Bangladeshi conviction

One of the most significant impressions I took away from the time I spent in Bangladesh is the giant divide between the silence of young girls and the brilliant, almost piercing voices of older women who have been empowered. For the first few days the contrast left me disoriented until over and over again I witnessed just how patriarchal their culture still is.

In 2000, about 50% of women in Bangladesh were married by the time they were 15 years old, and in 2003 the average age of marriage was 16. Many of them immediately become pregnant (adolescent girls are five times more likely to be injured in childbirth). Many of them don’t finish school. Many of them do not know that they can change their future.

Our days in Bangladesh were packed and frenzied. We usually climbed into our van by 7 AM and did not finish our day until 11 PM. We visited slums, villages, hospitals, clinics. It was really easy to get discouraged by what I saw, because the poverty stretches out and does not ever stop. And we met many teenage women living in villages who were pregnant with their second, maybe third child.

The highlight of the trip for me happened on our third day when two women who work for BRAC took us outside of the city to see a girls program called SoFEA (Social and Financial Empowerment of Adolescents). We met with a dozen or so girls in a village, all between the ages of 11 to 18, who have a building where they can gather every day for a couple of hours to work on projects, perfect skills that can land them jobs, and learn that they have options. That they can delay marriage. That they can finish school.

One girl spoke up and said she wanted to run a beauty shop. Another wanted to work with computers. And then another coyly mentioned that she’d love to be a model.

For the first time on our trip I saw hope in a young girl’s eyes.

It was also the first time I heard a young girl speak with what I will call Bangladeshi conviction. Just imagine 150 million people — that’s half of the population of America — all crammed into a space the size of Iowa. They have to stake their place, and the conditions in which they do have given them a strength I can only aspire to.

So when you’re having a conversation with someone, they will be heard. You will listen. Especially if that someone is an educated woman.

On our final day we got stuck in infamous Dhaka traffic for almost five hours and ended up being several hours late to an appointment we had to meet with The Family Planning Association of Bangladesh, a member of International Planned Parenthood Foundation. Once we arrived we toured the facilities and then were shown to a packed room where over two dozen women were waiting to speak with us. They had waited for us, and they were ready to talk.

All these women are volunteers who work tirelessly in their community to educate women about family planning, and all of them had that Bangladeshi conviction. Especially a few of the women in the front of the group who were so eager to share their message with us that they frequently yelled over each other. Why do they do this without compensation? Because the work is so important to them. Because they had been given the chance at a better life and wanted to pay that forward.

I don’t know how many of you saw the skirmish that played out this week between me and a journalist who implied that I was a “poverty tourist,” and that Christy had given me a free trip to an exotic country. Yes, we were popping back martinis and assuaging our white guilt by feeling really sorry for the poor people. That journalist quoted my website and twitter feed, so she could have contacted me and asked about my trip without publishing assumptions or implying that my trip was ultimately meaningless.

The truth is that I paid my own expenses. The truth is that this is just the beginning for me, and I plan to get more involved wherever I can, wherever it is the best place for me to get involved. If a reputable organization wants to use me, I am here for the using.

And then a certain blogger who has been antagonizing me and members of my online community for years jumped in and started mocking my intentions. She started publishing false assumptions. And when I saw the language she was using, the flippant way she wanted to wave this off and turn it into something ugly, I had an imaginary conversation with those women sitting at that family planning clinic in Dhaka.

You see, yes, a corporation wants to work with me to give a large sum of money to an organization like the one you volunteer for. Yes, someone is making fun of me over this, publicly, and inciting others to make fun of it. What? No, I can’t say anything. Because I have to take the high road. It’s an unwritten code of conduct that I and many of my colleagues cannot stand up for ourselves. We have to remain silent and take it because they have the “right” to publish lies and twisted assumptions about us because we are semi-public figures. If we do say anything, if we ask those people to stop lying, to stop spreading their parasitic negativity, then we are the ones who are wrong.

And I can guarantee that if I really did speak Bangla, those women would tell me that this is the most insane thing they have ever heard. How desperately the women in their community would like to have the luxury and privilege of standing up for themselves.

So I stood up for myself. I stood up for the other women in my community who have had to be silent when their name and causes were mocked mercilessly. I stood up because it’s not just a luxury and a privilege anymore. After meeting those brave women in Bangladesh, it’s now a duty.

So, no. In so many ways, this trip was not meaningless.

  • healthtwisty

    Heather,

    I am just catching up with this excellent adventure. First of all, how wonderful that you are using your sizable platform to bring about awareness of an important issue. You can do a lot of good.

    As someone who has worked in international public health for years on vaccination issues (in many resource-poor countries, such as Cambodia, Thailand, Brazil, Panama, Colombia, etc), I understand the politics involved and what you have experienced from a reporter and a blogger is par for the course. There will always be people who question your motives, including, sadly, other members of the non-profit or government aid community who are fighting for the same slim resources.

    I offer the following as suggestions based on my 20+ years in public health. They are intended only in the spirit of helpfulness to further your goals:

    * To quiet your critics, perhaps you could put a badge or a button on your blog that would direct interested individuals to the organization(s) you support and therefore make it easy for your readers to donate money or learn more about the issue? That is taking “awareness” to the next level of “action.” A badge or button is longer-lasting than a link in a blog entry.

    *As you move more into community service (I dislike the term “charity” as it implies one-way giving rather than mutual problem solving), I wonder if perhaps you could add a branding element to the posts related to such activities to give them a separate identity from your posts about your life. For example “Dooce in the Community.” It is sort of bewildering to read about your trip to Bangladesh, then abruptly see a photo of Chuck or read a snippet of your life in the US.

    * Did you have the opportunity to interview women? Doctors? Politicians? Personal stories that exemplify the challenges, opportunities, and successes of the issue are a fine way to show rather than tell.

    Best wishes as you continue on this path,
    Amy at http://www.healthtwisty.blogspot.com

  • lisdom

    I don’t have much to add other than that I am glad you are standing up for yourself, and standing up for those who can’t.

  • ladygray

    Heather-

    Well done. Thank you for standing up for yourself and your colleagues. Thank you for reminding me that we can be strong women who defend themselves – and that this does NOT make any of us a”bitch” – as much as society tries to make us feel otherwise.

  • Shanti

    I am surely not saying anything you do not already know, but in the same way that resistance comes with change and opposition comes with the territory of taking meaningful action, dirt-throwing comes with the territory of being a public persona. It is nearly a law of nature that there is a downside to every upside, and you know the upside: the ability to bring awareness, to take meaningful action, and the potential to help bring about meaningful change.

    (My two cents: I think it would have been a good idea to give your readers an option to contribute to the cause in some way, at the bottom of the very first post you wrote about your trip.Awareness without an outlet can be a frustrating thing. Donation links to one or two of the organizations whose work you personally saw and approve of, that sort of thing.)

    Compared with daily strife of the kind you saw in Bangladesh, the grief you just went through is of a bearable kind. Right there is a high road. One of them. Want more? Measure the results of your actions against the actions of dirt-tossers. Thanks to you, roughly three million people have insight into the lives of Bangladeshi women, and as you said, you are not stopping there. Who besides Viele has benefitted from the recent actions of Viele?

    Having said that, there will likely be a day when you will make a mistake, one that no apology can remedy, and the vultures will have a feast. This too is a part of being human, and what matters then is which way the scale tips in the big picture: have you caused more good or harm? The instances when the scale tipped to the wrong side, what was your intention, and how hard did you try to keep the right balance?

    At the end of the day it is you who is the judge and jury measuring the ethics of what you do. If you look into the mirror and respect what you see, if you know in your heart of hearts that you are giving your best to do the right thing, any dirt thrown will wash off.

  • PeggyMomma

    I liked the very first comment…so nice to have a man to stick up for you and admire you. If you want to give me the names of the trouble makers, I will bitch-slap ‘em for you! You go, girl

  • Doughball

    Dooce, YOU ROCK. It is too bad some people can’t be supportive and encouraging, especially when it comes to such a worthy cause. Don’t let the haters get you down.

  • mrscunning14

    Why are people such a-holes? I think you’re fantastic, and what you’re doing is incredible. Screw them!!

  • oddFrogg

    So now the haters think spending time raising awareness and much needed dollars for a worthy charitable cause is a bad thing?!? Really.

    Do not give them a second thought. Quite simply, what you are doing is beautiful. They envy your power. Continue to stand in your power. Keep on keepin’ on.

  • Laura B

    Saying you’re a “poverty tourist” or that this doesn’t make a difference is just a cop out. These critics are just people who feel guilty for what they could be doing and aren’t, and they’re trying to project that onto you. There’s an old saying in Judaism, by Rabbi Tarfon, “We cannot complete the work; neither are we free to desist from it.”
    Thank you for doing such a large and important and visible part.

  • LaurieML

    Having lived in ‘developing’ countries, working in international development and seeing firsthand what happens when women don’t have access to birth control or prenatal care, I was very excited to see you go to Bangladesh. And the fact that you were going with Christy Turlington was even better. I have seen her speak about every mother counts in Washington and I walked away feeling inspired (and wondering how it was possible to have such perfect bone structure).

    What impressed me the most when I heard Christy Speak was how knowledgeable she was about what she was talking about. She didn’t use her celebrity at face value to promote worthwhile causes (like being the ‘face’ of some cause or organization without doing much else). She’s used her celebrity as a base to bring attention to a huge problem, and is devoting a lot of her time and money to the cause, which I really respect–particularly as I’m so close to the issue.

    Sorry, I’m rambling. To make a long story short I might have questioned the trip had it not been with Every Mother Counts or another charity that I know is reputable. But you’re clearly trying to do something good here, and I think you will. Just think of all the donations to planned parenthood or some of the charities you mentioned as a result of your post, and how many lives that could save. It seems crazy that someone would question your motives and the sponsorship of your post–I mean, who doesn’t like giving money to charity? And if big corporations are going to do it…then even better!

  • carawahlgren

    I don’t understand why anyone would want to mock you for this work you’re doing. O.K. They don’t like you, whatever, but by mocking you for this it feels to me like they are also saying they don’t give a shit about these women you are trying to help. What a bummer.

  • Aristotle was not Belgian

    “There is, however, a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue.” – Edmund Burke

    Hoo-rah for standing up for yourself! I took a quick glance just now at that Vile woman’s twitter feed. Yes, I deliberately misspelled her name; first, because it is funneh, and second, so this post won’t come up on a Google search and feed her insatiable narcissism. Considering that you have approximately 5000x the number of followers than she does, I take that as heartwarming proof that the vast majority of people on the interwebs despise haters like her. And, because I like symmetry, I will end with another Burke quote:

    “It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the publick to be the most anxious for its welfare.”

    Keep up the good work!

  • kristinkaminski

    Like everyone else I am dumbfounded by the things that were said about your trip. ABSOFUCKINLUTELY RIDICULOUS! And that’s really all I can say about it. You’re amazing. You know it. We know it. the end.

  • maureenp

    I was bullied, brutally, throughout my childhood. I was told by everyone, and primarily my family, to “just ignore it.” It never worked. Silence never worked, either to stop the abuse or to make me feel better. The only thing that helped was finally speaking up and showing my bully that I had voice and strength enough to care about what was happening–even if it was just me, the person who appeared to be the easy target in the first place. Silence isn’t an option when you are attacked wrongfully and are desperately trying to save yourself–online or off.

  • Maggles

    Oh @dooce and @jon. Love to y’all.

  • the sooz

    What an eye opening trip to be able to take. I hope that with your connections you are able to really help make a difference in womens lives in Bangladesh. I know you will do your best.

    As far as the cheap shot incident is concerned, don’t let it distract you. I’m not sure why some people decide that they need to say everything that is on their mind, especially the negative things. When we respond to it, it lets them know they have struck a nerve and it gives them a sort of power to suck our energy. The more we defend ourselves to our detractors, the more fuel it adds to their fire. Fuhgedaboutit. Why give them what they want; our precious time and energy? As your mission is sucessful, and you post here the things you have been able to contribute, it’ll be rebuttal enough.

  • TheycallmePro

    Heather,

    I have been reading your blog since, well…since you were VERY pregnant with Marlo. Many times, you have made me laugh, cry, blush with embarrassment on either your behalf or your father’s. On a near daily basis (please note: “near daily”), because of you, I am excited for the day that I get the privilege of having children…thank you for sharing your children’s childhood with everyone. I think you and Jon got it right.

    After more than two years of reading your blog religiously, this post is the first time that I’ve felt compelled to write a comment.

    I admire you tremendously for your courage in standing up for yourself, for speaking up for those women and their cause…because in most cases, they can’t do it for themselves. As you mentioned, there is little more than I feel I can do for these women than to spread the word. After reading about Christy’s intiative with “Every Mother Counts,” I looked it up on Facebook and “liked” the page. After that, many of my friends did the same and it warms my heart to see the occasional “Susie Q likes ‘Every Mother Counts’.” Fabulous. My hope is, just as you’re doing but on a much smaller scale, to raise awareness and that hopefully someday, someone who has the funds and the AMERICAN CONVICTION to really ACTUALLY make a difference in these Bangladeshi women’s lives, will do just that.

    Thank you for being SUCH an inspiration. I think you are simply amazing.

    Pro

  • Totah Sam

    Haters are gonna hate. Fuck ‘em Heather. You’re doing a wonderful thing and no one can take that away from you.

    We all love you dearly. :)

  • Arcinian

    Do these women have these choices though? I imagine that if they did more of them would make them. Being isolated from a community frequently means even more extreme poverty and death so not all actions are options. What are the pressures they are facing to marry at 14/5/6? What are the strategies that work against those pressures? I’d be interested if the women you spoke with who are advocating so passionately for the organization have better outcomes in their own families – do their daughters on average marry later, do they and their daughters have fewer childbirth fatalities?

    I’m really looking forward to more in this series. It’s very good to see the Bangladeshi women organizing and driving to change aspect of their own community.

  • Ezza

    You have a strong voice and a big audience, you are using it to bring attention to something you care about.

    If people chose to believe the trip is some sort of cultural voyuerism (an all expenses paid trip to poverty stricken Bangladesh! Woo!)then let them have their opinions. Bitches be jealous.

    Stick to the courage of your convictions. In the public eye there will always be people trying to undermine you and pull you down. You are not a political figure, nobody voted for you, if you want to go to Bangladesh you can go to fucking Bangladesh and they can go smoke a fatty.

  • marnilla

    Thank you for doing this.

    I know this is not the place to post this (I tried to post in the Dooce Community, but couldn’t figure out how)but I know you are interested in this, and I thought it was a powerful message I wanted to share as widely as possible:

    http://www.thatvideosite.com/video/dear_16yearold_me

  • notcrazyunwell

    you are an inspiration. in so many ways. you’re succesful at what you do which doesn’t automatically make it less valuable. you rock. rock on.

    xoxo from germany!

  • slappyintheface

    This is exactly why, as women, we need to educate our daughters about women’s issues such as this … so that we can light a candle and our daughters can continue the flame. I have the attitude that we should work on the issues in our own back yards and then spread from there. There are so many girls in my town who are in abusive relationships and nobody seems to think that that is a problem. When will it end? This stuff happens everywhere. Why haven’t we as a human race evolved past this?

  • misheru

    My question for people like this is: what are they doing? Are they tirelessly working to fix something wrong in this world? Or are they gathering dollars by mocking someone who has made a step outside the comfortable world of the United States to see what is out there?

    It is easy to tear down, to criticize. It is hard, so very hard, to build something, to make better. To fix something broken.

    Their job is easy. Your job is hard. Best to give them the finger, pick up a wrench, and fix what’s broken. At the end of the day, you get the satisfaction of having created a solution, and what do they get?

    Nothing.

  • micmacker

    Hooray, Heather!

  • ChristinaVIV

    Dear Heather,
    I started reading your blog a few months ago and began with 2007 until today. I live in Peru, South America and see first hand what lack of education,healthcare and no separation between church and state can do to women in a country. Because the Catholic church is so involved in politics here teaching birth control or handing out free birth control is frowned upon and not allowed in most goverment run facilites. Bringing awareness to countries like ours, helping other organizations donate time and money for education and medical supplies is crucial.
    When I gave birth a year ago I donated my extra breast milk to an orphanage that only takes in babies with tuberculosis. People around me were livid that I could somehow endanger my child by helping another. I felt that all I was doing was trying to keep another alive with the tiniest bit of help. I got alot of shit for that and I don’t regret it one bit!
    I believe in what you are doing and support you 100%. “Poverty tourism” my ass. Good for you for standing up for yourself.
    Much love

  • karmadarling

    I guess I just wish that these distractions were not there, for you and for these women.

    And for me too. I love your writing, your work, and I really hate that now the attention is on this feud and some other article. Please try to put yourself back into that place when you were just landing back home, ready to write, ready to tell us all what you think might help.

  • Tracye

    People should travel more, it will open your eyes to many, many, things and change the way you deal with others and yourself.

    Being charitable is noble, changing the way people view others that are not as fortunate as some is even a greater goal.

    I say just do your thing. This is your journey and you can’t expect everyone to be on the same page as you. And why should you? How boring would that be if everyone thought just like you? Where’s the excitement in that?

    Most people view negativity as an obstacle but it’s just a nudge to keep you on your path. This planet needs a lot of work and you can’t stop and get pissed at everyone that picks apart what you’re doing on your journey or you’d never do anything.

    Just do you Heather.

    Everyone has a role to play.

    Don’t get upset because more people are discovering you and writing articles about you and your community so that you can get more…popular because then you can do more with that popularity ;)

    Everything happens for a reason.

    Don’t hate the haters, they are pushing you to where you need to be and from where I’m sitting, your future looks bright.

    Pssst! Your pictures are beautiful btw…carry on.

  • LillyO

    I was proud of you holding your line last week. Knowing the “saucy” you, I expected it. However, it never occurred to me you might be doing it IN HONOR OF those who couldn’t. Now, I am even MORE proud…but since, as a mindless follower of yours, I don’t have a brain and I can’t quite form the words to explain myself. ;oD

  • sherylwx4

    Dooce, I think people who don’t “do” but know they “should” give the most flack. Know that when your reading the stupidity that some will write, that your actually reading their guilty concience.
    I’ve traveled and lived extensivly around the world and every time my husband and I came back to the states there were always ignorant people that have their ignorant narrow minded views.
    My hope is that you follow your heart and don’t let this get into a “political pissing contest” because that will degrade it completly…
    Do what you think is right and everything else will fall in place and the trolls screeching will be squashed by you DOING.

  • greenkat

    This brouhaha proves your outstanding courage/stren gth/popularity/integrity and influence. I love this project of yours and you have every right to travel and post about it even if it were “tourism something-or-other” as the Guardian puts it. I didn’t read the Guardian piece because I don’t have to. I appreciate your authentic commitment to helping women overcome horrible conditions in places that I had no idea about, and have no influence to be able to help. Keep it up and ignore the bastards.

  • cipsi

    Keep on, keepin’ on, Heather!

    Love your site, the community, and everything you do.

  • rockandrollmama

    BADASS.

    The Bangledeshi conviction and your own.

    It’s one thing to take the high road, it’s another to let methy truck drivers run over you. I think you toed a nice middle ground this week, and offer the most solemn yet effusive of high fives.

  • not an only child

    You go, girl. Thank you for putting yourself out there and doing the right thing.

  • Tme

    you go girl! I can’t wait to hear more about your trip. I have two young daughters as well and I would love to know what you’ve told your girls about your trip and the work you are doing.