Still She Smiles, Shahidul Alam's photography

Shahidul Alam Still She Smiles

Rented rooms on the 1st floor at 16, Adabor Market is where Hajera and her kids live. The landlord is sympathetic and often sends food for the kids. The orphanage is called Amra Shidhuder Jonno (We, for the children), 2014.

Hajera Begum, a former sex worker who used her savings to set up an orphanage Amra Shidhuder Jonno (we, for the children) and raises 40 children who might otherwise have gone to the sex trade, 2014., Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Rahat, an abandoned child, was only three hours old when Hajera rescued him. This was on the 26th March 2013, Bangladesh's Independence Day. They have nicknamed him Shongram (struggle). Hajera steals a sloppy kiss, 2014., Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

A busy woman, Hajera is on the phone arranging supplies for her orphanage, while removing lice from the hair of one of the kids, 2014., Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The floor of the orphanage is used as a giant slate. Hajera admires Fatema's handwriting, 2014., Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

A stickler for cleanliness, Hajera bathes the younger kids herself., 2014., Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

BRAC school. Hajera insists on all her children getting a good education. Not only do they go to school, but the elder kids also get private tuition. Expensive, but essential according to Hajera, 2014., Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Fatema shows off her new dress. She wants to become a model, 2014., Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Ayesha, one of the older girls is a good student. She also looks after mum. Amra Shidhuder Jonno (we for the children), 2014., Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Artist's statement

And yet she smiles. Gang raped numerous times as a child, forced into pick pocketing, caned till she was unconscious, sold to a Madame, Hajera Begum’s life has little that would give cause to smile. Yet she smiles. She cries too. Not because of the gang rapes, or the beating, or the many years she lives in the streets as a rag picker, but when she remembers that a man who worked in an NGO, refused to work in her team because she was a sex worker.

Hajera decided she would make sure it was different for others like her. She had earlier set up a self-help group for sex workers, but eventually, with the help of some university students and other friends and a generous journalist, set up an orphanage for abandoned kids. They are mostly children of sex workers. Some are children of drug addicts. A few are children of parents who simply couldn’t afford to keep them. Hajera and her thirty children live in five small rooms near Adabor Market 16, on the edge of Dhaka. Run entirely by volunteers, she has only one paid staff, the cook. What will I do with a salary? she says. We share what food we have. I have a roof over my head and I have my children.

Remarkably, Hajera is not bitter. While she remembers every detail of her nightmarish life, she also remembers the friends who believed in her, and helped her set up the orphanage. Instead of remembering that she is incapable of bearing children because of brutal unwanted sex, she basks in the warmth of the 30 children who now call her mother. 

When I first met Hajera, back in 1996, she was a sex worker based in the grounds of the house of parliament. We became friends, and she and her friends would often visit us in our flat, an unacceptable act in most homes. 

You hugged me today when you saw me in the street, just like the old times. That’s something men will never do. They will have sex with me, grope me in the dark, rape me if they get the chance, but they will never hug me, as a sister, as a friend. That is what I want for my children. That they will grow up with dignity, in a world where they will be loved.

As the kids get older, there is more need for money, particularly for schooling. Some of the students who support her have graduated and now have jobs. One works in a telecom company. With their help this February, they ran for the first time, a Facebook campaign to raise money for the centre. The oldest girl Farzana is 13. The daughter of a mutual friend Hasna – who still works in the streets – she has just been admitted into a respectable boarding school. Two of the boys are also being sent to good schools. She has high hopes for the other kids too, though she worries about Shopon who is deaf and mentally ill, but takes great pride in showing me the bunk beds she’s had made, so the kids no longer have to sleep on the floor.

As I look back at Hajera peering through the little window, bidding me goodbye, I realise how lucky the kids are, to have her as their mother.

About the photographer

Born

1955, Bangladesh

Nationality

Bangladeshi

Based in

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Photographer, writer, curator and human rights activist Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in Chemistry from London University before taking up photography. Returning to his hometown Dhaka in 1984, he documented the democratic struggle to remove General Ershad. President of the Bangladesh Photographic Society for three terms, Alam set up the Drik agency; Bangladesh Photographic Institute; Chobi Mela festival; Majority World agency and Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. A new media pioneer, Alam introduced email to Bangladesh in the early 1990s.

His work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris and Tate Modern, London. He has been a guest curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, London; Fotomuseum Wintherthur, Switzerland; National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur; Musée du quai Branly, Paris; Brussels Biennial and the Auckland Festival of Photography. His awards include the Shilpakala Padak, the highest cultural award given to Bangladeshi artists, a Lucie Award and the ICP Award. Time magazine named Alam as one of their ‘Persons of the Year’ in 2018.

Alam has written and edited several publications including My Journey as a Witness in 2011. His exhibition, Kalpana’s Warriors, was shown at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2015 in Malta, and Best Years of my Life was shown at the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Berlin in 2017.

A speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, Alam has been a jury member for the Prix Pictet and World Press Photo, which he chaired. Alam is a visiting professor of Sunderland University and an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.