In conversation with Syeda Samara Mortada -- Regional Movement Builder, Asia, SheDecides
SheDecides is a global political movement driving change, fuelled by actions in communities, with young people at its heart. The initiative commenced globally with the aim of countering and challenging restrictions imposed by the state at the societal and policy making level. Where the society, community and state aims to gag and weaken the women at every level, SheDecides movement envisions a society where women and girls will be empowered. SheDecides aims to establish a society where every girl and woman can decide the what, who, why, when and where aspect of her body and life; of her present and her future.
SheDecides was launched at the beginning of 2017 during the Trump terrain, as a movement to support the rights of girls and women to decide freely and for themselves about their sexual lives, including whether, when, with whom and how many children they have. SheDecides began with two words, then a one day conference, and has rapidly evolved into a growing global movement.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day this year, the Dhaka Tribune sat down with Syeda Samara Mortada, Regional Movement Builder, Asia, SheDecides in order to discuss ways to make progress by changing social norms.
Samara grew up in Saudi Arabia, and she went there with her family when she was only three years old. She moved back to Bangladesh when she was studying in the seventh grade, and completed her bachelor’s degree in English from East West University. She then went on to complete her master’s degree in women’s studies from the University of York, UK, and then worked at ICE Today, BRAC International, UN Women and other INGOs, prior to becoming the Regional Movement Builder at SheDecides. To build a locally rooted, globally connected community of moral leaders, Samara also became one of the change-makers, among those selected for Acumen Fellowship Program in Bangladesh in various sectors.
“As an activist, something that I’ve been personally involved in, recently, as a coalition, was the ‘Feminists Across Generations’ network, where we all came together -- irrespective of which organization we are working in, and what we were doing in our individual lives. Everyone around me, including my friends, were getting enraged by the increasing number of rape cases across the nation, especially after the one in Noakhali, where the video of the woman being gang raped went viral. We decided to form a coalition called ‘Feminists Across Generations’, and we organized the first public protest called ‘Rage Against Rape’. We gathered in front of the parliament building in Dhaka with our 10-point demands. From the event, the organizers declared gender-based violence a national emergency recognizing the fact that the business-as-usual approach to the cause will not bring the expected social changes. So, ‘Feminists Across Generations’ is something that I’m very closely associated with,” informed Samara.
Under the banner of ‘Feminists Across Generations’, rights activists and women from all walks of life also organized a torch procession -- with the slogan ‘Muktir Michhil’ or ‘March for Freedom.’ More than a hundred women joined the procession, which ended in front of the parliament on Manik Mia Avenue. The event marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The demonstrators also organized a flash mob in front of Dhanmondi 9/A area, with the theme ‘Tui Dhorshok’ or ‘You are a rapist.’ A second flash mob was arranged in front of Shankar area in Dhanmondi, followed by many others in and outside Dhaka. The final flash mob was arranged in front of the parliament.
Another organization that Samara is closely working with is called Bonnishikha. “Bonnishikha is an organization that a few of us friends started together, where we work to stop gender-based violence and ending gender stereotypes. We mainly use arts as a medium, and we have been putting up stage shows since 2015 under our banner. What we actually started off with was the ‘Vagina Monologues’ but then we thought that a lot of these stories don’t really resonate with the context in Bangladesh, so we did a local adaptation called ‘It’s a She Thing’. We also organized a theatrical production called ‘He Said, She Said’ which highlighted stories of both men and women. Last year, we organized the ‘Spectrum of Choice’ which focused on stories across different gender identities. Through Bonnishikha, we work on storytelling, put up stage shows, and also work on capacity development for the development sector as well as the private sector, who get in touch with us to start up conversations on gender,” said Samara, while talking about her work as an activist.