In Dhaka, dissidence "on the move"
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Mahajabin Khan is an ordinary young woman who lives and works in Dhaka, and stays true to her passion - painting. Since 2015, she has been riding her motorcycle through this hustle and bustle city from south to north, despite the stunned, malevolent looks of the locals. In Bangladesh, riding a motorcycle is strictly a male thing and women are not welcomed to share the road. Mahajabin told us how her solitary struggle became a real challenge to the whole society of her country.
What does it mean to be a woman in Bangladesh?
In our society, roles are divided between men and women. Women's space is centered around the home, even though they are often brilliant in their studies. Families try to give the best education to their daughters but so that they can marry well. Those who work, usually have to stop fairly quickly because of societal, family or even sometimes employer pressure not to give them maternity leave. Cultural and religious beliefs persist that women should stay at home and take care of their families. In addition, society expects a family to have at least one son. In my family, I was the third and last child. Despite the disappointment of some, my father did everything he could to ensure that his three daughters would succeed in life. I don't know if there is any reason why my parents were so open-minded, but they were convinced that education is the most important thing. When the time for marriage came very early in Bangladesh, I ran away! Because I was dreaming of something else. A bicycle !
How did cycling become your first expression of resistance?
You have to understand that in Bangladesh, it's only boys who ride bikes. Bicycles are a man's thing. I begged my cousin to lend me his bike and I taught myself how to make turns. My father categorically refused to buy me one, under the pretext that it is dangerous for a girl. Now I regret not asking the question "why is it dangerous for a girl to ride a bike?" All my requests were in vain, even when I joined the University. I was causing a lot of trouble for my family at that time. To go to class, I often borrowed a friend's bike, but there were only two or three girls on campus who rode. This was another argument for my father, who didn't understand why I didn't take public transportation like all the normal girls. I gave up trying to make him understand, got a job and with my first savings bought my own bike! I still remember that day, it was in 2012. You have to imagine that feeling of freedom, I almost cried with happiness when I got home that night.
Riding a motorcycle is a prohibited practice?
A few years later, I changed jobs and my new office was on the other side of town. My bike was no longer serving its purpose, so I spent my life in traffic jams, making 12 km in 1h30 in crowded buses. On top of that, many women in Dhaka face harassment in public transport. This was the tipping point. If I can ride a bike, why not ride a motorcycle? Thanks to my partner's support, I was able to buy a brand new bike. But in doing that I touched something very important and forbidden.
That's when the insults, comments about my looks or my clothes started to pour in. "What's your price? Do you use oil or gas? ". On the road, I was bullied, buses came close to my bike to knock me down or make me wobble. And this happened to me many times. People were looking for me to fail. Where does this hostility from men come from, why? I started to hide under a bunch of scarves to draw less attention until one day I realized that the problem was not me, but them.
Challenge accepted ?
Six years ago, out of 200 motorcycles driven by men, I was the only woman. Their eyes were on me, they were heavy and embarrassing, but I had the right to be there too. Whether they liked it or not, I told myself that I would not give up. First - by myself, and then maybe we will be two or three. The numbers are ridiculous, but it's a real breakthrough and I think other women will get involved. I get a lot of encouragement from women on the bus or on the sidewalk, they wave at me in support. It gives me strength to continue. Men also change their perception. One day on the road, I overheard a man talking to his daughter sitting in the back seat, "One day, my daughter, you'll be as grown up as this lady and you'll be driving a motorcycle too! - Is that true, Daddy? - And why not! ".
Interviewed by Maryna Shcherbyna
Check out other paintings of Mahajabin: https://sites.google.com/view/mahajabin-khan/contents/sketches-and-paintings