South Asia’s problems are not for Westerners to simplify | The Triangle
Opinion

South Asia’s problems are not for Westerners to simplify

Flickr: SAM Naslm
Flickr: SAM Naslm

Scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook, I’m usually hit with a wide variety of information. Friends will post personal photos, share cute quizzes and make witty statuses. One of the biggest trends on Facebook has been for people to post up links to articles read online about issues to make their friends more “socially aware.” This particular evening, while I was scrolling through Facebook, I came across a shared Mic.com article that left me with a sick feeling inside. “Bangladesh is One of the Worst Countries for Child Marriage — For One Horrible Reason,” it read. My heart sank. The caption read, “It’s worse than
you think.” 

“Natasha is a Live News Staff Writer with the highly specialized beats of feminism, the Muslim world and global politics. Before joining Mic she reported on regional affairs from Pakistan,” I read about the writer, Natasha Noman. Noman went on to write an article about the rampant issue of rape and sexual abuse in my country, fueling the “inhumane” and “human rights violation,” which is child marriage. She wrote about the difficulty of marrying off daughters who were sexually abused prior to being given away.

“Given the prevalence of rape in Bangladesh, parents rush to marry their daughters early to minimize the likelihood they will get abused or raped by someone other than a husband,” she claimed.

“Rather than tackling the problem of sexual harassment, common social responses ultimately interfere with girls’ basic human rights,” Noman continues after citing a statistic claiming that one out of three girls growing up in rural Bangladesh was sexually abused. She was making commentary on parents refusing to send their girls to school in fear of the “sexual abuse pandemic.”

What an arrogant claim this outsider had to say about my country. I held back the burn of tears for shame that I should not have to feel — because what she was trying to say about Bangladesh was simply not true.

I’m not just trying to rep the home country, Noman figuratively took tidbits of a very lengthy report and blew it up in order to do one thing: to continue the media narrative that South Asian men are misogynists, domestic abusers, sexual predators and even worse (as Noman clearly demonstrates above), that South Asians don’t even care about it.

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Photo Credit: Jean Roy

In her article, she cites several very credible sources to back up her argument: BBC, Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization, and other quotes from social activists. What she failed to cite is how all of these credible news organization also talk about how child marriage is heavily influenced by a multitude of complex problems that developing countries, such as Bangladesh, all have. These problems then interact and push against each other, creating the high prevalence of child marriage. Namely: poverty, lack of access to education, age-based social pressure and natural disasters.

“The main problem [causing child marriage] is poverty. People don’t have enough to eat every day. They need more financial help from the government,” a local government official told Human Rights Watch in their report. The financial relief of dowry is often a heavy influence on rural families that can be left starving or have had their crops washed away from the monsoons. This is a rather striking contrast from Noman’s “one horrible reason.”

In this same report, 16-year-old Sultana C. said, “Whatever land my father had and the house he had went under the water in the river erosion and that’s why my parents decided to get me married.” She was married at 14. Once again, poverty tends to be the major root of what influences parents to be pressured to marry off their young daughters.

This report is struck with stories like these, including stories of daughters not being able to afford going to school because of fees and textbooks (Sorry, Noman, the “No Child Left Behind” Act has yet to
reach Bangladesh). 

Don’t get me wrong, there are also plenty of stories of young girls being coerced into marriage through threats of sexual abuse, kidnapping and other unthinkable acts, but minimal in comparison to the stories mainly influenced by what I was discussing earlier. It would be irresponsible of me to suggest that some of what Noman is claiming in her article isn’t a problem. Bangladesh is far from perfect, but we’re also not a society of rapists and pedophiles.

Photo Credit: DFID
Photo Credit: DFID

Interestingly, Noman spoke a lot about the suffering from these girls and what she claims they went through, but she didn’t include a single quote from any actual girls who went through child marriage.

But let’s hypothetically suggest that Noman’s delusional accusations were accurate, that Bangladesh’s child marriage problem is almost entirely fueled by sexual harassment, the threat imminent rape and acid attacks. What does Noman suggest is the solution for this?

“Policymakers and national leaders, like [Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh], would be wise to prioritize the eradication of this inhumane practice amongst other development goals,” she wrote. That’s the thing about Western liberal media writers like Columbia University alumnus Natasha Noman: they like to pretend that all of these problems almost have an off-switch, that developing countries just simply refuse to stop raping and
hurting women.

Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister has been discussing how to prevent child marriages for years, and there could be a multitude of reasons why she chose to support a law stating that the age of marriage should be lowered (perhaps to encourage more magistrates to adhere by a more feasible law), but of course none of this is discussed by Noman. Instead, she places all blame on Hasina without any substantial evidence to support what she claims Hasina is trying to do.

However, as ridiculous and outright racist Noman’s writing about Bangladesh is, these hellish caricatures are not the most disturbing part of why all of this is so wrong.

Photo Credit: Arr4
Photo Credit: Arr4

Bangladesh has been a nation-state for 46 years, born out of one of the bloodiest genocides of the 20th century. That is not an exaggeration. The death toll after the US-backed invasion of present-day Bangladesh by present-day Pakistan is estimated to be up to three million, including the murder of most of the intellectuals, leaders, the burning of cities and the internment of hundreds of thousands of women. These women were systematically raped and often times murdered by being burned alive. Sound familiar? There is a generation of children born from these horrible atrocities.

I remind you, this was less than half of a
century ago.

I am only a few months younger than my mother when she gave birth to me, and she was years older than when her mother started bearing children. My mother’s father was the principal of a girls’ school, so protecting a girl’s access to education was very important to him, and something he passed on to his daughter. For Noman to claim that people who survived hundreds of thousands of rapes and killings to now become the rapists is what is so completely disturbing about all of this.

I think the best part that encapsulates just how ignorant the approach Noman took to discussing this was when she quoted social activist Jayati Ghosh, an economics professor at a New Delhi, India university who was discussing the issue of child brides in India (because they’re basically the same country, right?).

Photo Credit: DFID
Photo Credit: DFID

Does this mean I believe that the problems Noman brings up should not be discussed? Not at all. Sexual assault and violence against women is a real problem in Bangladesh and there is progress being made, through the efforts of Bangladeshi activists and policy makers who have a rocky road ahead
of them.

But since the reports of sexual assaults and horrendous acts of violence began coming out of India and Pakistan, South Asia in Western media has been marred by articles similar to Noman’s about of how “bad” it is in our countries. South Asian people such as myself have to bite our lips as western “feminists” set fires to our flags. Developing countries in general are painted by the media as primitive, violent and savage. And how can we defend ourselves? It’s not like these problems don’t actually exist, but Western media often ignores the fact that countries like Bangladesh didn’t have two hundred years to exist and don’t have the benefit of creating their economy with the foundation of genocide of indigenous people, slavery and colonization like, you know, America did. In fact, developing countries are usually the ones who were exploited by Western countries, only to be kicked down further when they can’t meet the same “social justice” goals that the Westerners “accomplished.”

Meanwhile, it still takes the accounts the over forty women and a taped confession to even insinuate Bill Cosby is a rapist. In the fall semester, Penn State University reported over twenty sexual assaults on their campus in that term alone. Charlie Sheen is an award-winning actor despite figuratively shooting an ex-wife and domestically abusing her along with
many others.

I just wanted to remind everyone that it took a century and a half for the United States to give women the right to vote, and it took almost another century after for a serious female candidate to even be in the running for President. Bangladesh has existed as an independent state for less than a fraction of the time the US has, and already has had a female prime minister. Don’t tell us how to treat our women when you can barely figure it out yourself. We’re going to get where we need to be, but it comes with time and development that Westerners don’t award us.

Photo Credit: Sanjoy Kumar Chowdhury
Photo Credit: Sanjoy Kumar Chowdhury

Articles like Noman’s do nothing to help the girls she’s trying to bring awareness about. In fact, they do more damage than anything else, by putting a negative light on a country that needs more support than it needs criticism. As a first generation American, I will always be proud of my heritage. Often times, I’ll see many American-born Bangladeshis take back the education that we had the privilege of accessing here in order to improve our country and the problems we don’t need Noman to tell us we have. Noman is the type of liberal that uses the problems of the “third world” for shock value and page views. We have enough issues getting support we need. In fact, she should just quit focusing on Islamic countries in general. It’s clear her agenda is to use as caricature for the horrors of “third world men.” We are not for you to put on a burning stake, Noman. You are a hypocrite. We are a nation of people with a wide variety of problems, ideologies and political beliefs. Noman’s one-dimensional analysis of us will not define us and our progress we’ve already had and will continue to make is our credit to take alone.