The Columbia Journalist
Bangladeshi female activist navigates two worlds
Photo:Courtesy of Badrun Nahar Khan
President Badrun Nahar Khan with the members of the Jalalabad Association, New York.
By Annie A. Khan
April 26, 2011
A recent event organized by the Jalalabad Association, a social organization that represents the people of Sylhet, a major city in Bangladesh, living in New York, included an address by the first female president of the group, Badrun Nahar Khan, a fiery orator who delivered her speech in both English and Bengali and managed to keep the audience engaged. Despite her popularity, Khan, 38, said she does not plan to run for re-election in the upcoming elections in June.
“The reasons are complicated,” said Khan, who was born in Queens to Bangladeshi parents. “We have women leaders back home. Our prime minister is a woman, but women are not encouraged to step outside the home.”
Khan, who has decided not to run in part because the feels she is running against the current of tradition and also wants to stay home with her young children, was referring to Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, who was elected prime minister in a landslide victory in 2008 against Begum Khalida Zia, the prime minister and former first lady of Bangladesh. Both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina are an oddity: female political leaders in an otherwise conservative, patriarchal country.
Like many other women in the Bangladeshi community, Khan is torn between her obvious skills — in her case, public speaking and community activism — and a desire to adhere to tradition. For the most part, women from Bangladesh live in New York as they or their mothers did back home: they seldom venture outside their immediate surroundings, but rather remain home rearing their children.
Khan’s work as an activist has also been difficult because she is often one of only a handful of women who have a voice in a community where men still decide many aspects of a woman’s life even if she works outside the home.
Khan, who said she plans to eventually run for a seat on the City Council in New York, said she’s always had a passion for helping newcomers to adjust to the city, particularly women. She has taught women how to pay their bills and how to become involved in their children’s schools. But even so, when she decided to run for president of Jalalabad Association — founded in 1989 and representing 12,484 Bangladeshis in the New York area — she had to first gain the trust of the men in the community. Khan was running against Kamal Ahmed, a man who had been president for two terms for the past four years.
Gaining the trust of the men was only the beginning of her struggles, though. Once she started to make contacts with men in the community, some of the women developed reservations about allowing another woman to spend time with their husbands while campaigning. Khan decided to use another strategy. She went to each and every house to gain the trust of every woman in the community, concentrated in Jackson Heights, Queens. She would even help them in their cooking and secure their support over kitchen conversations.
In the end, it was the women who came out in support of her. But they did it quietly, mostly without the knowledge of their husbands. They wanted to ensure victory for a fellow woman without risking challenging the choice of candidate for their husbands or brothers.
There are more than 35,000 Bangladeshis living in New York City, with a majority of the population concentrated in Queens, and the numbers are growing due to the Diversity Visa Lottery, which allotted about 6,000 visas to Bangladehis in 2010 alone.
Raili Roy, the director of South Asian studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said that, upon arrival, many Bangladeshi women don’t work outside the home, even if they want to, because they do not have a work permit. But once they get authorization to work, they face other barriers.
“There is firstly a language impediment,” she said. “But also the fact that these families tend to flock together and form ghetto areas. There is little if any interaction with the world outside, especially for the women.”
Roy said that there was a class dynamic at work as well: “less educated families have stricter controls as compared to, say, a family where the wife has a degree.”
Khan has a college degree. As a first-generation American, she studied at a Catholic school in Queens, because her parents, who were Muslim, wanted her to go to a good school. Khan attended Marymount Manhattan College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance and marketing. She held a series of jobs in management and administrative positions before settling down with a Bangladeshi man she had met in the community.
Khan continued to work even after she had two daughters, today age nine and five. She had slowly started to become more and more interested in her community, especially because she wanted her children to learn the culture. With the support of her husband, she quit her job as Finance Manager at TCC Group, and decided to run for the presidency of the Jalalabad Association.
After winning the election, Khan learned that the most difficult part of the work was her male counterparts. Every step of the way, Khan was met with resistance from the male members of the organization, she said. Out of the seven board members, Khan is the only female other than the group’s secretary, Raana Farouq Chaudhary.
Tamanna Yasmin is a member of Sheba Bangladesh Foundation, a Queens-based group that helps Bangladeshi women adapt to their new country. According to Yasmin, “Bangladeshi women get no help or cooperation from the men.”
Yasmin said that she had been subjected to verbal abuse by men in the community when she would not allow them on the board of the organization.
“The mission of our organization is focusing on women, but we have to allow men in order to keep peace,” she said.
According to Yasmin the primary problem for immigrant women in the community is lack of education, but even trying to teach them skills has been a challenge. She cites a baking program her organization started for which she managed to recruit several women. However, when the time came to train them in the city kitchens, which were only available at night, the women backed out, saying their husbands did not allow them to go out at night.
“Even when a woman earns $70,000 she has to ask permission for where to invest and what to save from her husband or brother,” Yasmin said.
For Khan, the two years as president have gone by too quickly. She has ambitious plans for her future in politics, but not for now.
“Right now I want to stay home and take of my children,” she said.