For a servant, that was the only ticket to marriage as she had no wealth or lineage.
She was dragged mercilessly to the balcony, clutching her black plastic trash bag close to her side as if her life depended on it. The dusty, mosquito-infested balcony was perhaps two feet wide, five feet long. She stared aimlessly into the crowded and polluted city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, a woman in her early twenties. The balcony door was slammed shut and locked. Tears rolled down her face as she tightened her scarf insecurely, her hands shaking. The little ones banged the balcony door, taunting and jeering.
Earlier that day, she was expecting to depart to her home village, from where she was hired a few months before. As she was escorted to a rickety rickshaw, my aunt noticed her bag was unusually heavy, things inside of it clanking together. Frankly, servant girls barely have enough clothes to last them two or three days, so based on that suspicion, my aunt demanded to check her plastic trash bag. After much resistance from the poor woman’s end, it was discovered that she had stolen a number of household items. The loot consisted of a few plastic toys, red onions, cilantros, and a few other items. Upon estimation, it amounted to perhaps two or three American dollars.
News spread throughout the entire building that a servant had committed thievery. For a country so corrupted, the reaction to petty theft was rather ironic. Everyone began to give their input on the punishment. The girl was cornered in the servants’ headquarters, an unfurnished, barren rock-floored room. Finally, my aunt arrived with a pair of scissors. The girl gasped, her tears and sweat fusing down her face. I was utterly confused, unsure as to what could be done with those scissors.
The servant dropped to her knees, pleading and begging for her dear life. Her scarf was loosened as her long hair tumbled towards the ground. They were intending to cut her hair. I still could not follow along with this foreign form of punishment.
It was then explained to me that her hair was a means of beauty. For a servant girl, that was the only ticket to marriage as she had no wealth or lineage. Observing her tear-stricken face, her thin and weak knees shaking, I squirmed and looked away. I heard my mother whisper a plea on behalf of the girl. Perhaps my aunt did not want to create a scene in front of us, visitors from halfway across the world. Perhaps the girl had learned her lesson. Whatever the reason, my aunt eventually dropped the scissors and called the girl’s family to immediately pick her up.
Suddenly, all of my challenges and tribulations seemed minuscule in comparison. It was a reality check; a reminder to not only be grateful for all of my materialistic possessions, but for the intangible traits of honor and dignity as well; a reason to express modesty and humbleness at all times. Who is it to say that I could not have been in her shoes? It was only through necessity and desperation that she had committed this misdeed, if her actions can even be called that.
It was sad for me to witness this incident, especially since I have always only heard of the people of Bangladesh being associated with their impeccable hospitality and fish curry. I then realized that much of this behavior was in fact reflective of a larger global phenomenon of our perpetually developing world, where there has arisen an inevitable imbalance on the scale of social structure both domestically and internationally. This disparity has caused various forms of racism and discrimination to emerge and erupt on many fronts, including class, skin color, culture, and tradition. This dissonance has trickled down to the local and everyday level in many places, including Bangladesh, and has unfortunately led many people to fall sway to blatant racism and discrimination.
The Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) once said, “A white (person) has no superiority over a black (person) nor a black (person) has any superiority over a white (person) except by piety and good action” (Tirmidhi). Perhaps it’s time for all of us, especially for those of us who have been deafened and blinded by our own egotistical lifestyles for too long, to actively speak out and work against acts of discrimination everywhere, blatant or otherwise.
Upon returning home, the stacks of school books and endless work documents were just as I had left them, untouched. However, with this fresh perspective in mind, the tasks appeared smaller. I pushed in my chair, opened the first task at hand, and said, “Alhamdulillah.”
What went through her mind as she was then marched to the balcony, what became of her thereafter, I still cannot help but wonder. Nonetheless, I pray that she has found solace and honor wherever she may reside.