When will travelers stop being harassed?
Solitary female travellers all over the world are an inspiration to many. A short escape from the mundane life of work, studies, and stress in general helps us relax and unwind. Planning all the details to the letter, making checklists, or embracing absolute spontaneity are what keep us optimistic for better days.
So, when that exciting moment finally arrives to cross the border, what can possibly rain on one’s parade? The answer is: Sexist and misogynistic attitudes.
Incidents of harassment at airports are becoming more prevalent all over the world. Plenty of people become targets of racial, religious, or gender profiling, and face trouble on a regular basis. In Bangladesh, airports can be distressing to anyone, especially if you are a woman. The officer’s years of expertise should aid them in identifying a possible suspect, or tell apart any form of threat from an innocent individual. However, their behaviour does not demonstrate as such.
Recently, an online focus-grouped discussion consisting of girls and women of all ages and backgrounds compiled a list of derogatory comments and questions. While there is significant disparity in their educational or financial backgrounds, what they share is the condescending treatment from immigration officers at Bangladeshi airports.
Remarks or queries made by airport officers include: “Why aren’t you married?” “If you have been married for a few years, why don’t you have a baby yet?” “How can an unmarried woman run a business?” “Why is a single woman going to Thailand without a man?” “Why are you travelling without your husband?” Is your marriage alright?” “Are you going on holiday or running away from home?” “What’s the point of studying abroad?” “After marriage you will just have to cook.” “You got fatter than the photo in the passport but you also look prettier now.” “Your husband is deceased and you are travelling around with your male friends now?”
All these questions and remarks sound far worse when spoken in Bengali, along with the manner and delivery employed by the officers. People are questioned to the point where they panic over missing their flight.
All these bigoted remarks are unwarranted and unacceptable -- such inappropriate behaviour should be questioned and reported by anyone who has faced them. The authorities concerned should be informed about the hassle one has to go through. Given that our country is run by a strong female leader, it is absurd to question the competence of women in this era.
The severity of the problem is only aggravating -- female travellers feel like criminals standing in fear in their own country, and there needs to be more effort addressing this issue.
A female traveller took the initiative to inform the authorities, messaging details of her experience, and inquired if leaving her husband or children behind or travelling alone is a crime, that women have to be subjected to such humiliation from immigration officers.
Asking questions about the purpose of travel is, of course, acceptable, and checking documents necessary -- but minimal decency is the least a traveller can expect from the officers. Unless there is serious suspicion for further inquiry, the officers are not entitled to asking questions which make passengers uncomfortable -- nor should they have any authority to pass unsolicited advice or uncomfortable personal opinions.
There is plethora of adjustments which need to be made in the existing system, and the authorities are indeed trying their best, with limited capacity, to make the airport experience better. These unfavourable situations arise due to the absence of institutional discipline, lack of morality, and underlying corruption in the departments.
Bangladeshi airports have been infamous in the past for tax evasion at customs, with officers annoying expats for “speed money” and luggage misplacement.
The rise of technology, the improvements made to the tourism sector and travel services offer a valuable platform for travellers worldwide. It is no longer perceived as a luxury, but rather a necessity to explore beyond our borders, to be able to explore out of our comfort zones.
The ingrained sexism in our patriarchal society not only reeks of bias, but can also dampen the travel experience for many tourists, home or abroad. Moving forward, training for proper etiquette and inquiry procedure is crucial for the airport staff and officers of Bangladesh.
Tanishaa Arman Akangkha is a researcher.