She was born in a Rohingya family that migrated to Bangladesh during the 1991-92 exodus, triggered by the first wave of violence against the Muslim minority community in Myanmar, a Buddhist majority country. She was 18 months old when her family crossed the Naf River on a fishing boat. She is now 29, a mother of four, and fighter extraordinaire.
Zaheeda is sitting on a plastic chair, facing Nafeesa Shamsuddin, who works with BRAC, a Bangladesh-based aid organisation working with the Rohingya community in Cox’s Bazar.
Her left leg stretched forward, the right one folded at the knee, she is a picture of quiet confidence. She spreads her arms too, as she talks. If she were a man, this would be considered ‘manspreading’, because it is her personal bubble that occupies the most space in this tiny room in the refugee camp.
But this is not ‘manspreading’. Zaheeda is a small woman in a burqa who just wears self-belief like a second skin.
Like all Rohingya families that had sought shelter in Bangladesh in the early ‘90s, Zaheeda grew up in Ukhiya, one of the two officially registered camps. “I grew up hearing stories about the atrocities our communities faced in Myanmar,” she said. Matters came to a head last August, when Rohingya families in Bangladesh started getting calls from families across the border. “The stories were so shocking. I knew I had to help,” Zaheeda says, before going on to recount a story that has since become the stuff of legends in the camp.
The first night
The content of the phone calls from Myanmar were all too familiar — it was something every child raised in Bangladesh’s refugee camps knew by heart, from their own lived experience of the 1990s. Back then, nearly 2,50,000 Rohingya people fled their country to escape persecution, rape, and murder. “I could not sit quietly,” Zaheeda says.
Zaheeda called her brothers-in-law, who were working in Australia and Malaysia, and within a week, managed to raise more than Tk 7,00,000 (Rs 5,62,000) from Rohingya communities in their countries. “I paid two boatmen to ferry the villagers trying to escape from Rakhine,” she says, downplaying her role in the rescue efforts.
By November 2017, Zaheeda was a star within the camp, with international news channels profiling her extraordinary efforts that brought 400 people to safety. She hired two boatmen from the nearby village of Shamlapur, and paid them most of the money she had, and got them to smuggle people across the Naf river.
For much of their lives, they suffered domestic abuse and lacked access to basic reproductive health services. But post-genocide, they are talking gender equality and injectible contraceptives.
The effect of the Myanmar Army’s ‘clearance operations’ in Rakhine was felt in Kutupalong refugee camp almost immediately. The Hindu spoke to Mohammad Reza, the Camp-in-Charge of the older registered refugee camps that were set up two decades ago. Reza works for the Bangladesh’s Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), under the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. “I got a call at midnight, and I was told that there was trouble at the border and that I should expect more refugees. All the villagers had family members and they knew getting here would ensure their safety,” Reza says, recalling the first night of the exodus that began on August 27, 2017. Since then, nearly 8.5 lakh Rohingya refugees have moved to Kutupalong. The original refugee camp has now been expanded to 27 camps.
Reza says that on that first night, as the Rohingya community started gathering on their borders, they were awaiting orders from Dhaka. “The Bangladeshi government had not yet decided to allow this new wave of Rohingya refugees, who were foreign nationals, inside our borders. This meant that the government or aid organisations like the World Food Programme (WFP), which were already working with the refugee communities here, could not distribute relief to the newly arriving refugees,” he adds. So Reza requested Rohingya families living in older refugee camps to raise funds and save food items such as dry fruits and biscuits, so that the arriving families had immediate relief in terms of food, water and shelter.
In an hour-long interview, Reza, who is now known as the “Original CiC’ for being the only official in the camps during the first week, repeatedly insisted on one point: Without help from Rohingya families and the local Bangladeshi community in Cox’s Bazar who sent truck loads of food, clothes and shelter, the casualties in the camp would have been high during the first week.
Meanwhile, Zaheeda waited by the Naf river to receive the 400 people, arranged shelter for the newly arriving refugees, and passed the hat around one more time to raise money for food. She gave the families around Tk 3,000 (₹2,300) to buy tarpaulin and mats, the building blocks of their shelter.
The overall humanitarian response for the Rohingya refugee crisis is facilitated by the Inter-Sectoral Coordination Group (ISCG). This group was specifically set up to make sure that all the actors — UN agencies, and international as well as local NGOs, are on the same page. In December 2017, the ICSG conducted what is, for now, the most detailed gender profile of the refugees.
Their survey found that 52% of the refugees were women. While it is commonly understood that the Rohingya community is conservative, this survey showed exactly how traditional they were. The women believed that their role in society was to cook, clean and stay indoors. “Ninety-five per cent of Rohingya women and men surveyed in 2015, in the older registered camps, report that the main role of women is cooking; 53 per cent believed that women should not be allowed to leave the house; 42 per cent of the surveyed women reported spending an average of 21 to 24 hours a day inside their house,” notes the ISCG, pointing out that for all questions there was “insignificant difference in opinion between women and men respondents.”.
Rohingya women and men view pregnancy as a religious issue, as “God’s wish” and the use of contraceptives in almost unknown among Rohingya families, partly also because the Myanmar government restricted their movement, leaving families with no access to contraception and reproductive health services.
The post-genocide Rohingya community is a witnessing a remarkable transformation in the roles of women. Families in Rakhine that had lost their brothers, sons and fathers during the ‘clearance operations’ by the Myanmar army, have now turned into women-headed households. Though women are turning into breadwinners, the ISCG notes that, “female-headed households are amongst the most vulnerable in the camps, often unable to achieve family income to survive. Given the dire economic situation in the camps, women have mobilised as taking part in non-traditional informal work activities outside the household and are becoming more economically and socially empowered as a result.”
A few months ago, Zaheeda doesn’t remember exactly which month, a man had beaten up his wife so badly that she ended up at a hospital run by the humanitarian aid organization MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières).
Zaheeda gathered female volunteers and landed at the man’s door. When he refused to come out, the women barged in and dragged him out of his shelter. They took him to the office of the Camp in-Charge (CiC) Shamimul Huq Pavel. He handed him to the police, who then let him off after a warning.
As this kept happening, the women decided to band together. According to the ISCG, sexual and gender-based violence is so widespread that the authorities received between 100-400 complaints every week among the new arrivals in the camps in Bangladesh.
When the women noticed that the police couldn’t help them, they took matters in their own hands. Zaheeda has since devised a few ‘punishments’ that seem to be working rather well. One of these is locking the abusive men in the toilets, in order to encourage them to ‘to think about’ their actions. “We have been very successful. The number of domestic violence cases in our camp has come down by 90%. This punishment is humiliating for the families, and we have realised that when we punish them once, they don’t do it again,” Zaheeda says. She isn’t exaggerating. CiC Pavel confirms that he now receives fewer complaints. “Earlier we would spend all our days solving domestic feuds, and leaving us with little time to focus on the priority tasks to do with road and bridge construction, cyclone preparedness etc. Now we rarely see such cases in my camp,” he says.
“Every one who comes here wants to talk to rape, rain and repatriation,” Zaheeda says. “They are all important issues and you should go back to your countries and write about what is happening to us. I hope it will help us get justice. But in our every day lives, we want power. Not your pity.”
Pavel got involved in these cases after watching Rohingya women being forced to transport nearly 20 kg of compressed risk husk on their backs, while carrying a child as well. “If any woman is seen carrying a big sack and she has a healthy male person in her home, that male person would have to answer to me,” announced Pavel, who has since earned a reputation for being a gender-responsive CiC. There are currently no women CiCs. When Imams sought Pavel’s help to build a mosque, he insisted that an equal amount of space for prayers be built for women as well.
The justice committee
Zaheeda now leads a group of 60 women who call themselves the ‘justice committee’. Its primary mandate is to combat domestic violence in the camps.
But it is not just the men who are the aggressors, insists Zaheeda. The ‘justice committee’ has taken action against a mother-in-law for beating her daughter-in-law. In another case, a woman was beating men. “These are fights over small issues. We are not saying that all women are good. But we do want women to be treated equally,” she explains.
The transformation in non-traditional roles has been recognised by authorities. The ISCG gender profile noted that many Rohingya women, who have stayed in Bangladesh for several years in the registered camps, have become leaders and decision-makers in the camps. “In the older registered refugee camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf, a formation of 35-40 women support groups has been critical in engaging women’s voice and decision-making role (sic),” said the ISCG report.
In their 11th month as refugees, the Rohingya women had travelled a long way in every sense of the word, navigating social, cultural and physical barriers to equality. It has helped that these women are now fenced inside refugee camps which are crawling with national and international NGOs. In a place with the world’s highest per capita density of activists, these women are fast learning about injectible contraceptives, reproductive rights, and combating domestic violence.
“A lot of women are using contraceptives for the first time. Women ask me about injectible contraceptives, sometimes they tell their husbands, sometimes they don’t,” says Zaheeda, who now works as a community health worker, as a translator for various humanitarian aid organisations and, as a champion of equal rights for Rohingya women.
There are many challenges still. According to ISCG, every woman in the Balukhali makeshift settlements is, “either a survivor or has personally witnessed” multiple incidences of sexual assault, rape, gang-rape, murder, mutilation or the burning alive of a close family member or neighbour. Many women whose sexual assault resulted in pregnancy sought abortions after arriving in Bangladesh. Rape survivors who were married spoke of how they feared that their spouses might take another woman as their wife since they had been “defiled”. Single women and adolescent girls worry that they may never get married for the same reason. The formation of women’s groups, and the emergence of female leaders within the Rohingya community is one of the few silver linings in the continuing mass atrocity.
During her visit in January, the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, noted that at this moment, the camps do not have women CiCs, indicating that this could be next on the agenda. Meanwhile, Rohingya women in Kutupalong and Nayapara camp already have democratically elected ‘camp councils’ that include women as both voters and electoral candidates.
Zaheeda has the last word. “Every one who comes here wants to talk to rape, rain and repatriation,” she says. “They are all important issues and you should go back to your countries and write about what is happening to us. I hope it will help us get justice. But in our every day lives, we want power. Not your pity.”
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