According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2018, Bangladesh has made great strides when it comes to women's empowerment. The country currently ranks 48th — far ahead of neighboring South Asian countries — but the indices do not reflect the overall condition of women in Bangladesh, who often face obstacles both inside and outside the home.
The country's conservative, patriarchal society still deters and discourages women from stepping out of the house on their own, whether for work or just for a short walk. Despite such challenges, a group of Bangladeshi women, co-founded by doctors Sakia Haque and Manashi Saha, vowed to travel (by motorbike, no less!) to each of the country's 64 districts in order to educate young women about their own potential.
The scope of their tour was always broader than just visiting places. Apart from learning about the natural attractions, culture and food of each new district, they visited many girls’ schools, offering free medical advice on reproductive health and puberty, and talking about ways in which women can empower themselves. In Bangladesh, discussing “female” issues like menstruation and reproductive health is considered taboo — Bangladesh is yet to effectively roll out sex education at the high school level — and as a result, many girls endure different types of physical problems that could otherwise be prevented, or at least better managed.
Haque's novel idea was supported by a number of her friends, who dubbed the initiative “Bangladesh through the eyes of women”. Although Haque and Saha have traveled to all 64 districts individually, they will complete visiting them as a team in the coming months (they already have 57 districts under their belt). By talking about various topics and sharing tales of their travels, the group tries to awaken the schoolgirls’ spirit of adventure in the hope that they might be able to break the shackles of conservative society.
The group has also created a website and Facebook page, Travelettes Of Bangladesh. So far, 28 thousand people have joined the page and the group has arranged a number of tours with members. Via Facebook Messenger, Global Voices talked with Haque about her group's travels and its mission to empower young women in Bangladesh.
Global Voices (GV): Where did you come up with the idea of traveling to all the districts of Bangladesh — and to do it by riding on motorcycles in such a conservative country?
Sakia Haque (SH): My dream to travel across the country started from early childhood. Back then, there was no opportunity for girls like me. Nobody would accept that a girl from a conservative family would travel alone. I got the opportunity when I came to study in the medical college [Sakia works at the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital, one of the premier hospitals in Bangladesh]. I found that friends used to brag about traveling to foreign countries, [about] how beautiful they were! But I was more interested in traveling around my own country first.
I visited a few foreign countries and saw girls and women riding scooters, going to study or work. But in our country, even a girl riding a bike is seen differently. So I decided that I would do my traveling on a motorcycle.
GV: Tourism is on the rise in the country. Women are also traveling in increasing numbers. From your experience, how safe is Bangladesh for a woman traveler?
SH: I would not say that Bangladesh is absolutely safe for women travelers; that any girl can travel anywhere without giving much thought about safety. There are many areas in the country which are still conservative and girls can face challenges. They do not want to accept that a girl is traveling alone, but if she is a little cautious, or can contact a local in advance to gather information, things become easy for her. I started traveling alone from the time I started college. I preferred to stay in other medical college dorms whenever I traveled. Now, I pick the government circuit houses [accommodations for traveling government officials] for overnight stays, as this is safer for woman travelers.
GV: What kind of obstacles have you faced during your travels?
SH: I suffered eve teasing [street harassment] in a few places. I did not care about all that. If I would have bothered, I could not go further.
GV: Wherever you went, you visited schools and discussed issues like reproductive health. Tell us about this effort.
SH: As a medical professional, I know that many women in our country do not know about reproductive health and hygiene. They think menstruation is a taboo topic. The motto of our Travelettes of Bangladesh group is to achieve the empowerment of women through travel, so we chose to disseminate information about these topics and help local girls to raise their voices, come out of their homes, speak out and see the beauty of our country through their own eyes.
GV: What kind of response are you getting via the Facebook group?
SH: We started the Facebook group in November 2016 with the goal of encouraging the women of Bangladesh to travel more. We got a lot of responses from women across the country. Girls of different ages want to travel with us and tell us about their challenges. We have already completed several successful tours with interested girls.
In 2017, the Travelettes of Bangladesh organized the country's first travel photography exhibition. We also won the Joy Bangla Youth Award 2019 and were invited by Marina Mahathir [daughter of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad], to present our works in Malaysia. Our co-founder, Manasi Saha, is traveling to India to participate in the 2019 Global Platform for Women Leadership, at which she will highlight the work of the Travelletes — so we can say that we are getting a great response from both inside and outside the country.
Sakia Haque wants to travel far and women's empowerment is not the only thing she hopes to explore along the journey — she also wants to devote herself to human welfare. You can check out the album of her travels across Bangladesh here.