Interview with Anushay Hossain - Part 1
Anushay Hossain began her career in women's rights as an intern at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) where she worked on microfinance for women and girls in her native country, Bangladesh.
A University of Virginia graduate, Anushay joined the Nobel Peace Prize nominated Campaign For Afghan Women before completing her MA in Gender and Development at the University of Sussex. She spent a year at UNIFEM's (United Nations Development Fund for Women) London office before returning to the Unites States, where she invests the majority of her work analyzing the impact of US foreign policy on women's rights around the world.
In 2009, Anushay founded her blog, Anushay's Point, and became a blogger for the Huffington Post. She also regularly writes for Forbes Magazine, Feministing, Ms. Magazine Blog, NPR (National Public Radio), Washington Examiner, and The World Bank Blog.
Chris Crowstaff asked Anushay about her life, work and views.
Could you start by talking a bit about your childhood? Were you brought up in Bangladesh?
Everyone always gets really confused because I have this American accent but I’m completely Bangladeshi. I grew up there and my family still lives there. I went to an American school my whole life in Dhaka, from when I was five to when I was 18 years old.
Both my parents were journalists but they were also very politically active.
My mother really was and still is really a huge influence on my life. She was very involved with the women’s rights movement there and she was a former member of parliament.
I’m the youngest of four sisters. Our house was really female-dominated – even our dog was a girl!
My mom would always drag me with her everywhere – to all her women’s rights meetings and all her sympodiums and they were often after school.
I would really hate it and most of the time I wouldn’t even be paying attention - especially during my teenage years - because of course I wanted to hang out with my friends.
Of course now I am so grateful to her because that was a huge influence on my life. It really shaped who I am today.
She really exposed me at a very young age to the reality for the majority of women and girls in Bangladesh and really kind of showed me the real Bangladesh outside of the bubble that we lived in.
The fact that for the majority of Bangladeshi women and girls, even today - education and healthcare just aren’t accessible.
She was a huge influence on me and I really owe her everything.
But I didn’t start finding this part of myself until I left home and went to college.
When did you leave Bangladesh?
I first came to the States to college at the University of Virginia, and I was here from when I was 18 to 22. And then every year I’d go back, once or twice a year, depending on my Christmas or summer break.
And then after I graduated from college, I worked for a year with the Feminist Majority Foundation.
And then I left the States for four years and I moved to Italy for a year to study Italian. I was so much more brave in my early twenties than I am now!
And then I was in London for three years. I worked at Unifem in the UK. I did my masters at Sussex. In 2007, I returned to the US and have been here ever since.
When did you start writing?
I always wanted to be a writer and have been published from when I was about 16.
When I was growing up in Bangladesh I used to write for a global newspaper that had a weekend magazine.
And I don’t know what happened but from when I was like 22 till I was 29, I had a seven year’s writers block. I never thought it was going to end. I thought maybe that part of me was just gone. Perhaps it stopped communicating with me or I stopped communicating with it.
But I started my blog in 2009 and I’m blogging away now!
You write a lot about women and the Muslim world and Muslim women in Bangladesh. Is your family Muslim? Could you speak a bit about Muslim women in Bangladesh?
Yes, we’re Muslim.
Bangladesh is kind of considered to be one of the world's few Muslim democracies. We’re very moderate. We have this huge Hindu history and culture which people are really sensitive talking about. With India’s partition in 1947, we became East Pakistan, so a big part of our identity was to be Islamic. Despite the threat of radical Islam, we maintain our moderate identity which is why we wanted to break with Pakistan in the first place – one of many, many reasons.
But yes, I do write about those issues a lot. I write about women in south Asia, women in Bangladesh, Muslim women, stereotypes about women in the Middle East because - not only can I relate to it - but the big reason why I started my blog was because I was so frustrated with how our stories were framed. You know, how Eastern women’s stories were framed in the western media. I felt it was always coming from this kind of condescending point of view of, "Oh, brown women suffering’" or you know, "let’s give some sympathy or charity to brown women".
Really not the strong voices that I grew up with. They’re really vibrant, really very strong and I just don’t think you see that enough in the west.
I think it’s getting better now but that’s very recent.
I think it’s been getting better in the course of the last 6 to 12 months, if even that. There’s really a lot of women from the Middle East, a lot of ethnic women are really starting to – not only tell their stories – but to reclaim the narrative.
It has just been the norm to the point that even I got used to it. It just seemed like ‘Ugh! Another stereotype!’ You know, blow it off.
But it’s changing now, slowly but surely.
I think the blogging world has played a huge role in this.
It’s kind of like "no, actually, this is the story from my point of view in real time".
It’s just been really cool.
Obviously the Islamic world is huge and varied. Do Bangaldeshi women generally feel a connection with Afghan women because it’s another Muslim country?
I don’t want to speak for all Bangladeshi women, but I think all women around the world feel some kind of connection to Afghan women because we’ve seen how much they’re suffering and how much they have been suffering and how much their plight has been exploited and it’s really also like a symbol of everything you don’t want to happen.
And I think with the revolutions happening in the Middle East there’s kind of a slow backlash towards the rise of fundamentalism which we see across the board.
In Bangladesh we really kind of passed a cross roads where we could have gone either way in Bangladesh – because with the wars in Iraq, with the wars in Afghanistan, it was kind of being a huge public relations boon for these extremists.
One of the first things any fundamentalist does, especially Islamic fundamentalists, when they come into town is to cover up and hide away the women. They’re the first people to disappear because they’re often the most vulnerable and often the poorest members of society. Women and children are very easy to dictate and control.
So I think women in Bangladesh do kind of feel a kinship. I think all women do just by being women.
You say that women are the easiest people to control, but I wonder whether perhaps they also feel that women are the biggest threat to that sort of fundamentalism and so they’ve got to shut them up first because otherwise they’re going to all stand up and complain?
You know at the nonprofit organization I work at for women's rights, we always say women are the canaries in the mine. And the world health organization also says that the overall security of a society can be determined by measuring how safe the women are.
I feel that women are drawn to want to communicate with each other, and that can be a huge threat as well. I think women naturally want to talk to women from other countries and ask about what they are doing, how they think, and to understand each other.
Yes exactly. Yes that is a huge threat. Women are also amongst the most intelligent members of society. I think the men should rightfully be afraid of them. We organise and mobilize and are excellent resources of information.
It was a great honour for me to meet one of the 'comfort women' – she had just turned 93 years old - a couple of years ago.
She told me that the Japanese soldiers in their rape chambers would always keep the women separated.
They would be being raped 30-35 times a day. But you never had any contact with any other women. They kept all the women separated so you couldn't even share tips on how to kill yourself.
What do you feel is the way forwards for women's rights, in general global terms - to bring about a greater understanding, to break through stereotypes?
I think women are done with being sidelined and disregarded.
And the time for women being left out around the decision table is over.
We’re the most underused resource in the world.
And I think it’s never been more obvious why the world isn’t progressing, why societies aren't progressing.
It’s because we’ve left women out for too long.
I think that we need to trust women and I think we need to listen to women, because we’ve been listening to men for too long, and I don’t think they’ve done a very good job.
And I really think that it’s our time, across the board, in every country, including the United States.
I couldn’t agree with you more, and I think that’s a really good summary to finish on.
I really do believe in that. I know a lot of activists talk the talk. But I really believe in women's strength and power. I know the world would be a better place if we allowed women and girls their full rights so they could participate in their country's economies as full citizens.
It’s what I live for. I’m like a natural feminist! I could not be any other way.
I think we should stop compromising and I think we should stop being compromised – even the few women who get at the decision-making table, they’re always compromised at the end of the day.
I think there’s still a huge sense that we’ve got to be like the men to get anywhere...?
I think we have to be just more aggressive and stand our ground. Women have a much more sensitive and considerate approach.
There would definitely be less wars in the world if women were in charge.
Has the experience of pregnancy changed your outlook in any way?
I didn’t need to have any more respect for women, but this entire pregnancy has given me more respect for women, what they go through, this experience of your body changing, literally your organs moving around to make room for more life within you. The entire experience of pregnancy each trimester has taught me one thing – men could never do it! They could never do it!