Anushay Hossain began her feminist career as an intern in her native country, Bangladesh, at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) where she worked on microfinance and primary education programs for women and girls. As global programs director for the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), Anushay analyzes the effect of U.S. foreign policy on the health and rights of women and girls around the world. She started her own blog, Anushay’s Point, in 2009, and her writing has been regularly featured in The Huffington Post, Feministing, Ms. Blog, Washington Examiner, The World Bank Blog and NPR.
I’ve noticed you write a lot about women in South Asian nations, Bangladesh in particular.
It comes from me being from Bangladesh, but it also comes from me believing that there are not enough stories on issues of global women’s rights out there, and when there are they come from this condescending view of, “Look how backward this poor, brown country is.” Who is defining these countries as “poor,” “disenfranchised,” or “developing”? I can’t stand those labels. It is offensive and incorrect to a large degree. These countries and cultures are so old and rich–like India, for example. We have so much to learn from their history and leadership. Almost every single South Asian country has had a woman as their head of state, something America still hasn’t managed to make happen.
That was one of the reasons why I started my own blog: Our feminism in a sense is different because we are fighting for different things, different rights, but at the same time all women are still fighting for equal rights. I want to show this struggle, to expose it and somehow unite women’s movements globally. Our stories need to be told from our own voices and not have someone else define the narrative.
And you write for a lot of blogs …
I love blogging. I never ever thought I would say that. When that word first came out in our everyday vocabulary I couldn’t stand it. It sounded like some kind of animal or something, you know? But the more I spoke with my friends and shared my frustration about the representation of global women’s rights in Western media, the more they pushed me to start my own blog. I thought, “I don’t think the world needs another blog!” But I’m so glad I started this venture and so happy I started blogging. It’s such a fast and powerful way to put yourself and your ideas out there. Anushay’s Point, has given me a voice that I had no idea people would listen to. It wasn’t my plan or intention to end up on so many blogs, but that is what this world is about. You start one, write for one, contribute to another and you start to get cross-posted. The blogosphere is very reciprocal.
I think that the positive [aspects of blogging] outweigh the negative, but the negative comes from just putting yourself out there. It is part of the territory. I always try to put part of myself in my writing and recently I shared my experience of getting married. A lot of people who commented on the piece wrote things like, “That’s not a feminist wedding, what is she talking about? She is not a feminist.” It was so hard to read and it really hurt me. Sometimes they’re harsh or completely miss the point of what you’re trying to say. It’s difficult not to take people‘s reactions personally when what you’re writing about is something personal. But it is a learning process; It comes with the territory. I am still developing that thick skin.
What kinds of projects do you work on at FMF?
A large part of my job is analyzing the impact of U.S. foreign policy on the health and rights of women around the world and developing programs and actions around that. We lobby for legislation both domestically and globally that fights for and protects women’s rights, such as advocating to increase U.S. assistance to international family planning and to permanently repeal U.S. policies such as the Global Gag Rule. I am also responsible for integrating our global programs into our Campus Program, which is the largest pro-choice student network in the world. This month, I just wrapped up a year-long research study tracking U.S. funding to global health programs in Bangladesh and South Africa, and now we are beginning the next phase of this study [tracking] two other South Asian and African countries.
How does the feminist movement in Bangladesh feel different from the feminist movements in the United States?
I think their priorities are very different. In Bangladesh we have great laws for women, but with high illiteracy and poverty rates the legal system remains out of reach for the majority of the population, especially women and girls. The women’s movement has done a remarkable job in exposing the epidemic of violence against women in Bangladesh–issues like acid burning, child marriage, rape. They have also managed huge victories fighting off the country’s Islamic fundamentalist groups who have been trying to creep their beliefs into the country’s judiciary and legal systems. Last month, the High Court of Bangladesh restored the country’s secular constitution and stated that no one could be forced to wear religious clothing like burqas. In a country where Islamic extremism has slowly but steadily been rising over the past decade, this was a huge victory and one that could not have been won without the country’s women’s groups.
How did you become a feminist?
My mom was and still is a really big feminist. She was involved with the feminist movement in Bangladesh and was a member of Parliament. When I was growing up she was always dragging me to all these feminist events. I used to really hate it, but now I think it was so critical in shaping who I am today. My mother showed me from an early age how difficult it is to access education and health care for the majority of women and girls in Bangladesh. This had a profound impact on the development of my own feminist conscience. I think I’ve been a feminist all my life, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I started to articulate it.
Do any of the feminist events that your mom dragged you to particularly stand out in your mind?
We have a huge issue in Bangladesh over sex workers and their rights, or lack thereof. Brothels are legal in the country if you have a license, but many of them do not, and periodically police would go in and set fire to the slums where many of these brothels were. The women would have nowhere to go and the number of sex workers on the main roads increased significantly. Many of these prostitutes were being raped and mutilated–horrific acts of physical and sexual violence inflicted on them by the police. Because these women were prostitutes in a Muslim country, no women’s rights groups wanted to touch the issue. Mom gave a landmark speech in Parliament not only calling out the role the police played in exploiting and abusing these women. She brought the issue out into the open and into the mainstream press. I got to see her deliver this speech. And I will never forget when she had a group of these women over to our house and one of them told her that my mom was the first person to ever treat her like a human being and inform her that she had rights.
Here are some of Anushay’s latest posts on the Ms. Blog: My Big Fat Feminist Wedding, United Arab Emirates: Where It’s Okay to Beat Your Wife and Kids, Zulu Tradition Fuels Virginity Myths in South Africa