A start-up institution like HerStories is essentially a set up where women tell their own stories to bring about change in society. The inception of HerStories took place in March 2017 and the rest is history. We spoke to the founder of HerStories, Ms. Zareen Mahmud, to find out more about her endeavors and here’s what we found-

Zareen is a wife. A mother. She is also the founding partner of Snehashish Mahmud and Co. Chartered Accountants. She started her accounting firm with another partner about 6 and a half years ago and realized that the number of women working actively in her sector was very limited, as the job entails some risk. So she took the initiative to do an outreach event with 80 women from all sectors of business. As it also happened to be at a time when her grandmother had passed away, the event also paid tribute to her. Her grandmother ran an NGO so Zareen had women who worked with her grandmother, her mother, herself and younger women also. She realized that it was her grandmother’s generation of women who had set the foundation for women now, to be able to do so much. Had those women not established themselves as academics and activists and changed societal expectations, the next generation would never have been working in sectors like business and medicine and law. Nowadays, women are doing whatever they want to do. “I wanted to take this awareness to all the other women out there, to let them know about womens’ work in the past and encourage them about the future. So after much deliberation we decided that we would start with stories for children. After that, HerStories basically took a life of its own. “

Zareen however, had never imagined that HerStories would enjoy the level of fame it does now. “After the first year, I sort of relaxed back into routine. It was my fabulous set of friends who pushed me to do something for the next year. The launch and the panel discussion was a huge hit. It was a full house, women came in with documents of things they had done so we would have reference. People believed in us. And that is what gave us strength. And we give everyone credit for their work so everyone pushes us to be better because they identify with the work. We went international with Beijing + 25 platform, Asian regional. We were one of four countries who had such a big presence there- it was Bangladesh, China, Iran and India. That was a very prestigious moment for us, being so new in the arena too.”
According to Zareen, the struggle with being taken seriously, especially in work areas where women are a minority never stops. “There is an effort to dismiss women. And my answer to that is to persevere and to be very thick skinned. I tell myself that tomorrow is always better. If you show resilience, they back off. Or they simply give in to your demands just to get you out of their hair. Also, with time you learn to give people a piece of their minds and not just meekly listen. This used to be difficult at first but now I’ve learned how to give back as well. That confidence builds up.”

Zareen mentioned that they have recently launched a platform by and for women-Taramon, where they try to monitor the data and add content accordingly for women between 18 to 45 years of age. Because they talk about real isues here, they see certain stories that they put up getting a lot of traction. “There are issues such as emotional abuse in marriage, something that women can’t talk about as openly, that have been shared by women more than 17000 times. Not liked, but shared. So not HerStories, but Taramon is a vlog where we hear about all these real issues and really connect with them. We don’t boost that page, it’s something that only comes up by real popularity. “

Then organizing readings for children in school, Zareen finds a stark difference in the way girls express themselves versus the way her generation did at that age. “Yes, the younger students a lot more! When we go for these school readings, we conduct surveys about gender roles. For instance, if we tell the kids to draw a doctor, some will draw a male doctor, and some will draw a female doctor. It’s the same with other professions. Back when we were young there was a divide that women have roles like teachers or fashion designers and men get to be the lawyers or doctors. That stereotype seems to be changing now. But that’s just the kids in school. People in colleges again, are not as expressive. It’s about the time and generation difference. I have a lot of hope for this new generation.

Being a career woman in Bangladesh is not easy, especially with two professions and a family. “I think what’s most important, be it for a man or a woman, is to find the right partner. Half your problems are solved when there is the trust and respect. My son too knows that Ma has to work so he does not have unrealistic expectations that his mother will be there with him 24/7. But at the same time, I read to my son every night- it’s a ritual.” Zareen feels that that’s their quality time that the both of them can count on to give each other. “And his father is a very hands on dad. So that is a constant support!” Zareen recollects that her mother was a working woman when she and her sibling were growing up. “And we turned out alright. I am also learning to draw a line between when to help people and when to decisively say no. I struggle with it but saying no saves me time when I need to prioritize.”

Munira Fidai is a writer by heart, singer by soul and a foodie to beat all foodies