at all comfortable there by herself. Today I made the mistake of wearing western pants and a fatua, which is a short Bangladeshi shirt. It only comes down about six inches below your waist, so it does not fully cover your rear end. I was wearing an orna (the scarf that you use to cover your breasts), but apparently my outfit was not conservative enough because some guy grabbed my behind as I was walking by and several other men came close to try to touch me. When the guy grabbed me I whipped around and started yelling at him. Another man on the street saw what he did and slapped him hard in the face. Then several other men gathered around the offender and started yelling at him. We then left the scene because I think that our presence was escalating the situation.

In this culture it is strictly forbidden for men to touch women - much less grab their rear ends! The other people enforce this cultural standard by publicly putting offenders back in line. I knew about this "street justice" which is why I made a fuss about him touching me. If I hadn't said anything, more men would probably have also tried to grab me. Wearing a shalwar-kameez (the long shirts and baggy pants) or a sari and covering my hair would probably have helped, but I would have still stood out because of the color of my skin.

I felt generally uncomfortable in Old Dhaka before the incident because there are hardly any women at all on the streets (maybe 1 out of 100 people) and whenever we stopped for more than 20 seconds anywhere, immediately a large crowd would gather around us. Plus, the streets are very narrow and rickshaws pass by very quickly, so you have to watch your step to keep from a) getting run over, b) falling into the drainage pits on the side of the road, and c) getting too close to the men. Needless to say, after the "grabbing incident" my level of comfort significantly decreased.

Like New York, Dhaka is many cities within one city. I was telling my friends today that I feel like I am living in a completely different place since I moved out of Mohammadpur. Gulshan is much cleaner and there are many more foreigners here (in the three months that I lived in Mohammadpur, I never saw another foreigner; in Gulshan I see several a day.) In Gulshan, however, I also feel like more people are trying to take advantage of me, whereas in Mohammadpur, sometimes people would quote me a higher price, but if I started to negotiate in Bangla and I indicated that I knew what the "true" price of something was, they would usually capitulate really quickly. In Gulshan I always pay the "bideshi price." There are also many more beggars here. There were many poor people in Mohammadpur, but they did not beg money from me. In fact, one day when I went out to give kids presents, many of them initially would not take them from me. (Of course once a few kids proved that it was OK I was mobbed, but it was still me who was offering and not them who were begging.)

It seems that the various parts of the city operate on a spectrum. On one side of the scale is Gulshan which is very cosmopolitan, residential, secular, educated, and comfortable with foreigners. On the other side of the spectrum is Old Dhaka which is run down, busy, religious, conservative, and not used to foreigners. Mohammadpur falls in between Gulshan and Old Dhaka. Dhanmondi, the neighborhood that I originally wanted to move into, is between Mohammadpur and Gulshan.

The spectrum is important to recognize, acknowledge, and respond to. On the Gulshan end of the spectrum it is OK to wear western clothes and behave in a more "western" way - i.e. speaking to men on the street (as a woman), making eye contact, etc. On the Old Dhaka end of the spectrum, you need to dress as a local, speak Bangla, and maintain a large distance between the sexes. My problem today was that I was in "Gulshan" mode when I went to Old Dhaka. I think that if I had come from Mohammadpur, my experience would have probably been different. For instance, in Mohammadpur, I never wore western clothes out of the house. Here, I wear them all of the time because they are easier for me to wear and there are many other people here who wear them.

Anyway, it was a good lesson today and it definitely brought me back to a higher level of cultural sensitivity.

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