The Cost of Your Clothes
+January 05, 2020
Fabeha Monir (@fabeha.anahita) is a 32-year-old Bangladeshi photojournalist based in Dhaka. In 2015 Fabeha Monir reported about the life of female textile workers in Bangladesh. The report, which initially focuses on the development of the textile industry and the help that nearly 3 million women get through it, soon revealed a dark and unexpected side: many of the women Fabeha had met had been abused by their line managers.
“It was the time first I came across heart-wrenching stories of abuse and harassment”, Fabeha explains, “since then, I felt the need to highlight and bring these stories in the forefront in a dignified manner. To me, it is about bringing that dignity, for allowing these women to speak about their wound and channel that for dialogue and justice”.
In 2018, when she found an opportunity to explore this issue - after a 6 month period of research - Fabeha began to develop The Cost of Your Clothes, a photographic project that highlights the violations of rights that female workers face in the garment industry. Her images recall the silence and isolation in which those women are trapped, but the pictures showing their wounds, also testify that their pain is no longer hidden. Fabeha saw those women, listened to them, and took them out of the darkness.
“I use a very intimate and involved storytelling approach when I work”, Fabeha says. “Since the very beginning, it was clear that I wouldn’t have done anything that might be disrespectful for them. All the girls and women I met gave consents to participate in the project: they told me their stories and trusted me. Many of them didn’t know the way to report abuse, or where to go to do it. As I have worked for an Action Aid project on the topic, I have access to their Women’s Cafes. Through those spaces, lots of women were able to break the wall of silence."
The purpose of the Women’s Cafes is to help female factory workers acquire knowledge on rights-related issues, to share personal issues with other workers and to provide advisory and legal services on the issue of workplace violence, sexual harassment, as well as to provide healthcare facilities.
Telling about your deepest scar is a relief and when you know you will be not judged it gives you hope. Many of the girls I worked with already become vocal and advocating for change. This of course made me more responsible to do something with the storytelling process.
The estimated number of workers in the textile industry – who are mostly women - is 2.5m, working in more than 4,200 garment factories in Bangladesh. Data says that 80% of them have experienced or witnessed sexual violence and harassment. After the enormous tragedy of the Rana Plaza - the eight-story building on the outskirts of Dhaka that collapsed on April 24, 2013, causing the death of 1129 workers, and leaving another 2515 injured - the precarious working conditions of the textile industry could no longer be hidden from sight. The Rana Plaza housed several textile factories hired by prestigious Western clothing brands. The accident generated a huge scandal: 220 Bengali textile companies were forced to sign the agreement on fire prevention and building safety, and the Bangladeshi government and Western brands promised to encourage the presence of Unions inside the factories. Yet there is still very little attention given to the gender-based violence and exploitation routinely faced by female workers.
“Still now I get calls from Rana Plaza survivors,” Fabeha explains. “Many of the women call me to talk about their lives. Their trust in me and in my work gives me strength. I feel that being a woman also opens doors and makes me accountable, as I belong in this context. They are my people - these are my sisters. I am very honoured that for the first time I was able to shed light on this topic which is very sensitive. I tried to cover it with lot of care so that the story doesn’t victimized these women. Being a female visual journalist of colour, I feel that this helps me to tell stories with such access and in a dignified way.”
Fabeha Monir uses photography and visual arts in general as a universally-accessible tool that transcends socio-cultural barriers: language that has the power to create bridges between the side of the world that exists through issues of poverty, injustice, and gender-based violence, and the one that has the power to change society.
Every time we bring attention to something, it is bound to bring about change. Changes are taking place, but we want to speed up the process. I strongly believe that the first step to changing injustices in today’s society is to collaboratively imagine what a more just future could look like, for disadvantaged communities, then visualize that new reality through storytelling so that those who have the power to change society - consumers, workers unions and brands policy- makers - can be exposed to new perspectives and act accordingly.
Fabeha has covered the issue of the textile industry workers' rights for Action Aid, The Guardian and The New York Times, and in a range of other contexts.