Interview: Sara Hossain at The Cambridge Union

Scarlet Rowe 1 March 2022
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I was given the opportunity to interview Sara Hossain on Saturday at The Cambridge Union. Sara is an extremely inspiring lawyer and she currently works as a barrister at the bar of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. Having followed the work of Sara for quite some time, I felt a mixture of nerves and excitement at the prospect of meeting her in person. It quickly turned out that there was no need to be nervous as Sara came into the room with a reassuring smile on her face, listened intently to my questions, and had many interesting and thought-provoking things to say.

I began the interview by asking Sara what she does from day to day. She says that she is an “unusual kind of lawyer” because she works in a corporate law firm in Bangladesh that also does litigation. As part of her “non-day-job”, Sara runs Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, also known as BLAST, meaning that her day to day practice is “varied to say the least”.

This week, BLAST are working on two key cases. One entails an intervention in a legal case whereby the female claimant is challenging the fact that Hindu law in Bangladesh means that only her brothers are entitled to inherit her father’s property on his death. BLAST is arguing that this is clearly a “violation of constitutional rights” and that, consequently, this is a “public interest issue”.

As Sara’s whole career is focused on improving the rights of women in Bangladesh, I ask her to summarise some of the key issues that women face there today. She says that there are discriminatory family laws including the fact that Christian and Hindu women do not have the right to divorce “irrespective of the level of violence they might be facing in the family”. Additionally, if people face discrimination in their workplace or education based on ethnicity, language, religion or gender identity, they don’t receive “any kind of protection”. As a result, a lot of major organisations in Bangladesh are working to change this.

Another major issue surrounds freedom of speech, “particularly regarding digital and online space”. Sara says that when she was a student, people “organised on the street” whereas now, many protests have shifted to online spaces. There is a lot of new legislation in Bangladesh that restricts what people can say on online spaces in “extremely wide and excessive ways”. For example, you can’t say something that is considered to “harm the image of the nation”, raising key questions like “who decides what the nation is?”.

The result is that people may be “arrested in the middle of the night by the police for saying something on social media”. For example, a seventeen-year-old girl was held for over a year and a half because she “allegedly shared an image on Facebook” and she has only just been released.

Sara played a key role in drafting Bangladesh’s first comprehensive legislation on violence against women which became law in 2010, and I am interested in whether there is reason for hope in the pursuit of greater equality in Bangladesh. Sara says that as of last year, Bangladesh is fifty years old so “certainly things are getting better”. When Bangladesh was formed as a nation in 1971, it was devastated from war and genocide, so there was “little sense” that they would “recover quickly” from that, and little idea of the “direction” Bangladesh would go in as “a country or people”.

Despite having “positive feelings” about moving forward and recent “more linear” developments in socioeconomic rights, Sara still worries about organising, securing democratic spaces and ensuring freedom of speech and expression. Yet Sara is hopeful that there are a number of “vocal voices” in Bangladesh, and says that this is a clear sign of things “moving forward”.

My final question for Sara is about how to meaningfully advocate for better treatment and payment of garment workers in Bangladesh by fast fashion companies. Sara explains that when Bangladesh was founded, there was a lot of poverty and no industrial base, whereas now Bangladesh is the second largest garments exporting country in the whole world which is an “extraordinary position to be in”. She says that despite concerns about the treatment of Bangladeshi garment workers, a boycott is “not the most useful thing to do”. This is because boycotting Bangladeshi products will lead to Bangladeshi workers not making clothes, meaning that they will “suffer the most”.

Instead, a key way to engage with brands is to make sure that they “cut their own profit margins and put that money back to workers”. Sara recommends reading a book called “The Power to Choose” written by feminist economist Naila Kabeer. Naila argues that the conditions in garment factories are “problematic in many ways”, but that employment in them gives women “real options in their lives”. For example, rather than staying with their family in a village where their “destination is almost certainly going to be early marriage”, women are instead able to make their own income and make decisions like pushing the age of marriage back and who they are going to live with.

Sara concludes by saying that engaging with the issue of fast fashion is “really important” but that it has to be done by “making brands look more clearly at what they are doing”, and only through that process can changes be “made on the ground”. It goes without saying that Sara is an interesting, intelligent and inspiring person. If you are interested in finding out more about her thoughts and work, then her talk at the Union will be uploaded on Youtube soon.