I'd like to begin with a vignette on how I came to writing about the Bangladeshi women's movement against men's acid throwing against girls and women in the 1990s. This essay is part of a larger research project entitled, "Feminist Negotiations: Contesting Narratives of the Campaign Against Acid Violence in Bangladesh." In September, 2000 I attended an event honoring television journalist Connie Chung and her ABC-"20/20" team for the Amnesty International Media Spotlight Award for a report, "Faces of Hope" which had aired nationally in the US in November 1999 and featured the experiences of two young Bangladeshi women, both survivors of acid violence, Bina Akhter and Jharna Akhter (no relation to each other). The event took place at the Yale Club in New York. "Faces of Hope" had reported on a growing epidemic of acid attacks against women in Bangladesh. Connie Chung and her journalistic team had told their American prime time viewers that the incidence of acid throwing by then had become highly prevalent among lower socio-economic groups both in Bangladeshi urban and rural areas. The ABC reporters also noted that the perpetrators are mostly young men and adolescent boys. The targets are primarily females between 12 and 25 years of age. While this profile of targets and perpetrators was accurate in the late 1990s when ABC produced its report, in early 2000 there has been a change: today, women, children and even men are being attacked by acid throwers of both genders. The overwhelmingly female victims were then and now attacked for reasons ranging from rejection of sexual advances from men, refusal of marriage proposals, family or land disputes, and unmet dowry demands.
The event at the Yale Club celebrated the ABC team's "discovery" and exposing of a despicable crime against women to the attention of an international audience, Bina and Jharna's coming to America sponsored by the international non-governmental organization (NGO) Healing The Children and UNICEF, Shriner's Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio for offering free medical treatment to a pipeline of 20 women from Bangladesh, all survivors of acid violence, of whom Bina and Jharna were the first, and the Llewen family in Ohio who agreed to host the girls for the duration of their visit. Several congratulatory speeches were made by the ABC team, as well as Bina and Jharna, who commended the achievements of the above-mentioned groups.
This event at the Yale Club left me with a sense of disappointment and betrayal despite the happiness that I felt for Bina and Jharna for being sponsored by international agencies and voluntary organizations to undergo reconstructive surgery in a reputable burn hospital in the U.S. It seemed to advance an all too simple progress narrative of victims of violence from Third World countries being saved and repaired by benevolent First World institutions. In other words, it did not seem to be mere accident that this event was being held not at a Bangladeshi women's center in Dhaka but rather, at an exclusive club of an elite American university in midtown New York City. The choice of location for this celebration of two young Bangladeshi women's courage, the hosting of the celebration by not their own media or own government, but by a powerful Western television corporation, and the choosing by a Western-based independent human rights group, Amnesty International, for a U.S. media corporation for a prize—all three choices created a simplistic progress narrative that erased a crucial element—that of the anti-acid violence campaign mobilized in the mid-1990s primarily by Naripokkho, a Bangladeshi women's advocacy group. Naripokkho's efforts created both the conceptual and organizational groundwork for placing acid violence against women and girls in Bangladesh into the global landscape of gendered human rights violation and concurrently mobilized attention to the issue of acid violence by both national and international actors. Thus, my modest attempt to trace a more complex trajectory of the campaign against acid violence in Bangladesh which gained momentum from the mid-1990s and onwards.
Incidents of acid attacks against both men and women have a longer genealogy in Bengal, Bangladesh, and the region; however my purpose here is not to trace the historic origins of such attacks but rather to trace the development of the concerted and focused efforts of a group of women activists of Naripokkho who first successfully turned acid attacks against women into a public issue—nationally and internationally—by mobilizing influential national and international players and making strategic yet uneasy alliances with them. It was during these years that Naripokkho activists negotiated with key institutions (national and international media, the state, medical and legal institutions, NGOs, private sector companies, and international aid agencies) to create a public discourse on acid violence against women and girls with the purpose of developing a "socially recognized campaign" by and for Bangladeshi women.
This is a study of a community of women organizing around an issue-based campaign within a larger national women's movement. I am interested in spelling out some of the implications for women's movements locally of transnational forms of organizing and the consequent kinds of tensions that have emerged, as well as the new opportunities that have been created. Scholars who study women's movements cross-culturally have talked at length of the ascendance of a new form of international feminist activism in the 1990s targeting intergovernmental organizations and international policy arenas and thereby attempting to achieve global leverage in gender policy on the local front. They recognize the culminating efforts in the UN conferences, prompted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, for women's rights advocates around the globe to solidify their organizing efforts and to catapult their local agenda onto the world policy stages. They further acknowledge the efficacy of global feminisms in promoting changes in gender-related policy at the international and national levels as a result of the heightened participation of women's rights advocates in international policy arenas. However, they also point to the less theorized underside of the globalization of feminism and the impact "back home" of local activists' involvement in international networks and policy arenas. In other words, local women's rights advocates engagement with policy advocacy on a global stage have had disparate and differentiated consequences locally in terms of movement dynamics and practices. These often contradictory consequences generate intra-movement tensions and lead to the unfolding of significant ramifications for the participants and the agenda of local movements.
The anti-acid violence campaign in Bangladesh is a case in point. In 2004 the success of the acid campaign can be measured by the creation of the donor (UNICEF) driven and financed Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) in Bangladesh providing consolidated and coordinated services to the survivors of acid violence. It can also be measured by the passing of new and more stringent legislation by the government criminalizing the sale of acid without a permit and the creation of the National Acid Council with branches at the district levels. Further, the level of engagement and interest from international media and organizations reflect the present day large scale and scope of the campaign. These successes however are ambiguous. That is, the state functions as an ambiguous power that seeks to sustain and support discriminatory practices, yet allowing spaces for them to be challenged. For instance, gaps in state-sponsored medico-legal services prevent women from protection supposedly guaranteed by the newly established laws. Procedures created to address gender-based abuse often in reality obstruct women's access, and particularly poor women's access, to the health systems. The long and convoluted process of filing a First Information Report (FIR) with the police involving inadequately trained court and medical officials, and providing "proof" of abuse, which is the burden of the survivors of violence, are cases in point. Similarly, while the exposure of acid violence in international media has certainly led to increased support for survivors, at the same time it has effectively erased the voices of the women who enabled the campaign in its early years. Furthermore, many of these internationally circulating representations depict survivors as "grateful recipients of foreign aid" and "victims of Third World horrors." These representations rarely do justice to the ways in which survivors themselves participate in negotiating various networks of power to avail themselves of services better suited for their own lived situations.
The creation of the Acid Survivors Foundation, the proliferation of services for acid survivors, the diversification of actors who became involved with the campaign in the mid to late 1990s, and the passing of new legislation reflect the culmination of Naripokkho's networking and advocacy on a national and global scale that enabled transnational coalitions of nongovernmental, governmental and intergovernmental actors to exert pressures on one another and other influential political bodies to invoke desired policy change. Yet at the same time, these same transnational coalitions co-opted the local women's issues and agenda and led to its deradicalization. For instance, the survivor-centered campaign that Naripokkho developed has gradually transformed into a welfarist one under ASF, which does not always resonate with the lived experiences of the women who have endured acid attacks. Survivors are increasingly being treated as "clients" who are channeled into various productive schemes designed by the rehabilitation program of ASF. In the absence of real choices, women are actively incorporated into service positions which do very little to disrupt systems of hierarchies based on gender, class, race and nationality.
The growth of transnational women's movements has undoubtedly contributed to further divisions within women's movements locally and nationally. Although global networks are forged across North-South boundaries, at the same time they tend to facilitate links between those groups and individuals with certain skills, resources and access to networks of power. And in the process, of course, class divisions are reaffirmed because transnational social movements come to rely more heavily on a privileged class who possess globally marketable skills and are able to speak to its language. The members of Naripokkho are primarily urban-based, professional, elite women who because of their skills, training and access to influential political and social networks were able to launch a campaign with far-reaching impact and scope.
Often the very aims of movements change in response to the shifting parameters of international funding. Because international donor organizations have played such a pivotal role in strengthening, and at times actually creating, many local organizations and networks, as well as enabling them to flourish, these funding considerations are critical. The result, very often, is the "NGO-ization" of social movements. The emergence of the Acid Survivors Foundation in Bangladesh is no different. Nonetheless, it would be misleading to see transnational women's movements simply as merely a reinscription of age-old power inequalities and the continued triumph of only the more elite groups, because women's organizations based in communities are simultaneously flourishing. For instance, the campaign against acid violence that was enabled because of the global discourse of gendered human rights also facilitated the emergence of a national network of acid survivors developed by a group of survivors who were encouraged and supported by well-positioned feminists in Naripokkho.
There is a need to expand our theoretical understanding of local women's organizing and the context in which they operate. In Bangladesh, there is a complicated national and transnational web involving a diverse set of institutions, each of which is also internally diversified, which interacted in meaningful ways in the development and success of this campaign. There are many mediating factors: international agencies and their interests in privileging some networks over others, the hierarchical relations among and within networks, the precarious and frequently changing interests of the international aid agencies, the vicissitudes of state political history, recalcitrant state policy arena—the relationship of all these factors creates tensions for leaders of women's networks.
On one hand, UNICEF funding (through ASF) was crucial to the acid campaign's organizational growth but it also created tensions for members and clients of the campaign. On the other hand, UNICEF itself generated new strains in terms of its own engagement with the campaign, for instance the welfarist rehabilitation programs and the imposition of experimental and imported counseling programs such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for acid survivors. Another point is that there are varying kinds of NGOs: some that are more powerful through the legitimacy of the state or international aid agencies, and others that are more strongly tied to local populations. Naripokkho was a well-positioned one because of its leadership who are influential, educated, professional members of society with proven track records of success. At the same time though there is considerable competition among NGOs for limited resources, which hinder collaboration among them. After all it has to be taken into consideration that Western funding is impermanent and a domestic funding base will ultimately be necessary if the local women's organizing efforts is to attain sustainability. The inter-NGO dynamics of competition enhance the dependence of NGOs on external interventions and compromise their autonomy and possibilities of meaningful collaborations. Naripokkho became subject to pressures of international organizations, the state, and its own organizational conflicts and was forced to make concessions in its agenda and its campaign structure in order to accommodate those demands. However, at the same time, it was also able to negotiate within a bureaucratic web to a certain degree. It was able to realign itself and take advantage of the various funding options just as some of the survivors themselves did in making use of programs that would allow them the greatest flexibility in asserting their own interests. In addition, it was able to use the international and national organizations to gain access to transnational alliances, which would have been difficult otherwise. This is but one example of creative strategizing by local women's groups leading to success and failure.