Dr Sakia Haque and Dr Manoshi Saha, the founders of Facebook group ‘Travelettes of Bangladesh–Bhromon Konya,’ speak to Dhaka Tribune's Ahmmed Sharjin Sharif about what it takes to run an all-female travellers’ group in a conservative Bangladeshi society
Can girls travel alone? Is it safe for them? Why do they even need to travel? These are the questions that female travellers often face when they travel by themselves. But Dr Sakia Haque and Dr Manoshi Saha, travel enthusiasts themselves, found a solution to all these “concerns” – they founded “Travelettes of Bangladesh–Bhromon Konya,” an online platform on Facebook exclusively for female travellers,providing the opportunity for safe travelling and raising awareness on the issue.
Tell us how Travelettes of Bangladesh came to be.
We are childhood friends; we went to high school, college, and medical school together, graduating from Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). We were roommates too. We both have always wanted to travel, but whenever we pitched the idea to our families, they shot us down citing safety issues.
Then a friend of Sakia's from Switzerland came to visit Bangladesh after seeing photos on Facebook. When she was visiting, we took her to various places of the country.
When the three of us travelled together, we realized that many women here want to travel as well, but circumstances prevent them. That’s how the idea of creating a platform for women who want to travel came to our mind, and we opened the Facebook group on November 27, 2016.
Initially, we thought of doing an exhibition of photos from all the beautifulplaces around Bangladesh. Within a month, we had 1,000 members.
How many members does your group have now?
More than 40,000.
When was the first trip of your group?
Our first trip was to the mustard fields in Narsingdi on January 20, 2017; we were a group of 19 women. Even then, I heard comments like “19 girls are travelling alone." I still do not get how so many people together can be “alone.”
Our second tour was in Moinot Ghat in Dohar, Dhaka, with 51 women travellers. We never fell short of travellers after that.
How many trips have you completed so far?
Our 67th event is in progress right now.
Do you have a mandatory trip planned every year?
Yes, we go on a Sundarbans tour at least once a year.
What is the interval between two events?
We usually try to arrange one or two tripsevery month. However, we had events on all four weekends last month (September). We even conducted four events simultaneously with four teams due to the rising demands.
Who supervises these events?
We have a very efficient committee. Other than us two, there are 20 people in our committee and 60 volunteers. Recently, we were recognized by the government, so we are not just a Facebook group any more; we are officially a travellers’ organization now.
Have you organized trips outside the country?
No. We are focusing on travelling within the country at the moment.
Do you take part in activities outside of travelling?
We do. The most notable program we arranged was “Bangladesh through women's eyes.” In this event, we went to at least one school in each district of the country and spoke with the students about Bangladesh, the Liberation War and women's health.
As we both are doctors, many of them asked us about various health issues.
We also have a self-defence program. The defence secretary in our committee, who is trained in Taekwondo, has also visited the schools and trained the students. We also speak about social issues child marriage and drug abuse.
Tell us about your best and worst experiences while travelling.
Let us tell about our worst experience: when we conducted a workshop at a school in the southern part of the country, the principal of that school, who was also a woman, said: “What good will this workshop do to these girls? They are going to be busy running their households anyway.” In another school, the Principal told the girls on camera: “Do you know who are responsible for sexual harassment? You are.”
We faced a number of situations like these, but the good experiences surely outweigh the bad one. In most cases, the locals have been cordial and welcoming.
Have you received any outside help for your group?
People helped us in various ways from time to time, including lawmaker Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Dr Kamrul Hasan and freedom fighter Abdul Gani. There is another person we are grateful to: the deputy secretary at the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, Nurun Akhtar. Shehas always encouraged us, and when she heard about our programs, she arranged for our stay in the circuit house inevery district we visited.
You have revolutionized travelling for women in Bangladesh.What changes have you witnessed in the last few years?
We think there have been substantial changes; women not only travel, but they are now forming organizations to help others travel. Families are letting girls travel with us without any reservations. Travelettes has become a place of trust.
Do you plan to turn your organization into a commercial or profitable platform?
No, there is no such plan as of yet.
Do you have any suggestion for the government regarding tourism?
The tourism board should appoint an adviser who has actually travelled the country and has knowledge about travelling. Also, they can advertise or promote the tourist spots of the country at the airports so people know about the places to visit easily.