BAWDi (The Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative), a community-based organization that supports and advocates for Bangladeshi American women, girls and families in New Jersey, in partnership with The Paterson Museum and MomsRising/Mamasconpoder recently organized an art exhibit opening, with performances and a panel discussion in honor of International Mother Language Day on Sunday, February 17th, 2019 at the Paterson Museum, in Paterson, NJ.
International Mother Language Day, held on 21 February, is a worldwide annual observance to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and promote multilingualism. It commemorates the sacrifices of students Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat, and Abdul Jabbar and others who were killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 21, 1952, for standing up for their right to speak, protect and recognize their mother tongue of Bengali. The Bengali language movement the students were involved in was a political movement in former East Pakistan (currently Bangladesh) advocating the recognition of the Bengali language as an official language, often in the face of great oppression and violence. The successful preservation and proliferation of the Bengali language and culture is owed to those who gave their lives for this movement and is of great significance to Bangladeshi communities and the Bangladeshi diaspora across the world.
The celebration of this day is especially poignant for the community here in Paterson, NJ because people from what is present-day Bangladesh have been living, working and raising families in this city since at least the 1930s. They worked in the historical silk factories of Paterson and this population has only grown since the 1970s, with the current community in Paterson being the second largest Bangladeshi diaspora communities in the United States.
Yet even with a large and established community in this city, there has never been a public art event showcasing the culture and history of Bangladeshi American people. This is the first event of this kind to promote Bangladeshi language and culture, as well as the artistic expressions of community members for all to see, experience, and learn from. Through this is the first event and effort in Paterson's history and in the history of the Bangladeshi American community here, organizers hope that it will not be the last and will open the door to more cultural exchange, education and engagement not only in Paterson but in New Jersey as a whole.
The event itself had an incredible and enthusiastic turnout of 70-100 people. The day began with people taking in the exhibit pieces on display, enjoying food from a local Bangladeshi restaurant and getting 'inked' with free Henna art, followed by a presentation and video on the background of International Mother Language day and a moment of silence for the students who gave their lives for the Bengali language. The exhibit itself and the program also honored the Lenape people, upon whose land the museum resides, and who were the first peoples, with their own unique mother language and heritage, to settle in the area. The event and exhibit also honored Black History month and recognized how the work of Black civil rights activists laid the groundwork for changes to racist immigration laws that enabled many in the Bangladeshi community and other South Asian groups to immigrate to the U.S. in the first place.
The program then presented a panel discussion on The Importance of Language and Culture in the Bangladeshi American Diaspora featuring Dr. Rajender Kaur, Professor of English, and Director of the Asian Studies Program at William Paterson University of NJ, Shahana Hanif, Community Activist and Founder of the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective of NYC, and BAWDi Board member and NYU Ph.D. Student Tania Chowdhury. Following this, the Mayor of Paterson, Andre Sayegh, presented BAWDi with a proclamation declaring February 21, International Mother Day in Paterson, NJ. The event then featured open mic performances from community members, including a violin performance, Bengali songs, and bilingual poetry. The event closed with audience members joining the BAWDi executive board in singing "Amar Sonar Bangla" the national anthem of Bangladesh written by poet, author and Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore in honor of the Bengali language.
This event that was organized, run by and that featured Bangladeshi American women is a powerful testament to the dynamics of a culture that has woven itself through the fabric of a city so many Bangladeshis call home. And in the face of national political uncertainty with marked upticks in xenophobia and Islamophobia, an event celebrating language and culture can inspire strength and fortitude. Connecting and celebrating our languages and cultures can be a light during dark times for many of our communities and a reminder that no matter what challenges we may face, we are here to stay, thrive and be proud of who we are and where we come from.