Published: 05th March 2018
How Rothna Begum is fighting against ISIS and patriarchy while liberating women
A lawyer and human rights activist, Rothna Begum has been working to improve the life of women in the Middle East and North Africa for the past 10 years
Among a lot of things that shocked the world in the recent past and changed our perspectives was the #MeToo movement. Started by Tarana Burke and popularised by Alyssa Milano, the online sensation caught the attention of millions and spread like wildfire, with millions of women and men all over the world putting up the hashtag and sharing instances of how they were sexually assaulted. But one thing that we failed to notice was that all of these people who came out had access to the internet. So, what about those who don’t? The poor, downtrodden and caged? That is where we should remember to thank Rothna Begum. For the past ten years, this Bangladesh-origin British Human Rights lawyer has been the voice for the voiceless in the Middle East and in Africa.
Over the past decade, Rothna has rescued over thousands of young women from their abusive sponsors and merciless 'masters'. She saw broken women all the time. Some were bruised beyond recognition, others were bonded labourers for whom home was a distant memory, more than a decade old. Some even had their hymens brutally torn by their employers. For them, Rothna was their ray of hope and the door to freedom, and she didn't disappoint. She's been with them since 2008 through Amnesty International and now the Human Rights Watch.
One among the speakers at TEDxGateway 2018, we caught up with this wonder woman a few minutes before her session. It is widely known that the Middle Eastern countries are not places that support equal rights for men and women. In some countries, women aren't allowed to vote, drive, work or even step out in public, let alone do things that seem normal elsewhere. This eventually became their way of life and so, not many dared to question it.
Speaking up: Rothna at TEDxGateway 2018
This got us wondering what prompted Rothna to work in these regions. "I've seen gender discrimination and violence from a young age and always wanted to do something about it. Then, in college I studied Law, where I specialised in Islamic Law. That was when I learnt about the situation in the Middle Eastern countries. Islamic Law in itself had so much to do with it. After my master's, I took up a job with Amnesty International and started working for women's rights," says Rothna.
But once she started, she realised that it was a tough game out there. She began by working on individual cases of women who were domestic labourers. She spent the next decade improving the laws that dealt with abuse and violence against women. "These women are extremely vulnerable. When you're a migrant domestic worker and a woman, that is three odds against you. They are subjected to physical and sexual violence every day," she says, adding, "Most of them do not run away because their visas aren't renewed and their employers know that they cannot leave. Their families do not know where they are. They have no means to contact them or go back home."
I end up crying when I read emotional stuff. But it's different while working. I have to connect with the person I'm talking to and document their life with so much concentration. It is important for me to figure out a way to help them. Also, I encourage these women to tell their stories to not only help themselves, but to also help other women who are going through the same thing
Rothna Begum, Lawyer
Years ago, she started her work in Qatar, where she met many such abused women through embassies. Some of them, who had the luxury of taking a day off, met her and narrated their stories. She tells us of a young Indonesian woman, who was one among the first few she met. "This woman was in her early 20s and was working without a salary as a domestic help for three years. They never paid her a single penny! On top of that, she was made to work 21 hours a day, in total inhuman conditions. Then one day, her employer took her to his new house under the pretext of cleaning the house and there, he raped her. The next day, she ran away. The girl was in utter shock and was wearing the same bloodied clothes," says Rothna, who met the young woman four months after the incident. "She was in a shelter, had no money and was constantly asked by her family to return. But she was adamant and wanted to bring her rapist to justice," she says. But that didn't go quite well as the victim wasn't allowed to speak in court and her rapist got away.
Such cases are what prompted Rothna to work even harder towards changing laws. She's currently working to change the laws that deal with legal protection of domestic workers and the legislation against abuse of domestic workers. She's also campaigning to repeal the ‘marry-your-rapist’ law and male guardianship.
Tragic tales: An abused domestic labourer with her child
And was it ever difficult for Rothna to get her work done just because she is a woman? Well, not exactly, she says. She agrees that while not many have taken her seriously, this has also been a boon at times. "They know that I'm not a threat to them and so, they open up to me easily. Once, an agent even boasted that he beats up his workers," she says.
Unsurprisingly, the impact of her work has gotten her banned from entering many countries including the UAE and Oman. She's been facing threats from extremists and the ISIS as well. But that hasn’t stopped her. She wants a change in the system and wants to "create a new system that is against discrimination." Despite knowing that it could be challenging, she intends to push through as there's still so much more to do.