Amader Golpo: Chaumtoli Huq Speaks Truth to Power

Sharmin Hossain sits down with Chaumtoli Huq, public advocate, educator at City University of New York’s Borough of Manhattan Community College, and mother of two beautiful children. Chaumtoli created Law at the Margins, a dynamic social media platform that highlights the ways laws and social justice aspirations work together, and is directing the production of Sramik Awaaz, a documentary on the Bangladeshi labor organizing movement. For the full transcription, click here.

Tell us where your family is from and what kind of work you do.

I was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh on September 6th. It was in 1971 during the War for Independence. My parents are originally from a region in Bangladesh called Noakhali.

A month after I was born, my maternal grandmother was a teacher living in government housing. At that time this was considered a Pakistani establishment. Her home was bombed. We never knew who was responsible for the attack. I was an infant, so I didn’t know what occurred. I’ve tried to get newspaper clippings but it was so long ago. The ceiling collapsed onto my crib. There was a lot of rubble, but miraculously somehow I managed to survive. My father and my uncles were digging me out of there. My grandmother keeps saying “Oh, Chaumtoli tho bachtho na. Amra na bachaile, bachto na.” (Oh, Chaumtoli wouldn’t have survived. If we hadn’t saved her, she wouldn’t have survived.) I think that moment is symbolic and it feels like each time that I’m living is “but for the grace of Allah” or some Divine power.

In 1972, my father was very much involved in left oriented politics. After Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came into power, he unfortunately, began to attack a lot of left-oriented intellectuals, poets. My father was a poet and one of his friends was killed. In fear, my father left for the states. My mom recently told me that if you had some technical skill back then, they were like “here’s your green card!” If I’m not mistaken, my father either went to the embassy in Bangladesh or arrived to New York with his green card. This meant he was able to get access in 1972. Under different circumstances we would be asylees, fleeing the politics, but because immigration law here was much more open, my father was able to come in. He studied pharmacy. At that time, a large number of his batchmates were able to come to America very easily because of that reason. My brother, myself and my mother followed them later. From about late elementary to middle school, I was raised by my mother and lived in Parkchester, in the Bronx. I actually took my law licensing exam sitting in my Bronx apartment.

Why was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman targeting leftists during that time?

Because Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came in at such an intense time, he was more of a centrist. There was a lot of hopes around a socialist oriented new government. One of the competitors against Sheikh Mujibur was Maulana Bhashani. The term ‘lal salaam’ comes from Bhashani, the idea of a Muslim socialist, but at the same time, speaking for the peasant class. So he [Bhashani] refused to participate in the elections, and even though he was one of the founders of the Awami League, broke off. After he broke off, Sheikh Mujib created a new party.

As a result, the left and the intellectuals were then kind of a threat. As soon he got into power, he also began to consolidate that power. Targeting left politically oriented artists and poets seemed to be an effective tactic. My father was a poet, so he wrote a poem about seeing his friend killed. That was the impetus for him to leave Bangladesh.

Chaumtoli Huq being honored at SAPNA NYC annual gala, 2015

I think your story speaks to like the multitudes of our existence, as Bangladeshi diasporic women. I think when you name how you carry the complexities of being a feminist, but loving and respecting theleftist tradition in our legacies, you speak a lot to what it means to be a revolutionary Bangladeshi who loves the revolution that happened in our homeland. 1971 was so integral to the cultural formation, but also you are critical of the impact it’s had the women in that country. So tell me about language. You were speaking earlier about how your mom was really about Bangla in the house. What was that like and how do you see that love for Bangla as a parent now? What are the ways you use language as that bridging tool to understand that complex history?

I completely agree with you. I think that women post 1971, especially women like Birangonas who’ve been raped, other women who actually took up arms in the liberation movement often times are not acknowledged. They are consequences to that, their sacrifices to any social justice movement. I think women bear the brunt of it, continually.

My story is one piece of a larger narrative of many women who experience the sacrifices of the revolution. I feel like younger Bangladeshi feminists, younger women, emerging activists are really sophisticated about understanding gender, the community and questioning, which we didn’t have the tools for growing up.

My father is a poet in Bangla. Even though from kindergarten to the third grade, I went to P.S. 106 in the Bronx and didn’t really know any Bangla and my mom would complain ‘Thumi Bangla the kotha bolo na. Bangla the othor daw na.” (You don’t speak Bangla. You don’t reply in Bangla.) I’d get a lot of criticism. At the time there was no Bangla school [in New York]. For three years, my mom tutored me in Bangla. I think that the combination of my dad being a little of a intense like “Oshombob! Amar mei Bangla porthey parbe na?” (Absurd! My child can’t read Bangla?)

His poetry is on a level I can’t even read anyways, but I can read basic Bangla and my mom was instrumental in making sure I can do that. As a Bangladeshi married to a non-Bangladeshi, who speaks Spanish, it’s a huge challenge and I remember writing my husband this poem called ‘What language will our children speak.’ Will it be Bangla? Will it be Spanish? And I kind of went off. I’m not a poet, but I was inspired. I tried to introduce my children to Bangla, but I’d be lying if I said my kids are anywhere near fluent at all.

Yes, and you take your children to Bangladesh.

I take them to Bangladesh every year and a half. My husband and I made the commitment that in our budget whatever vacation we will take, we’ll to Bangladesh. Even though in New York I grew up in the working class community, in Bangladesh, my parents are institutionally educated. Dhaka University, lower middle class. We would not be considered from a working class family in Bangladesh. People around can speak a little bit of English. My kids are talking to their grandfather who is fluent in both English and Bangla. What I decided as a parent: fluency would be great, but I want them to be comfortable in claiming this side of their heritage. That was more important to me. By going to Bangladesh and for the community see them, and take them in because they are bi-cultural was more important for me to prioritize.

Chaumtoli with her partner Marvin Cabrera and two children. Photo Credit: Samina Sira

Bangla is a really hard language to learn, you know. I think it takes a lot of years of even being confident to speak it and especially with the classism that happens internally.

Yes, because this past year, I spent in Bangladesh, I was interviewing doing everything in Bangla. And then one person said to me “Shadharontho, deklam tho bayrer thike jara ashe, Bangla bolthe parey. Ami deklam apne atho bhalo Bangla bolthe parenna.” (Usually, those who come from the outside can speak Bangla well. I’ve noticed that you don’t know how to speak Bangla well.) And I was like * laughs shockingly.*

Yes! Like, do you know how many years it took me to get here?

I know. It was interesting and truthful. In Bangladesh, people are taught English and Bengali. So a lot of Bangladeshi scholars or actors are fluent in both — Bangla and English. Maybe when they speak they have an accent, but they have strong command of both. It’s actually us — the diaspora. I always used to feel like we’re neither here nor there. Even when I was away during my middle school period, I had to always grapple with English a little bit. Like grammar, things that I missed, because I was not here. Sometimes I feel like, ‘Oh I’m not strong in anything’ — in either English or Bengali, but now, I’ve come to terms with that because it’s not a shame for me, that’s a product of my experiences. And if language is to communicate, “Do you understand me?” Yes. Then okay we’re done.

Yea, and recently you spoke at NTV and that was an experience you wrote about on your Facebook. How was that? I know that shuddho Bangla is an experience of it’s own and what it means to be in an intellectual community and speaking Bangla, is also a very different experience. So how do you see the way in which those divides show up, and as somebody who is an advocate for language equality, but also an advocate against classism. How do you navigate that?

I was invited to be interviewed on my work on labor rights. They said it was in Bangla, I was first like, “No I don’t want to do it!” cause I had never done it before. I speak all the time, and have spoken [Bangla] in smaller settings. Television interviews, I have to sound smart, so I was very nervous and I think that there’s all that you mention about shuddho Bangla and ashuddho Bangla.

One of the beautiful things about interviewing garment workers is it is rich, rich in metaphor. Because, the way in which they have to communicate to each other, is through these metaphors to communicate these really complex concepts. I remember having to translate an interview, the journalist was like, ‘what’s she saying?’ and she’s talking about unions and employers.

“Malik ra macher motho pisla, oderke chai na dile, dhora jai na. Union hocche chai.”

So when you translate, it’s like, okay an employer’s like a fish. You gotta put ash on them, otherwise they’ll slip through your hands. It doesn’t quite flow in English, but in Bangla, fish, the metaphor of catching the fish, the sliminess of it, right, is to note the trickery of the employer.

If I just said, ‘you have the right to the union, under the law, union protects you!’ Not that they couldn’t grasp, but they couldn’t grasp in a specific way that really relates to their day-to-day experience. So language and class and all of that is so important. I think that a lot of times, people misunderstand the richness and the depth of what someone is saying, because they’re all worked up about the form of it.

The other thing is around class. Even though I may have been a migrant here, and grew up in a working class community, I had greater access, as compared to someone who didn’t have higher and formal education in Bangladesh. So it’s really important not to conflate class. Well sometimes people say, well “Apner kotho koshto korey shofol hoilen.” You’re so successful, right. Right. But, okay yes, my mom was a single mother. She was an immigrant. She had a union job, but she had a job that paid her, but because she had at least a Bachelor’s degree from Dhaka University.

In the 1970s, when having a bachelor’s from a developing country was the wanted skill labor. Immigration shifted now, right. Cause some people will say, well I now have a degree, but I can’t get a job except for retail service. So I think that it’s really important to kind of keep in mind the person who’s coming from Bangladesh on a diversity lottery, or who may not have formal or higher education from their home country, coming into the United States and given the racial segmentation of America, how are they able to have any class mobility. I share that because, as someone who’s in that grey zone, it’s really important for us to check our classism — and internalized classism.

In writing also, my first case involved a domestic worker. And I knew that she would not speak English, but as a young lawyer I was like she would know Bangla. But then when she came, I had to have her sign the complaint. And she was like “Apu, ami tho shohi korthe pari na.” (Oh sister, I can’t write.) And then, I was like, right. So in all the language access conversations, we’re translating documents.

For who?

For who? Because sometimes, the level at which it’s being translated, isn’t accessible to the population who needs a translation — that’s one. And then the other is, even if they can read, because actually there’s a relatively decent level of literacy, but even if they can read that doesn’t mean that they can then also write.

So, for example, you translated a form and you’re all happy. Here’s my public assistance form, and it;s in Bangla. It’s in Bangla. You fill this out. But if the person cannot write in Bangla, then what do you do? This is actually not uncommon. I’ve see this in my representation of Mexican immigrants, particularly from indigenous communities in Mexico because they don’t speak Spanish. They speak their indigenous languages. So, if you’re translating -– you’re like, “Oh, you’re from Mexico? Here. I’m going to talk to you in Spanish.” Actually, no. They don’t speak that.

Can you tell us more about the work you do and what it’s been like to serve and work with the Bangladeshi New York community and transnationally in Bangladesh?

I identify myself as a labor rights advocate. I’ve seen the Bangladeshi community struggle with labor rights, and working with Bangladeshi community there are challenges, but I love it. Even if the community disagrees with you or doesn’t like outright, I’ve always felt a certain amount of love. They still know that your intentions are to help and that has always been positive in terms of the work. I will say, having a law degree does shield me from a lot of critique that say, an organizer without a degree probably would experience. “Oh, she’s a lawyer and, but she’s helping. Okay, we don’t like that she’s suing Bangladeshi employers for wages for Bangladeshis.” I’ve brought a lot of cases against Bangladeshi employers, especially construction or those who don’t pay their wages to their workers. Cause at the end of the day, you’re not following the law. If you want to follow the law, I can help you. But if you consistently don’t want to follow the law, it shouldn’t go on the backbone of the poorest of our communities. So in those moments, I’ve been criticized, and I go in and out of favor, depending.

From left to right: Shahana Hanif, Nadia Hussain, Chaumtoli Huq, Jensine Sultana & Gulnahar Alam. Shahana is the lead organizer of CAAAV’s tenant advocacy program, Nadia co-founded the Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Intiative, Jensine is a youth leader at DRUM, and Gulnahar is one of the founders of Andolan.

For example, when I represent Muslim drivers, surveillance and targeted by FBI — great! I’m protecting against the state. When I’m suing the Bangladeshi diplomat for abusing his domestic worker, then I’m a traitor to Bangladesh. So I think that in those moments, the most important thing is to remain engaged and to remain connected to groups.

I get calls for everything and I actually don’t mind it. On any given day you know someone would say ‘Chaumtoli, such and such has a problem, can you talk to her?’ And it doesn’t matter where I’m at — domestic violence, family law issue, housing issue. Because I’m advocate. I’m a lawyer. I can talk to them about things. I can’t represent them in all those cases.

How do you engage with that difficult conversation, where these people feel betrayed by so many people; and then we feel alone in our own communities; and then we feel like our own communities are not rallying for us or supporting us? What are the methods you use? I think this process of talking it out is also giving strategies for young people that are in between these margins of yes, I want to be involved in social change, but sometimes I don’t know if I can do work there.

For the most part, the folks that I speak to — clients or advocates — have appreciated whatever I’ve done. I think one of the things about Bangladeshi people, we are shadharon manush, or matir manush, literally people of the soil. Sometimes you feel undeserving.

After 9/11, my friend’s father was detained and I went because he needed access to heart medication. I had an attorney pass and I could say, he needs medication. He had a pending case, because in that moment he was undocumented. They had detained him. I didn’t represent him in his actual immigration case. Auntie called because I grew up in Parkchester where most of the people were also undocumented. People know I’m a lawyer. “Mama ke detain korsey, kichu korthe parbe ki na?” (They detained uncle, can you do anything?) And I literally went to Federal Plaza and I was like I don’t care, I’ll just do whatever. So, to this day, whenever the auntie sees me, she’s like “Thomake chara ami ki kortham? Oi shomoi.” (What would I do without you? That time.) And to me, and as a lawyer, in the scheme of things, it’s like, all I did was show up and just make a strong argument and talk loudly to them to say “This is a person who requires medical attention, and needs medication.” Those folks are extremely appreciative.

The folks who are critical are when I take a political stance. If I represent a domestic worker against a Bangladeshi employer, if I speak against the current Bangladeshi government. If I say anything that might embarrass Bangladesh. If I was critical of Bangladesh.

What it means to hold these contradictions in a way that’s acknowledging: yes we have a history of deep patriarchy from the same leftists that are liberating our country but also, there’s are deep divides in our nation.

Yes, absolutely and you asked about strategies. I think one of the things that I’ve tried to do is to just be present. I try to connect with people on some level. I think that’s from my own life experience of seeing that families can have these ruptures. I loved how you said that you hold these contradictions. We’re walking with these contradictions, and we’re living them, and each moment we’re negotiating and navigating theat. Some days, I’m like “Baddao, ami parbo na.” (Leave it, I can’t.) And then some days, I just say okay, I’m gonna engage.

If anyone is going to glean any strategies from it, it’s ultimately oneself — protect yourself. The queer movement, I think is very good at this, about harm reduction., in any traumatic relationship, where there are competing oppressions. When I sued the diplomats from Bangladesh, they said, “Oh other diplomats, Europeans do the same things. Why you targeting us? This sends a bad name to Muslim diplomats versus non-Muslims.” There’s some truth to that, but I did sue a Baharaini diplomat and I managed the message so that it was never about being Muslim. Even then, the media kept asking “Do you think this happens Ms. Huq, mostly in Muslim communities?” And I’m like, “No. This is about power as a diplomat and it happens across the board.”

Can I engage in a way that’s not going to harm emotionally and re-traumatize me? I think that reducing harm — to yourself, to the community — as a neutralizing principle is probably the place to start. I credit the queer movement, as it has been very good with that because of State violence. How do you deal with state violence? How do you deal with internalized oppression — oppression to each other?

Can you tell us a little about your last trip to Bangladesh and what kind of research you did there?

In Bangladesh, I didn’t represent anyone, it was purely research. I didn’t do any legal representation. I got a research project to go after the Rana Plaza collapse and investigate the labor conditions after the horrendous tragedy, where over 1,100 workers died. My goal was to interview employers and all stakeholders, so it was all different perspectives. My personal goal was to know how workers were doing and how the labor movement was. It was actually one of the highlights of my life thus far.

Photo Credit: Chaumtoli Huq’s Facebook page

Women who were managing their families and going to work. This work was arduous work and then on weekends, they go to their union office and are organizing. I would say it’s a triple burden that they have because women labor leaders in Bangladesh have triple burden. They have the burden of their gender and they still have to do work at home. Workers would talk about going to work in the morning, coming home during lunch time, feeding their in-laws or their husband, running back to work, and coming back. Then, if they have children, taking care of the children, making food for their husbands, and they still have to do the line share of household work. This is actually true for Western women too. I wanna disavow any illusion that this is only about these garment workers or those uneducated garment workers and husbands, and not ‘educated’ Western men.

It was a phenomenal experience because I was inspired by the risks that people take. In Bangladesh, there’s an industrial police, there’s police forces intended to literally squash protest in the labor sector. You have workers who are beaten with rubber bullets and they’re still out in the streets. To imagine you’re in the streets and there’s three hundred worker women sitting and they’re protesting for their wages. To me, it was inspiring to see and capture their voices. This was not my intention, but I was recording the interviews, putting together a documentary, Sramik Awaaz. I’m working with a filmmaker in Bangladesh, because I’m not a filmmaker. That project is ongoing but I have a short five minute video from that.

One of the things I realized, was that I don’t want to mediate their voices. As much as I can say, I’m conscientious. I’m aware of class issues. At the end of the day, I’m a lawyer, educated in the United States and in Bangladesh, I have access. People are going to meet with me because I have a US degree. I’m a researcher from America. I have a US passport. I wanted to make sure that their voices were told and I lifted that up. That’s leveraging my privilege towards that.

I loved it. At that time it was like almost fifteen years in my lawyering, activism, I was feeling burnt out, and asking myself: ‘Why am I doing this? What is this all for?’ It gave me a boost because I saw these women were no joke. On the flip side, there were people who were afraid because it’s a tremendous amount to fight against the power. I took my entire family — my husband, my kids went. I put them in an English school so they got the experience of just living in Bangladesh, living in Dhaka. Just professionally, personally, I felt really whole. So much of my life are these fragmented identities. I’m a mother. I’m an activist. I’m Bangladeshi. I’m in these spaces. There were all of these siloed identities. I think that was the first time in awhile where I felt like they sort of all came together.

I love talking to you because the Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project is uplifting the history that you laid the groundwork for highlighting the ways that the labor that we do — the emotional labor, the talks, the chai, the sitting down with other Bangladeshi women have actually led our community where it is. I think what would be exciting is for mentors like you to always hold space to engage with all these contradictions and occupying all these different identities. I’m really grateful for you and I’m really excited to share these lessons with other people.

I’m a huge proponent, and this is probably definitely being Bangladeshi, of one-on-one relationships. They’re very intensive. I think it’s what you said about kind of the chai and being present. I think that in terms of where I am right now, I’m really aligning myself to this notion of being present. For folks who are really committed to building a social justice community that want to really live on the principle of equality, helping each other, and bringing us all along, I’m present for that person if they need it.

What I’m doing now, after I returned back from Bangladesh, is creating space, creating opportunities, lending my skill towards opening up opportunities that allow for social change to happen. To me, I feel like our task is to do things so that the conditions exist for, for revolutionary to come. You need to have the right temperature for the plant to grow. I’m focusing on my website, Law at the Margins, looking at law and social justice, creating a platform for folks to come together; cultivating conversation around topics of social justice; intervene where I can. Sometimes it’s like a Facebook rant and then sometimes it’s a much more involved organizing.

Thank you so much. I think having access to the different histories that we come from would be so important for this generation to fuel desires to become more public advocates; to become social workers. New York City needs more Bangladeshi teachers. These are the foundations and principles that we have to engage with in order to really bring our community to address the socio-economic and political issues.

You can follow Chaumtoli Huq on Twitter: @lawatmargins

Be sure to support Sramik Awaaz!

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