Let all women be free.
And let it start with me.
Bangladesh is a tropical lush country bordering the East of India. It’s people are beautiful and kind. I have NEVER in my life felt so taken care of everywhere I went even if it was some remote little house with dirt floors and no electricity out. I was given the best hospitality in food and hugs. Their culture is alive and well. I learned much from walking the streets in the hot humid air, with the clouds boiling up for a monsoon storm later in the afternoon. People are themselves. They are not trying to hide or be something they are not. Most are just trying to survive.
The smells of the country are thick of turmeric and campfire. Think India but on steroids. Everything is rugged and loud. There are constant beeps from cars and honks from trucks. The colors will invade you like a carnival at night. The brightest of pinks and shades of yellows and and deepest of blues race through the town everywhere you look, especially from their clothing. They are not afraid to be bold in their clothing choices- unlike so many of us who dress in all black to conceal the layer of fat we’re ashamed of. Oh there is not much to hide but everything all at the same time.
Only men were on the streets. Everywhere I looked. Men and their cows. Men buying rice, men talking to each other, men walking, men riding bikes, men arguing, men praying. Where are the women I think at the very same time Jenna asks Troy loudly over the tutt cart zooming through the streets while rain pours down “Where are all the women?”
Troy says “They are all at home. With the kids. Cooking.”
I ask, “Do they get to come and pray in the mosques like the men do?”
Troy answers looking out the open side door, “No. They are at home. They do not get to come to the mosques. Maybe in a large city like Dhaka they’ll have a separate room but not out here. So they pray at home” and all of a sudden I am offended in a way that goes beyond a little argument I have with my roommate over my lack of cleanliness in the kitchen. This offense feels deep in my bones. It feels like a river I have always been looking at from the banks, sometimes a splash would get on my skin, but never had I entered the river and understood the magnitude of what it felt like. By the end of the trip, I was submerged in the river.
I got to photograph these girls faces that hold such maturity and yet immaturity at the very same time. I want them to stay small. I don’t want them to get married at age 14 to a man she’s never met and be forced into having sex with him just to have babies. I don’t want them to stop their education because they are pregnant at age 15 and have complications during birth because they are so small. I don’t want them to miss out on the chance of pursing their dreams because they have been handed down generations of a poverty mindset.
More than anything I wish they could all have the childhood I grew up in. Where my parents were and are the constant supporters of my dreams. Where I would get ice cream on a Wednesday after my mom picked me up from 8 hours of school. I hated school. I hated it all the way till I went to art school in college and I thrived in how my brain worked best. But now I see I took school for granted. When the choice was between private catholic school or public school, I had no idea at the time the gift I had being given. Not until I saw the opposite- where education is a luxury not a normal daily trap I felt it was , is when I started to inch into the river slowly. I started to realize knowledge is power. Knowledge can change the world. Knowledge can change our hearts.
I have never seen such happy faces though. Each one of them is fighting for their freedom. Freedom of choice, expression, and future. We go to a 7th grade seminar where all the girls from 30 different villages come together once a month on a Friday. There was LOTS of dancing, lots of singing, lots of laughing. Because what else do you do in 7th grade when you get with your girlfriends? The women teachers do a little class on women’s health and mensuration. I wish I could have understood what they were saying! I wish I could have encouraged them as a woman myself who also has a period, how beautiful it is. They would have all probably giggled and not took me serious. But eventually it was our time to talk to the girls. We talked about dreams.
When Troy first visited some of these villages, he asked the girls “What are your dreams?” They all started at him and said “Uncle we do not understand what that word is.” He said again, “ok what do you hope for your future? What do you want to do?” They all looked around and laughed and said “Oh I don’t know, maybe just a nice husband. I hope he is good looking.” And that was it.
The first time I heard that there was a splash of water that burst forth from the river and drenched me. Something hurt as a woman but also has a human.
During the 7th grade seminar we talked about how their dreams will change the world. That what they are suppose to do – no one else can do on this planet. How they show up in the world is perfect and needed. We went into a little dream exercise and had them come up to share their dreams on the microphone. We all cheered after each shared her special dream spoken in broken English. Amidst the sweaty faces and loud giggles there was something swirling in the room I could have almost reached out and touched. Something all women are keenly aware of at certain moments in her life. It was the familiar feel of when women come together after one gives birth and tells the story of how baby entered the world through her body. It felt like when a woman sticks up for another in the face of injustice. It felt like all the energy from the women who have gone before to lay down this path was lighting the way, cheering along, and singing the most beautiful melody of freedom. It gives me chills thinking about it now.
To be a woman in the modern world is to be a woman anywhere. I also completely disagree with that statement at the very same time. The two live in harmony understanding that we all have felt disregarded maybe more than others, we all have a mensuration cycle that creates a connection to the wild being, and we all are unified with feminine energy coursing through our veins. To be a woman can look very different but their are similarities that goes beyond age, language, religion, and race. Once we get into the river, there comes an understanding of what it’s like to be a woman in an opposite lifestyle as you. The river invites us all into unification and connection which in turns leads to deep compassion. This trip opened my eyes to see all women deserve to be free (free to choose their future, their mate, and their bodies) but it first MUST start with me. It must start in the hearts of those who recognize their freedom and education but maybe take it for granted. It must start in those who stay in unhealthy relationships because they are scared to be alone yet they actually have a choice in who they marry. It must start with love and understanding of self that flows to each other.
ABOUT SPEAK UP:
Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage under the age of 18 in the world. It’s a cultural norm that is slowly being broken but takes hundreds of years of unlearning. Speak Up has three different programs simultaneously which help to create new reality for these girls through education.
- The Dorm in Khnula – which is where about 75 high school + university girls live together to get education. There is a house mother who acts like an RA, mother, and teacher. These girls are learning English and pursuing their dreams such as Nursing, police woman, and lawyer etc.
- Learning Center- are all spread out across the villages. They have over 30 learning centers in these villages where girls come after their normal school for continual education, english class, and more.
- Funding Alingon Home – is a home for girls who have been trafficked into prostitution or were born into a brothel. They provide housing, education, and so much love.
I saw first hand the tension of two side when it comes to a girls future. We were visiting a village where one of my sponsor girls live. She was not at school, so Troy (the director), 3 teachers, me, and 20 village girls went to her house to see how she was doing. There was instant tension in the air between the teachers and the parents. Even though I don’t speak the Bengali language I could feel the anger from the parents when the teachers were simply asking why she was not at school. This story ends like so many, the reality of this little girl’s life is that her parents are going to marry her off to an older man. She is 15. She must stop school and start having babies. There is no future for her in education or pursuing her dreams or marrying for love. Those three areas are choices we have in abundance here in America and we can take those for granted or we can help to fight for the rest of the little girls across the world.
Learning these girls names, stories, and dreams only pushes me into pursuing after mine. Which is to free all the women, connect the world, and create beauty. My dream from this photography business is that I get to be free, connect humans, and create beauty which supports these little girls to pursue their dreams. If you give a girl education- SHE WILL CHANGE THE WORLD.
LEARN MORE HERE: https://speakupforthepoor.org/
DONATE HERE: https://speakupforthepoor.org/support/
TWO BOOKS great for women empowerment and education:
- Half the Sky
- The Moment of Lift