Farah's story is a special one for me. It is one of those stories that teach you to see possibilities for women in the region that is barely a common narrative, even in the most liberal of environments. Born to a freedom fighter father as his special prayer answered, Farah, embodies the legacy of her family's history in a refreshing new way in Bangladesh. Her story resonates deeply with mine, from across the border, as I, myself, embody the legacy of my grandfather, a citizen peacekeeper in Naxal Bengal. Our families' histories have had a deep imprint on our sense of selves. As peacebuilders, we bonded on the beauty of such self-awareness that grounds us in our sense of shared purpose today.
Farah and I were both raised in households where exhibiting courage was an underlying defined element in terms of the principled code of conduct. We were both shaped across the borders to understand history as a living system, playing out most significantly through the decisions we take to define our own realities as the keepers of sanity and justice in our current contexts. As they say, it is important to know where you are coming from, in order to know where you are going. Our stories helped us reflect on where we have come from while understanding the value of our chance or destined meeting in Rishikesh earlier this year. This story is a special one because it is the story of a woman, born free to embody the legacy of her father's courage in her own creative way.
"I am the youngest child in my family and was a specially planned addition to the family. My father badly wanted a daughter and used to donate to a blind beggar praying for a girlchild for years. You can say, I was a prayer answered for my parents. My father planted Shagun trees in our garden on my birth to make sure I could use the furniture made from the trees when I grew up." Farah recounted fondly.
In South Asia where the common narrative around a girl child's birth is quite the opposite, I found myself intrigued at the very outset as Farah narrated about her childhood.
"I was born on a day when there was a hartal in the city and the adjoining areas. My mother's delivery was scheduled that day but my father knew that it would be difficult to get a doctor. He paid for a gynecologist and a nurse to stay at our home for the night to make sure that my mother got the assistance she needed during childbirth. I was born facilitated by this arrangement. My father heaved a sigh of relief and was happiest to finally have a girl after two of my elder brothers. Needless to say that I was pampered a lot from the very beginning. Always in the care of my nanny and an uncle, I had a very sheltered childhood and was kept safe from the world outside."
Farah, petite, and vivacious as a personality came across at a first glance as someone who is self-assured in her sense of provision, love, and care. Clearly, she had a family that made sure that she was aware of her sense of self-worth as a prayer answered, a gift to the family. Her courage and determination to lead her life on her own terms emerge thus from a sense of self-sufficiency, a rare gift which most women in the region lack. She was conditioned to be free because she was born free. Her father made sure that his daughter knew what freedom felt like. At this point, let us take a look at what Farah shared next about her family, especially her father.
"My father was a freedom fighter in the Bangladesh Liberation War. He was trained in Agartala 11 No. Sector, India as part of the Mukti Bahini. Our family home is also near the Indian border. I grew up on a diet of stories from those days and am conscious of the value of my freedom. Despite coming from a Muslim household, I am more of a secular person because I know the value of inter-community relationships. Communal tensions have historically caused much bloodshed in my country. As a peacebuilder, I stand against violence and I stand for justice.
When I participated in the protest at Gonojagoron moncho, organized by the youth in the country to demand appropriate punishment( by hanging) for the traitors in the Bangladesh Liberation War, I remember there were blasts that were orchestrated to derail the protest. My father called and asked me only one thing, " Are you scared?" When I responded saying a firm "NO", my father cheered me on and told me not to back down on my right to have a voice in the decision making process in the country. I was one of those youths who were out on the streets protesting with my family's support. The entire intelligentsia was out on the streets and people from various walks of life. The Awami League government who we voted to power because of their manifesto promise to offer justice by punishing the traitors initially did not do much to push for the deserved punishment as per public opinion. Later the traitors were hanged because of the pressure that was built from the movement."
"Tell me more about these protests Farah."
"Sure, didi. There were few traitors from the time of the Bangladesh Liberation War. These were mostly people who were affiliated with Jamaat-Islami of East Pakistan. They were responsible for murdering many public intellectuals, writers, and people from the liberation movement. They had shared sensitive information with Pakistani forces on the whereabouts and plans of the Mukti Bahini comrades. They were responsible for heinous crimes during the freedom movement. Naturally, after independence, people wanted justice and they wished for nothing less than punishment by hanging for these people. The voices of the youth were very prominent in this mass movement. It was during this time that I started writing actively on social media and blogging. I received much backlash and threats for the same. During those days many bloggers and writers were also assassinated for their point of view and advocacy. I am a Muslim woman. I was bound to be noticed and threatened. I received death threats soon after.
Coming from a family of freedom fighters where my father and two uncles fought in the battle, I couldn't keep quiet even for fear of my life. Soon my friends told me to be careful. I was attracting the wrong attention. When a fake account was created on Facebook in my name to spew hate speech in order to defame me, I understood that I had been marked. I was disturbed. I decided that confrontation was not leading me anywhere. I had to find a new way." Farah recounted, her breath pacing up as she recalled the emotions lacing this incident.
"What did you do then?"
" This was the time when I had already started working in the social sector. I was working with a National organization that would cater to disaster management and had come into contact with a colleague who eventually became a dear friend. He had pitched for an idea in a competition hosted by UNDP Bangladesh. It was called Digital Khichudi Challenge. His idea had won the competition and he was getting funds to start his website. His idea was " Think Before You Share", an effort to combat hate speech by identifying fake news used to promote hate speech. He asked me to be the content developer and facilitator for the website. I started working with this initiative. This was my entry point into the field of peacebuilding. Right after, I got the chance to attend the Dialogue for Peace workshop in Rishikesh this year where I met you.
Recently a project of mine got sanctioned by Peace First where I would be training 250 students in 5 districts and 50 religious leaders on combating Hate Speech. The project is called 'Check Before You Share'. I also wish to conduct a peace walk for students from madrasas in the future. I am working on getting these projects off the ground after the COVID lockdown ends."
"That's amazing Farah. Tell me more. How did you venture into peacebuilding in the first place?"
Good question didi. As far as I can recall, it was 2012 when there was a minority attack on a Buddhist vihara and mandir. There was a fake id made of a Buddhist person showing the Buddhist person burning the Quran. It upset the fundamentalists and consequently, they attacked the mandir. I remember feeling bad about it as someone from the majority community. Then when someone opened the fake account to defame me, it struck me that there has to be work done to combat these attempts to disrupt inter-community relationships thus threatening the minority communities specifically. Besides this, there was once an episode of harassment that I faced in the first year of my college while traveling on a bus. That had a deep impact on me and I started realizing that as a woman I have to take a stand for what I believed in. In Bangladesh women barely have any freedom or a say. In that sense, I was generally lucky. My family granted me the freedom to be courageous and stand my ground. I woke up to a sense of responsibility that came with my privilege and lifestyle, my freedom and liberties. My work is a reflection of my sense of justice through exhibiting my choice, freedom, and will."
Having known Farah personally over the last couple of months, I have witnessed the large-heartedness she displays in living out her sense of purpose. When I had invited her over to meet my grandmother, who was a refugee from Bangladesh and had lost her home to the communal carnage of the Partition, Farah brought to my aged grandmother the sense of closure and connection through a shared history that neither I nor my sister could ever provide her. Her compassion and groundedness in embracing my octagenarian grandmother in the autumn of her days was a scene that spoke of the healing touch that only the present generation can provide to the wounded testimony bearers of the past.
As a symbol of the perfect blend of grace, power, courage, and kindness, Farah is setting the trend for many others after her to consciously choose to accept and shoulder the responsibility of the freedom that her father and many others earned, once upon a time.