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Bonhishikha - unlearning gender

Interview of the founder, Tasaffy Hossain, by Farhana Shahnaz.

How and why was the concept of “Bonhishikha - unlearn gender” conceived? What was your inspiration behind it? The Vagina Monologues – that is where it started. We started putting together the theatre production of The Vagina Monologues in January 2010; and slowly expanded its reach into different parts of Dhaka, and opened it to the larger public. This led us to create a space where a lot of the usually unspoken issues around gender became part of our discussions. That is what inspired us to realize how this space was missing for most of us in Dhaka, and how opening it up meant providing young people a platform for discourse, discussion and debates.

In what ways do you hope to minimize gender inequality?A big part of gender inequality, discrimination and relationship dynamics is actually based on our internalized socialization of gender. We hope that by using regular experiences based on real stories, we can help to highlight how gendering plays a role on how we struggle with our own identities, and also judging others using our gendered scale.

What are the main activities of Bonhishikha? What kinds of events do you hold?We largely use theatre as our means of communicating issues/concepts about gender stereotypes, roles, and breaking gender norms for both women and men. We hold regular theatre productions showcasing stories of real-life incidents and stories collected from women and girls, men and boys from around Dhaka. “It’s a SHE Thing”, “Nari Nokkhottro”, “Men Don’t TALK”, and “SHE said HE said” are the different performances that take place on their own, or in collaboration with other organizations to bring different issues to the spotlight, and breaking the silence around many gendered topics like violence, stereotypes, sexuality, etc.

Why do you think it is important to build a platform that addresses gender inequality?Gender inequality is much more than the commonly referred to issues of domestic violence, physical harassment and wage gap. Gender inequality also addresses issues of power dynamics, privilege and subtle internalized inequalities that affect our daily lives. To change these perceptions and behaviours, it is impertinent to bring these issues out in the open and carry on conversations around them. Gendering is a core aspect to each and every man and woman, and breaking old habits takes conscious work from within ourselves. The more we question ourselves, the closer we get to break the gendered norms, and open, safe platforms help to have those conversations.

On a broader scale, what do you hope to achieve through your work?Tolerance and acceptance - gender creates a norm that boys/girls/men/women are required to fit into. These roles and stereotypes constrain individuals by not allowing for choice; whether it is for a boy to play with dolls, or a woman to choose to remain childless. So creating a discourse about gendering not only allows identifying discriminatory behaviour, but also encourages choices and more acceptance for different people’s choices. That is what we hope to achieve – tolerance towards those who may not choose the same things as you.

On your journey to launching Bonhishikha, what have been your biggest challenges?In the most reductive terms, questioning your own power, privilege and internalized patriarchal values. I think the biggest learning has been to acknowledge that I myself am continuously growing and evolving, and it is okay to recognize faults in myself, and then practice overcoming them. And with time I have learnt that, this evolution is a constant dynamic path, and the biggest achievement is actually to develop those new habits to challenge all the old ones within myself.

What constructive and specific advice do you have to give to a global audience of young people interested in starting a similar project or address the same issue?I would suggest them to stay positive and motivated. In a world where misogyny and sexism seems to be arching its head all the time, it gets difficult to stay motivated and feel like you are making a difference. But social change is really about changing the culture and the norms around yourself. You need to start small, focus on specific activities, communities that are close to you, and work on creating a team around you who will be able to connect to it just as passionately as you. Social change happens when we are personally invested in it, so when we work with people who we can connect with the most, then we would understand and know how best to address their/ our issues. Don't think of a social startup as something that needs to become a huge entity, some of the best social changes happen when we put in the effort for deep meaningful change, rather than how big the outreach is. Celebrate all the wins, and remember that the conflicts you face are part of the win.

Share a message of encouragement to young people starting their own social startups. The small wins matter. Aim big and wide. But even if you see changes in the few people around you, that’s worth celebrating. The world eventually only changes when we change the space around ourselves.

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