A woman's voice in the Bangla chatrooms

The election is postponed. Depressed, I surf through discussions about lost ideals and lost lives.

Spend the holidays, as usual, in rural Portugal. It's like sitting on a telescopic/microscopic see-saw. It's the only place where I devote a considerable amount of time to watching the sky and a serious consideration of the natural environment. Here, in my little slice of Walden, I can just about begin to make sense of Thoreau, his feeling that communing with nature is essential for "the preservation of moral and intellectual health". The rest of the time disappears in minutiae. Though the village is pretty tiny, it's never short on gossip. People drop round and discuss abandoned puppies, affairs, palm readers, snakes in the rafters, who's taken and eaten the swallows that were nesting in the olive tree. What falls away are my usual concerns: news, politics, the world.

Expat debates

Back in London, I start reading the papers again and go online to find out the latest on the Bangladesh elections. Sheikh Hasina's Awami League is leading a poll boycott and the violence which began last year shows no sign of abating. I remember the £1m of DfID money that the government, as Kim Howells announced in November, has given to Bangladeshi NGOs to "cement democratic practices, such as issues-based campaigning, non-violence and accountability". How easy he made it sound. The election is postponed.

A proof copy lands on my desk. It's a novel set during the independence war - A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam. Reading it, I think about all those lost ideals and lost lives, a thought echoed many times in the Bangla chatrooms. Depressed, I start surfing through the other discussion threads. The topics cover just about everything under the sun, from expatriate life to mobile phones. Debates are raging over saris v salwar kameez, and whether it is ever right to kiss in public. There are many posts about Islam as well. One catches my attention; its headline is "Woman's Voice". It advises as follows: "The woman should speak without elongating the words, making her voice soft, or raising her voice. It is haraam [unlawful] for a man to listen with enjoyment, for fear of fitnah [trials and tribulations]." The responses are mixed, ranging from those grateful for the guidance to those that are simply dismayed.

"Keeps us off the streets, like"

At the opening of the Attlee Youth and Community Centre (of which I am a patron) just behind Brick Lane, Tanya, a dynamic young British Bangladeshi woman and one of the key workers, is making her voice heard, getting the volunteers organised. The centre is a fantastic resource, offering free membership and learning programmes for everyone local who's under the age of 25. With 33 per cent unemployment and 73 per cent of households without a car, the area desperately needs leisure provision. Many of its estates don't have any outside play space at all.

I chat to a police officer who is going to be taking part in a pilot mentoring scheme with some of the members. Last week he helped stage a raid on a drugs house in Brick Lane ("heroin, ketamine, Ecstasy, weed, coke, you name it") which was filmed by Channel 4 for a series on south Asian crime. If the mentoring scheme takes off, it may curtail his budding TV career.

Shuael, a member and volunteer, takes a group of donors on a tour of the facilities. He enthuses about the all-weather sports pitches. "Keeps us off the streets, like," he says. "Know what I mean?"

The centre needs to raise more money to secure and extend its projects. All offers gratefully received at the address below.

Better to give

I get an email from the organisers of the National Short Story Competition. It gives details of where and when I and my fellow judges (who include A S Byatt and Mark Lawson) will get together for our first meeting. It's followed by another email, about the South Bank Show Awards, where I'll be presenting one of the prizes.

I check in with my husband to see if he can babysit on those dates, mentioning why I'll be out, in the hope he'll be impressed. "Wouldn't you rather be receiving awards than giving them?" he asks. "No," I say, kicking him fondly in the shin.

Attlee Foundation, Attlee House, 28 Commercial Street, London E1 6LR. http://www.attlee.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics