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12Oct/070

Not just for men

Against the odds and the social norms that women in Bangladesh face everyday, an increasing number of women are challenging some of the stereotyped perceptions about women in professions typically perceived as unconventional for women.

We spoke to three women who have not only chosen daunting professions but also excelled in them. As they take yet another leap and make themselves heard, they share their stories of joy and desperation, struggle and achievements. Most importantly, they share their womanhood, which they have learnt to be proud of despite the odds.

Ain’t no mountain high enough

Aupar Ahmed, mountain climber

Last year, when a young climber came back after completing a 180 km trek at a height of 5,645m in Nepal at the Mount Everest Base Camp, it undoubtedly marked a place for women in adventurous careers such as mountain climbing.

‘It’s a preconceived notion that women are not good enough for this kind of physically and psychologically draining activity,’ says the twenty-eight year old, Aupar Ahmed.

‘Although I have been always enthusiastic about traversing mountains and discovering new places, I realised not everyone take me seriously- the reason being that I am a woman.’

Aupar was born in a remote village near Naogan, in northern Bangladesh. ‘Struggle was always a part of life,’ she says. ‘I grew up in a remote village where even today there is no electricity or transport – a place where life revolves only around the basic necessities and has a bleak future. My father was a farmer, so in terms of money, we were always struggling to survive; living hand to mouth.’

When a missionary school was set up in their village, Aupar finally had the chance to study. According to her, the times spent in school were the best in her life as she experienced the joy of camping. ‘There visiting foreigners who would conduct seminars and arrange funds for camping trips!’ she says. There is an unmistakeable hint of excitement when she speaks of camping during childhood. ‘Those were the best times—I experienced first hand the wonder of exploring the different regions of Bangladesh and in many ways discovered things about myself I never imagined were there.’

After completing her SSC, she moved to Bogra where she continued her education while staying in a hostel. ‘Living away from home in a hostel is always difficult for girls. For some unknown reason, people tend to treat us with negative prejudice and look down on us because we are single, unattended and unprotected. People, often tend to take advantage of our vulnerability living alone.’ Despite being pushed to one side, Aupar would escape from that life during weekends and reconnoitre, walk miles and wander around the hill areas. ‘Since my father worked so hard to afford our education, my parents were against the idea of focusing on these activities,’ she remembers. ‘That’s why I struggled to ensure that I strike a balance between the two.’

Her move to Dhaka, after her HSC was a major turning point, she says. ‘While waiting for my results, I joined the Agricultural Training Centre in Dhaka, where they taught me and at the same time provided me with living costs. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about agriculture—having grown up around farmers during my childhood, this was something I found extremely interesting.’

Six months later, when the training was about to end, Aupar began to worry. ‘If it ended I would not have been able to support myself. It was then that they offered me an extended package of training and funding for my education, where I studied Alternate Medicines.’

Besides these, in the middle of the work and studies, Aupar began to adventure in the hills of Bangladesh. ‘I spent a lot of time in Bandarban and the (Chittagong) hill tracts- these are assets our country can tap and we do not even realise that,’ she says.

In 1999, Aupar left the city life for 17 days at a stretch and covered the mountains across Bandarban. Later that year, a group of four climbers who were already in training with Aupar decided to go to Bijoy Porbot. ‘It was right after the peace treaty was signed. The four men did not agree to take me because it was too dangerous.’

Aupar, however, was adamant and she decided to go alone. The challenge for her, in this case was to find the exact location and also convince the army officials to let her in.

At various times, during this expedition, Aupar was stopped by army officials. ‘I would return to the nearest town or village, take refuge in the hospitals and get out early in the morning when no one would notice me!’ she says, giggling like a little girl.

‘My parents did not like the idea of me going around and would rather have me focus on my studies.’ She began living in the Bogra hostel again and finally got a job she could comfortably live off. Later, empowered by her degree in Agriculture and Forestry in Japan, Aupar started working extensively in forest development and tree plantation.

According to Aupar, the people living the hill tracts are the ones who respect her for what she is. ‘These people have different points of view from the people I have known. They encourage women like me to do better instead of pushing them back into their cocoons.’

Although climbing is not seen as a very ‘seemly’ activity for women in Bangladesh, Aupar feels women should work in areas like this and agriculture. ‘Our country relies heavily on this sector and only if women come forward, we can make a lot of difference.’

Staying off the beaten track

Salma Khatun, Locomotive Master

The hustles and bustles of Kamalapur Railway Station slowly gains momentum as one crosses through its corridors towards the platforms. As passengers, street children, and beggars push their way through the crowd, a young woman stands by the train. Among over five hundred men working in Kamlapur Railway station, she is prominent as the only woman who works as the Assistant Locomotive Master. ‘It’s difficult, being the only woman,’ she says.

Salma’s work begins from early morning and often continues on till late at night. ‘It depends totally on the duty roster—it can summon me at any time.’

Born on June 1, 1984, Salma grew up in Tangail with her five siblings. Her father being the sole income earner and a farmer by profession it was a daily struggle. ‘Nobody encouraged me to build a promising career in medicine or something big like that,’ she remembers. ‘It was about being able to afford the mere necessities and not be a burden.’

Despite the rough childhood days that she rarely speaks of, Salma was always a good student. After completing her SSC and HSC with good results, she joined Jaganath University to graduate in Biology. ‘I wanted to study Biology and wanted to become someone great, but I have learnt that many of our aspirations tend to yield nothing,’ she laments.

In desperate need of money, Salma came across the job vacancy for an Assistant Locomotive Master (ALM) with the Bangladesh Railways. ‘The requirement was for men only, but I desperately needed a job somehow, so I applied and amazingly, I was selected. Hence started a month long training and the end of my studies,’ she adds.

It’s been about four years that Salma has been working at the rail station that is witness to the rough life of the street children who take shelter in the station live. ‘When I see these children sleeping on these dirty pavements, I feel so empty. If I were rich, perhaps I would have been able to do something to help them.’

Being a woman has always added to her problems, says Salma. ‘Here in the middle of these 500 men, it’s needless to say that it’s worse.’ The woman behind the engine likes being left alone and allowed to quietly do her own thing. All her hopes, she says, are now pinned on her younger sister who lives with her in Dhaka. ‘My dreams are gone. They were shattered long ago,’ she says.

It may be little consolation to Salma but little does she realise that for all her frustrations and disappointments with life, she remains a beacon for women who dare think differently.

Flying high

Fariel Bilkis Ahmed, the pilot

It was at the age of twenty-one that Fariel was recruited as the youngest pilot with a private airline in Bangladesh. ‘It’s still difficult to for me to believe,’ she says with a smirk. ‘Unlike others, I do not think I faced problems as a woman. And that has been only because of a supportive family.’

Born into a family where education and careers were always valued, Fariel was motivated by her brothers who were passionate pilots. ‘My brother who is a lot older than me, was always like a father guarding and guiding me all along,’ she says.

Born in Rajshahi, as a young girl she was always determined to fly a plane someday. ‘But when I joined the flying club in 2004, I realised opportunities for men and women were not equal. While a man doesn’t even have to give fifty percent effort a woman is expected to try twice that much just to prove herself.’

So began the battle for this young pilot. Fariel realized early on that women in her profession are underestimated and therefore, the instructors held them back for a longer time. ‘My aim was to break through these prejudices. The best part was perhaps, the simple fact that I enjoyed the work and always managed to have fun.’

According to Fariel the wait during those days of training was only possible because of the moral support of her two brothers who were pilots at Biman and Emirates. ‘It was also easy because of Zahid,’ she says beaming. For Fariel, her life partner Zahid Hossain, whom she met during training, came to be a tower of strength. While still taking flight lessons, there came an abrupt break in her work as the Flying Club in Dhaka was closed for over eight months. ‘Those were distressing days. But I continued studying the theories and making sure I kept my spirit high.’

Later, she continued her work and was the first to receive a private license at such a young age. ‘That opened new doors for me,’ she says excitedly. ‘There was no turning back.’

Married to Zahid for a few months now, Fariel feels she has been blessed to have received support from her in-laws and most importantly her husband. ‘I think she has the rare gift of being able to strike a balance between a wife and a skilled pilot,’ says her husband Zahid Hossain. ‘She is just perfect and the kind of effort and determination she has is something you don’t come across every day.’

At the moment, Fariel is also completing her undergraduate degree on Environmental Management. ‘It’s really difficult to keep up both the activities. My job at United Airways requires a lot of time. Nevertheless, I know I manage them well,’ she says smiling confidently.

Dressed in her uniform and pilot’s cap, she emanates control and courage. ‘While flying— I am no longer classified. I am not a man to be looked up to, or a woman to be looked down on. I am just a pilot who has the responsibility of countless lives. That’s all that matters to me.’

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12Oct/070

The scent of roses

For an unfamiliar visitor, Old Dhaka’s Chawkbazaar is a striking place to visit. The narrow roads, the alleys, the people and the place itself pulse with energy and colour. ‘This is place where traditions comes first — even if they have been long forgotten and left behind in other parts of the country,’ says Ali Uddin, a shop keeper at Chawkbazaar.

Indeed, Old Dhaka binds itself with some of the most traditional and historical aspects of the city. Perhaps one such long standing portrayal of tradition is the attar (fragrant perfume) and tupi (traditional and religious caps) shops that you will come across near the mosque close to Islampur. These traditional attar shops in old Dhaka have existed for generations. The tradition is more than hundred years old.

‘It has been the business of my fore fathers,’ says Israr Ahmed. ‘This shop that I now own has passed hands from one generation to the next for the last hundred years and even more.’ Israr claims to run the oldest attar shop in the country and has some unique collection of fragrances. ‘We have the oldest and the most traditional fragrances such as Mustabar, Gulab, Ferdous, and Darbar,’ he explains. The prices of these scents range from Tk 300 to as much as Tk 12,000 per ounce.

Modern perfumes are almost exclusively made from synthetic odorants that are commonly synthesised from relatively cheap organic feedstock. ‘Synthetics can provide fragrances which are not found in nature. But the reason why the tradition of attar has not diminished is its natural fragrance,’ says Darbar Alam, an attar seller who moved to Bangladesh from Pakistan during Partition in 1947.

‘Our forefathers and chemists thought for over 100 years that the main constituent of rose oil was limited to certain components,’ explains Israr. ‘But during the 1960’s and 70’s they found more constituents that were essential to a rose fragrance. Today there are about 300 different components used to often make a single fragrance.’

‘These attars are natural perfume oils that are the purest non-alcoholic fragrances and the most long lasting perfumes,’ says Kolimuddin, who imports a variety of attars from India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. ‘Natural perfume oils have the unique quality of maturing over time. As they grow older, they go thicker, darker and more pleasant in fragrance.’

For most of the old Dhakaiates, attars are associated with not only tradition but also deep religious belief. ‘For most people, using attar also has religious bindings. Mosques almost always require such fragrances. This is exactly why you will see tupis being sold in these shops as well. During Eid, this is undoubtedly a thriving business for us.’

The tupis that are sold in these shops are intricately designed by craftspeople in Lalbagh. ‘There are a good number of women who work on these tupis. The quality of their work is such that buyers often feel that they have been imported from abroad.’

‘Most of the work is kantha stitched and sometimes cross and gittu work,’ says forty-five years old Amana Islam, who works on the handwork of the tupis. ‘Although the more conventional tupis are white, there are also darker shades such as blue, red and green, often adored by the younger generation.’

There are more than fifty workers who work on these tupis. ‘The more traditional and intricate work is often done by the older women, who have known the designs and work very well,’ says Aklima, an 18-year-old worker. A good deal of the handwork done on the tupis is also done by Biharis who concentrate on kuruskata work.

‘The work demands long hours, as the designs are very intricate,’ says Amana. ‘Before Eid, the work pressure is more, as we must supply double the amount we usually do.’

The tupis come in plain cotton to ones with handwork and silk, and cost from Tk.30 to Tk.150.

While tupis are in demand across the country during Eid, attar is more desirable by the people at Old Dhaka. ‘I use attar during Eid more for the traditional and holy side of it,’ says Rakibul Azam, a student.

‘In this part of the country, attar remains part of almost everyday life,’ says Joynul Islam, a resident of Old Dhaka. ‘During Eid, you can see the younger generation respecting the tradition as well, which is very appreciable.’

In Bangladesh the biggest attar manufacturer is Midford and much of their attar is exported to Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia. However, some of the timeless fragrances are produced in Bulgaria, Morocco, Iran and Turkey. Recently, China has begun producing rose oil as well.

Iranians are regarded as the first manufacturers of perfume and discoverers of decorative and cosmetic powders and sweet-smelling oils or beauty creams. In fact, Iran remains to be the oldest and finest manufacturer of attar in the world. For thousands of years, they have passed on the myths associated with fragrances. According to the stone inscriptions of Achaemenian periods, as well as the Greek and Roman sources, Iranian’s attention to, and interest in, various kinds of perfumes, incenses and sweet aromas was very strong for a long while.

It is said that Iranians named flowers according to persons and places. ‘The tradition is strong and it has withstood for centuries,’ says Kolimuddin of Old Dhaka. ‘Names such as Jasmine, Murbaza, Ferdous are in fact are the ones that were named after people and passed on by the Iranians.’

Growing and cultivation of many kinds of plants and fragrant flowers, obtaining perfumes and golab (rose water) from them, preparation of perfumed oil, manufacture of perfumed materials and preparation of sweet smelling incense were widespread in ancient Iran. ‘Cultivation and growing of many of the perfumed flowers and plants, which was prevalent in ancient times, continued for several centuries after Islam, and a few of them still persist till date,’ says Israr.

Due to the labor-intensive production process and the low content of oil in the rose blooms, rose oil and original attars are very expensive.

‘For those who use attar, the idea is to use them frequently enough so that they have an affect on their home as well as mind. Each scented oil, whether it is jasmine or amber, has at least one therapeutic quality,’ adds Kolimuddin.

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