What do Bangladesh, Canada, Switzerland and Spain have in common?

16 February 2014

Over the past couple of months, I've had the privilege of travelling to Bangladesh, Canada, Spain and Switzerland, and oddly, I found that all four had an unexpected quality in common; the way in which different languages within the country influenced and affected everyday life and politics.

In bilingual Montreal, anything that was government-run (including a couple of days of the conference that I attended) had to be conducted in both French and English. Wonderfully, this meant government officials would switch languages halfway through speeches and sometimes even halfway through sentences. In between feeling sorry for the interpreters, I thoroughly enjoyed this blend of languages.

It became clear also, that there were many more loan words between their particular versions of English and French, because of the switching; hearing people talk (in English) about the 'animator' of a particular company left me a little confused before realising that 'animateur' in French simply means “organiser” - they were talking about the head of the company, not a designer! Similarly, I'd never heard 'bienvenue' (literally, 'welcome' but in France, always used in the context of 'welcome to... (a place)' rather than 'you're welcome) as a response to 'merci'.

I heard also of resentment growing towards English speakers in increasingly Anglophile areas of Montreal, where staunch Francophiles would respond to anyone in French, even if they understood and spoke English, and knew that the speaker wouldn't understand them.

I experienced a similar phenomenon myself in Spain, when I stopped by Barcelona a week later; in cafes, although I was speaking 'castellano' (ie. Spanish understood in Spain) people would only respond to me in Catalan, despite me having made clear that I didn't understand Catalan.

It was the first time I'd experienced something like this personally. For example, in a cafe I apologised for not speaking Catalan and asked for a bottle of water in Castillian; the waiter went to fetch the water but continued speaking Catalan to me, I apologised again, and instead of simply saying how much I owed in a language I understood, he wrote down the figure on a pad of paper and pushed it towards me. He was very, very determined not to speak anything but Catalan!

When I got to my final destination in Spain, Zaragoza (just next door to Catalunya) I was asked a lot about the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. People seemed to see lots of comparisons between Catalunya and Scotland, and some were slightly incredulous that the UK had 'allowed' Scotland to hold such a referendum. It was clear that the reluctance of people I met in Barcelona to speak anything but Catalan was part of a much wider battle, one which came up much more frequently in conversation than it had when I was living in Madrid back in 2009.

Politics and language, in this case, were clearly linked, and this was another theme I saw while I was in Switzerland, as, sadly, a vote was passed to impose quotas on immigrants to the country. There were two clear trends in voting for this xenophobic law; firstly, the language split, and secondly the number of immigrants in those areas.

This is a map of the language split in Switzerland; as you can see, the Swiss German population is the largest (63.7% of the population) followed by Swiss French (20.4%), then Italian (6.5%) and Romansh (0.5%).

And this is a map of how people voted in the elections; there's a heavy overlap with the Swiss-German areas, and the areas that voted 'Yes', with the exception of Zurich, up in the north.

[image via @electionista]

Another trend, illustrated by the chart below, shows that regions with fewer immigrants were more likely to vote 'yes' (ie. for the introduction of quotas) whereas those with high percentages of immigrants already living in the regions tended to vote against the quotas. Fear of the unknown was clearly a motivation for those who hadn't experienced much immigration in their areas, and seemingly didn't want to, either.

[image by Martin Grandjean]

I wasn't aware previously of the extent of the majority which the Swiss German population hold here; clearly, with over 60% of the population, they are the most powerful demographic. I also find it interesting how people tended to vote in blocks depending upon their language affiliation; again, clearly language is a lot more than merely a method of communication.

Another example of the crucial importance of language can be seen in Bangladesh, which is, as far as I know, the first country that was born out of a language-related dispute; essentially, the political movement fighting for the right to use Bengali as an official language in everyday life was a catalyst in the move towards national identity, which were precursors to the Bangladeshi Liberation War.

Having seen so clearly in just those four countries the power and importance of languages within society, seeing statements coming out of the UK encouraging people to study languages for economic reasons, or in David Cameron's words "to seal tomorrow's business deals” frustrates me hugely. I find encouraging language learning by way of promoting trade between countries a terribly sad, and reductive, perspective on the many riches that different languages bring to society.

There are many, many other reasons that us lazy native English speakers should learn other languages; understanding cultures, societies and people being just some of them. If we in native-English speaking countries want to have any chance of understanding the politics, societies and cultures of other, language-diverse countries, we have to stop thinking about language-learning as a luxury or as an economic tool, but instead realise that it's a crucial step towards tolerance and understanding of other cultures.

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The role of mass surveillance in humanitarian crises

11 February 2014

Data collection and use in humanitarian situations is increasing. But what can we learn from the past?

It turns out that there have been multiple occasions when mass surveillance and data collection have played key roles in facilitating humanitarian crises, including genocides. In addition, as has been covered comprehensively in Privacy International’s report, “Aiding Privacy”, aid organisations are now some of the biggest data collectors among the world’s most vulnerable communities. Aid agencies are also supporting and funding data collection schemes which have in some cases been knocked back in their home countries; such as USAID funding the “My ID My Life” campaign in Kenya in 2013, which provided national ID cards for 500,000 young people.

To make really clear the link between surveillance and mass human rights’ abuses, and to highlight some of humanity’s worst examples of what can happen with mass surveillance, lack of freedom of expression, and abuse of data, here are a couple of examples.

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Dear white feminist public figures...

08 February 2014

Dear white feminist public figures, 

I'm writing to ask, quite simply, that you remember and recognise that the feminist movement is a global movement. It doesn't sound like much, does it? In my mind, it's not, but all too often I see and hear things that point to the contrary – hence this blog post.

I know that in some cases you worry about (mis)appropriation; that by mentioning experiences from other cultures, you'll face indignation from people of that culture, saying that you're not in a place to be talking or writing about them. But there's ways of mentioning things that make it clear that you're not trying to appropriate the experiences of others, merely paying homage to them.

Let me demonstrate.

“As feminists in [insert country] have demonstrated, [their experiences]. To find out more about this, I'd recommend you look up [their names].

Or how about:

“I've been inspired by hearing about the work of [insert name here] in [insert country]. I'm in no place to discuss what they've been through, but hearing it directly from them can be powerful. I'd recommend you take some time to read the work of [insert their names].

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd like to think that proper accreditation and recognition of who's been doing the work might stave off the appropriation claims.

Doing this serves some major purposes; it means that you are using your voice and your platform to recognise the work of others, who might not have access to such similar platforms. It makes others who might not come across their work, aware of what they're doing. It raises their profile, and makes it easier for them to gain a place on a global stage; a place which, (though of course, through no fault of your own!) you have had privileged access to.

If you haven't heard of any examples from other parts of the world, or you genuinely don't have any material to add to your writing/talking from outside of your own country or continent, then please make this clear in your writing.

I'm sorry for picking on this one example, especially when (sadly) there's many more out there – but writing headlines like “23 Awesome Feminist Digital Campaigns That Changed the World” when 22 out of the 23 examples originate from the US, the UK and Canada, is, to my mind, incredibly reductive, and actually slightly offensive. Given mainstream prejudices already prevalent in those countries, your article is only strengthening the popular (but obviously, invalid) view that feminism is a 'western' ideology, not found in the rest of the world. (otherwise, surely, those examples would be included in an article about campaigns that 'changed the world', wouldn't they?)

If you want to keep the same content of the article, then how about a more accurate title – instead of 'changed the world', you could say, 'changed the western world'. Or, why not take this opportunity (and your position as a well-read and well-respected writer) to direct some attention towards other areas of the world that are less covered in the media? Or towards people who, perhaps because of lack of privilege, or discrimination, haven't enjoyed access to such widespread media platforms as yourself?

And, if you really haven't been exposed to any other cultures, then, at the risk of sounding patronising, just spend some more time on the internet. The internet is wide and connected and, global. Yes, they might take some more time to find, but there are stories and voices from all parts of the world on the internet, and they deserve to be heard. Google translate is your friend! And remember in some languages, feminism might be better known as, for example, “gender equality”; or talked about as “women's rights.”;

If you're in a position where you are able to, then why not travel? It's still valid to read about other peoples' experiences, but it'll give you a whole new dimension to actually meet them, see what they're talking about, and hear about them in person.

You are in a position where people listen to you; this is due to your hard work, talent, and, in all honesty, an array of features that you happened upon by pure chance – your skin colour, perhaps the place you were born, any number of arbitrary features. You have a responsibility to use your platform to make feminism recognised as what it really is; global, wonderful, inclusive and diverse. 

My ask; please make the most of your public platform to point some attention towards some incredible campaigns, people and ideas who are unfairly ignored in the media. You're not by any means the problem behind this injustice, but you can definitely be part of the solution. 

Thank you.

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Scifi, gender, and imposters

02 February 2014


For me, a good book is one that makes me change how I think about things, or how I behave- for better or for worse. Thanks to multiple readings of Anne of Green Gables when I was younger, I still recognise an occasional gut feeling of trust or tribe with strangers by categorising them in my head as 'kindred spirits'; last year's Americanah has left me unable to read anything about the “global” feminist movement that's written by white feminists without feeling deeply suspicious; and now, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness has left me questioning my own, and others' behaviour, through a stronger gender-critical lens than I think I've used before. 

A bit of background: the inhabitants of the planet the book is set on, Gethen, are permanently without gender. The main character, Genly Ai, is from another planet, and he is a man; for this, he is considered strange and alien, and the very idea of a whole universe out there with 'permanent' men and women is the biggest hurdle for the people of Gethen to understand about their planetary neighbours. Any of the people of Gethen can, once a month, assume either gender, during which they go through a period of being “in kemmer”, ie. able to mate with a partner. Crucially, as anyone can be male or female during this time (and it can change month by month), anyone can become pregnant and go through childbirth, meaning that caring for children is, by definition, equally spread throughout society.

I found Genly Ai's description of the difference between 'permanent' men and women, particularly interesting:

“I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one's life, is whether one's born male or female. In most societies it determines one's expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything. Vocabularly. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food... It's extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones.”

I also found very clever the way that Le Guin used gender to describe certain behaviour, throughout the book – for example, when describing a mistrusted character:

“Estraven's performance had been all womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit.”

The same character is later classed as having “effeminate deviousness”.

This gendering of characteristics and qualities came back to me several times this week, as the first day of my new job role also happened to be the first day of a week long conference, which brought together people from around the world, all of whom were essentially experts on the topic of my new project.

Firstly, the reactions of people to this were rather telling:

“Wow, throwing yourself in at the deep end, that's great!”


“Wow, lots of input... that's really brave of you!”

Guess who said what?

Though perhaps loosely related here, it came back to me again while having lunch one day. A young woman and I got talking about how we had ended up working in this sector; she held two degrees, had years of experience in the field, and yet, sometimes, she said, she felt like a bit of a fraud amongst all these experts.

I found myself nodding along; I have, occasionally, felt like I've somehow found myself sitting among a lot of people who know a lot more than me, though I generally value (and cherish!) my 'blagging' skills to get me through those bits without too many issues.

Someone (a man!) who was sitting on the other side of us called us both out for this though, as he found it ridiculous that either of us would feel like that, given our experience, skills, and knowledge.

And then, of course, it hit me. We were displaying minor signs of Imposter Syndrome!* This would never happen on the planet of Gethen. The thought that society's expectations and treatment of women might have had such an influence on how I perceive my own actions terrifies me, and has left me determined to think more closely about how I attribute my successes. It's also left me determined to encourage my peers to think about this too. And all because of a planet named Gethen.

There are many, (many!) other aspects of the book I found thought-provoking, and I'll probably write about them once I've finished reading it, for the second time, in a week. And if that's not a strong recommendation, I don't know what is.

* For a hilarious parody on this, see here.

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My first week with Git

25 January 2014

This week, I learned what Git really is, how to use it via the command line, and forked this lovely site to make this, my first Jekyll site! I was exceedingly lucky to have guidance throughout from some very clever, and patient, people.

In part to help me remember things I learned, and in part because part of me hopes one day I'll look back on this first week coding with nostalgic fondness in years to come, I wanted to write down a few things I learned.

First; the very basics. I learned what makes Git different to other Version Control Systems. I'd recommend looking at the diagrams on this page to understand this. We looked at how Git saves data through trees and blobs (incidentally, which stands for Binary Large Object, though I like the name 'blob'), and looked at how each 'commit' generates a unique 40-character object identifier, which you can see by typing 'git-show'.

One thing I found amazing about these identifier numbers is that as they are generated solely from the content of a certain repository, if you happen to have exactly the same content in a repository on two different machines, exactly the same 40-character identifier number is generated! We proved this by copying out two identical text files on two different computers, committing them to a repository, then comparing identifiers. It worked! (Aside: I downloaded the text editor 'Sublime' here to make creating and editing those text files much easier)

Next, some basic git commands to use in the terminal: mkdir, cd and git init, to make a new repository (more detailed instructions here), and also how to add a new file. I also changed the background of the terminal screen to black to make it easier to read, via 'Preferences' in Terminal.

Then; putting it into practice, as I wanted to make a simple website for my new project. As I only needed a holding page, I thought it might be a good time to try using Github pages, which makes it easy to get information from a Github repository onto a website – and, allows people to collaborate very easily – which runs off Jekyll, a “static site generator”, in Ruby. Basically, it makes making websites from text files very easy and really rather beautiful - these are all examples of sites that can be built on Jekyll.

Unfortunately, though much of the online documentation says that you should be able to get “from 0 to blog in 3 minutes!” I ran into a few problems here, as it was my first time using Jekyll, and Ruby, so I didn't have the prerequisites assumed in the quick start up guides. This is where I was very glad to have assistance from people who knew what they were doing – yes, the pains of installation will just happen once, but I would've been completely lost if it hadn't been for help at this point. Pro tip – Homebrew is a good package to install here, too.

Once I had Jekyll and ruby up and running, I set up a basic blog as per the instructions on this page. I picked one of the basic themes from this page and switched themes, after reading the instructions here.

But then some other more beautiful sites came to my attention... including this one, which was done by colleagues of mine for a hackday they ran last year. It's fairly simple, also done using Jekyll and Ruby, and it's on Github. I figured starting with something that looked so good must be easier than starting from scratch (though I have nothing to base this on.)

So – my friend Annabel helped me set up my own version of this, which we put in the repository 'Open Dev Toolkit' on my Github, so it appeared at http://zararah.github.io/opendevtoolkit. We also set up a local server which meant that the site appeared at http://localhost:4000/ in my Chrome window. So, I could make changes 'locally' (just on my machine) without pushing them to git- this made seeing what I'd done a lot easier. I set up the local server by typing “jekyll serve” into the Terminal, and I ended up leaving the command “jekyll serve -w” running constantly in one window of the terminal, and making my changes in git in another window. (The -w part of “jekyll serve-w” makes it automatically regenerate, so you don't need to keep cancelling it (with control-c) and running it again to see changes.

Then, the most satisfying part of this whole thing began – using what I had learned earlier to hack the website!

Here, I quickly established that 'Inspect Element' in Chrome was basically my best friend; seeing something on the site that I wanted to change, highlighting it and clicking 'Inspect Element' allowed me to see where exactly it was in the files, making it much easier to find which part I needed to change.

Once all that was set up, it was fairly simple; for example, the main heading, subheading and basic text was in the index.html file, so I did the following steps to change them to be relevant for my website:

I opened up the project 'opendevtoolkit' with Sublime, so that all of the text files that you can see on Github here were available. Then, I opened 'index.html', edited the relevant text, saved it, and looked what had happened on the local version I was running, at http://localhost:4000/ It had changed! So, as they were good changes, I wanted to keep them and put them online, also known as “pushing them” to Github.

In the terminal, I checked what I'd done by typing 'git-status'. As expected, there were changes there that hadn't been updated online: so next came the following commands:

git add “whichever filename came up when typing git status” (in my case, index.html)

Then, I needed to 'commit' the change:

git commit

...but, other people (and I) need to know what the change was, so here you're asked for a 'commit message' which describes what the change is. The commit message is, I learned, always written in the imperative – so, 'Update heading', for example.

Once that has been added, you're free to 'git push' which pushes the changes online. Ta-da!

Other tips I picked up:

  • If you've got text you want to edit on the website, but you're not sure where to find it within all the files, you can do a project wide search in Sublime, with shift+command+F to find out where it is.

  • Inspect Element is just great. Really.

  • If you're looking for a new font, look at Google Fonts – they're lovely, and really easy to implement (if you don't want to bother having them in a font file, it just takes one line of code which will be generated when you pick your font)

  • For creating the background image, I downloaded Inkscape – admittedly not very Mac friendly, but still good, and picked some public domain gear icons from the Noun Project to play around with. (Confession – I then sent it over to my rather clever friend Julia to arrange into a gorgeous looking tile design for me!)

  • I used the 'Eye dropper' Chrome plugin to find out where the colours were that I needed to change.

Then, it was just a case of lots of little changes, deleting lots of the content from the EnergyHack page as I didn't need it, updating content, changing the design and font, and there you go. My first Jekyll site!

A huge gigantic thank you to Nick, Stefan, Annabel and Michael for a. getting me started on all of this, b. not giving me all of the answers but showing me how to find them myself, and c. having infinite patience with my questions!

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Bangladesh - more than just a developing country

11 January 2014


All too quickly, my time in Dhaka has ended, and I'm back in Europe already.

Before I left, I wrote this blog; the side of Bangladesh that doesn't make the news. It annoyed me that in international media, I found there to be a narrative of Bangladesh being at the bottom of the ladder, talked about only as a basket case, one of the poorest nations in the world; almost like the runt of the litter. The blog post was intended to highlight aspects of the country that Bangladeshis were proud of.

So what I actually saw in Bangladesh shocked me. This narrative that I had been moaning about from Europe is just as pervasive throughout middle-class Bangladeshi culture. The US and Europe are seen as the ideal; the model societies to strive for, the 'one day'.

Anything that can be described with “they do that all the time in the US” is, naturally, wonderful. Anyone who studied in Europe is, of course, very intelligent. Having travelled or spent considerable amounts of time in either region is a mark of culture and refinement (never mind what you might have done there).

This false hierarchy, sadly rife throughout the cultures I've spent time in, still annoys me. Considering the language used to describe these structures though, it's not so surprising; linearly, from developing country (Bangladesh) to developed country (US/Europe, among others).

But there are so many things that I saw within Bangladeshi culture that US and European culture could do with learning from. Of course, there are many, many areas in which Bangladesh has a long way to go on – see my previous blog posts for a couple of examples! – but culture and society is made up of more than that.

Here, then, a few areas in which, in my humble opinion, Bangladesh is doing pretty well on, be it out of necessity, or out of choice. 

Respect for older generations – it's built into the language as terms of respect are used for older members of the family as a matter of course. Perhaps partly as a result, it's unthinkable that elderly members of a family would live anywhere but with their children, and considered as an integral part of the family. For better or for worse, care homes for the elderly don't exist, and I've yet to come across someone's grandparents/elderly aunts or uncles living anywhere but with their children.


Recycling – Yes, this is through necessity, but it's still incredible to see how much is used, and reused, and reused again. Ashes scrubbed into pans as a way of cleaning them, old newspapers folded into bags, coconut shells varnished down into coffee cups, to name just a few examples.

Family as community – last week, I walked into a restaurant that was run by my cousin's husband's niece's in-laws. On a family tree, we would barely make it on to the same page, but I was welcomed as though I was a close relative, and treated with warmth and kindness as though we had known each other for years. Of course, I was the only one surprised by this. Again, language plays a big role in this – the words for 'cousin' and 'brother' or 'sister' being the same, and used much more loosely than in the technically correct form (as, wonderfully, this Economist article corrected).

Resilience – This is one of those cliched compliments, but I had to mention it. A common feature in stories I've heard from my mum's childhood is villagers having to rebuild their entire houses every few years depending on floods or extreme weather conditions. They would lose everything – all of their belongings, their entire homes and shelter, they might even probably lose family members along the way – but they would always simply rebuild and start again afterwards. Yes, this is tragic, and yes, it shouldn't happen, but I still admire their resilience and strength. Shahidul Alam's photos from the 1991 cyclone contain some strong images of this.

Strong women – both physically, and mentally. Walk down the road in Dhaka, and you'll see women carrying heavy loads on their heads, while perhaps looking after a child or two and you know that they're undoubtedly responsible for feeding and clothing the entire household. Balancing these responsibilities, while living in extreme poverty, without state support, and all the while not complaining is truly nothing short of heroic.

Self-reliance – Again, it's tragic that citizens assume they can't rely on the government to provide basic services, but the way that the lack of basic services is dealt with is kind of wonderful. This does however bring up an entirely different side of the story – a society with such a lack of social contract between citizens and government results in a complete lack of transparency, which in turn is inevitably a breeding ground for corruption, but on the lighter end of the scale the creativity sometimes employed is interesting. For example, during strikes, when cars aren't permitted to go on the road, it became usual to rent out ambulances for essential travel, as it's assumed, and I hope it stays this way, that nobody would attack an ambulance. As my uncle noticed– people with access to ambulances must be the one section of society earning a lot of money from strikes!

Bangladeshi pride – there's sides to this that I like, and sides I don't. The side that I do is the fact that, despite the narrative I mentioned at the start of this article, people are proud to be from Bangladesh, and they want to help change the country for the better. Much of the literature I've read around South Asia has mentioned immigration; people managing to 'escape' the poor countries for a better life in the richer world, but very little of it has touched upon people coming back to their native countries. This is something that I was happy to see – people who had the experience and the opportunity of living in rich-world countries, and chose instead to come back and use what they had learned to make their way in their home country, hoping to contribute to making it a better society for all.

Respect for education – I remember once my mum saw a book I had on the floor, and to my mind, overreacted entirely, telling me to look after my books better. The book, for her, represented access to knowledge, and in turn, this knowledge opened up a whole world of possibilities, away from poverty and low standards of living. This attitude of respect for education can be taken too far (the “tiger mom” phenomena comes to mind) - but it's true that having access to education can, and has, led to an increase in quality of life for millions in Bangladesh. Even accessing as basic a level as learning how to read, or attending school until early teens– levels of education that we, in Europe, take completely for granted – has changed the realm of possibilities for millions.


Artistic heritage – weddings are a good place to see just how much some beautiful traditions have remained in present day culture. Mehndi for one, dancing and music for another. Unlike in the UK at least, these more traditional art forms aren't seen as 'old fashioned', but instead are embraced by younger and older generations alike. 


In the spirit of fairness, I should also point out that there are aspects of the culture that shocked me for the worst reasons; obviously, nothing is 100% as rosy as I've painted here, so I'll cover those in another post. My aim in all of this is to encourage a more rounded discussion of the country, so if I've missed out anything, or not been accurate, please do let me know, @zararah.

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My favourite 2013 reads

06 January 2014

Before I forget, and before I start making more lists of things I want to read this year, here are the top books I read this year.


Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sharp, funny, accurate, and refreshing to read a book about people leaving their home country not because of conflict, but simply because of (perceived) lack of opportunity, or 'choicelessness'. I also read Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun this year, both by the same author, but Americanah was by far my favourite.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. A child's perspective on experiencing a complete culture clash.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – this was full of terrible, terrible events, but written in a way that made me pick it up and barely put it down until I had finished it. Warning: emotionally very difficult to read.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri – a collection of short stories. The stories centre around people moving from Bengal (either Bengali regions of India, or Bangladesh) to the UK or the US, and its accuracy of relating the experiences of the first or second generation immigrants moving between those two cultures genuinely startled me at points.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Aman. I've mentioned this before on my blog, and this is one of the very few English language fiction books about Bangladesh that I could find.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng– in a funny twist, some friends sent me this book the day after I booked flights to Malaysia. By far the most emotionally taxing book I read this year (with his other novel, The Gift of Rain, coming in a close second) – but so, so beautifully written.

Non fiction

Las venas abiertas de América Latina, or Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano. I started reading this in preparation for a visit to Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, purely because it was banned by right-wing military governments in all three countries in the 70s. This was also the book that Chavez presented to Obama – an amazing gift.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns. An incredible and engaging introduction to the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was recommended to me by friends who have spent time in the DRC, so I have faith in its accuracy too.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth – I took far too long to get round to reading this, not least because Vikram Seth is one of my favourite authors. It focuses on the life of Seth's uncle, from India, while he moves between Berlin (where I was reading it) – and London. A gorgeous memoir, a lovely story, and a new perspective on the Second World War.

A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous) – a close contender for 'book that made me cry most this year'. Another new perspective on World War II, or at least the terrible consequences. The book was actually a diary, and the author has remained anonymous (and it was only published after her death.) Haunting to read, but highly recommended.

This was so hard to put together that I've resolved to start using Goodreads this year. You can find newly created account here

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2013's feminist wins, from the majority world

22 December 2013

I've been coming across articles highlighting 2013's greatest feminist moments - this 28 Most Iconic Feminist moments of 2013 for example, or the 25 best moments for women in 2013 - and while they have some brilliant moments included, I couldn't help but notice that they're very US-centric [1]. Surely the majority of 2013 feminist wins didn't happen in the US alone? 

Well, no - feminism is alive and kicking in the rest of the world too, and  here's ten examples highlighting just how. 

A self-declared feminist and women's rights activist became Prime Minister of Senegal

In September, Aminata Touré became Prime Minister of Senegal. True to her unique style, she even announced her new appointment herself. Former Justice Minister, she's known for her strong anti-corruption stance, and has had an impressive career as a human rights activist. And let's not forget; Malawi and Liberia also have female heads of state - Joyce Banda and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, respectively. 

Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie's TedX Talk “We should all be feminists”;

Being sampled in Beyoncé's track “Flawless”; probably did wonders for Adichie's popularity among a whole new audience - it's well deserved, though. A related feminist win - her latest book, Americanah, came out earlier this year. Highly, highly recommended.

In Rwanda, women won 64% of seats in Parliament.

Rose Mukantabana: Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Rwanda

Rwanda beat their own record of percentage of women in parliament – jumping from 56.3%  to a massive 64 per cent  of women earlier this year.

Women now occupy 51 out of the 80 seats in the Lower House, thus retaining the title of being the only country in the world with a female dominated parliament- a title they first earned in 2008, when women held 56% of seats. There's a quota in place to ensure female representation, but it's only for 30% of seats. More on Rwanda's gender-friendly policies here

Mayam Mahmoud, Egypt's first hijab-wearing rapper

Aged 18, Mayam Mahmoud got through to the semi finals of Arabs got talent; she encouraged people to look past her veil, and listen to what she's rapping about. 

The release of the first feature film directed by a Saudi Arabian woman *

Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, Wadjda (Arabic: وجدة,) was filmed in the streets of Riyadh, meaning that the director had to work from the back of a van to avoid publicly mixing with men working on her crew. The film- the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, was also the country's first official submission to the Oscars for the Best Foreign Language Film. Listen to Haifaa Al-Mansour talk about the challenges she faced, and changes happening in Saudi Arabia here.

Women were finally invited to take part in Colombian government negotiations with FARC

After huge efforts by Colombian women's groups working to highlight the key role of women in peacebuilding, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos finally announced that women would be invited to join the negotiation team. María Paulina Riveros y Nigeria Rentería Lozano, both lawyers, joined the previously all-male team at the end of November 2013.

A record number of women presidents in Latin America; 4 women heads of state

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet visits Ecuador

Despite being a continent known for “machismo”, there are now women leading Argentina (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner), Brazil (Dilma Rousseff), Costa Rica (Laura Chinchilla), and most recently Chile, following Michelle Bachelet's overwhelming win with 62% of the vote earlier this month. No implied endorsement of any of their policies, though! 

Satirical video “No Woman No Drive”; went viral *

This video, mocking Saudi Arabia's ban on letting women drive, hit 10 million views earlier in the year. Here's hoping some of the princes saw it too. 

Women's empowerment recognised as a major reason behind Bangladesh's health successes

Women in Bangladesh - IRRC photo

Medical journal The Lancet released a series of papers looking at healthcare in Bangladesh, saying

Improvements in the survival of infants and children under 5 years of age, life expectancy, immunisation coverage, and tuberculosis control in Bangladesh are part of a remarkable success story for health [in Bangladesh].

...Perhaps the most powerful strategy for health was the country's distinct acknowledgment and support of women to national development.”;

Yemen's human rights minister called for a ban on child marriage 

Yemen IDPs 4

In September, Huriya Mashhoor, the Minister for Human Rights in Yemen, called for the revival of a bill which would set the legal minimum age for marriage to 18 years old. Her decision came after international condemnation following reports that an 8 year old died of internal bleeding on the night she married a 40 year old man. 

Though no further progress has been reported, in November this year, Yemeni police stopped the wedding of a nine year old girl; it was reportedly the first such intervention to stop a child marriage in Yemen.

1 Suggestion: consider adding “from the US”; on to the end of both of those headlines, to avoid over-reduction of the global feminist movement. 

* Not strictly 'majority world' countries - but ones where improvements in women's rights are thoroughly needed, so I've included them here. 

Wherever possible, I've tried to use local media sources in the links here- if there are any that could be replaced, let me know! I know I've missed lots out lots of other great moments, too - any to add, ping me @zararah or drop me a line zararah[at]gmail.com 

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On having a government with no interest in their citizens

14 December 2013


The strikes and violence in Bangladesh have been continuing, and as ever, it's been frustrating and annoying to myself and my family, but we're the lucky ones. To millions of others, it's been life-altering, in the worst of ways. The instability and insecurity that politicians are bringing to every day life is pushing people living on the breadline to their very limits, and most probably, beyond, with potentially irreversible consequences.

For those who are already living precariously, in a space where they don't have savings, where they make just about the right amount of money to pay their rent (if they have regular shelter), and pay for their food, or for their family, the sudden halt in their income due to the strikes must be turning their lives upside down. There has been no notice given of when strikes might happen, and no indication of when they might stop. These utterly random strikes, called on politicians' whims, are having drastic effects on the economy in many ways.

Drivers aren't needed when cars can't go on the roads; rickshaw-wallahs aren't needed when nobody's going outside; shop workers aren't needed when shops are closed. City-wide blockades stopping everything coming in and out of Dhaka have led to ports being overfull, deliveries not completed – factory workers aren't needed when materials can't get in, or out, of the city. Worst of all, people who live on the streets and earn their living in more informal ways - selling food on the streets, or making artisanal items to sell, for example - those who are already at the very edges of society, are being pushed even further towards the edges of extreme poverty. 

So as a result of the strikes, millions of people, and their families, have found themselves without any source of income. 

It's easy, and probably more convenient, to think of this as a “developing world” problem. People starving because they can't afford food, or selling their few belongings as a last resort.

But how many people living in “developed countries” would be able to cope in a similar situation? Would you?

Picture it: one day, you're told not to come into work, and you know that you won't get paid until further notice. You have no idea when this further notice might be. Add to that limited supplies of, well, everything (food, cash in the ATM, vegetables, fruit) - and, as the cherry on the cake, you're advised not to go outside, use public transport or drive your car, if you happen to have one, because, rumour has it, people are being paid on the streets (by political parties) to throw grenades and douse vehicles in petrol.

I would guess that anywhere in the world, a high proportion of people would be left in much the same situation as the millions of Bengalis here who have been put in this situation. The difference between us: call me naive, but I'd hope that other democratic nations wouldn't dream of doing this to their citizens. 

People living in precarious situations isn't by any means exclusive to Bangladesh, but currently, the instability and insecurity that they face really is.

Saying there's a lack of social security here doesn't come close to covering it – it's not just that the government aren't providing social security, it's that they are the ones who are actively putting people in a situation where they will, without a doubt, be needing it, while doing nothing about it. 

When I first arrived, I was a little shocked at how people didn't seem to understand when I described one aspect of my work – helping citizens hold government accountable. Now, I see why.

Right now, there's really no link whatsoever between what the population needs, and what the government, and other political parties, are doing here. If anything, politicians' actions over the past few weeks have brought only suffering to 99% of the population; this is anything but a democracy, and sadly I'm almost certain that the upcoming “elections” will prove that more than ever.

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The human cost of "hartals"

02 December 2013

Burned out bus

The strikes and blockades going on at the moment in Dhaka have been, to say the least, disruptive to people's lives, and they show no sign of slowing. The economic cost has been huge, the social cost too, and all of this is indicative of the political chaos in the country leading up to elections, due to take place on January 5th, 2014.

But there's a key part of the debate that's missing; the human cost, and the reasons behind it. As friends in Dhaka confirm, these strikes have been the bloodiest and most violent ones yet, with people being killed or seriously injured almost as a matter of course.

This in itself should be enough to stop them being referred to as hartals, which began life as part of Gandhi's civil disobedience movement against colonialism. Employing the word hartal for today's situation seems nothing short of disrespectful to Gandhi, whose form of non-violent protest changed society. And can anything be civil disobedience when it is organised by the authorities, with only the citizens suffering the consequences?

I would be curious to know what people think they are striking against, when they go out onto the streets of Dhaka later today; because to me, it feels like nobody knows, we're just sitting out a high-level political game.

But what actually is the aim of the game? There's no real social protest movement behind them; strikes are simply called by political parties, seemingly randomly. The only consequence, right now, is disruption to every day life, but only for the people who live an every day life. For those calling the strikes, I'd imagine their days continue much as normal.

Of course, all intentional killing is senseless. But this seems a step up (or down?) from that; the people who are dying in these strikes aren't people who chose to give their lives for a cause, because there isn't a cause. They are people who decided to go to work that day, maybe because they wouldn't be able to eat if they missed out on yet another day's income; people who decided to take that bus ride to visit their family, to get out to their village for the weekend, or simply people who wanted to move around the city in their car.

And they aren't just 'being killed'; people are actively killing them- so let's stop using the passive to express actions as terrible as these.

The 14-year-old who “died of serious burns” didn't somehow self-combust, he had a petrol bomb thrown on the van he was in. 8 year old Sumi who died in a bus didn't just die – people set the bus she was in on fire, while she was in it. The 8 people who died in Matuail last Tuesday wouldn't have suffered and died from burn injuries if others hadn't thrown petrol on the bus they were in first, then set it alight; and sadly, there are many more stories like this.

It's this, more than anything, that I can't understand. Whatever the political games going on, it takes real people to carry out these despicable and senseless acts of violence. Perhaps they're being paid to take part in the strikes; but even so, I can't believe that they would get paid extra to kill innocent bystanders.

Where did our sense of morality, in the most basic of senses, go? Especially in a country that has suffered, dare I say it, more than most at the hands of others; when did we turn upon ourselves?

This isn't about tribal loyalties, or religious beliefs, or even political beliefs; those dying in the violence here most likely haven't expressed loyalty to any political party, they just happen to be outside on the wrong day. They didn't leave the house with the resolution that they would fight for their beliefs and maybe even die for them; how could they? There's no moral fight being fought here.

In other protests that I've seen or followed where there is an element of danger, there is always a point of decision for the person taking part. The point of no return, where you know that if you go outside and take part in what you're doing, there's a chance you might not come back; but you choose to go because you believe in what you're doing, and you believe it might change the world.

But this? What is this? The people who are dying here weren't allowed even that terrible choice. The people who are murdering others aren't killing for a reason, however twisted that reason may be; they're just killing, in the most banal of senses. In past years, people would be allowed to leave the buses, or the cars, or the rickshaws, before they were set alight; now it seems, they aren't even permitted that.

While we might complain about the strikes and the inconvenience they cause, and analysts might look at the economic losses the country is facing, just remember that the worst consequence of all of this is caused by us, not by squabbling politicians.

We, Bangladeshi people, are the ones who are killing our fellow citizens; without rhyme nor reason, with no gains, only losses.

If you're playing an active role in strikes to gain a bit of money in a time of need (ironic, then, that if the hartals weren't taking place, you would be able to go back to your normal job) – even if you're just taking part in the strikes for want of something to do – whatever your reasoning, just stop, and think about what you're doing, or about to do.

In other words; we need to find that morality, and fast. 

[1] For more reading on hartals, check out this report by UNDP Bangladesh from 2005, “Beyond Hartals”; - sadly, many of the points are still extremely pertinent. 

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