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The precautions girls take in Bangladesh
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The precautions girls take in Bangladesh

Sanam Amin

Editor's note: Sanam Amin is a journalist based in Bangladesh.

Here are the precautions parents must take for us when we turn out to be girls, and some that must take for ourselves as adults, as well as other kinds of preventive measures other people take to protect us from violence and hurt.
This might not be true of every South Asian woman, or even every Indian woman. And it definitely is not applicable to working class women, who must follow a different set of precautions governing their lives, which are more based on crowds and a heavier panopticon effect.
These are the rules I know about for the upper to middle class women in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
As babies we are never left alone with anyone who isn't a parent, grandparent or close blood relative. Often we aren't even left alone with blood relatives if they are male uncles or older cousins, not even for a walk in the garden. We are grouped together with our siblings and cousins, so none of us are ever alone.
Once we are beyond infancy, no male domestic, no driver gets any room or board in the same house as us. It doesn't matter if the servants sleep downstairs and we sleep upstairs under the guard of our parents. They can only come in during the day to do their work, then leave.
When we begin learning our lessons, if we should need a tutor, our parents look for female teachers who can come to our homes. Never a male teacher. Sometimes, in Muslim households, an Imam might be allowed to come teach Arabic. But that's if his wife isn't available to teach young children. If he is allowed, he must do so at a time when everyone is at home, and give his lessons in full view of the household. There must never be a closed door or drawn curtains.
As toddlers and young girls, some heads are kept shaven and not allowed to grow out their hair too long, in case it is suggestive.
But some parents like growing their daughters' hair out and prettying them, fastening sparkling clips and ribbons. They might compromise between this desire and the need to protect us by make sure our hair is carefully tied back or braided when we go out or are in the company of strangers. And some of our parents introduce the headscarf early.
All too soon, because we have only just learned to express how comfortable it is to run about in thin tops and shorts, we are taught to cover up more, and show modesty. We might rage and complain about the heat, cry at scratchy materials, carelessly throw aside extra layers. But no matter what we do, our family will be vigilant in putting our clothes back in place, soothing or cajoling us into tolerating the full-length leggings or long-sleeved dresses for a little longer.
We must never, standing, sitting or lying down, part our legs, or splay out. We are told this is how we must control our posture because it is wrong and immodest to spread out your legs, but when we are teenage we are given indications that actually, we should avoid these suggestive positions so that we do not ever tempt anyone to go between those legs.
Many of us are allowed to be friendly with our male cousins but can never spend time alone with them. Some of us are detached from them too early to understand why we can't play together anymore.
Some of our parents try and keep us away from make up for as long as possible, frightened at the images of sex workers as young as their very own daughters (because they too are someone's daughters) powdered and lipsticked in preparation for customers. They fear that make up may bring on the same temptation. Some may feel this way about sleeveless dresses, or those tiny high heels for little girls. Whatever the item is, there will always be some clothing or cosmetic that is forbidden or discouraged because it will make men want to make whores out of us. That might lead us to sneaking in purchases or applying make up and changing clothes at trusted friends’ homes, or it might mean that we make snap judgments about girls who do wear that sort of flashy make up and slutty clothing. It drives a wedge somewhere.
And then there’s grooming. Different families have different ideas of when it's appropriate to let us start waxing our arms or legs, eyebrows or upper lip. Either because that hairy upper lip or faint monobrow appears to them as one of the many pieces of armour meant to guard us, or they feel the need to hold us back from changing our appearance to please others. It might start as wanting to look pretty to show off to our other girl friends, but our parents know that it will end up attracting boys and men who might or might not mean well. Similarly, some of us are discouraged from growing our nails long or applying nail polish, because that sort of thing can wait till we're out of school, till we're older.
When we start going to our friends' homes and wanting to go out and have a good time, our parents start vetting our friends' families. Who are their parents? What do they do? Who else lives in that house? Oh, she has an older brother? Oh, the mother is a working woman and isn't home much? Oh, it's such a nice house, and you've been allowed to spend time on the roof unsupervised? All of these factors tally up in our parents' minds, and lead to the hateful No, you can't go. For many of us, a slumber party is a thrilling childhood event that we will never experience because our parents just can't submit to the risk of our sleeping, vulnerable bodies in a household they cannot control.
Cell phones are an important tool to keep us located at all times, but some of the more well-read parents don't want us to have phones with too many gadgets that will allow us to trust and develop friendships with strangers they cannot protect us from. So we grumble about the low-end phones we are stuck with and begrudge the lucky friends who get smartphones as gifts.
Some of us are allowed to walk in the streets, maybe just in front of our house or in our neighborhoods where we know everyone, but only during daylight, or only in the company of a known adult. Sometimes, as teenagers, we can convince our parents that the male teen friends they've met and liked are good enough as protectors and chaperones, but not for long.
As we become old enough to start travelling to class, or work, or social events without an older chaperone, we learn new parameters. Some of us are free to stay out as late as we wish, but can only go out with the family's car and the family's known driver. Some of us are taught to drive, so that we can get ourselves around without ever resorting to public transport; but some of us will never learn to drive, because our family will never leave us alone, and it is a skill we will not need. Some of our parents might even discourage learning because they are afraid of people attacking us if we are found driving alone. They point out – and they’re not wrong – that other drivers on the street as well as traffic police will hinder rather than help a female driver. This may mean following you, or not letting you overtake them, or trying to initiate conversation when you’re trying to avoid running over the motorcyclist staring into your car at your feminine hands holding the steering wheel.

We get into strict agreements with our parents; it could be to never, ever get into anyone else's car, even a friend's, even for a short distance. It could be to never take any public transport, not a rickshaw or a CNG or a bus, no matter what happens. Or it could be not to take any public transport beyond a certain hour - seven, eight, nine pm? It's hard to decide when the cut off should be, to assess when is the latest that we can be sure we won't be mugged, or kidnapped, or stabbed, or have acid thrown on us. We must call every time our plans change. We must outline our plans before we leave the house, so that whatever happens, something can be arranged to find us and protect us.
We learn to avoid the things our parents have avoided. If we go to a crowded market, we try go in a group, we wear loose clothing, we cover our heads with scarves. We spot other families or groups of women and try huddle behind or with them when moving through a crowd, to minimise the likeliness of being groped. But many of us will get groped anyway.
We consider the jewellery we buy and wear according to what will least tempt a thief, or what won't hurt us if it is snatched off our necks, arms or ears. We think about exercise and don't want to go to the parks at the same time as the middle aged crowd, and yet can't consider going when it isn't crowded in case a stranger is looking to take advantage of the emptyness. When out in public areas we only wear the clothes and shoes and accessories that won't trip us up or allow us to be too easily strangled or caught.
At the workplace, we are careful in our interactions with male colleagues and supervisors. We know we must keep a distance, never make any physical contact even when passing a pen. Never spend any time alone with one male colleague. As long as you’re in a group, there cannot be any impropriety. Often, our male colleagues become the ones who look out for us in proxy of our family – they’ll accompany you if you need to cross a road, make the trip for you if there’s a small errand outside of the office zone, help sort out those prank callers with an authoritative order in their male voices. Or even see you home if work runs late or you don’t have your usual system of shelter in order.
If we're in a car, we can never lower the windows. We say it's because there's too much dust, it's so humid, the ac keeps things tolerable, and that's all true. But the raised windows can also protect us from acid, if that were to ever happen.
If we ever felt any desire to explore or wander, it is dead. You can't go check out a road or an open field just because you caught sight of it and want to explore. If you ever wanted to take a walk to get to know an area, either the idea is shut down immediately, or if you did it on your own and got away with it, you are reproached for your stupidity and carelessness. What if? What if? There are people you don't know. There is evil out there in the world, and it is waiting to hurt you at any moment. You must never wander off. Ever. Maybe this means you love wanderlust novels and movies, or maybe this means you'll never understand them and decide they're stupid. How can anyone up and go wherever the wind takes them?
Some of us are encouraged to be authoritative when dealing with male domestics, shopkeepers or taxi drivers, so that we are not mistaken for weaklings. Some of us are told to avoid any visual or verbal contact with them, and instead learn to relay messages via a chaperone or a trusted female emissary. Always avoid the danger of a one-to-one interaction. Stay away from strangers, in every context. Stay safe.

The nightly lock up system varies from household to household, but whatever it is, we learn it, abide by it far enough to keep out thieves and murderers, and bend it only to let ourselves have a good time whenever we can get away with it. Those of us who have the freedom to go out late or have a car and driver at our disposal learn to offer our umbrellas of safety to our friends. Some of us anticipate and offer to drop them home. Some of us juggle our plans and find out which friends will be in the area, and who will be able to see us home. Some of us arrange to stay the night at trusted friends' homes if we know we'll be late, whether at a party, at work, or studying for an important exam. Or it might just be news of violence on the streets, a protest somewhere between where we are and home. We read and hear and learn of too many stories of men harassing schoolgirls, men throwing acid on women, girls raped, girls murdered, girls who thought they would be safe out with a group of friends but instead had their clothes torn off by a mob, girls beaten, girls tortured. Blades chopping off hands and feet. Corpses stuffed in toilets. Nooses hanging from ceiling fans.
We know too many stories that give us too many variations of the violence and depravity that await us. And so, we are compelled to live with all of the rules, systems and safeguards that are taught and given to us. We hide hair, heads, arms, ankles, we look away if we catch anyone's eye, we hunch to hide our feminine attributes. We learn to be incapable of being alone, so that if we even accidentally end up alone at home, we call our friends, our cousins, we go out, we even look in on the older relatives who remain installed in our homes for their care and for ours too. No matter how old and infirm your grandparents are, your parents feel better knowing that someone they learned this system of defense from is there to keep guard.

The appearance of the world between midnight and dawn is unfamiliar to us, because we must always hide from its dark dangers. We will never understand that we have been half alive.

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