In Conversation with Trishia Nashtaran, Feminist Activist, OGNIE Foundation Bangladesh

In Conversation with Trishia Nashtaran, Feminist Activist, OGNIE Foundation Bangladesh

On May 18, 2022, a young woman was physically assaulted for her attire at Narsingdi station on her way to Dhaka to take an exam. Photo: Trishia Nashtaran

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On May 18, 2022, a young woman was physically assaulted for her attire at Narsingdi station on her way to Dhaka to take an exam.

On May 18, 2022, a young woman was physically assaulted for her attire at Narsingdi station on her way to Dhaka to take an exam. Photo: Trishia Nashtaran

18th May, 2022. A young woman at Narsingdi railway station intending to travel to Dhaka to take an exam was subjected to a derogatory remark regarding her attire. The malicious comment was made by another middle-aged woman who was also present at the station. Soon, the heated debate between the two was joined by a group of men and quickly turned into physical aggression. The young woman and her group of friends quickly took refuge in the station master’s room where a call was made to 999 to report the episode. A video of the incident went viral on social media and sparked anger and criticism from netizens. Trishia Nashtaran, feminist organizer and forward-thinking strategist, could not sit idly by and let this shameful event pass without doing anything.

Please talk about your organization and what it does.

The name of my organization is OGNIE Foundation Bangladesh. I’m the founding president here. OGNIE stands for Organizing Gender Narratives for Inclusivity and Equity, which I think is self-explanatory. OGNIE is a non-profit organization working for a gender-neutral future through storytelling and design thinking in physical and digital spaces in Bangladesh. The organization grew out of my activism and research with Meye Network, a grassroots feminist organizing platform I started in 2011, in response to gender discrimination in the workplace. Meye Network has evolved organically through the solidarity, leadership and entrepreneurship of Bengali-speaking women over the past eleven years, broadening its horizon to other forms of marginalization that intersect with gender. As Meye Network brings voices together organically, OGNIE aims to create gender-focused knowledge and services to create meaningful impact. I initiated the recent visit to Narsingdi Railway Station as a Meye Network volunteer, following their human-centered method to conserve space. This was more of an independent call to action than an organizational decision. The reach of the event transcended organizational boundaries, welcoming all who showed courage and empathy, regardless of gender and formal identity.

Trishia Nashtaran, feminist organizer and foresight strategist, could not sit idly by and let this shameful incident at Narsingdi station pass without doing anything. Photo: Trishia Nashtaran

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On May 18, 2022, a young woman was physically assaulted for her attire at Narsingdi station on her way to Dhaka to take an exam.

Trishia Nashtaran, feminist organizer and foresight strategist, could not sit idly by and let this shameful incident at Narsingdi station pass without doing anything. Photo: Trishia Nashtaran

How did you find so many like-minded women to travel to Narsingdi station and how did you organize the logistics? Was it organized on FB groups or through another medium?

It was May 22 when I decided to visit Narsingdi Railway Station on my own. It had already been four days since a woman had been assaulted there apparently for her dress. Everyone was writing on social media, suggesting what action to take, but no one had visited the crime scene. That’s why I decided to go alone if no one else is going. I shared my intention on my timeline on Facebook, some of the Meye Network online groups, and other feminist platforms I knew. I asked women to send me a personal message if they wanted to join me in the cause. I deliberately did not invite or ask anyone to come with me. Because I only wanted those who would make an effort to be part of the change. I planned the trip with only those who contacted me by message. These people were activists, writers, researchers, artists, designers, filmmakers, photographers, theater personnel, development practitioners, engineers, educators and many more. They were on this trip in their own right. We shared a sense of responsibility which facilitated the process. The logistics were not too complicated, since we resonated from the start. My role was simply to facilitate our collective appeal. I organized tickets from Dhaka to Narsingdi and coordinated time and expenses. The rest happened organically.

What was the thought process behind this? Did you feel that there is strength in numbers and that the more women speak out against internalized misogyny, the safer the country will be for women?

We went to Narsingdi for the woman who was assaulted on May 18. We wanted to be visibly there for her. Our goal was to claim our right to freedom of our body and clothes in a public place in a non-violent way. The numbers weren’t my concern at first. But yes, the number counts, especially when it represents solidarity. But I don’t think solidarity is enough to unlearn internalized misogyny. It would take years of conscious action and cultural change to change the patriarchal perspective that is at the heart of misogyny. Also, numbers can play a vital role in activating mob mentality, which led to the May 18 hostile incident. Therefore, I would not rely too much on the numbers. I prefer to focus on qualitative change, even if it’s with a small group of people with the right mindset.

How successful do you think the event you organized was? Is this a one-off event or are you going to continue this reflection and take it forward in other ways?

I’m not looking for instant results, and I don’t believe anyone should. Change takes time and patience. Our collective presence at Narsingdi railway station was one of many non-violent organic protests we have participated in individually or organized from the Meye network over the years. A group of twenty people in not-so-conservative attire, peacefully interacting with the environment sure counts. I would call it a passive intervention, rather than seeing it as a result. My ultimate goal is an inclusive society where everyone has the right to exercise their freedom safely and with respect. I don’t think we’re there yet. I hope that those who watched and interacted with us at the station will return home with questions and new thoughts, many of which may not be in our favor. I am always happy that we can raise questions and hold the authority accountable for the safety of citizens. It’s the least we can do.

What do you think of this age-old debate that women should dress a certain way while men can have complete freedom over how they dress? Do you think women should be forced to observe purdah or pushed to adopt a more liberal dressing?

The patriarchy has always considered it its duty to control women’s bodies by telling them where to go and what to wear. Women’s clothing is an age-old debate because patriarchy is still there. But do men have complete freedom over their clothing? Can a man wear a sari, nose pin or nail polish in public without facing hostility in Bangladesh? I do not think so. Patriarchy defines the boundaries of gender identity and dictates who wears what. It’s a global reality for all genres. I believe that everyone should have the freedom to decide what to wear, regardless of gender, and freedom cannot be forced. I believe we must uproot patriarchy and reform the broken systems around us for a safe and inclusive future.

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