We discussed the misconception surrounding women’s rights movements, my mother, my country Bangladesh, US foreign policy on global feminism, Yeardley Love’s murder at UVA, how I started this blog and much more.
I am cross-posting the interview below which you can also view at The Daily Femme. Enjoy!
As the Global Programs Director at the Feminist Majority Foundation, Anushay Hossain is an expert on the impact of US foreign policy on the health and rights of women and girls in the developing world. She also covers these issues in publications including The Huffington Post, The Washington Examiner, Ms. Magazine, NPR and Feministing, and founded her own blog Anushay’s Point in an attempt to bring more people to the conversation about gender and help “take the fear out of feminism.” Raised in Bangladesh where she was inspired by her mother’s work on behalf of women’s rights, Anushay’s understanding of feminism and women’s issues is far ranging as it covers the Indian subcontinent, the US and UK. In this interview, she discusses the development of her interest in gender issues and shares her views on a wide variety of topics including her reaction to her alma mater’s initial and subsequent handling of the murder of lacrosse player Yeardley Love.
Did your interest in gender issues and women’s struggles for equality begin in Bangladesh? How did it develop?
Yes, it definitely developed in Bangladesh. My mother was very involved in the women’s rights movement in the country, and growing up she would always take me with her to all her activist events. This early exposure to the women’s rights world had a huge influence on me. It pretty much shaped who I am today. My mother showed me from an early age how difficult it is to access education and healthcare for the majority of women and girls in Bangladesh. She taught me about the violence women in my country endure. This had a profound impact on the development of my own feminist conscience, and it taught me never to take opportunities given to me for granted.
How did you decide to get a master’s in gender and development in the UK? What kind of work did you do/ are you doing in this area?
The experience of working with the Feminist Majority Foundation straight out of college confirmed to me that I wanted to cultivate a career for myself in this field. I knew that I needed not only more work experience, but that I needed to analyze the field through an academic lens. I knew I needed a Master’s in this area. The UK is really where anyone serious about Development Studies goes to pursue higher education in this field. At the time I wanted to get my MA, no University in the US was offering degrees in Gender and Development.
I have dedicated my entire career to this field. Right now, the majority of my work consists of monitoring and analyzing the impact of US foreign policy on the health and rights of women and girls in the developing world.
You recently wrote about the murder of Lacrosse player Yeardley Love allegedly by her ex-boyfriend George Huguely and criticized your alma mater, the UVA for as you put it in your post “skirting around the issue of domestic violence instead of confronting it.” Why do you think that’s the case and what would you like to see academic institutions do in this regard?
I wrote that piece immediately after the murder, and my reaction to the University’s response was premature. I actually wanted and should have done a follow-up piece on that post. In the days and weeks that followed, UVA’s response has been adequate and I think I spoke too soon. For example, they had the White Ribbon Alliance present at Graduation, so many graduates were wearing the white ribbon, students are working on legislation to protect victims of domestic violence, and a fund has been established for Love. In addition, John Casteen, the President of the University, spoke at length about intimate partner violence and the Women’s Center has taken extraordinary steps in raising awareness and educating around this issue. Ultimately, we all have a role in shaping the conversation around domestic violence, and determining what it looks like.
How does media coverage of women’s issues and perspectives in the UK compare to US coverage? For example the Guardian, Telegraph and Daily Mail all have sections on their online sites dedicated to women’s issues which is something rarely seen in the states—do you feel these sections are important and progressive?
Yes. I have always thought that and it became especially evident when I lived in London. I think in America everyone is too caught up with the abortion debate and the abortion issue. It is holding the women’s movement in this country back. It is just frustrating because there are such larger issues we need to talk about that go beyond abortion. The American media has an important role to play here. Can you imagine what the world would gain from an American feminist movement that transcended abortion?
Why did you decide to create your own blog, Anushay’s Point? What would you like to achieve through it?
I felt as though for a long time I was having conversations with my colleagues and my friends, with so many women and men about what feminism means, what development means, how women have such a critical role in achieving development goals, about the double-standards applied to women and what men can get away with… all these issues that people were interested with respect to women’s rights, but somehow all these ideas were not accessible to the masses. The majority of people were missing the message, missing the point.
Most people think that feminists are a bunch of angry, extremist, man-hating lesbians. They think the women’s rights movement is irrelevant in this day and age. But when you brought up issues like equal pay, access to family planning services, land rights, access to education I found the majority of people agree that equal rights should extend to women without question. People understand that women’s rights are human rights. I found that people across the board are feminists, but are terrified of that label, especially young women. This really bothered me and the misconception really frustrated me. It still does.
So I wanted to put “my feminism” out there through “Anushay’s Point.” Most of what I cover on “Anushay’s Point” comes from conversations I have with my family, friends, colleagues. And those were the people who really pushed me to start the site. I just wanted to bring more people into this conversation and take the fear out of feminism. I wanted to show people, “See, we are all feminists and there is nothing wrong with that.”
I am really proud of this blog. It is so personal to me. It is my voice.
Speaking about the misconceptions around feminism, what is something that you are particularly concerned about?
That women’s rights movements are only needed in countries like Afghanistan, in “developing countries.” This idea that the West has won the fight for women’s rights is very misleading and not true, but it exists because women can work and wear mini-skirts, so the vast majority of people think, “Look, there’s women’s lib for you!” People and women themselves lose sight of the importance of securing their legal rights, their rights in the workplace, equal pay etc.
What do you think of the recent wave of bans or discussed bans of the Burqa in Europe?
I think it’s a handout to far-right political parties at the cost of marginalizing a group that is already marginalized. I think it is a completely misguided strategy that achieves nothing. I think European politicians are insulting Muslim women and the intelligence of women around the world by acting like they are formulating policy to liberate Muslim women. Seriously, give me a break. I have written and spoken extensively on this issue, which is really a larger issue of integration and immigration. Those are the conversations we should be having. Instead, we are talking about what a tiny minority of Muslim women wear in France, or Spain, or Italy.
The burqa is a symbol that is repeatedly targeted, but this gets us nowhere because we are not talking about the real issues, about our real fears. What we really need to be talking about is the fear these societies have about becoming Islamasized. We need to bring those issues out into the open. Muslim women have enough problems and if you want to learn about those, talk to them. Believe me, Sarkozy or any other European politician is not going to be delivering liberation for Muslim women.
What are your thoughts about the various reactions in the media to the news that an Arab-American had won the Miss USA title?
I wrote about it on my blog. I think it exposed the public’s discomfort with Arab-Americans, the widespread belief that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim and that all Muslim women are burqa-clad. But it also exposed how Muslim women are being defined by what they wear or don’t wear: It’s scandalous if they’re in a bikini, it’s scandalous if they’re in a burqa. Rima Fakih’s case was a reminder of the diversity of backgrounds Americans come from. Miss America does not always need to be a blond with blue eyes. The ignorance around Fakih’s win, and the media’s reflection of it, was depressing to be honest. We should be much farther along than we are when it comes to this conversation about identity.
South Asia has a long history of women in politics, yet it is a place where women are far from being treated equally; can you explain this paradox?
It is a huge paradox. Basically in South Asia, an important male link will get you very far: if you’re somebody’s daughter, wife, sister etc. You just need one powerful male link and doors swing open for you. I always say sexism exists in every country, in every society. It’s just systematized differently. This is an example of how it is systematized in the Sub-Continent and it is especially evident in South Asian politics. Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia all were able to enter politics and build their dynasties because of their male links. They did not necessarily do much either for women’s rights once they got into power.
Look at Bangladesh. Our last two Prime Ministers were women; our current Prime Minister is a woman. But that does not necessarily mean great things for women’s rights. Sadly, it means very little. Then look at America. Everyone thinks women have it great here, but you still don’t have equal rights. The ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) failed in 1973. And equal pay? American women are still fighting for it. It goes to show, around the world the struggle for liberation, true liberation for women continues. Nowhere in the world have women achieved equality. Though I must say, we have a lot to learn from our Scandinavian friends!
A few weeks ago when the report on the UN investigation of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination came out, you wrote that Bhutto was “a powerful symbol for women in South Asia.” How would have things been different for Pakistan and for Pakistani women if she had not been assassinated?
I do not want to make Benazir out to be some great feminist icon because she was far from it. Let’s not forget under her Government, Pakistan became one of the first countries in the world to recognize the Taliban. But I do think she was a very powerful symbol to women and girls around the world just for imparting the message, “Look where you can be, look at what you can achieve,” especially for young girls in South Asia, to give the message that the political realm is not out of their reach.
After her return to Pakistan in 2007, I thought that to have such a vocal opponent of the Islamist movement in Pakistan be a Muslim woman was bold and fearless in itself. Pakistan and Pakistani women have lost a powerful voice- as controversial as that voice may have been.
According to UN statistics, Bangladesh ranks fourth among the world’s nations with respect to violence against women. Do you think that this problem is being addressed adequately?
The civil society sector and the women’s rights movement in Bangladesh are very vibrant and very active. They have done an excellent job in exposing issues of violence against women such as acid burning, a horrific practice in Bangladesh, and placing those issues on the international stage. But Bangladesh’s Government needs to do more, and unfortunately as Islamic extremism rises in the country and the security situation continues to deteriorate, a lot of factors are contributing to a rise and spread in violence against women.
How active are women’s groups in Bangladesh? What are some of the issues they focus on? What are the obstacles they face?
They are very active and they are very established. I think one of the greatest obstacles they currently face are the rise of Islamic extremism in the country and a legal system that needs to be strengthened and do a better job in protecting women’s rights. You know, because we don’t really have law and order in the country, and because the Government is so unstable this can bring on a whole host of issues for women, namely their security, in addition to issues of women’s health and breaking down barriers to adequate reproductive healthcare. Fortunately, we have a great civil society sector without which- I think it’s safe to say, Bangladesh would be lost.
Do you think that US foreign policy under the Obama administration has a more positive impact on women in developing countries? In what areas would you like to see improvements?
Yes, I do…after eight years of Bush! Ha, but seriously yes, Obama has done a lot already in terms of US policy: Lifting the Global Gag Rule (Mexico City Policy), reinstating US funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), creating the White House Council for Women and Girls and the Office of Global Women’s Affairs. But there needs to be more. There always needs to be more and it needs to go beyond words, beyond policy formulated in the fancy halls of Congress.
The Feminist Majority Foundation has taken the position that it does not support a US pull out of Afghanistan because that would endanger women and children in that country. Do you agree with their position?
I want to make it very clear that my blog is not reflective of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s views, and that I do not speak for them. I do however agree with their position on Afghanistan. I know it’s controversial but that is because people think we are supporting US military activities in Afghanistan. That is not the case. Of course we understand the impact war has on the lives of women and girls.
Our position is about holding the US accountable to the promises they made to Afghan women, how their plight was exploited to justify the US Invasion. Now women and girls remain far from the agenda when it comes to formulating US policy for Afghanistan when they should be a priority. It is very easy to want a full pullout and call it a day in Afghanistan. It’s very easy to walk away. But no one is talking about an alternative to the US leaving. Where is the Marshall Plan that the US promised to Afghanistan? To Afghan women? The Feminist Majority Foundation is asking the US to be accountable for what they said they would do, and I think that is the right thing to do.