Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Building Bridges

Natasha Israt Kabir is the founder of The BRIDGE Foundation. Here is her story, in her own words. 

Once you are a woman you need to carry an invisible dictionary and Bible of patriarchal law and be prepared to listen to this often: “Don’t do that, don’t go there, don’t dress like that!” You remain in the middle of do’s and don’ts.

When you are born in a middle-class family especially in South Asia, the sense and sensibility will be inside you being under systematic exclusion. Society is class-concerned in terms of gender, relations and privileges and I was no exception facing those things with a few positive changes in my mindset and in my parents’ mindset. I decided to stop stereotyping my aims in life. I could not make my own choices properly up to class VIII and it was almost an obvious thing that for me being a female child, that I had to keep in mind that I was only going to be a doctor.

I didn’t face any caste problems by being a part of a community that believed and followed Muslim religious values. But, the systematic exclusion, deprivation and classification as well as the objectification was always alive there from the societal and patriarchal interventions. Though my country does have a glorious history of Female Premieres and Opposition Leaders, at the end of the day, it is all about center-periphery. I am fortunate in that sense, as my parents didn’t stop me from pursuing higher education and they didn’t force me to marry even though my surroundings did put me under pressure. Marriage is the ultimate goal for every girl around here, and objectification of sexuality is common. The hidden part of my parents’ attitude towards me must be regarded as a vow from my self-consciousness to secure my position financially. It is from this vantage point that I can fight for myself and for other women. I started at the age of 15 from being privately tutored and went up to becoming an activist. It shaped my confidence due to my identity struggles at a very young age.  

My motivation behind observing people and analyzing them came through my surroundings as I was really close to my neighbours and domestic workers. I must admit that I have learned how the comparative and systematic exclusion in terms of gender operates from domestic workers who are mostly the victims being under poverty as some of them could fight and some of them would surrender and in most of the cases it was either polygamy, dowry or alcoholic husband and at the end some may leave with children all along. Some may live as though they are leading dual lives and continuing to support their spouses in spite of being in trouble to protect the honor of being so-called married women but divorce, court and compensation was sort of taboo in their lives and their sharing with me created a deep sense of systematic exclusion, discrimination and deprivation in my adolescent mind where I realized that the kind of deprivation, exclusion and discrimination I faced was different from what they faced.

These are all one part of my realization, but my struggle and lonely journey and interactions with people, exposure, reading and study circle and watching movies especially being a fan of Iranian Cinemas, autobiographies of struggling women and studying abroad and especially in India for 2 years shaped my broader vision. The exclusion is more severe among those in the out-streams as the mainstream can at least speak and be vocal.

The cases of differently-abled people are beyond description. It made me strong and has given me courage to be more spirited and vocal for those that don’t have a voice, to stand for those that do not have legs to stand, and to touch lives for those that don’t have hands to touch. My experiences, observations and surroundings and my family helped me choose my path. I learned that if one would want to make any changes, they should be within the system and within the framework of the system, it is important to change yourself first, to change your family and surroundings and step by step to the broader level, think gradually and move carefully.
At the age of twenty, I watched ‘Forrest Gump’ and it left a lasting impression on me. A few years later, I came across ‘My Left Foot’ and read autobiographies of Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking. These inspiring stories inspired me to work for the habitually uncared-for and marginalized groups in society. I believe there should not be any norm for the way things are done, but there should always be opportunities to do things differently.

In 2005, I started serving as a volunteer under the entitled project of British Council ‘Beyond borders” and worked closely with a vulnerable and a group of excluded people. I found out that our society is not flexible and supportive towards this marginalized community. It also made me understand that achieving sustainable development won’t become a reality without the social inclusion and empowerment people living with disabilities. So, I searched for ways to help these people.

Visiting the USA on a ‘US Study Initiative’ supported by the US Department of State, in 2007, was a life-changing experience for me as the idea of community service I found there moved me. After returning to Bangladesh, I was looking for opportunities to make an impact on the lives of these challenged people and came up with a plan to empower them with IT (Information Technology) skills. The year 2013 was the time when I initiated ‘Project IT for Differently Able’ with a grant from the US Department of State and turned my dream into reality. The project aims to pass on technological education and skills to people with disabilities. I believe technology will give them a voice, help them connect with the world and become independent.

As the society is reserved and safety at the working place for women is one of the crucial agendas and our team was particularly concerned about that if we want to engage female in IT sector where they can work very easily being at home that can be one of the factors to motivate the parents as it will take time to engage them outwards and risk would be there not only being a woman but also as disable and we targeted at that point even though IT sector and ratio of Female engagement  do have  a vast and major gender gap in Bangladesh where female are not encouraged to be in technical sector in terms of study and employment whereas teaching and doctor is a common phenomenon.

The parents of such children are really not hopeful about their children in terms of disability as well as they are not conscious and in most of the cases the systematic exclusion by state and society is not motivating them. The teachers are not that much motivating and the hardest part is that regarding employing them none is ready to take the risk being patient to face the challenges and do believe in their potentiality that “Yes They Can Do”.

The most severe problem we assessed that due to unfriendly transportation system and transportation most of the female are unable to join the classes and do continue their study being differently able as society itself imposed it on them in terms of disability and I could hardly manage the gender equity and equality ratio in terms of training due to lack of this support as we could not provide any alternative transportation solution for them.

We are really enthusiastic for our future endeavors as very recently participated in a workshop based on “Theater for Differently Abled” which is funded by British Council Bangladesh along with an expert from U.K, Jeany Sealy  who herself is a deaf and also one of the organizers of London Paralympics. We are hopeful as the entire project is titled “A different Shakespeare”. All the actors and actresses are differently abled, and this time the maximum number of participants was selected from the BRIDGE foundation!
We do urge to every activist and volunteer to support us being actively engaged as a volunteer through BRIDGE Foundation and work for the excluded group through sharing, teaching and capacity building being a facilitator for each and every differently able to be touched through voice, through your eyes, your touchy fingers, extended and helping hands and valuable time at the end.

I do believe you are not disabled until and unless you yourself believe that. I am hopeful that the government initiated the strategies of inclusion for the “Differently-Abled” even though they are in limited. This is the beginning! One day, there will be no separate school in the name of special education for them and both, parents and teachers will cooperate to include them. Mainstream institutions, organizations and corporations will come forward to engage them and believe in their potential.