Our Spotlight Activist this month is Chaumtoli Huq.
Chaumtoli's mission, after getting her law degree, has
been to establish the working rights of the poor immigrants
who are unrepresented in an otherwise
unfamiliar world. Ms Chaumtoli Huq
like an average South Asian. However she is extraordinary
in many ways. She is one of the founders of South Asian
Workers Right Project (SAWRP). She is a lawyer and a
crusader of women's rights. She offers her services
to low income Asian Americans who become victims of
discrimination in the workplace or in any circumstance.
Championing the rights of the working class has deep
roots for Ms. Huq, it runs in the family. Her father,
Farhad Mazhar, after immigrating with his family to
the U.S. decided to return to Bangladesh to continue
his ideals to fight the social ills of his country.
Huq is the staff attorney with the New York Taxi Workers'
Alliance, a membership organization of immigrant taxi-drivers
in New York City. There, she directs the Wheels of Justice
project which provides legal support to TWA organizing
efforts through litigation and policy initiatives.
Selected as one of ten Community Fellows, the project
is supported by the Open Society Institute. She joins
NYTWA, after working at AALDEF. Before this Ms. Chaumtoli
Huq was a Staff Attorney/Skadden Fellow at the Asian
American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) in
New York. AALDEF is the first legal rights organization
on the East Coast serving Asian Americans. At AALDEF,
Ms. Huq co-directs the South Asian Workers Rights Project
with Andrew Kashyap, NAPIL Fellow at the National Employment
Law Project. The first project of its kind in New York
City, SAWRP enforces the rights of low-wage South Asian
workers including cab-drivers, domestic workers and
construction workers. After graduating from Columbia
University in 1993, she worked as the Domestic Violence
Coordinator at Sakhi for South Asian Women. A graduate
of Northeastern University School of Law, she was a
Staff Attorney at the United States Court of Appeals
for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, PA where she
reviewed pro se habeas corpus appeal and other appeals
from Fall of 1997-Spring 1999. Born in Bangladesh and
raised in Bronx, New York, Ms. Huq tries to connect
her community based work in New York with international
human rights issues.
Lead us through your thought process on becoming an
for worker's right?
Chaumtoli: It is difficult to
pinpoint the pivotal moment by which I became interested
in issues of economic justice. The process was one of
personal experiences of being raised by a single parent
in New York City with limited means, and engagement
in community-based organizing. Community based work
is transformative. I believe that if one truly seeks
to serve one's community, then one wil inevitably be
brought to the struggle of social and economic justice.
Drishtipat: We know that your
father, Farhad Mazhar, is also an activist. Based
on your experience and his experience can you highlight
some differences and
needs between activism in Bangladesh and activism for
the migrants of
Bangladesh in USA?
Chaumtoli: One analogy that I
often raise in comparing the activist landscape in Bangladesh
and here, is the how society reads news. In Bangladesh,
the newspapers are wheatpasted to common-spaces and
lines of youth read the news together. Here, each individual
reads his of her own news paper. While there may be
limitations on civil society, there is strong and vibrant
culture of political debate. If you ask the farmer in
rural Bangladesh about globalization, he or she can
articulate their opposition. Perhaps, this heightened
politicization is a result of anti-colonialist, imperialist
struggles, and more recently, independence movement,
which make concepts of justice familiar. It makes it
easier to mobilize communities. Granted, there are structural
and institutional barriers, but I have found people,
irrespective of their level of formal education, to
be politically aware. This is true of other nations,
like in Southeast Asia, Carribean, and Central America,
where I have travelled.
Here, in the United States, it is quite
difficult. I have not see that level of consciousness
across class levels. Activists must engage in alot of
basic educational work, before they can see any systemic
Drishtipat: We know of
some important cases that you have won. However, can
you tell us of one experience which had a profound impact
Chaumtoli: Representing two migrant
domestic workers from Bangladesh who were brought to
work here by a Bahraini and Bangladeshi diplomat has
had a profound impact on me. Currently, in my pending
litigation against Bangladeshi diplomat, I have been
criticized for bringing shame on our community. To me,
the shame is the perpetuation of exploitative labor
practice by more privileged members of our community.
There is no shame is demanding the value of your hard
I see the pro-active role that President
Fox from Mexico has taken in advocating for the rights
of Mexican immigrants in the United States, and compare
it to Bangladesh's advocacy for its own nationals.
Drishtipat: What are some
major issues or cases that you are highlighting now?
Currently, I am working with a grass-roots organization,
New York Taxi Workers' Alliance, which organizes immigrant
taxi-drivers. As many of you know, many taxi-drivers
are from Bangladesh, as well as from other countries
in Africa and Asia .
I have been focusing on a number of
issues related to the tragic events of September 11.
Many drivers have experienced discrimination and harassment
because of their religion and race. Community members
have been approached by the FBI for interviews as to
Immigration authorities have increased
Drishtipat: Do you get
any assistance from local or city government?
I do not receive financial assistance.
However, I do use approach state and local government
to bring new laws.
Drishtipat: What's your
observation on the people that you are striving for,
notably the South Asian migrants in blue collar jobs?
Chaumtoli: My observation is
that they are hard-working and sacrifice alot to improve
the conditions of their family here, or in their home-country,
by sending money. They are more willing to engage on
controversial issues. For example, I have a client who
is a construction worker. His pending case is against
a contractor who did not pay him his wages. Initially,
it struck me as odd that he would call me "Bhai".
It was puzzling because he knew me and saw me as being
a woman. I asked my mother, and she responded, which
I think is true , that he never met a female lawyer.
In a roundabout way, he is showing me sign of respect.
The point of this story is that through our interaction
he is forced to examine some deeply held notions of
Drishtipat: Despite your
work, we haven't seen your work highlighted in the
local Bangldeshi media that often? Is is because you
want to work from the
background or is it the negiligence of our media?
Chaumtoli: Actually, the Bangladeshi
media in New York has been quite decent in covering
my work. I am often constrained to call them on all
matters so as not to compromise the confidentiality
of clients. If you mean, the media in Bangladesh. I
am not sure whether there is an interest in Bangladesh
on the plight of migrants here. If so, I would like
to share my work with activists in Bangladesh and in
Drishtipat: Why do you
think Bangladeshis home and abroad aren't into activism?
Have you attempted to reach out to ther new generation
Bangladeshis at all?
Chaumtoli: I can not speak to
activism in Bangladesh, but I believe that Bangladeshis
are increasingly being involved in activism. The community
is growing and they are becoming involved in organizations.
I think it is critical to reach out
to new generation of Bangladeshis. I do so all the time
through speaking engagements at colleges and highschool
. Recently, I was invited by the poet Sufiya Kamal grandson
who works with inner city youth in New York to talk
to young people about my work. Thats transnationalism!
Drishtipat: What's your
vision of future for you in terms of your activist work?
Chaumtoli: I will definitely
like to continue working with the NY Taxi Workers Alliance,
as well as related immigrant labor organizations. Recently,
I have been seriously contemplating running for some
local political office. The Bangladeshi community is
growing fast in New York City, and I would like to see
that it is a strong political force in New York City
politics. Which office, when and in what capacity is
still to be decided.
of luck and our full solidarity with you.