An old school that has been turned into an international student house – that’s where Shayera Moula (28) shares a former classroom with her German roommate. Shayera’s side of the room is totally different to her roommate’s.
Where her roommate’s is full of stuffed animals, photos and memories of home, Shayera’s side is plain with only a single bed, wardrobe, table, chair and desk light from the Housing Office. The only thing that reminds her of home is a wedding picture of Shayera and her husband Hasan.
Shayera comes from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. During and after her English Literature Bachelor’s programme and Development Studies Master’s programme she worked as a sub-editor on The Daily Star, a newspaper in Bangladesh.
However, after a two-week workshop on crossmedia journalism in Berlin, she realized that the few years’ experience she had had at The Daily Star were very limited. She wanted to engage in a more global type of reporting and that’s why she came to Groningen to follow the Master’s programme on International Journalism.
A wedding with 500 guests
There was a lot to be done in advance. When Shayera told her mum that she wanted to study in Groningen, she said: ‘If you have someone, you should get married first.’
Shayera said: ‘Hasan and I had been dating for about a year and a half back then, but my parents didn’t know that. If you date someone, your family expects you to marry that person, so you prefer not to discuss the relationship with your parents because what if it doesn’t work out? I was scared of their reaction, maybe afraid that they wouldn’t accept him and afraid of making mistakes.’
Shayera and Hasan tossed a coin – will we tell them or not? The answer was positive, so that night Shayera brought him home and he asked her family for her hand. ‘It wasn’t him getting on one knee and asking me’, said Shayera. ‘He asked my parents. We wanted to get married eventually, but since my parents said “okay”, we said “okay”. Even when you think “I’m independent, I’m liberal, I have a mind of my own”, ultimately tradition and culture suddenly mean a lot more. You can’t help but submit to it.’
So it happened: a wedding with about 500 guests. According to Shayera, a Bengali marriage is not really about the couple. It’s a whole social, familial and cultural thing. ‘There were people coming in and saying “Oh, when we last saw you, you were this small; I’m actually your dad’s colleague’s wife! Remember me?” And I was like “sure!” You have to be so polite and nice,’ says Shayera giggling.
A lot of competition
It’s connected to the fact that you’re always ‘a work in progress’. You have to have a good subject to study, the right set of friends and find a good husband. ‘The scary part is to fail in those areas’, says Shayera. ‘You don’t want to be a failure, that’s the main point. Happiness will come when you fit into the world and the values of society.’
She smiles: ‘That’s the ultimate goal of your parents. In a society like the Dutch one, where the Government helps you so much, you can make choices of your own, but in Bangladesh you know that the system is not going to guide you. There will be corruption, there will be poor policies and there will be a lot of competition. No one will take care of you other than your parents, so you don’t want to let them down.’
Shayera’s parents even wanted to help her find the right husband. ‘I was hitting 25, the critical zone in Bengali culture. I had to get married. My parents were looking, my friends were like “I have this cousin…” and there were all these guys seeking my attention. It was total chaos. Yet I was actually dating my husband.’
For the Bengali middle class, status is very important, even when looking for a suitable husband. That’s the big difference with Holland, according to the journalism student. For example, Shayera is surprised by the bike culture in the Netherlands. According to her, the Dutch take so much pride in their broken bikes.
Her Dutch classmates can talk for hours about their broken bike or the minor accident they had with it. ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead riding on a broken bike back home’, she says. ‘It’s a class thing. The Bengali middle class is materialistic. I think it’s to show that you’re not poor.’
Switzerland, Germany, Nepal, Bangladesh and Groningen
Shayera and her family belong to this middle class. Her dad worked at the embassy and this meant a lot of moving when she was younger. Shayera was born in Switzerland and when she was three, they moved to Bangladesh for three years. After that she lived in Germany from ages 6 to 10. That was followed by a year in Nepal.
Finally, they moved back to Bangladesh until she was 28 when she came here. Despite the many relocations, Bangladesh is home. ‘We are so nationalistic. We are Bengali and you have to be proud of the food, the clothes, everything. It’s so emotional, but I love it!’
That’s one of the reasons that Shayera wants to go back to Bangladesh. She feels like she wants to pass on everything she’s learning here. ‘Eventually I want to train junior journalists in multimedia journalism and also be a freelance journalist. That’s my ultimate goal’, she says.
‘Actually, I wouldn’t know what to write about as a journalist in, for example, the Netherlands. Everything is so stable here. At least things happen in Bangladesh. There are so many stories to tell.’
After finishing a three-hour interview, Shayera gets up and walks to her shared kitchen. ‘Do you want some tea and chocolate?’ While sipping tea and eating chocolate, Shayera says she’s going to visit her family after the exams. She’s planning to bring back some personal things from home because ‘it’s so empty here’.