One evening in 2020, I experienced burn out.
Well that’s normal, you are thinking. Feeling burnt out is not only something common in today’s performance-oriented world, but rather people seem to equate feeling burnt out or heading towards a burn out as a mark of making professional progress.
But last evening I did not feel burnt out from overworking. I felt burnt out for being a woman.
Yes, I was exhausted and tired of having to face and live in a society where women are constantly trivialized, abused, assaulted, disrespected, played with, bashed, thrown out and simply ignored. I was tired of having to accept that I have to live on in this society for good part of my life, that while things are changing, the change is not enough to be actually ensuring equality for women.
It happened the night I watched the short film Devi, featuring Kajol, Neha Dhupia and others. It is truly a feat of art that portrays the horrors of gender based violence women face across societies, communities, race, religion, color, profession, economic condition, and yes, age. While watching such documentaries and movies is not uncommon for me, this movie hit me in an unexpected way. I could not accept how the movie ended, and cried for 15 minutes. While the movie was the breaking point, my burning out had silently started way before.
I might sound hypersensitive, but know that such burn out can exist. This is called ‘representation burnout’ – when people face exhaustion for navigating non-diverse spaces bearing an identity that is constantly under stress and pressure. Representation burnout manifests itself through stress and exhaustion of having identities as a minority in their given environment. These identity-bearers go through not only physical labour at work but also an additional amount of emotional and psychological labor that emanates from facing disparity on a daily basis at work and sometimes even after work. The representation burn outs give uncomfortable feelings, hold you back on speaking up because you know your perspective is different and that will not hold well with the others in the room. Often there are interactions on the basis of identity that impact your daily performance, and conversations that stick with you for a long time after having taken place. But these burn outs are rarely identified for being what they are. These are more often dismissed as signs of weakness, hypersensitivity, and inability to handle difficult situations.
Especially when it comes to women.
As a sociolegal analyst, talking about gender challenges is part of my daily work. I talk about the gender insensitive laws we have, court procedures that are woman-unfriendly, and policies that sound very apt but in fact are bare. I have to meet female survivors of gender based violence for research. I receive a significant amount of calls from people I barely know to advise on how to deal with domestic abuse, I have to put up a straight face on live TV shows and answer indignant men who question me why I have not covered my hair. At the university, I regularly receive a fair share of female students who show me screenshots of being slut shamed by their male class mates (yes, boys studying law to become lawyers and judges) and counsel them on tackling these attacks. Every year I have to work with the first year students to help them understand misogyny, abuse and discrimination. Every year someone dares me to explain why burkha is not the ultimate protective shield for women. I constantly receive micro-aggressive comments from colleagues that for a young faculty member I have too many opinions, that my straightforwardness is nothing but rudeness. In professional activities, I am either too arrogant for speaking up or too entitled for being silent. No matter what I do, it’s always judged not by who I am but the daughter or wife of someone.
I step out of work, and like every other Bangladeshi women have to ensure we are not physically assaulted, groped or bumped into by men while braving our way through crowded Dhaka streets. Even Uber is not safe, as I have seen multiple times when UBER drivers feel entitled to shout at women passengers as a matter of fact. In the family, we listen to relatives about our biological clocks ticking, how lucky we are to have partners who cook with us (or for us when we are meeting yet another official deadline).
So this is the spaces we Bangladeshi women live in. while Bangladesh has definitely made significant strides in terms of female empowerment and can boast a ranking in gender index better than the South Asian counterparts, the data does not practically make up safer or equal at all. In December, I travelled to a village in Bhola where not a single woman was allowed to matriculate, where despite knowing dowry is illegal women themselves advocated for it as a social protection. I had to sit through while a judge lectured me that it was wrong of women in a town like Bhola to roam around alone till 10 pm in the night unless the husband escorted them. I had to agree with police officers that it was okay if husbands occasionally beat up their wives, unless to the point of death. I had to collect data for my research, and I had to listen to the patriarchal upheaval and accept the reality for what it is. I had to hold silence when a bunch of development professionals told me that it was wrong to highlight disability, poverty, inaccessibility as discriminations to teenagers unless I sugarcoat the examples. I received the brunt of a radical feminist when I said women deserve reserved seats in buses.
These often invisible and frustratingly hard challenges women overcome on a daily basis are hard to measure, and are both psychologically and physically taxing. At some point, our professional and personal struggles become one. It builds up on your mind and body, and some point you give in and break down. Like I did last night.
Therefore, today, I probe into the theme: Generation Equality. No, women in Bangladesh have not reached equality. It can’t be equality when we feel afraid of being a woman in the public and private spheres of Bangladesh. Admitting this fact does not mean belittling the achievements of our State, but a nod to what we have already accomplished and what more need be done. Let us think about these emotional burdens society heaps upon women, about the stress we suffer simply for being women. Unless we fail to reach equality at the psychological level along with the societal, financial, physical and legal levels, there will be no (Generation) Equality.