The Ajala Project presents Shagufe — an activist changing the world.
Shagufe Hossain is a social inclusion activist who founded Leaping Boundaries, a project that integrates Madrasah students into societies by developing their skills and providing them access to mainstream platforms. Traditionally isolated from society, Madrasah students are now given a chance to integrate into community. Madrasahs are religious schools that predominantly teach Arabic and Islamic Studies, along with core subjects such as Math, Social Science, and Science.
What made you decide on your project?
During the summer of 2012, I was in Dhaka for my semester break. I picked up a copy of the Star Campus, the cover of which had a picture of a boy wearing a Tupi (cotton cap)on his head; a big grin on his face and clutching a Bangla textbook for dear life with some English words scribbled on a blackboard behind him. The cover story featured Alia Madrasahs, which until then, was the only positive take on Madrasahs I have ever read. Before I read the article, I had never really given much thought to this medium of education. The article highlighted the challenges of Madrasahs and its potential for growth. So I wrote to the writer on an impulse and he wrote back, from then on there was no looking back.
Why did you use that particular time? What stopped you before?
The idea was conceived in July 2012. The project was later restarted in February 2014. I think I had been looking for some kind of meaning or purpose in life for some time when the idea occurred to me. I knew I wanted to make a difference but wasn’t sure how I would go about it. A lot of issues angered me and frustrated me, so to pick one problem to solve was difficult. Something about the article just spoke to me. I think I have a split identity and a lot of times I don’t know who I am first. My national identity, my religious identity and my global identity are sometimes at war with each other. A part of me resonated with that boy on the cover whose attire stood in stark contrast with the English and Bangla alphabets on the blackboard behind him. Like I said, it came from an impulse that didn’t occur to me before.
“My national identity, my religious identity and my global identity are sometimes at war with each other”
What are some lessons you have learnt along the journey?
The biggest lesson I have learnt is that while communities are bound together by some common traits, one cannot make judgements about individuals based on the traits of their communities. We are all different as individuals and we all have individualistic expressions of how we see ourselves. When I first started my journey in 2012, I harbored a lot of misconceptions about the Madrasah community. I started with an English language tutorial program because I thought teaching them English would help them adapt better with the workforce, it would broaden their horizons and they would have greater access to the global community. I assumed they were all suppressed or conservative. During the course of my journey I realized that every child is different, each with unique aspirations and a different way of looking at oneself. Each school we intervened at was different, with different sets of moral values. We had to overcome a big number of obstacles and push through a lot of boundaries for us to get to where we are now.
Does your voyage end? Is this a lifelong journey? What’s your next move?
This is a lifelong quest. Leaping Boundaries is still a very small, locally concentrated project within Dhaka. It will grow and expand to cover the nation and then expand across the globe starting with South Asia since this medium of education is something that’s unique within this region. The model will evolve as we go, to cater to the needs of each community, and each region. We have a long way to go. There are other projects I plan to undertake as well, all catered towards building more harmonious, inclusive societies.
What message are you trying to relay to the world through your journey?
The central theme of my life and my journey is to break barriers within myself that keep me from being an all-accepting, all-loving human being. When we break barriers within ourselves we also break them within the society. So we must venture out of our comfort zones, learn, know, and understand those who we think are different from us. In the process we also understand ourselves better.
What are some highs and lows of your initiative?
This is a difficult project to work on to be honest. The political connotations and the extreme distrust surrounding and within Madrasahs make it an extremely difficult arena to work within. The project shut down once in 2013 after I conceived the initial idea because I think I had not interpreted the problem correctly. I then had to redesign the model with new goals and challenges in mind. In addition, a woman working with Madrasahs is almost unheard of in Bangladesh. There are fresh challenges every year but it is also an incredibly rewarding journey. Watching these adolescents grow into their own skin and become more of themselves is a delight.
What would you have done differently? Looking back any regrets?
Every step that I have taken has taught me something. If I could, I would have started sooner but I also think everything unfolds in it’s own pace. Everything happens when you are ready for it to. I have no regrets.
There are many issues conflicting regions around the world, which issue would you say is the most important to change?
I think all external conflict is an expression of internal conflict. There is a conflict within ourselves that we are unable to resolve which we then project onto others. I believe that is the greatest crisis that we are faced with today. We are all unhappy human beings walking this earth trying to make ourselves feel better. The problem I would solve is to teach people to love and accept themselves and each other, completely regardless of race, sex, gender, educational background or religious faith. In short, build inclusive societies.
What makes you unique from other change makers
We are all unique. My uniqueness lies in my fluidity, I feel. I treat myself like a body of water that can either be a steady stream or a raging ocean depending on where I am and what is needed from me. You’ll most likely be unable to contain me in a glass, though. I cannot stay still for very long.
Which is the last place you expected to experience kindness and hospitality?
The community I work with is known to be a conservative, extremely patriarchal community and quite frankly, I expected them to be hostile. However all of the Madrasahs I have worked with, lauded my efforts and my tenacity to work tirelessly and selflessly, it is this acknowledgement that makes me feel that what I do is worthwhile. My proudest accomplishment is with a girls-only Madrasah with over 120 female students, that I once worked with. They have been incredibly supportive of my project and on multiple occasions, I have heard them describe the first day I approached them, they were suspicious of me and now they cannot imagine not having me around.