I was never particularly a fan of tea. That is—of course—until I arrived in Bangladesh. Maybe the taste of tea is acquired as one gets older. Or maybe tea tastes sweeter when shared in good company. Either way, my conversations with women over a cup of milky, sugary cha have become my fondest memories of my time in Bangladesh.
I came to Bangladesh with the false assumption that I would learn what it means to be a Bangladeshi woman, a woman from the sub-continent, or even a woman from a Muslim nation. My science background sometimes leads me to believe that things can be placed simply into categories. But, I soon realized that women's stories were both complex and diverse. And every woman has many stories to tell.
After a dinner of dahl, dosa, and fish kebob (I almost burst out of my salwar kameez!), Deni and I sipped tea as Monira told us fascinating stories of her life. We laughed about her dangerous escape from untrustworthy men during a visit to the U.K. With nostalgia and a twinkle in her eye, she explained the way wearing her mother's beautiful lilac and silver sari made her feel. As if we were old friends, she expressed the emotional strain of working with acid survivors for 10 years, her concerns for her two little boys, and her hope for new self-exploration. I left the night already anticipating seeing Monira when she is honored by Americans for UNFPA in New York City for her women's rights work.
Kohimoor's stories inspired me just the same. Although Deni, Semonti, and I were just expecting a tour of TARANGO, Kohimoor invited us for tea and—my favorite—mango. She shared the difficulties of once working in a male-dominated workplace (unfortunately, something many of us can relate to...), deciding to stop having children after the birth of her daughter in a culture that prizes boys, and her reliance on and respect for the members of the Women's Leadership Forum that she created.
I wanted my travels to initiate a dialogue about our lives as women. As it turns out, these amazing ladies were already speaking. I just needed time to sit with them over a cup of tea, and start listening!
If we took the time to listen, we Americans would soon realize that we do not have to travel to "fix" the broken world. Women in every part of the world are taking charge and challenging the status quo. We need to support them instead of thinking we have to do all the fighting for them. This means something as simple as declaring yourself an American for UNFPA, lobbying Congress to fund women's empowerment programs, and to start listening to women themselves. We must be open and honest and supportive. And there is no better time to do so than over a warm cup of tea, or hey, even a Starbucks latte!