June 01, 2013 | Op-Ed | Rubaiyat Hossain
Why have women’s bodies become a political battleground?
Their attire should be based on their personal beliefs, not what a man chooses to mandate for them
I had faced the threat once before. It was in 2001. Delwar Hussain Sayedee’s tape titled “Nari O Porda” (Women and the Veil) was selling everywhere.
Bangladesh was going through a process of Islamisation. The horror of imagining Bangladesh turning into a state where I would be forced to confine myself in veils was lurking around the corner.
Then followed the years when America’s ongoing war on terror unleashed chaos in the Muslim world, the word Islam became synonymous with terrorism; progressive France put an embargo on wearing veils to school.
These are the years when I grew closer to my identity as a Muslim woman, wearing the veil didn’t seem like such a farfetched idea, after all, political Islam had kicked in for the progressive Muslim; wearing a hijab was even considered the “in thing” to do. One could wear a hijab and eloquently, theoretically, politically convince you that, after all, it is a choice.
The hijab has acquired a new meaning apart from symbolising backwardness, barbarity, lack of freedom — it has now morphed into a mark of political identity, its wearing a mark of resistance against the imperial West.
Nonetheless, the problematic issue remains: the hijab doesn’t hang in a vacuum; it needs a woman’s body to make its appearance, to proclaim identity, to preach ideology.
Over and over again, it is the woman’s body that becomes the battleground, the ground upon which the winning side will display its ideology.
A few days before Hefazat’s Dhaka siege, I spotted two boys dressed in Madrasa attire staring at my bare arms as if all of a sudden my genitalia had appeared there. Wearing a sleeveless top seemed just as nude as that. Later I recalled the repulsion I saw in their eyes. They looked at my arms as something terribly vulgar, a pound of flesh that should have been covered up, a pound of flesh they are restricted from seeing, let alone touching.
It is not only women’s bodies, but men’s bodies, and their desires that are threatened by the Islamist forces in Bangladesh.
Repression is their mantra, adding more repression to the already conservative Bengali culture can only aim to create a society where sexuality is considered vulgar, women — the object of desire is rendered impure and unclean, segregation is indispensable for maintaining social equilibrium.
As Hefazat proclaimed, women will walk to work safely clad in their layers of burqa, even when it is a 100 degrees outside. Women will abide by Sharia law, and who will interpret Sharia law and Quranic injunctions for them?
None other, but the leader of our home grown Islamist politics, the successors of the rural mullahs, those men who have authored their fatwas over women’s bodies, thrown stones at her, because she was fallen, because she was raped.
On the late afternoon of the Dhaka siege, I got a call from one of my ex-students who told me about her encounter with four men who stopped her rickshaw around Jatrabari.
These men in their beards, white kurtas and religious caps told her not to roam alone without a male “guardian,” they told her to cover herself like a good Muslim woman, then they pulled down the rickshaw hood and sent the young woman off. Sitting with her head hanging low, wishing she had a bigger scarf, terribly scared, she asked: “Is it real? Can they really going to force us to wear veils, here in Bangladesh?” I had no answer for her.
Bangladesh has reached a political milieu where the promises of a secular homeland are clearly dwindling.
The country is now divided into two: the infidels and the believers. I am no infidel, but I refuse to adhere to the brand of Islam proclaimed by Hefazat.
I do not care if they represent the masses, neither am I ready to give them any mileage as some home grown anti-imperial political force. Thank you, but no thank you, I do not need a hijab, or a veil, or a burqa.
I want to stand outside soaking my skin in the sun because I am a free human being. I do not care if you are going to argue back that the concept of freedom is constructed, and it is essentially a Western construct.
I am not on the side of any particular political camp, I am neither on the left nor the right. I am just not interested to become a hanger for any particular political ideology.
I do not need to be spoon-fed either freedom or dignity. I do not stand for or against the empire, or nationalism and nation-states for that matter, because by the virtue of their constructs these institutions have failed to deliver me anything but the pigeonhole reality of symbolism, stereotype and sexual slavery.
I am on my own side, on the side of “women,” committing the sin of imagining “Bangladeshi women” as a homogenous group – a group that has proved to be resilient against all odds; earning the country its highest export income and a prestigious Nobel prize, sitting for exams even after fingers have been hacked off, continuing their education even after being blinded by husbands, mere children taking to the streets to demand justice against sexual assault by school teachers, and the list goes on.
It is the resilience of Bangladeshi women that stands as a beacon of hope in a nation that is blindfolded by its political leaders.
Bangladeshi women know better than to let their bodies be hijacked by varying forces of this deluded nation that is still piecing together and trying to come to peace with its national identity, a journey grievously incomplete forty two years after independence.