Interview with Anushay Hossain - Part 3
Bangladeshi journalist, Anushay Hossain, began her career in women's rights as an intern at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) where she worked on micro-finance 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.
Do you think having a woman prime minister has made quite a difference in Bangladesh?
I would love to say that it has. Our other prime minister was also a woman. In fact, we’ve been going back and forth between Sheikh Hasina Wazed and Khaleda Zia ur-Rahman for almost 20 years now - definitely my whole life and it’s always something that makes people go, "Oh this little country in the Subcontinent has not one but two female prime ministers. People think that these two women bouncing power back and forth is some kind of testament to women’s empowerment, but it really isn’t.
In fact I’ve written about this before – but I always say that sexism exists in every country, in every culture. It is just systematized differently.
A big part of the culture in South Asia is about women's access to power through male connections.
In our country – and it’s not just Bangladesh, it’s India, it’s Pakistan, it’s Sri Lanka – if you have one important male link – that’s all you need. You can do whatever you want. It’s usually the elite that has these important links - the mother of somebody, the sister of somebody, the wife of somebody.
Sheik Hasina is the daughter of our founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
She has used that her whole life and she still does both as a means to enter politics, and as her key political platform.
And Khaleda Zia, her rival, is the widow of a beloved former President who was assassinated. Her entire political platform has largely been based on being Ziaur Rahman's widow.
But we see this with Khaleda Zia and also Indira Gandhi, who was the first Prime Minister of India’s daughter, and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto former Pakistani Prime Minister.
So you can see the pattern here in South Asian politics for women - if you have an important male link, one important male link, all doors are open.
But I don’t think that’s a testament to women's rights.
It’s a misleading message that they put out to girls especially that, "Look where I am, you can be here, too." But the reality of it is you really can’t unless your dad’s somebody or your husband’s somebody.
I think micro-finance and our civil society have done a billion times more than what our female Prime Ministers have done for women’s rights.
You mentioned micro-finance and you were working with a micro-finance organisation before you left Bangladesh?
That was actually when I was very young. When I was eighteen or nineteen. But yes I interned with BRAC which is actually the largest anti- poverty agency in the world. It’s a huge NGO in Bangladesh and it’s really responsible for pretty much everything back home in terms of poverty alleviation, development etc.
In the west, Grameen is much more well known but BRAC is actually larger. NGOs like BRAC and Grameen have played a much more pivotal role in propagating women’s rights than our politicians have, female or male.
Can you say anything about the recent micro-finance controversy involving the Nobel Laureate - Mohammad Yunus?
You know it’s so ironic that a woman is doing this to him – because he has done so much for the average woman in Bangladesh. For the rural women in Bangladesh. There are all these rumors about what exactly Sheik Hasina's political motives are for going after Yunus, if any. But there’s been a backlash against micro-finance in India and it’s started spilling over to Bangladesh. Conspiracy theories aside, there are a lot of horrible stories you hear about Grameen back home. The tactics they use to pressure the rural women to pay back their loans on time. It is not the perfect organization that they have the image of in the West.
That being said, it is undeniable the role that Grameen has played in rural women’s empowerment in Bangladesh, and applying the revolutionary idea that Yunus had of giving the poor access to credit.
When I was growing up in Bangladesh, Grameen was something that Bangladesh had just for ourselves. It began as something so local. The pride and the honour that Yunus has given us with his winning the Nobel Peace Prize is remarkable and an honor all Bangladeshis share with him. And to see him being dragged through the mud, forced to resign from the Bank he is synonymous with, it's heartbreaking. Based on the manner of how this entire process, trial has been conducted, I would have to say that it’s undeniable that it’s politically motivated. And it’s so sad that we would do this to a Nobel Laureate. There is just a certain manner and respect that you must treat people with, and I am ashamed to be a Bangladeshi when I think of what we have done to Yunus.
We’re notoriously one of the most corrupt countries in the world. But to see this happen to a Nobel Laureate - to see him discredited. I know that the majority of Bangladeshis would agree that this is heartbreaking – it is so heartbreaking.
And I don’t know if Grameen can survive without Yunus and I don’t think Yunus can survive without Grameen Bank and I don’t think Bangladesh can survive without either.
In Bangladesh, would this be very hard to speak out about?
Well, I think everyone is saying it but nobody really wants to be on the record. A few prominent journalists have but not many. Hilary Clinton and many prominent leaders have pleaded with Hasina to be more forgiving of Yunus. I read in a blog recently that if this is how a Nobel Laureate is treated in Bangladesh, imagine life for the average Bangladeshi.
What’s freedom of speech like in Bangladesh? Can journalists write and speak freely?
You know they can. These days with the blogging through the internet it’s much easier than it has been in the past.
It’s generally an unspoken rule to not say anything against the ruling party because - you know in my life time, you could say one or two things under the radar – but they don’t want you speaking out against the Prime Minister.
Are there prisoners of conscience?
Yes. Like most of the subcontinent does, we have a very violent political history. So yes, definitely it has impacted freedom of press and journalists for sure. We even have some high-profile cases of journalists being beaten, tortured.
I mean it is not like Iran, but definitely not like it would be in the US.
How does it compare with Thailand?
They have an uprising they’re trying to squash.
Our popular uprisings have almost always been successful at toppling the government, toppling the military, so it goes both ways.
I think it’s not smart to say much about either women because they dominate our modern political history.
So it’s really polarized.
They’re the only two women we know, so their supporters are very loyal.
There’s a lot of poverty, obviously. Is the wealth really polarised? What’s the cause of the poverty in Bangladesh? Is it lack of resources?
It is a lack of resources, but it is also much more. We're the ninth most populated country in the world, and we are notoriously corrupt.
The wealth is really concentrated in about five per cent of the population, and we have huge economic disparities.
I feel as though our geographic location is our greatest burden. We are the largest delta in the world, and any time we really get anything going and start developing, we get struck by a huge natural disaster. Our geographic location is I think our biggest curse.
We get cyclones, tornadoes, floods – these are annual occurrences in our country and I just don’t think the resources we have stretch far enough.
We’re also a really young nation. You have to think India and Pakistan were created in 1947 after Partition, but Bangladesh not only split from India but we had to continue fighting for our independence from Pakistan until 1971.
During the struggle for our Independence, Pakistan deliberately targeted and assassinated our intellectuals and leaders. There was a genocide committed in 1971. So we had a a lot to recover from, and I think when you factor everything in, Bangladesh has done well. We have come a long way. I am proud of us, but it is a fact that we still have a long way to go.