"Does your husband know you're flying alone?" - was the question thrown at Nishita by the immigration officers at Dhaka airport, while traveling solo to Thailand. It is not just an isolated incident but the regular scenario for female travellers in Bangladesh.
Be it domestic travelling or international, women face humiliating interrogation at every step of it either by people of the society or by the local law enforcement officials. And the line of questioning, more-often-than-not, has very little to do with actual document verification than it has to do with dissecting the woman's character for "daring" to travel alone!
A woman's character, parental upbringing, marital status — everything is questioned the moment she wants to step out and explore the world (or just her own country), something men have been doing freely for centuries without anyone batting an eye.
"You are a woman and you cannot travel alone without a letter from your parents and that’s the law of the country so bring the letter and then travel," recounted Nasia Chowdhury, an avid traveller, as her horrors of travel. This is what the immigration officer tried to stop her with, by making up false laws on the spot.
"Being an adult does not give you the credibility to make simple life choices like traveling if you are a woman in a patriarchal society", she said. And it is not just for solo female travellers, female group travellers also face similar challenges.
Such harassment faced by adult women in a free country is not only an insult to all the progress in gender-equality our country has made so far, but also questions the integrity of those achievements. The very people tasked with ensuring people's rights are the ones violating them simply because it's a woman on the receiving end.
After circumventing the scrutiny of immigration, travelling as a woman outside of Bangladesh is pretty much normal and safe. Even in the neighbouring country India, female travellers are met with less systemic obstacles and travel arrangements are comparatively easier. But if it is a domestic trip, then there come the worries of safety, accommodations, transportation and hygiene.
For any female traveller in Bangladesh, the topmost concern is finding a safe accommodation. Local motels and cheap hotels are hardly the safe and hygienic choice. This brings them to another curb, the expenses. Travelling as a woman can cost three to seven times more than that of a man. Even on a budget trip, for safety and hygiene reasons women tend to choose at least a three start hotel. Travel agencies take advantage of this situation too. Female travellers tend to avoid public transportation, especially after dark and usually go for rent-a-car.
Finding a trustworthy medium for travelling has been a hassle for women. "Wander Woman", a Facebook group founded by Sabira Mehrin in 2017 is an empowerment platform for avid and aspiring female travellers from Bangladesh. The network helps women with all kinds of travel information, booking and arrangements as well as organise their own group tours both within and outside the country.
When asked about the reason behind dedicating a group solely for making travelling safer and comfortable for women, founder Sabira said, "Because we want to bring a shift to the scenario where only male members of our family and friends take initiatives and manage tours. Already the scenario is changing Alhamdulillah and Wander Woman wants to establish that in a firm manner."
While travelling in Bangladesh, I wish people's view and behaviour towards female travellers change. It's not the "bad rebel girls" who travel alone without family or husband. I wish people didn't tie our identities and dreams to a man.
Being asked about why there is no man with us while traveling is extremely humiliating. Instead, they should focus on making the experience safe and easy for us. Budget-friendly tourist accommodations should also be female-friendly." Zaheda Rahman, a passionate traveller shared with us her hopes of change in the travelling scene for woman in Bangladesh.
While Bangladeshi women are breaking glass ceilings left and right all over the world, it is a pity that the opportunities to discover the beauties of their own country are filled with a myriad of barriers. Women's attempt at exploring their surroundings and beyond should be met with encouragement and support, not sexist remarks, and deterrents.