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Why feminism is not what you think

Many people, those who claim they understand feminism but actually don’t regardless of them believing otherwise, may argue that if feminism is all about equality, then why don’t we all just call ourselves egalitarians?  Today, for you and for us, I write on the age-old question: What exactly is feminism?

On one fine day, when I had seen a young man finish off his disposal cup of coffee and later throw it on the road despite a garbage bin just laying two inches away from him- I walk upto him, pick up the cup and throw it in the dustbin right in front of him, having made the most intense eye contact in the meantime. I recount this story to my friends once, and they slow-clap in appreciation, letting me know that I am “Such a feminist!” While this is not the first time in my life that I have had to hear myself being called so, but one of the few times when it had been for such an unbelievably irrelevant reason. Most people, in fact and unfortunately, do not, even though widely heard of, understand what feminism is but they, however, miraculously understand who “feminazis” are.

Feminism, in the most common definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities: it is known as the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. Many pseudo-pundits, if not now, at one point in your life will happen to argue that since most women are physically “weaker” than men, equality between sexes cannot be achieved.  Can we have a little fact-check here? Feminism at its heart and centre is about equality of men and women, not “sameness.”

Parboti Roy, an academic of Gender Studies, says, “If you notice most of the “isms,” that is humanism, equalism or egalitarianism, they talk about human rights in general. Why feminism stands out is because it actively advocates for women’s rights while making sure the rights of men are retained.”

To make it clearer, here’s me drawing a parallel. You’re the only member in your family who’s not had dinner for the night, and you protest, saying, “I want food! I want food!” Your family members join in and sing along, “We all want food! We all want food!” But no, they all don’t want neither do they need food, only you do, only you. Your family members, in this case, are egalitarians, and you, my friend, with pride and honour, should call yourself a feminist.

People who are typically adamant to dissent from the idea of feminism usually associate it with women trying to achieve superiority through the movement. While Bangladesh was ranked first for gender equality in South Asia by WEF, we all know what little truth the fact holds.

It is an easier fight for women in the western countries since theirs are actually a democratic nation, where partaking in movements would not get you arrested and voicing your opinion not killed. This is why because feminism is relatively still a new concept in Bangladesh, people understand what they want to from hearsay. Feminism, according to every definition in every dictionary, rather wants women (and gender non-conforming people) to have equal stature as men, not superior. Many think that feminists hate men, find reasons to pick on men and love “putting up statuses,” or in my case, pick up disposal coffee cups and throw them into the dustbins.

Ms Parboti shares her thoughts on how people perceive feminists as women who’re tomboys or smokers. “They think women become feminists just to seem smart.”

This is why these days, despite believing in equal rights, many hesitate in addressing as well as at times take umbrage in being addressed as feminists, fearing the kind of judgement or criticism they would have to receive.

While it is true that feminism as a movement has lost its momentum because many people in the West have sullied the message of feminism to fulfill their own agenda, and that’s wrong, nobody’s saying that’s right, one has to understand that radical feminism is not the true spirit of feminism, just the way terrorists are not true face of Muslims, rapists not the true identity of all men.

But in the meantime while the West has been divided in an unfortunate debate of whether feminism is irrelevant in today’s world anymore, one cannot deny how relevant it is in our country. When we see the kinds of Rubaba Dowla, we comment on how she must have used “other means” to reach such a height; when we see the kinds of Wasfia Nazreen, we comment on how she must have had a lot of luck on her side; when we see the kinds of Joya Ahsan, we comment on how she left her husband for a world of glitz and glamour. We feel threatened on social media, patronized at office, harassed at police stations, anxious in public rides, where else do we go? More importantly, how longer do we go this way?

Feminism, in the most common definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities: it is known as the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.

Because plenty people are born imbeciles, I may understand why many of them ask why we still think Bangladesh doesn’t give women their rights, especially when “the country has been always run by women.” It  critical to realize here that just because your mothers and my sisters and our friends may have equal pays at work, are rarely mistreated or never harassed doesn’t mean majority women get to live that, for the lack of a better word, luxuriously.

This is why so many men and women don’t seem to get the whole point of feminism because most of the times these people’s unambiguous views on these issues (feminism) are rooted deeply within their own individual and direct experiences, rather than on any data, research or science surrounding the issues.

Once in a while, they will, however, come across Justin Trudeau, who says “Everyone should be a feminist,” and the same people who once didn’t understand feminism or hated feminists, would suddenly mature into pro-feminists, not understanding feminism anyway.

Because feminism as a mission and an idea seems too idealistic of a state to reach, it makes sense when you think of the world as a platform of give-and-take where women cannot, by law of manmade nature, attain equality, since there always has to be one who always gives while the other takes (in majority cases).

This is why when people ask me, I tell them that if God had a universal language- it would unequivocally and apolitically be called feminism.  God, if there is any, should be a feminist.

The home-schooled experience – all that different from going to school?

About a decade back, back when English medium schools were reaching peak demand, one fine morning my parents decided not to bear with the commercial nature of English medium schools anymore, and for me to be, fortunately or unfortunately, homeschooled. Was it necessary?

Homeschooling, in easy language, is learning at home, and under the context of Bangladesh, is being partially or fully dependent on coaching classes for taking the SATs or the O and A-level exams. In colloquial language, we address these students who drop out and are “homeschooled” as “private students.”

One fine morning my parents decided not to bear with the commercial nature of English medium schools anymore, and for me to be, fortunately or unfortunately, home-schooled.

Students generally drop out in grade 9 or 10, and while some hire tutors to come to their homes, others pay top-notch teachers to get them their parent-coveted As and A-stars. Some, though very few in number, take exams through rigorous self-study only. Homeschooling is, more or less, the same as learning in school except, instead of the ringing of bells, you get to hear the occasional hissing of pressure-cookers and instead of your teachers inquiring, you find your parents prying.

Image: Caleb Woods

To understand the roots of homeschooling in Bangladesh, one has to understand irony. One of the major reasons why homeschooling has been on athe rise is because of the portentous failure English medium schools have brought on themselves with their (delusional) success in the first place.

Once rare, English medium schools have now sprawled left right and centre. While some parents believe they’re handing over their children to a more competitive curriculum (in comparison to the more rigid but less rigorous Bengali curriculum), others admit their children into English medium schools for an erroneously conceived but widely-believed idea of the children (or of the parents themselves) having an elevated social status, or at least an entry into an elite club by admission into these schools.

It all looks picture-perfect seeing kindergarten children cutting out colourful flowers out of chart papers and second graders learning how to make boats out of them. Until the day children enter middle school, which makes parents look beyond the colour of the confined walls of the classroom, take a look at the rickety foundations of English medium schools and realize that in the process of trying to teach children how to cut paper, English medium schools themselves had long forgotten how to cut their coat according to their cloth. Too many students but too few teachers. A lot of ambition, but no set goal. A quintessential example of mismanagement.

While not all schools are downtrodden, aiming for admission into schools like ISD, AISD, CISD – schools which actually (read apparently) care about the growth and progress of students- are like for aiming for the sky anyway. An exclusive edition sky.

Most “other” English medium schools fail to recruit efficient teachers for the higher grades. Students — then option-less — sardine together in coaching classes; thus, creating a loop: because schools can’t hire better teachers, students swathe coaching classes. Because students would eventually swathe coaching classes, schools don’t hire better teachers, which is also the reason the teachers do not bother improving, adapting or adjusting to the needs of the students in the higher level of classes.

Now that going to coaching classes has been established less as a mandatory task but more as a culture, English medium schools have since long grabbed the opportunity to capitalize on it, in two ways. They don’t spend (thus saving) to hire or retain (more) efficient teachers, not now not before, while still keeping thousands of students tethered to paying monthly fees, because this is where the plot twist comes: numerous students choose to stay registered till high school, only so that they can take exams being a registered student and obtain a certificate which, according to a widely-held notion, aids in college admissions abroad. Otherwise, going to high-school for students is like what going to Burger King is for you.

This leads us to our next and the million dollar question: do students become home-schooled because they want to? Or is it because of the dearth of better options?

Mehzabeen Alam Naomi, an ex-student from Sir John Wilson, is at first waspish about her experience at school and takes no time to open up about why she personally prefers being a private (homeschooled) student.

“I get to choose the tutors,” she says, “Teachers whose teaching methods suit my learning process.”

It is, in fact, an open secret that regardless of students complaining about inept teachers being inapt for their inability to teach and communicate, high-school teachers in profit-oriented schools don’t share their students’ headaches to complete the syllabus as soon as possible, let alone providing students with in-depth knowledge.

Sharaf Anan Megha from Maple Leaf International School also recounts how she never found a point going to school once she was in the ninth grade. “Students are not present and teachers not available to take the classes,” she says.

Do students become home-schooled because they want to? Or is it because of the dearth of better options?

High-schoolers, therefore, are now just like homeschoolers: fully or partially dependent on coaching teachers, but fully independent of school teachers.

This makes one wonder whether it is because teachers believe they, too, have a passive role in letting students eventually become coaching-dependant? Or is it just because they are, as incriminated, just plain and simple bad teachers?

Image: Patrick Fore

Reasons such as these as well as coping up with the constant hike in school fees while having concurrent fees of coaching classes to pay for – stand as a great hurdle to middle-class families in supporting their children’s school education. This leaves no better option than making their children leave school for good and become home-schooled (various students shift to the Bengali national curriculum).

Students, even though rumoured to become lethargic and homebound once homeschooled, actually have more time to invest themselves in community work or to partake in activities that may add to their extra-curricular activities. They have a say in selecting teachers and can ace and pace their studies according to their personal speed of learning and processing.

Many may argue that homeschooled children are low on EQ and suffer from periodic mood disorders due to lack of socialization. Naomi, on the other hand, agrees to disagree and says, “I actually get to make more friends, and have a wider network from coaching classes.”

While homeschooling is the most feasible path to tread on for many students, it should not be established as a solution to a more convoluted problem that results from the poor infrastructure of English medium schools. Because if homeschooling is the final resort, then maybe one day there would be no need for high schools (read: school) at all.  If there’s no high school, there would be no high-schoolers anymore. If no high-schoolers, there would only be homeschoolers left in the future. But when was there a difference between a high-schooler and a homeschooler anyway? Is the future already in the present?