“Above all, be the heroine of your life. Not the victim.” Let this quote from writer Nora Ephron, set the theme before we take a peek behind the curtain and into the world of Zaiba Tahyya, The Founder and CEO of Female Empowerment Movement (FEM).

Zaiba is among one of two Bangladeshi youths who were chosen for the prestigious Queen’s Young Leaders Award 2018. Tahyya was recognized for her work in promotion of equality in society and reduction of violence against women in Bangladesh.

The conception of FEM can be said to have been during Zaiba’s summer internship at Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST). As a research intern working with women and rape, this is where the reality of the Bangladeshi criminal justice system first struck her. She described that after having lived and studied abroad for a large portion of her life, this exposure to the recurrent abuse, mistreatment and violence against women (especially from lower income areas) as having been more than just a little upsetting.

Zaiba shared some disturbing stories that she came across during her time as an intern. She came to learn that incidents of rape are underreported, which has been leading to a rise in rape cases because they go unreported. During the internship, Zaiba was involved in a study on ‘The Two Finger Test’, a test of a primitive nature, conducted on victims to prove rape. Inquiring about this test, she interviewed several victims and a judge, which revealed disturbing details about the mistreatment of victims and the justice system. The gruelling details of the process sent her home crying. After that incident she made up her mind that she would do something about this.

This experience as a researcher in the legal firm gave her a unique insight into the problems and vulnerability among women in low-income areas of Bangladesh. Upon completing her internship with BLAST, Zaiba started to develop programs to empower women that went well beyond just spreading awareness.

Post-graduation, with her degree in Criminology, she went on to work with the Bangladesh police force as a researcher for a period of time. During her thesis, Zaiba had to review a book called ‘Why Men Rape’, a book that talked about Darwinism and established a fact about rape. The theory of the evolutionary mechanism talks about survival of the fittest. With women always having been the weaker sex – men rape women to exercise power.

This is where the idea for FEM first came to be. With its very first project, ‘Project Attorokkha’ in 2016. To give women confidence, to believe in themselves, be the stronger gender and physically empower them instead of preparing them for attack. The project looks to train women from disadvantaged backgrounds in the basics of self-defense. The project started with 25-30 girls but only 7 girls stayed till the end. Zaiba shared that initially it was difficult to get girls take up the class. Because of FEM’s unconventional method, it was difficult to get parents of these young women on board to allow their child to learn self defense. Some girls did not understand the concept and wound up leaving. But the 7 girls who saw the program through proved to be huge inspirations to the women of their community.
FEM’s ‘Project Attorokkha’ has been quite successful when it comes to its impact on social change and community development. Successfully training women in slum areas making them more confident to survive in their own communities. What started as a basic self-defense program has grown from a class of 7 to classes of 40 (with no room to spare), providing Krav maga and military training over a 5 week period. In partnership with VO2 Urban Fitness, the FEM girls can now train and become certified as trainers themselves.

FEM (Female Empowerment Movement) started as a non-profit organization in 2016 aiming to empower women through various unique projects. Their largest project has mainly aimed to train and employ women from low-income backgrounds, but FEM also supports creating accessibility to basic physical and mental healthcare as well as medicine, food and education.

Their main training hub in Korail serves as an afterschool club or the women of urban slums. The hub has successfully been conducting English Language lessons, cyber security and bicycle training alongside self defense.
In partnership with ‘Project Be’, FEM also introduced engineering classes where the girls learned the basics of building a circuit from scratch and electric emergency fire alarms. With these basics the girls also learned to build fun games like Human Pacman and Dance Dance Revolution.

Since FEM’s success, when asked about future partnerships and projects, Miss Tahyya talked about being careful with forming partnerships because of a difficulty of finding organisations with similar goals and motivations. FEM as an organisation works with strong women and provides them with opportunities. It is difficult finding other organisations whose beliefs align with the core principles of FEM and preserve them. FEM has now reformed into a social entrepreneurship and has many exciting projects coming in the near future.

FEM is soon to launch a line of t-shirts. The t-shirts are to be hand sewn by the FEM girls with the FEM motto, with all profits directed towards the education and training of the girls.
Zaiba believes that self defense should be for all women and not just the women of urban slums. Everyone deserves to have the right to defend themselves should they ever be in a threatening or abusive situation. There are plenty of ways to stand up to your attacker. Using a firearm (but only after you have read the relevant laws for your area –, for example), using other types of weapons, or maybe implementing some of the martial arts moves you have learned after signing up to a class. Thankfully, FEM is working with educational institutions, working women and partnered up with institutions and will soon be offering self-defense classes for all women. FEM is planning to expand its projects across the country and introduce hubs in rural Bangladesh.

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