It’s a Trap!

I know I promised a blog series on some of the issues facing Bangladesh at the moment, but I felt that I had to address Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi’s shared Nobel Peace Prize win first. I have seen a lot of posts on social media about whether the recipients deserve the prize or not, including one of my own where I suggested Malala at least has not done enough yet. I have also seen several decrying the political nature of the prize, which is hardly news given some of the previous winners (like Kissinger, Obama and the EU) and some notable absentees (like Gandhi, U Thant, Nusseibeh and Dorothy Day, and the obvious snubbing of Snowden and Manning this year). These topics will continue to raise debate and, frankly, are too subjective for me to adequately address in just one post, if at all.

What I wish to talk about is how the Nobel Peace Prize can be detrimental to the efforts of the honourees and how I really hope that Malala and Satyarthi do not suffer the same fate. Receiving this accolade is undoubtedly the highest point in anyone’s career and the prestige it affords should not be ignored. However, the concern I have is that being a Nobel Laureate has, in the past few years, become a badge of completion of the beneficiaries’ causes. Since the award is not given posthumously and since it comes with a sizeable monetary prize, one would think that the notion is to promote a worthy movement and support its growth. Despite this, recent winners of the Peace Prize have often failed to continue their work.

Al Gore has virtually disappeared off the face of the Earth he has tried so hard to protect. If one thinks of celebrity environmentalists now, the person that comes to mind the most is Leonardo Dicaprio, not the former Democratic presidential candidate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the win with him in 2007, has carried on its efforts, but he is no longer an active player in the movement. Given the recent climate change summit at the UN and the continued resistance to accepting global warming in the US Congress, it is not like his presence is no longer needed. If anything, the increasing scientific evidence in support of his cause, combined with events detrimental to it like the Tar Sands pipeline, should galvanise him to continue his work. He is probably the only individual who has both the credentials and the name recognition required to bring about the change that is required now, and it is a shame that his most significant decision since his win has been changing his diet to veganism in 2013.

Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank are Bangladesh’s only Nobel Laureates across all disciplines, winning in 2006. Recognised for their work in micro-credit, their victory was a historic day for the country, even with the flaws in the system that they worked to implement. The next step should have been utilising the money and the fame afforded by the victory to fix the problems faced by micro-credit, of which there are many, and I am not referring to cosmetic issues like the lack of men involved. Micro-credit had started as a means of allowing the poor to borrow collateral-free loans and break out of the traditional capitalist banking system but, for all its good intentions, it has spawned its own system of exploitation and loan sharks. Interest rates have skyrocketed and most borrowers are unable to break out of the system because they have no other means of income. Instead of tackling such destructive problems, however, Yunus, Grameen, and their supporters are quick to dismiss any criticisms, often using the Nobel Peace Prize as justification for their indifference. They have branched into other projects and have dabbled in party politics, with damaging results, but their micro-credit initiative has stagnated. Having volunteered there as an intern, I can attest to how many employees are happy to scoff at naysayers because “we have won a Nobel; what have they done?”

Laureates who are in the political sphere have fallen into the same trap. Obama, of course, is the most commonly cited example, with his drone strikes and continued use of Guantanamo chipping away at any integrity he has left. Others, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, the trio of women’s rights activists who won in 2011, have been unable to build on their work because people are no longer interested. Unlike the other Laureates I have mentioned, they have strived to continue their campaigns, but have not been able to gain any more traction since their win. Karman has continued with her activism, being particularly vocal during the Arab Spring, but is no longer part of the conversation on women’s rights. Sirleaf has had to cut down on her commitments in order to continue her presidential tenure unchallenged. And Gbowee has struggled to deal with the pressures of superficial fame, choosing to take a break from her work because rights groups in Africa either want to use her as an ineffective mascot or ignore her because she has achieved more than them. It would seem that awarding the Nobel is as much a means of saying “thank you, now please shut up” as it is of encouraging humanitarianism.

Together, Malala and Satyarthi have been working for the improvement of children’s rights in a region where it is often forgotten. Malala’s shooting is well-known of course, but it is important to remember that her father had been working for girls’ education for much longer and she herself had been advocate for the cause for several years beforehand. Satyarthi’s quiet involvement to end children’s trafficking has gained less attention but has perhaps had more of an impact in real terms. They not only represent two belligerent nations, they also represent two completely different generations who are fighting the good fight in an arena that goes unnoticed most of the time. My sincere hope is that they break the trend we have seen in recent years by pushing ahead with their causes and by refusing to let others shut them down. By combining their resources and their newfound fame, they can create a genuine platform for children’s rights that can influence policy across the region with the support of international organisations and governments alike. As cliched as it might sound, they actually have the potential to make a difference. If they are able to do so, we can finally say that the Nobel Peace Prize means something again, if it ever did in the first place.

Aspirations of the Wrong Kind

The talk around town at the moment is how our esteemed Prime Minister, herself a woman, is planning on appointing another woman as the next Chief Justice. The Speaker of the House and the Leader of the Opposition are also women, as are a few recently appointed Vice Chancellors of public universities, and the rumoured Chief Justice move will mean that several key positions will be held by the fairer sex. If these rumours are to be believed – and they come from several reliable sources – this move is aimed more at earning bragging rights over the West than it is towards actually empowering women and achieving equality. Given the abysmal state of women’s rights at the moment, not to mention the notable lack of qualifications held by most of the women in these positions, it is hard not to believe that.

Having spent the last two years uninterrupted in the UK before returning home, one of the things that struck me the most in the first week of my return home is how blind people seem to be to the problems that Bangladesh faces. On the topic of women’s rights, the popular consensus seems to be that we have achieved complete equality because women are in visible positions. The hollow, cosmetic nature of these changes can be understood by taking a simple look at how the average woman is faring. Girls’ education has actually dropped in rural communities because people believe their daughters are assured top jobs (including 50 of the 350 seats in Parliament) due to an established quota system. Domestic abuse has shot up while the issue of marital rape, which is still not legally recognised in the country, is no longer on the national agenda. Then again, why should it be when a woman is speaking on our behalf at the United Nations?

This is not just a case of women’s rights however. Child labour, child marriage and infanticide are hardly reported on, the focus instead shifting to how some NGOs and charities have successfully taught slum children how to speak in English. Regardless of their intentions, the fact remains that the only change this has actually resulted in is that these boys and girls can now beg in two languages. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ rights groups are yelling for visibility on TV shows and an eventual marriage amendment – both visible issues in the USA at the moment – forgetting the fact that homosexuality is still a criminal offence here. Some of these groups actually run the risk of getting their members arrested but are not able to recognise that the fight for decriminalisation is more important than getting a magazine about gay sex published.

On top of it all is the fact that we are not simply misreading the West either. Countries that have influence over our policies, like the USA and the UK, are happy to let us face genuine problems just so long as we are not creating issues for them. The recent obsession with IS has meant that the only type of religious extremism that gains any traction in the international media or in policy groups is the kind that leads to terrorist attacks on foreign soil. Never mind the fact that Hindu and Buddhist communities and holy sites have been attacked several times over the past few years. Or that many Hindus in Dhaka had to hide their identities during Durga Puja this year just so they could complete their worship unharmed.

To say that we shouldn’t aspire for an ideal society is wrong. The West, despite its advances, has not hit that pinnacle either. But in order to reach those heights, we need to understand where we currently stand. Following countries that have had centuries to develop and expecting to be in the same situation in 43 years is foolish. We need to solve our own problems first. Only then can we begin to look at what are still secondary issues for us.

I want to quickly add that I normally back up my pieces with more specific statistics and citations. In this case, I feel it would be better to address each of the issues separately; therefore, I will dedicate the next few posts on my blog to examining the problems I have outlined here, which, I hasten to add, in no way represent an exhaustive list of the problems faced by Bangladesh.