Amader Golpo: Meet Shahana Hanif, Bangladeshi visionary

By: Sharmin Hossain

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Shahana Hanif and I met while organizing in New York through our mutual friend Alok Vaid Menon; it was love at first sight. Here was this gorgeous, tall Bangladeshi femme born and raised in Brooklyn, wearing this vibrant salwar kameez to an Arundathi Roy reading in Manhattan, sharing her poetry with the South Asian organizing community. She also graduated from the City University of New York, and we had shared our traumas as Bangladeshi femmes over Kati Roll after Basement Bhangra one night. With Shahana, I learned about the visions of activists with disabilities, who are dispelling the myths of heteropatriarchal narratives. Shahana writes about living with lupus, does the hard labor of organizing Bangladeshi tenants in the Queensbridge Community Houses, while leading the Muslim Writers Collective.

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Shahana in Dhaka, Bangladesh

She’s made time to perform at the Chatpati Mela in Jackson Heights with her sisters and shares videos of her solo performances of my favorite Hindi and Bengali ballads. Shahana speaks to the legacies of strong Bangladeshi women in our community; she’s helped organize a demonstration in Kensington to honor young Rajon who was brutally murdered in Bangladesh. I had the opportunity to ask Shahana about her work and visions as a Bangladeshi New Yorker. She effortlessly names the strategies we need to adapt in building for the collective liberation of our communities.

1) Where is your family from? What is your relationship to your homeland?

My parents were raised in the Fatikchhari Upazila (town/borough) of Chittagong, in adjacent villages Munsur Gomostar Bari (father) and Shobhan Mollar Bari (mother). Calling Kensington, Brooklyn’s Little Bangladesh, home, is what draws me to my parents’ birthplace and the histories of their emigration. I’m not sure I revere or understand Bangladesh to be “my homeland.” What connects me to Bangladesh is Brooklyn. Home to me is Brooklyn, where I shared seats in a stroller with Sabia, my ride or die middle-child sister who’s also 11 months younger than me, at Awami League demonstrations at PS 230, sometimes at PS 179. It’s where I spent childhood wearing hijab at Baitul Jannah Jame Masjid making triangular pointers to stay in place while reading and studying the Quran, tutoring younger students on the Arabic letters to prepare them for the Quran, sent love letters across the sex-segregated room to boys, public speaking at masjid fundraisers/tournaments on tawheed. Recognizing the hush-hush gender inequalities and sexual harassment within the Bengali operated and populated mosque; it’s where I learned the importance of a diasporic Bangladeshi community organizing and surviving through region-specific ‘shomitis’ or associations, spaces which are still used as centers to celebrate Bijoy Dibosh (Victory Day), Shadhinota Dibosh (Independence Day), Bhasha Andolon Dibosh (Language Movement Day), and Pohela Boishakh (Bengali New Year), and a multitude of religious holidays.

2) Growing up as a Bangladeshi New Yorker, what are some things you wish you had more of? What are you grateful for?

Some of what’s written above captures the complexities growing up as a Brooklyn Bangladeshi- recap: my father was heavily involved in Bangladeshi politics, namely the Awami League Party, and the Chittagong Association of North America. Our ‘after-school’ activity was the masjid, and Bangla was/is hella important. Speaking English was not allowed in my house — it was only for school. My home was a celebration of Bangla in all its rhythms: my father continues to speak in a Chitainga and shadhu bhasha mashup. My mom speaks a range of dialects because of her relationships with the Bangladeshi community spans from Sandwip to Noakhali. I grew up with Bashir Ahmed’s 1969 hit ‘Amake Porate Jodi Eto Lage Valo,which Sabia and I sang at every house party, Urdu ghazals, and Bollywood movies. Song and music were important, but only within the corridors of the home. Chorcha (practice/training) was not allowed because my father feared it would prevent us from focusing on school and becoming doctors (neither of us are doctors nor pursuing the health field).

It was evident that the Bengali association spaces were male-heavy across executive boards, program committees, and attendance. This is still true today. As a child, I navigated these events thinking why wasn’t there programming specific to youth or women? Why weren’t there more women in a room aside for my mom and her friends?

3) Tell us about the work you do. How has organizing Bangladeshi tenants shaped your analysis of the socio-political landscape of NYC?

I am a Community Organizer at CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities. Language justice brought me to CAAAV alongside immigrant advocacy, intergenerational organizing, and the opportunity to work with low-income, limited English proficient Bangladeshis in NYCHA public housing — an untapped and growing population that is most vulnerable to extreme poverty, undiagnosed mental health issues, displacement and evictions, and disability and isolation, especially among aging seniors.

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Photo: Danny Kim

Our current campaign is organizing residents to demand NYCHA to improve existing language access services to better serve limited English proficiency Asian tenants. This includes a push to track all limited English proficiency NYCHA residents by way of a census and a database to track all languages spoken, the availability and dissemination of information (notices, important updates regarding housing and repairs) accessible in the tracked languages, translated signs, office hours to serve these communities, an easier repairs process, and funding allocated for interpretation and translation available within the community center or tenant association. Currently, I spend three days of the week traveling to and from Queensbridge Houses to build Bengali tenants’ presence and a support network within the Jacob Riis Community Center, in which I hold monthly leadership meetings to discuss campaign strategies, escalation steps, and learn about the needs of Bengalis (we do the same with Chinese and Korean tenants, our work is multilingual and pan-Asian). Informal and formal political education is key in our meetings, where women tenant leaders share their feminist dreams, talk about gender equality within Islam and Bangladesh, and bring to light the myth that is the American Dream and anti-immigrant rhetoric. This is important and is happening in Bangla — the language they are comfortable in and can easily express their worries and happiness. I’m blessed.

4) What are some of the struggles you witness the Bangladeshi community enduring? What are some methods of coping with that trauma?

What’s written above regarding the Queensbridge tenants applies to the Kensington community and other Bangladeshi-heavy neighborhoods: extreme poverty, unemployment or temployment, wage theft, undiagnosed mental health issues, displacement and evictions, and disability and isolation, especially among aging seniors. There is inaccessible information regarding services that are available to them — this isn’t to say that the community isn’t surviving or hustling to take care of each other because family and friends are taking on these roles for individual cases. This is not enough. Organizing the community ain’t easy. But we need to organize and bring aforementioned traumas to the forefront. Relationship-building, one-on-ones and easy conversations, and listening are methods I use in my organizing.

Language capacity is important — we need more Bangla/English bilingual speakers to take on leadership roles and facilitate organizing. The uncles who’ve been running the community associations need to be more inclusive in programming with room for women and children, both in leadership and attendance. We need more Bengalis for Bengalis.

5) What are some of your biggest dreams for your Bangladeshi community?

I want low-income, low English proficiency Bangladeshis in NYC to have access to rights and resources encompassing housing, health, and community. I want to erase the notion that you have to speak English to survive in the states. Bangladeshis come from an organizing history, our roots lie in fighting for our liberation. A second andolon/movement is happening in NYC.

Follow Shahana on Instagram: @sha.banana

Sharmin Hossain is a Jackson Heights, Queens bred Bangladeshi hard femme henna tattoo artist. She is the 2015 Open Society Youth Exchange fellow cultivating the Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project, a liberatory project documenting the extensive history and literature of Bangladeshi people. For the past five years, Sharmin has been on the core organizing team of East Coast Solidarity Summer, a radical political education camp for Desi youth in the East Coast. She is a fast talking educator, with hopes of opening a Bangladeshi food truck with her mother one day.

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The Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project is an interactive visual and narrative based digital archive & political theater project documenting resistance.

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