Feminism for men

Volume 2 Issue 5 | June 2007

Feminism for men

It is not just women who benefit from feminism, but men as well, argues Rubaiyat Hossain

Nobody can possibly disagree that in order to make the world a better place for all of us, we need to establish an equitable distribution of power and resources. Establishing an equitable order within the family could have a ripple effect of ultimately changing the entire society. Feminism as an ideology can help us launch a movement to establish a just order in our families. However, when I told my friend that I was writing a piece titled “Feminism is for everybody,” she immediately responded: “Don’t use the word feminism — use something else.”

The word feminism (or naribad) has been tainted with the negative attributes imposed upon it by the patriarchal media. Feminists are portrayed as men-hating women demanding to be equal to men, but in reality feminism as an ideology and as a movement can help us make a change towards the betterment of everybody, especially in today’s world when the ideology of domination by force and accumulation of power have led us to worldwide unrest and terror.

Even though men benefit from the patriarchal system, in the end, they are actually not comfortable with the system either. Every father who loves his daughter is ought to feel sad about the discriminatory and exploitative societal measures against her. Every man who loves his wife ought to feel furious when other men look at his wife as a sexual object. Every brother who loves his sister ought to feel uneasy about the unequal legal rights of women to inherit property.

Gaining power through domination and exploitation comes with a price and the price is guilt and self-hatred. Men constantly feel the invisible psychological pressure of their inner enemies. It makes them irritable, less confident, and finally more oppressive towards their women.

Unnecessary fear stands in the way of love between a man and a woman because of patriarchy. Men are deprived of the true and pure sense of love from women because of the uneven societal system against women. If the world was a place where men and women were treated equally, I am more than sure that every man would be loved by his woman in a way they’ve never known before, because a free woman is capable of loving better than a bonded and deprived woman.

If the world changes for the betterment of women, I am more than sure that men would benefit from living in that world just as much as women. But the reasons why most men are hesitant to raise a movement to create that world are, firstly, because they fear losing the powerful position and the male privilege, and, secondly, they are not certain what will happen to the world order if patriarchy was to be demolished.

Basically they fear change.
It is not only men who fear change, but it is women as well. Not only men, but women can be just as sexist. Patriarchy as an institution is guarded by women as well as men. Feminism as a movement could aim to change the minds of not only men, but women as well. Men could be feminists as well as women in order to make our world a better place.

If we take bell hooks, an African-American feminist theorist’s definition of feminism, then it will become apparent that feminism is not a movement against men, but “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”

I must point out that a prevalent misconception about feminism is that it is a Western movement, but women in our country have been fighting to end sexism and sexist exploitation for over a century now. Women who took part in our muktijudho denied their societal role as domestic beings by stepping into the public realm.

NGOs in Bangladesh work very hard to gain women’s legal rights and to stop institutions of sexist exploitation like domestic violence, rape, child marriage, and dowry. Everyday, millions of Bangladeshi women fight to get their equal share in both the public and the private arena. We can say that all these women are actually working to make the world a more equitable place for men and women, and therefore, they are all part of the feminist movement.

As bell hooks has pointed out: “Initially when feminist leaders in the United States proclaimed the need for gender equality here they did not seek to find out if corresponding movements were taking place among women around the world. Instead they declared themselves liberated and therefore in the position to liberate their less fortunate sisters, especially those in the ‘third world.'”

But there have also been counter-arguments made by feminists about the local movements around the globe. Women in Bangladesh obviously have a different set of issues to address than those in the United States, China or India, but the common ground is that feminists around the world desire to throw of sexist discrimination and exploitation for a more equitable system.

By labeling feminism as men-bashing and inherently Western, we actually shut ourselves off from taking the opportunity to create our own definition, ideology, and agenda of feminism.

Women in Bangladesh are becoming more and more visible in the workforce. Women working in the garment factory are the backbone of our foreign exchange, but still women are culturally dominated and exploited along the sexist lines. It is because we don’t yet have our consciousness raised about gender equity.

Feminism as an ideology can help us gain that consciousness, and the first step towards that could be at a personal micro-level. Each man and woman can practice it in their everyday life and creative work. For example, if a person is a children’s book illustrator then that person could initiate writing children’s book that focus on issues of gender inequality, take the Meena cartoon for example. We simply need more of that. We simply need more people, regardless of their gender to understand the ideals of feminism and incorporate it in their lives for the betterment of everybody.

It is just as hooks said: “Come closer. See how feminism can touch and change your life and all our lives. Come closer and you will see: feminism is for everyone.”

Rubaiyat Hossain is a Lecturer at Brac University and an independent film-maker.

© thedailystar.net, 2007. All Rights Reserved 
source link : http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2007/june/feminism.htm
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Bad girls and middle-class morality

Volume 2 Issue 4 | May 2007

Bad girls and middle-class morality

Rubaiyat Hossain shines a spot-light on the disturbing constructions of Bangladeshi womanhood to be found in the novels of Humayun Ahmed

We do not grow up in a vacuum. We learn from media, literature, culture, religion, and family what we are and what we should aspire to be. We learn what is love, what is relationship, what is romance, what is sexual, and what is not from the world around us. Some people may have innate strong personality to resist it, but for someone like myself, literature and media played a huge role in shaping my feminine identity.

It is probably the vice of reading way too many novels and having an imaginative mind that you simply leave the world you reside in and take off on a flight into the world of novels.

I remember many instances when I acted like particular Humayun Ahmed novel characters for days together. This was also the time when I was smuggling books into the bathroom and hiding them in my fat SSC test paper. Thus, my idea of love, romance, and sexuality was largely shaped by Bengali novels, especially those of Humayun Ahmed.

Later, I regretted this. Later I said: “Thank God for Taslima.” It took me years as a student of women’s studies to realize how much I had been damaged by the feeble and unrealistic construction of femininity and romance in Humayun Ahmed novels. I cursed him for ruining my psyche. I cursed him again when he left his long loved family. I finally convinced myself that this man was a hypocrite. I had no reason to read his books anymore.

I stopped.

But then it was Spring. It was <>boi-mela<> time. And I was back in Dhaka for the season after a very long time. My excitement was limitless. I went back almost every week. I bought all the new Humayun Ahmed books. The next day I woke up with a muscle ache and a huge pile of books on my night post. I started reading them. Staying up late, I read them all.

And then I cursed him at the dinner table for writing too much repetitive junk and my parents joined me in cursing him as well. But when my father looked at what I was reading — it was a new Humayun Ahmed novel! He exclaimed: “You curse him so much and then you read his books, too!”

My own hypocrisy hit home at that moment. I decided that I needed to go deep into it. Why did I love and hate this man so intensely all at the same time? After all, isn’t this exactly what he preached in his novels, which became so detrimental for my romantic relations later, loving and hating at the same time, savouring pain as pleasure, saying no, but meaning yes? Why the hell was I so obscure as a woman even today? If I hated him so much then why could I not stop reading him?

The answer was because I loved his books way too much. I loved how his language flowed easily and he defied the classical style of densely woven Bengali prose. He wrote funnily. He made me laugh, he made me cry, and he made me feel wonders.

He also damaged my self-esteem as a woman because I constantly failed to measure up to his female characters. Even when I had managed to act like one of them my life seemed to have been falling apart.

Humayun Ahmed made me weak. Like every other male writer, he constructed his female characters through the lens of his own romantic and sexual fantasies: overly emotional, enigmatic, brainy, and a little bit of a nut case. His female characters will do things for reasons they themselves are unaware of.

There is always a sense that these women do not have any control over their own emotions, they are not driven by reason, they do not think about their career or education, all they aspire for is romantic love. Of course, love is the most beautiful thing and all human beings aspire for that, but to give a message in literature that women’s primary job is to fall in love, get married and have babies is rather limiting and extremely damaging to a girl’s imagination.

Nevertheless, when I started re-reading Humayun Ahmed I found immense joy in his verses. This man knew how to dream and he surely could spread it for others to share his dreams. I still remember reading Amar Ache Jol when I was fifteen. I sat up on the roof and when I finished reading it my heart was flooded with tons of emotions I did not even recognize.

I was overwhelmed. I looked up and saw birds flying home. It was dusk and I could hear the prayer calls from the nearby mosques. My heart ached and bled. I felt light-headed. I had been transformed into Dilu. For the next few weeks I acted like Dilu and then I became Opala from Megher Pore Megh and Aulic from Ondhokarer Gaan, Nilu from Tomakey, and many more characters. After sitting down to write about him, I realized, dissecting Humayun Ahmed’s construction of femininity would be dissecting my own self!

The job is not easy. To begin with, this man has written way too many novels for me to be fully comprehensive in this particular piece of writing. His female characters also range from a pretty strong individual like Muna from Kothao Keu Nei to Rumali who falls in love with a film director who is at least twenty years older than she is.

Humayun Ahmed has long captured the minds of the Bangladeshi middle-class. He has written maybe not always with enormous quality, but in enormous quantity. In each of his books we find the dreams, struggles, and aspirations of the middle-class. Since the birth of this new country, Humayun Ahmed has been at the forefront of popular literature in defining who we were as a people, what was unique about us as a nation. His literature defines us and sets us apart from the literary tradition of West Bengal.

In many ways, Humayun Ahmed rebels against any classical or even modern pattern of Bengali prose language. He just breaks it all to incorporate the colloquial Bangla we speak, which has brought the people of Bangladesh even more close to his literature. Of course, we have had phenomenal writers like Akhtaruzzaman Ilias shaping our literary tradition, but no one has managed to become as popular and been read so widely by the mass population as Humayun Ahmed.

This is precisely why this man is worth analyzing. He sets the popular idiom for the Bangladeshi middle-class. His construction of femininity, romance, and sexuality, thus, on one hand, represents the Bengali middle-class construct, and shapes and creates it on the other. This man is also worth studying as a literary phenomenon because it really takes a lot more than just popular jargon to make millions laugh and cry. To be quite frank, I think this man is a genius and his genius lies in being able to communicate dreams, wonders, and emotions to such a huge audience relentlessly over the past decades.

In his recent book, Kichu Shoishob, he wrote: “In every woman there is a man, and in every man there is a woman.” Now that is quite a profound comprehension of human essence and a very big step towards realizing a universal humanity. However, this realization seems sporadic and almost very sudden. It appears just in one line and then disappears.

In the majority of his writing, however, the gender binary is rendered totally unproblematic, universal, and romantic. Take, for example, his famous Misir Ali debut Debi. The main protagonist of the novel is a girl named Ranu whose psychological trauma is diagnosed by Misir Ali to be rooted in an experience of childhood sexual abuse. Ranu believes that the deity in the temple, where she was taken by the molester, had saved her. She believes that the deity now lives inside her, which causes her to see, smell, hear, and sense strange things. She also possesses telepathic abilities to communicate with others, an ability she would later use to save a friend.

Even though Misir Ali attempts to solve the problem, it somehow remains unresolved in the novel. Ranu dies at the end trying to save her friend. The book does not take a critical approach to the issue of child abuse, rather romanticizes and mystifies it by setting it in the context where the deity had transferred its power into the little girl, after which the girl became immensely beautiful.

In the novel Ranu is only 16, whereas her husband is a man in his mid-forties. A feminist critic of Debi would certainly pinpoint that the actual reason behind Ranu’s neurosis was probably the uneven match that she was stuck in, where she must have been forced to face sexual intercourse. Being married to a man with such a big age difference must have also reminded Ranu of her early experiences of sexual abuse. Neither Humayun Ahmed nor Misir Ali, however, seem to mind Ranu being set in an arranged marriage with a man old enough to be her father.

It seems Humayun Ahmed has a fixation on young girls. In this writing he also comes across as very puritanical when it comes to issues of sexuality. It is a most common theme in all his novels to find very young girls falling in love with men at least ten, sometimes even twenty, years older than themselves. The purity and emotional overtones of the young girl is where Humayun Ahmed locates the idea of prem. This Humayun Ahmed brand of prem depends on the girl’s inconceivable emotional rush for her lover. Sexuality is not pronounced, but hinted in a way that suits the moral taste of the Bengali middle-class. The overwhelming emotion of the girl in turn purifies any trace of sexuality.

I would like to draw some examples from one of Humayun Ahmed’s Himu novels, Tomader Ei Nogore, to elaborate on his construction female sexuality. The novel depicts a young teen-age girl deliriously falling in love with Himu. This teen-age girl Asha comes from America and she hires Himu as her guide to discover the true charms of Dhaka city. After Asha falls in love, Himu disappears for a few days. Asha totally loses her mind. When Himu finally goes to see Asha the following conversation takes place in Asha’s bedroom:

Asha: I knew you would come today.

Himu: Really?

Asha: Around 7 pm I felt that you were going to come. I told khala Himu shahib is coming and he will have dinner. Please cook his favourite meal. Your khala said, who told you that he was coming? I answered, no one. I just knew.

Himu: Do you still hear those strange words in your head?

Asha: Yes. I hear them when I am not talking. See, now I am talking and it is not in my head. This is why I am talking too much. I am sure that I am boring you, but I cannot help it. When the bell rang, I knew it was you. But do you know why I took so long to open the door?

Himu: I don’t know.

Asha: Guess.

Himu: I can’t guess.

Asha: It was very hot and that’s why I was lying in bed completely naked. I have this habit. If I have any clothes on my body while going to sleep, I feel suffocated. Maybe you are thinking of me as a very kharap meye. I can’t do anything about that. I am what I am. After I heard the bell I put on my clothes, combed my hair, and put on my lipstick. Now, do you think I am a kharap meye?

Himu: No, I don’t think so.

Asha: I am sure the one I will eventually marry will look at me in a very kharap way once he finds out about my habit. That’s why I decided I would tell the person I would marry about my habit in advance.

Himu: That’s good.

Asha: Am I talking too much?

Himu: Just a little. It doesn’t suit your age if you don’t talk a lot.

Asha: I have decided to marry very soon. Do you know why? Because once I get married I can already talk to my husband. Do you know what type of husband I prefer?

Himu: Yes, tell me.

Asha: He would be five feet and seven inches tall, how tall are you?

Himu: I don’t know.

Asha: I think you are five seven. My husband will have beautiful eyes. His eyes must hold dreams, must have maya. Have anyone ever told you that you have beautiful eyes?

Himu: No.

Asha: I have never seen a man with such beautiful eyes. Do you think I have fallen in love with you?

Himu: Yes.

Asha: I also thought so. Today I became certain that I am madly in love with you. Do you know how I became certain? After seeing you I feel like crying. A strange sort of crying. I feel the tears spread all over my body. It felt like pain.

It is very common for Humayun Ahmed’s female characters to say that they feel like kharap meye (bad girl) because they have had urges to get naked, to have physical relations with their lovers, or even to hold hands with their lovers.

In his science fiction Kuhok, Ahmed he describes a scene of sexual encounter between a married couple in the following way: “He starts to caress his wife. This was that special caressing of the man that Deepa likes and dislikes at the same time.” This married woman who is a mother of three is still depicted as confused about whether or not she enjoys sexual intimacy with her husband!

Similarly, the girl Asha is depicted to feel guilty because she lay in bed naked. Her way of letting Himu know about her love is set in the highest dramatic tone, fulfilling both Humayun Ahmed’s own and the mass middle-class Bengali male readers’ sexual fantasies. Here is a beautiful girl, born and raised in the United States, falling in love with a vagabond pauper, and waiting for him in her bedroom completely naked.

However, Humayun Ahmed has to conceal this sexual fantasy beneath a facade of socially acceptable sexual morality by making the woman confess that she indeed felt guilty for lying naked in bed. The expression of love immediately turns into a talk of marriage, which adds some morality to the sexual undertones of the conversation. This girl was actually coming out and professing her love and wish to marry Himu. This element of marriage makes it OK for her to tell him that she has a habit of lying naked in bed.

First of all, whether or not a girl likes to lie naked in her bed is her business, but Humayun Ahmed makes her apologize for her nudity to her future husband. The ultimate ownership of the female body is vested in the man and any expression of the woman’s sexuality is confessed by herself as something that had made her into a kharap meye. The greatness of the educated middle-class Bengali man then lies in forgiving the sins of the kharap meye and showering her with love.

In almost every Humayun Ahmed novel, the girls and women weep because of their guilt for experiencing some remote sexual desire like touching the man’s face, holding his hand in the dark, coming into a room with him and turning the lights off, etc. This act causes them to feel pain and they label themselves as kharap meye.

The line that is drawn here is one of acceptable societal norms, which I believe also plays a big role in making Humayun Ahmed novels appeal to a larger audience. Sexuality in his books are expressed in a diction of male fantasy, which is then sugar-coated with Bengali middle-class morality, that even parents do not hesitate to buy Humayun Ahmed books for their children.

Humayun Ahmed’s trick is to hint towards sexuality, but then immediately cover it up under the hypocrisy of Bengali moral codes. This hypocrisy lies in the social morality around us which forces us to pretend like no one in Bangladesh actually has sex. Sex is made invisible from the public sphere and repressed to a degree that it can only peep out in novels.

I remember in the year 2001, Humayun Azad spoke at a book fair in New York where he complained: “Parents let their children read Humayun Ahmed because in his books the characters only go as far as holding hands with each other.” Humayun Azad, a man who has written extensively on sexuality never managed to become as popular as Humayun Ahmed simply because Azad did not comply with the Bengali moral hypocrisy when it came to writing about matters of sexuality.

The average Humayun Ahmed female character is between the age of fifteen and twenty-five. Most of them are fair-skinned beauties. They are all very talented, but this talent is only channeled towards getting married to the man of their choice. This is how far the limits of Humayun Ahmed’s female characters’ agency stretch out to: managing to getting married!

It must be mentioned that a large number of Humayun Ahmed females come from very affluent families, and most of them somehow or the other fall in love with a man from a low-income social group. I am sure marrying a young, fair, timid Bengali girl with a lot of money is the fantasy a lot of struggling house tutors might have. When this fantasy is topped with the woman’s secret habit of lying in bed naked or dancing in the rain naked (reference of Omega Point), sure it becomes a very delicious recipe for the sexually repressed Bengali middle-class man struggling to make it big in the material world of money and success.

Another one of his famous novels Rumali depicts a similar situation where a very rich man’s daughter marries a pauper and then provides him with all the money he needs for his film-making endeavour. These women are never depicted as means to themselves, but they are means to ends for others. These women help the male characters get to where they need to go to. These women just want to be a part of the journey. The men are great.

Himu, after all, is a mohapurush and he does not fall in love with Asha. The sacrificing wife in Rumali continues to pity her husband. Fifteen year old Dilu from Amar Ache Jol drowns herself in the pond because she had been refused by a thirty-five year-old Jamil bhai. Nitu from Kobi revolves as the moon around the earth around her brother’s poet friend Aatahar. Women never become the grand narrative. Women only shower blessings, love, and sexual fantasies from the sidelines.

Despite the fact that it is indeed a pleasure to read Humayun Ahmed novels, I have realized recently that it is like eating too many jelly beans. You have to be critical about how much you eat and how you eat them so you do not end up with a tummy ache. The trick is to read Humayun Ahmed, feel his wonders, laugh until your stomach aches, share his dreams and deeper realization about life, appreciate his love for his people and his land, finally comprehend the love this man holds for humanity — and just simply bypass his female characters.

Rubaiyat Hossain is an independent film maker and Lecturer at BRAC University

© thedailystar.net, 2007. All Rights Reserved 
source link : http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2007/may/bad.htm
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The women in his life


Volume 2 Issue 2 | February 2007 

The women in his life

Rubaiyat Hossain discusses Rabindranath’s willingness to subordinate to the cause of nationalism his liberal humanism when it came to the issue of women’s emancipation

Madhurilata got married on the first of Ashar, Renuka is getting married on twenty first Srabon. Renuka is ten. When needed, the poet who once spoke against child marriage had forgotten all about it. Not as a poet, this time, he has been flawless and successful as a father. But the poet had to pay a price. For the next three months, not a single line of poetry came to him. Only prose!
Prothom Alo, Sunil Gangopadhay

Rabindranath with his daughter Mira, son Rathindranath, daughter-in-law Pratima, daughter Bela.

In Sunil Gangopadhay’s historical fiction Prothom Alo, poet Rabindranath Tagore’s remorse after marrying Renuka off at a young age with dowry money is depicted by a sudden spell of drought in his poetic career. That was Tagore’s punishment for marrying off his young daughter. If we ask for what offense Renuka was banished to the fate of a young bride, we will not be able to find an answer. Renuka died a few years after her wedding.

Madhuri, Meera and Renuka, all three of Rabindranath Tagore’s daughters were married off well before reaching even fifteen years of age. Historical references testify that Tagore was not at all happy with Renu’s and Meera’s matches. He paid heavy dowry for marrying all three of his daughters, but the dowry demand from Meera’s and Renu’s husbands remained a recurring theme. Madhuri died at the age of thirty-two in 1918 and Renu died at the age of fourteen in 1904.

It is worthwhile to ask: why is it that all the women in Rabindranath Tagore’s family had tragic endings? 

Rabindranath and his wife Mrinalini Devi, soon after their Marriage, c.1883

Whereas Indira Chowdhury and Sarala Ghosal, two of Tagore’s nieces, got married at the age of twenty-nine and thirty-three, respectively, which was quite the exception back in the early 20th century, why did Rabindranath Tagore refused to educate his daughters in Shankiniketan, or perhaps send them abroad to become educated and self-sufficient?

Why did he define their ultimate fates as marriage when clearly he had the understanding that these marriages were not going to work out for the girls’ benefit? Why is it that Tagore never made an effort to educate his wife? Why does Mrinalini only appear as a self-sacrificing mother who sells her jewelry to save Shantiniketan from sinking?

Whereas Tagore’s sisters-in-law were all educated, and even appeared in the public sphere, why is it that Tagore’s wife lived a very uneventful and private life? She was married at the age of thirteen, bore five children, and died at the age of twenty-nine. Why is it that we see a clear diversion from Rabindranath Tagore’s otherwise liberal humanist attitude when it comes to dealing with the social and cultural positioning of women in his life?

In order for us to attempt to understand this question it would be helpful to comprehend the idea of “individualism” that was created for Bengali middle class women of the 19th and 20th century. When interrogated against the back-drop of colonial political economy, the overall double standards of Bengali nationalism in creating the women’s individuality will become clear.

Women were situated by 19th century Bengali nationalist imagination in the ahistorical, traditional, and spiritual domain of the home. The rules and logic that governed the public domain were questioned, altered, and reconstituted in the private arena of the home. I would like to illustrate this home-world, public-private, Western-Bengali dichotomy by analyzing Tagore’s depiction of female characters in his literary work.

Two elder brothers of Rabindranath and their wives: Jnanadanandini and Satyendranath, Jyotirindranath (seated) and Kadambari

It is worthwhile examining whether or not individualism was banned for 19th century Bengali women through the newly constructed patriarchy that carried out the project of female emancipation against the backdrop of colonial political economy. Partha Chatterjee has spelled out the home/world, spiritual/material, private/public, East/West, and female/male dichotomy to locate the ahistorical, shastric, and self-sacrificing positioning of women by 19th century Bengali nationalism.

This nationalist project sought its unique, and superior, feature in the spiritual domain that was represented by the home, the private, and the woman, and identified it as the “inner domain of sovereignty.” It is within this arena of nationalist imagination that the Western modernism was challenged and altered. This alternation was done through flipping the meaning of the word “freedom” for women with the intention of restricting them from fully exploring their individualistic wills and desires, thus sustaining the mechanisms of an extended joint family that demanded total subjugation, selfless sacrifice, and endless service from women.

The word was assimilated into the nationalist need to construct cultural boundaries that supposedly separated the “European” from the “Indian.” The 19th century “Indian” interpretation of the word “freedom” differed from the one understood in the West: it was argued that in the West, “freedom” meant jathecchachar, to do as one wished, and the agency to self-indulge; in India, however, “freedom” meant being free from one’s ego, and the capability to sacrifice and serve willingly.1 It is in the context of this selfless so-called “free” female individual that Tagore’s interpretation of Binodini’s character in Chokher Bali (1903) unfolds.

It is interesting to scrutinize the Binodini of Rabindranath Tagore’s most celebrated novel, Chokher Bali, because this novel is hailed by critics as the foundation of the modern Bengali novel that “relied upon the detailed psychological method in which incidents and intentions are marshaled in a close array.”2 Even though Chokher Bali goes furthest into interrogating the widow’s interiority, and offers social solution to the widow problem from the point of view of a male author who came closest to constructing the widow as an active agent of her will and action, at the end, the novel returns to an ahistorical and transcendental understanding of the widow’s sexuality as a strategy of aesthetic rebellion against the Western construction of modernity.

Sympathy, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, derives from the application of reason to the human mind, and it creates a transcendental modern subject who “from the position of a generalized and necessarily disembodied observer” is capable of “self-recognition on the part of an abstract, general human being.” It was this sympathy that enabled Tagore to assume the pains and complications of widowhood, and made it possible for him to seek the psychoanalysis of a widow’s mind. Chokher Bali offers a special social space to an unfortunate widow, and follows the course of her agency in manipulating relationships in order to negotiate a respectable position within a patriarchal society.

The primary loop-hole in Tagore’s construction of the widow’s individuality is its ultimate limitation in comprehending the widow’s individuality

based on her sexuality, and the employment of the poetic mode within the prose narrative to transform the widow’s character into an aesthetic idiom that lacked objective and historical vision.

The story of Chokher Bali evolves around the passionate love tale of four characters: Mahendra, Ashalata, Binodini, and Bihari. Tagore admits in the preface that the jealousy of Mahendra’s mother Rajlakhsmi towards his wife Ashalata is the driving force of the novel, which creates the ground for Binodini and Mahendra’s illicit love affair.

Binodini’s marriage was settled with Mahendra, but because of his refusal to give in to the marriage at the last moment, Binodini was married to a wrong match, Bipin, who died only one year after their wedding. Binodini’s primary jealousy around Ashalata is born out of her recognition of her own qualities to be a better householder than Asha, and unfulfilled sexual desire further flames Binodini’s jealousy.

Bihari, Mahendra’s friend, is introduced as a counter-force to Mahendra’s selfishness and hyper-active sexuality. Binodini’s love creates complete unrest in the family, and Binodini, being the product of enlightenment ideology, comes back to her reason and decides to fall in love with Bihari by understanding the wrongness and social impossibility of her relationship with Mahendra.

Bihari, however, refuses to accede to Binodini’s proposal, and Binodini is struck by the ultimate triumph of her reason at the end of the novel, after Mahendra’s mother Rajlakhsmi’s death, when she simply leaves the scene of the Mahendra-Ashalata household, thereby making a rational choice that gives her the chance to be a modern individual subject.

The women’s emotions in this novel, love and jealousy, are derived from their passion to master the masculine forces of the novel. The men’s emotions, love and selfishness, are derived from their desire to own and master as many feminine forces in the novel as possible.

Bihari wins this race over Mahendra, because at end, Bihari’s superior application of reason gains him respect from the overall female characters in the novel. Mahendra’s mother Rajlakshmi jealousy towards Ashalata is based on Asha’s complete mastery over Mahendra in the first part of the novel. Rajlakshmi’s jealousy brings Binodini into the scene, and Binodini’s jealousy against Asahlata, and prem (romantic love) for Mahendra pushes the narrative to a more complicated state where the total breakdown of moral and emotional equilibrium of the novel takes place.

At the denouement of the novel, reason rules over emotion for each character, and things reach a resolution with Binodini’s departure from the scene. The word Tagore uses to describe the feminine emotions of love and jealousy is maya; women in this case are shown as mayabinis, creatures capable by their sexuality to manipulate and create instability in the masculine mind. Asha is shown as being naïve in the game of maya, as opposed to her mother-in-law or Binodini. The absence of the essential female power of maya in Asha’s character makes her more benevolent than the others.

Tagore’s understanding of maya is based on the same idiom as his nationalistic poetic mode described by Dipesh Chakrabarty, where the real nation portrayed in the prose language would transform itself into a poetic transcendental icon to mitigate the distance between the desired state of the nation from the actual chaos.

Similarly, the moral degradation of women in Tagore’s novel is described in the prose language, but when he draws the conclusion, and locates the ultimate source of the moral downfall of the females, he delves into the realm of the ahistorical where the essence of maya and its uncontestable authority in the realm of the mythical provides a justification for the violent treatment of female sexuality.

Tagore’s overall justification for isolating the feminine to the realm of the ahistorical is part of his larger project of aesthetic rebellion to the West, which is pronounced in one of his last plays Rakta Karabi (1926). It is one of Tagore’s last pieces of work, and it focuses on the inherent struggle between agriculture and industrialization.

The play is set up in a place called Jokkhopuri, controlled by a ruler who is completely isolated and out of touch with the community. The air is heavy, and the inhabitants dig the earth all day long in search for minerals. Nandini is brought into the scene as the ultimate sign of force that can free the shackles of Jokkhopuri, diminish its evils of riches and intoxication, and restore freedom and foster closeness to the earth through agriculture.

Nandini, however, is established as a character who is always happy, and concerned about others. There is no personal wish that she attempts to pursue, except for the well-being of the community and waiting for her lover Ronjon who would eventually free the community. In Nandini’s case, her innocence, and feminine spirit of caring is enough to shake the foundations of the ruler who is supported by his network of power.

Tagore in Rakta Karabi objects to the lust of the enormous power structure by resisting it with the character of Nandini, who carries the spirit of individual freedom and creativity; but the problematic aspect lies in Nandini’s overly dramatic passion of sympathy towards the community.

As I have mentioned earlier, according to Chakrabarty, sympathy is crucial in creating a modern subject who is capable of feeling a universal position and, therefore, acting rationally towards others in the community. Another important aspect of the modern individual that Dipesh Chakrabarty points out is the interiority of the subject. This interiority is born out of the struggle between reason and individual desires, emotion and passion. Even though we see the expression of Binodini’s interiority in Chokher Bali, Nandini’s interiority is completely lacking in Rakta Karabi.

It was important for Tagore to show Binodini’s interiority because, by the virtue of being a widow, she had already committed a social oddity. The only way she could ever render herself acceptable in the society was by fighting her passion, greed, and sexuality with the tool of reason, which opened up her mind to sympathize with Asha, Rajlakhsmi, Bihari, and even Mahendra in realizing the evils of her passion that ruined this family.

Nandini, being a virgin, is pure and less complicated. The spirit of womanly traits as identified by Tagore: spiritual love, spirit of service, passion for self-sacrifice are already present in Nandini, whereas in Binodini’s character these qualities were burdened by the ills of her sexuality and passion to practice it. Binodini is Tagore’s attempt to internalize the degeneration of the society, and offer a literary solution to the problem, whereas Rakta Karabi is completely set in a mode of poetry, in the poetic realm of ahistorical reality.

If Binodini was a problem and the nationalistic agenda had to seek a solution for her, then Nandini was the ideal iconification of feminine sexuality that was desirable as the foundation for India’s nationalistic movement. Tagore’s discussion of Rakta Karabi confirms that it is a “vision” that had come to him “in the darkest hours of dismay.”3

By 1926, the first world war, growing communalism in India, proposals for partition, violence in the nationalist language prepared the ground of Tagore’s poetic humanism to seek for an alternative solution that was to realize the “divine essence of the infinite in the vessel of the finite.”4

This aesthetic journey ended in the complete objectification of feminine sexuality in the timeless, spiritual, ahistorical, transcendental, self-sacrificing realm of nationalism: “This personality, the divine essence of the infinite in the vessel of the finite — has its last treasure-house in a woman’s heart. Her pervading influence will some day restore the human to the desolated world of man.”5

It is this heavy burden of embodying the true essence of the infinite in the vessel of the finite that caused Tagore’s daughters to be sacrificed for the “traditional cause” of early marriages.

Locating this alternative spiritual superiority in the women enabled nineteenth century Bengali nationalism to impose clear double standards on its women. It is under this framework that women became the bearers and redeemers of the culture.

Rabindranath Tagore, who previously protested the practice of child marriage, opposed the Age of Consent Bill 1891, which raised the age of consent for sexual intercourse from ten to twelve. Nationalism and winning the ideological battle with the British was clearly far more important than saving young girls from marital rape.

The Bengali men did not want the British officials setting the rules in the bedroom too. The British had already been ruling the public sector for hundreds of years. The private sector was for Bengali men to lay down their own rules and brew the nationalist emotions to ultimately overthrow the British rule. The “women’s issue” could wait until then. After all, women were spiritual beings.6

Clearly, it was more necessary for Rabindranath Tagore to create a social revolution in the public sector than to offer better lives to his daughters and his wife. However, this phenomenon does not seem to bother any of us, does it? After all, Bengali women are hailed for their ultimate power to self-sacrifice, both for the cause of the nation and for their men.

1 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.
2 Sarada, M, Rabindranath Tagore: A Study of Women Characters in his Novels, Bangalore: Sterling Publishers, 1988.
3 Tagore, Rabindranath, Rakta Karabi, Kolkata, Viswabharati: 1998.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 See elaboration of this argument in, Chatterjee Pratha, The Nation and its Women in Guha, Ranajit, Subaltern Studies Reader 1986-1995, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Rubaiyat Hossain is an independent film-maker and Lecturer at Brac University 

© thedailystar.net, 2007. All Rights Reserved 
source link : http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2007/february/women.htm


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Why did Durga, Sarbajaya, and Aparna have to die

Volume 2 Issue 1 | January 2007

Why did Durga, Sarbajaya, and Aparna have to die

Rubaiyat Hossain ponders the disquieting dispensability of the female characters in the Apu Trilogy

 The coming of modernity in South Asia is marked by the intellectual and material invasion of colonial political economy. As India and Pakistan emerged as modern nation states in 1947 one question was constantly being asked by South Asian intellectuals, and it was the question regarding the uniqueness of South Asian modernity in relation to the Western model.

Satyajit Ray, making his first film in 1955, was to make a serious statement as a long-standing member of the Bengali intelligentsia on the type of “modernity” that was to be ushered in by the Indian nation state, especially in the context of rural Bengal.

I would argue that the Apu Trilogy, made between 1955 and 1959, is Ray’s first coherent narrative of the trajectory from tradition to modernity, from rural to urban, from darkness to light, from unreason to reason.

One curious feature of this journey towards modernity is the constantly surviving male figure (Apu) versus the failed and dead figures of the females (Indir Thakuran, Durga, Sarbajaya, and, finally, Aparna).

Critically understanding the woman’s position within the nationalistic narrative can open up a unique view to interrogate the colonial past, and offer a clearer sense of the nationalistic politics. Lata Mani and Gayatri Spivak have noted the disappearance of the female figure from the patriarchal nationalistic narrative into a textual space where she is forever caught between “tradition” and “modernity,” “patriarchy” and “imperialism,” “subject-constitution” and “object-formation.”

As women literally become the discourse between “tradition” and “modernity” in colonial Bengal, it is important to examine various nationalistic narratives and observe how they handle the figure of the woman, and where she is placed in the discourse. I would like to trace Satyajit Ray’s placement of the female figure in his narrative of “modernity” by primarily looking at Pather Panchali (1955), Aporajito (1956), and Apur Sangsar (1959).

Satyajit Ray’s cinematic representation of Apu peering through a torn blanket to carrying his son on his shoulder is the trajectory of Ray’s modern man. The growth of this man is deeply influenced by the death of the female figures in his life — his sister, his mother, and finally his wife. If we compare Ray’s depiction of Apu’s trajectory towards modernity, and Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s resolution of the Apu character in relation to the female characters in the novel, perhaps the nationalistic ambiguity in Ray’s representation of women will become apparent.

Banerjee’s notion of modernity was vested in English education, scientific knowledge and in being able to relate the personal to the universal. Ray’s Apu displays similar qualities, only, his freedom as an individual is far more liberating than Banerjee’s narrative. Banerjee’s narrative runs on the fuel of nostalgia which drives the story back to Nischindipur, whereas Ray’s Apu seems to have little problem letting go of attachments, other than Aparna. Ray’s Apu also surrenders to nature in the face of the tragedy, but emerges again as a responsible father carrying Kajol on his shoulders, and the viewers are left to ponder where this couple will end up.

If Ray had made the decision to take the father and son back to Nischindipur it would have given the film a whole new closure, coming back to the starting point again almost like repeating a ritual, but Ray is far too modernist for it. Ray’s modernist interpretation of the closure of the trilogy emphasizes the notion of human freedom, mobility, and progress — however, the women still fall behind.

A sharp contrast between Apu and Durga is created in Ray’s Pather Panchali. Apu’s instrumental waking up scene (Pather Panchali) is initiated by Durga. She gets him ready for school, and he is on his way to progress. Durga is the child closer to animals and Indir, whereas Apu is closer to the more important members of the family, Harihar and Sarbajaya. The death of an old widow from the narrative of modernity was witnessed by young Durga, a girl who is also a burden to the national progress. Durga’s story is not one of freedom and glory, however, it is not questioned why, but answered by Apu’s success. Apu makes the journey, that is why Durga does not.

When the children go to watch the train it is Apu’s perspective that is emphasized, not Durga’s. In Ray’s narrative Durga is linked to the natural and Apu to the modern. Apu, sitting down with his parents and his sister at night, strains his ears for the train’s sound. When the train finally comes and he runs the overwhelming affect of speed is marvelous! Apu is related to the material, the velocity, the possibility of moving out of Harihar’s failed masculinity and Indir, Durga, and Sarbajaya’s inherently inadequate femininity.

Durga dies right after wholeheartedly accepting the monsoon water, her final destiny of death comes after her surrender to nature, she almost dissolves into it. Apu, on the contrary, survives the rain, he also lives through his surrender to nature (reference to Apur Sansar). Durga’s beating is observed by him, he knows her darkest secrets, and before leaving the village he throws the stolen necklace into the pond. The moss slowly closes up, thus closing the story of Durga the unwanted female child, as Apu sits on a bullock cart to ride on a train to Benaras.

In Apur Sansar, Aparna is also equated with nature by Ray. Apu is taken out of the urban backdrop to a strikingly different backdrop of an East Bengal village for his unplanned wedding. He takes on the role of saving the bride from the original lunatic match, and we see him on his wedding night speaking to himself, speaking to his wife, moving through the scene, as Ray’s mise en scene places Aparna on the far right corner of the screen calmly bowing her head. In Ray’s narrative Aparna is a burden for the superstitious rural village, a woman whose death will be instrumental in diverting Apu to nature, thus pushing the narrative to a final resolution.

Ray’s natural antithesis to Western materialistic modernity depends on the death of the women in his films. Women, who represent nature, push Apu to his ultimate triumph of modernity. Ray creates a contrast between Aparna and Apu, which is again absent in the book. Aparna is bothered by the train noise, whereas it is almost a part of Apu’s life. Aparna kills cockroaches and breaks coals for the breakfast fire while Apu obliviously plays his flute. When Apu attempts to get another job to afford a maid, Aparna is surprisingly calm, and says: “quit the tuition you have now, and my poor husband will come home to spend the evening with me.” This romantic and self-sacrificing speech is not indigenous to Banerjee’s book, but planted by Ray.

When Aparna goes to the village her letter arrives in Calcutta. As Apu reads the letter Aparna’s calm and sweet voice brings back the quaintness and melody of the rural natural village. Her voice is punctuated by urban interruptions, but when Apu starts reading it again the sense of bliss is re-established. When she dies Apu has to surrender to nature and give up his novel. Nature does not consume Apu as it did Aparna and Durga, but gives him back to life with the strength to carry on, and take responsibility of his son. In Ray’s narrative Apu’s surrender to nature is the natural antithesis to Western material modernity.

Apu’s mother Sarbajaya is not fully equated with nature because she is the material source for his higher education. It is with the money she earned as a maid in Benaras that Apu is able to go to school in Manshapota, and later go to Calcutta. His concern for his mother in the film is negligible, whereas in the book his concerns and his longing for her are emphasized. In the book Apu feels special pride in sending his mother ten taka by money order, whereas in the film Apu remains naïve about his mother’s illness. While Apu is studying in Calcutta, Sarbajaya dies without any treatment or care. Apu does not react to his mother’s death very seriously, furthermore he leaves without performing her last rites, thus cutting off the remaining tie with the rural. Sarbajaya’s death implied the end of Apu’s relationship with rural life. Sarbajaya’s death sets him as a free man in Apur Sansar.

Satyajit Ray uses women as a natural antithesis to Western material modernity. This antithesis pushes the subject towards an alternative modernity, where the woman’s sufferings and exploitation are rendered transparent — she is removed and forgotten. Banerjee’s narrative constantly commemorates the dead females, whereas Ray’s narrative eliminates them with complete closure. Banerjee is a far more emotional writer than Ray is as a film maker. Banerjee’s Apu is rooted in nature, whereas Ray’s Apu is rooted in the train, Banjeree’s Apu displays more emotion, friendship with females, feminine qualities such as decorating the room and dressing up versus Ray’s Apu who comes across as a free roaming man after Sarbajaya’s death. Banerjee’s Apu can never forget about Durga and Nischindipur, thus preserving a place for remembering the deceased females in modernist narrative of the novel. The last page of Banerjee’s Pather Panchali reads:

Suddenly Apu’s heart filled with a curious emotion. It was not grief, nor was it loneliness. He did not know what it was. It was compounded of so many feelings, so many memories that flashed across his mind in a single moment of time: Auturi witch, the steps down to the river, the past under the chalta tree, Ranu, the games he played in the afternoon, the games he played at midday, Potu, Durga’s face. And all the things she longed for and never got.

And there she was still watching.

Then the words of his heart found expression in tears, as time and time again he struggles to send her a message: “I am not really going away Didi…I haven’t forgotten…it’s not that I want to leave you…they’re taking me away!”

It was true. He had not forgotten, and he did not forget.

It is this Apu of Bibhutibhusan who sheds tears for the defeated Mahabharat’s hero Karna, it is the imaginative Apu who gets in trouble for collecting crow eggs believing one could fly with the help of vulture eggs filled with mercury. This Apu is not present in Ray’s modernist interpretation of Banerjee’s novel.

Banerjee’s sense of advuta, anada is established in Ray’s trilogy, but the humble return to the rural land is not proposed. Ray worked very intricately on the train sequences, and made the train track a reoccurring object in Apu’s houses in Aporajito and Apur Sansar. It can be concluded that Satyajit Ray’s Apu moved hastily with the trains and left behind his unfortunate sister in the dead dark corner of Nischindipur.

This road to modernity crushed the possibility for Durga’s growth, moreover, deleted her memory from the narrative of modernity entirely. This disappearance is not accidental, but is aesthetically planned to cover up the Bengali modernist ambiguity in violating women’s individuality. This violation is erased from the narrative to make India’s transition from tradition to modernity unproblematic, homogenous, and gender neutral. The entering of the snake in the Nischindupur household, and Apu leaving Manshapota without performing his mother’s last rites indicate the clear trajectory towards the urban.

Pather Panchali, produced by the West Bengal government, had set the parameters for Ray to depict a clear trajectory to urban from rural. This trajectory is one-way, and the possibility of reverse migration to the village is sealed off by the curvilinear entrance of a snake into Harihar Ray’s household.

The latter films of the trilogy carefully design Apu’s return to the natural, and raises him to the level of a denouncer of the material world, a sannyasi submerged in nature. After Aparna’s death the film becomes female-less, whereas the book constantly brings Apu in contact with female characters.

Ray’s narrative of modernity is far more brutal than Banerjee’s because, in the cinematic representation of Pather Panchali and Aporajito, all the female characters must die before Apu can purify himself in nature again to emerge as a matured modern subject.

The last scene of Apur Sansar shows Apu carrying Kajol on his shoulder, there are no females, nor are their memories in the vicinity. Thus, Ray’s depiction of the patriarchal tale of modernity is normalized as a universal story of humanity.

Rubaiyat Hossain is an independent film-maker and Lecturer at Brac University.

© thedailystar.net, 2007. All Rights Reserved
source link : http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2007/january/durga.htm
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1971: Shall we remember, forget, or fabricate?

undefined  The Daily star | Victory Day Supliment | December 2006

1971: Shall we remember, forget, or fabricate?

Rubaiyat Hossain

It is debated whether or not a comprehensive and objective history of Muktijuddho has yet been written or not. It seems that the history of Bangladesh’s Muktijuddho is still in its making. Thirty-five years since our independence, the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs is still struggling to come up with a finalized list of Muktijoddhas.

While the history of Muktijuddho is reinterpreted by our political parties to meet their individual political imperatives, strong nationalist rhetoric reign the bulk of war literature, and Bangladeshis still cannot agree over who declared their independence on March 26, 1971 — our history is being written and authorized elsewhere!

In the United States of America, Sarmila Bose a Harvard scholar of Bengali origin and family connection with Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose is working on a project called “1971: Images, Memory, Reconciliation.”

Sarmila Bose’s statement in “Anatomy of Violence: An Analysis of Civil War in East Pakistan in 1971,” that: “In all of the incidents involving the Pakistan army in the case-studies, the armed forces were found not to have raped women” created quite a stir in Bangladeshi print media.

Regardless, Ms. Bose continues her project, “1971: Images, Memory, Reconciliation,” with the intention of providing a “basis for an analytical approach that challenges both the silence and the unsubstantiated rhetoric that have obscured the study of the conflict of 1971 to date.”

Ms. Bose also claims that: “Bangladeshis are understandably more voluble about the birth of their country, but have done less well at systematic historical record-keeping, and a vast proportion of literature put out on 1971 is marred by unsubstantiated sensationalism.” I may have strong empirical evidence to counter her first statement, but I somewhat agree with the last one.

We surely have not done enough of systematic historical record-keeping of Muktijuddho history. The attempt to collect and compile Muktijuddho history has been fragmented and interrupted. For example, some records were collected under Jatiya Swadhinotar Itihash Parishad between 1972 and 1973. It seems after that the projects slowed down, and picked up its pace again under Muktijuddher Itihash Lekhon O Mudron Prokolpo between 1977 and 1987. A very worthwhile document came out of this project, the fifteen volumes of Bangladesher Swadhinota Juddho Dolil Potro edited by Hasan Hafizur Rahman. Reputed historians such as Afsan Chowdhury and Dr. Sukumar Biswas were part of this endeavour.

After a long interruption, in 1996, another project was undertaken by Mukitjuddho Gobeshona Kendra to collect oral history of Muktijuddho. However, after collecting 25,000 interviews in 19 compiled volumes this project was interrupted. After the formation of the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs in October 2001, the ministry has taken possession of all documents collected by Bangla Academy and Muktijuddho Gobeshona Kendra.

A new endeavour started under the ministry to compile the history of sector-wise armed conflict. The original plan of Awami League government in 1996 to collect oral history from all 64 districts and publish a total of 91 volumes of Muktijuddho history has been interrupted by the four-party alliance government after the 2001 election. Such interruptions and change of action plan surely creates hindrance in collecting a coherent historical narrative of 1971.

Another curious element of Muktijuddho history I discovered as an MA student researching in the field was the obscurity of Muktijuddho history keeping in Bangladesh.

For example, there is no official figure based on empirical evidence of how many people actually died during the nine months of 1971. How many women were raped and how many war babies were adopted by foreign families still remain unknown.

I was told at the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs that they are currently engaged in compiling a list called the “Nei Talika.” This list aims to document all of those who were not listed in the past four compiled lists: the Jatiya Talika, Kallyan Trust Talika (those trained in India), Voter Talika, Muktibartar Talika. It is also surprising a national effort to compile the list of freedom fighters was not initiated until 1980!

As Muktijoddha Certificate earns one certain benefits, there is no shortage of forgery these days. Thus the true identification of real freedom fighters becomes even more obscure. As we lose the identities and voices of those who really fought and suffered in 1971, we also begin to lose parts of the real picture of our Muktijuddho.

We have buried women’s memory of war under our ideology of honour and shame. In doing to you have lost yet another segment of Muktijuddho history. The truth is in order to really understand 1971 one has to look at it from every single angle possible.

If we really want to learn about Muktijuddho, we need to read not only Ferdousi Priyobhashini, but also General Niazi. We have to read Chorompotro as well Nurul Qadir’s “Blood and Tears” — a book about the plight of Biharis in 1971. We have to understand accounts of freedom fighters, and also look at the foreign policy documents to comprehend the larger geo-political scheme. We have to look at the fifteen volumes of Dolil Potro edited by Hasan Hafizur Rahman in order to get first-hand factual documents and testimonies. We may also visit Muktijuddho Research Center and Muktijuddho Jadughor, but still we will not have factual data. We would still lack numbers and strong empirical evidence to prove what really happened and how many really died.

In fact, our government needs to begin a research project and document 1971 from all different angles. For example, as we need to documents the songs, poetry, and literature produced during 1971 to understand the emotional and cultural temperament of the people, we also have to employ archeological teams to bring us hard historical evidence at hand for what really happened.

Thirty five years is a very long time and then again it is also a very short time. There are still bones buried underneath the land that we walk on. There are numerous gonokobors in the country that one could dig up to find history. It really is not too late. In fact, this is the right and ripe time to start such an endeavor.

As confused we have been between Vande Mataram and Muslim League, Muslim League and Awami League, between Joy Bangla and Bangladesh Zindabad, autocracy and military regime, pseudo democracy and militancy in the name demanding an Islamic state, we will be truly headed for a national doom if we do not make a conscious and honest effort right now to document a comprehensive and objective history of 1971.

Rubaiyat Hossain is an independent film maker and Lecturer at Brac University.

© thedailystar.net, 2006. All Rights Reserved 
source link: http://www.thedailystar.net/suppliments/2006/december/victoryday/shallwe.htm
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Taslima Nasrin: Woman in exile

Volume 1 Issue 2 | December 2006

Taslima Nasrin: Woman in exile

Agent provocateur or a bold voice of dissent against patriarchy? Rubaiyat Hossain re-examines Bangladesh’s most controversial author.

You gave me poison.
What shall I give you?
I’ll give you my pitcher of water
Down to its last drop.
–Taslima Nasrin (In Return)

Taslima Nasrin is a forbidden name in Bangladesh. No one likes her. Even the women’s rights activists and female writers shy away from her. The validity of her political position as a woman, and the craftsmanship of her literary work have been questioned widely.

I can understand the extreme resentment against her due to the strong oppositional position she has taken with regard to Islamic scriptures (or any religious scripture for that matter), but I keep thinking that there has to be something else in her writing, something else which has established her as an icon in the literary world.

The iconification of Taslima Nasrin is covered with a negative hue. Her sexuality is always brought into question, and she is constructed as a thoroughly immoral woman who is doing crazy things just to get public attention. However, this is a very generalized, partial, and simplified understanding of Taslima Nasrin as a writer.

When her recent book Dwikhondita (also known as Ka) came out I remember calling a book-store in New York in order to get a copy of the book.

The store owner told me enthusiastically: “In this book, Taslima has named all the writers she has slept with.”

When I got the book and read it thoroughly, I was surprised when I reflected on the store owner’s comment, since the book came across to me as nothing more than a very well-written emotional biography of a female writer trying to make it in a literary world mostly
dominated by males.

The book reveals Taslima’s experiences of sexual abuse, and uncovers her relationships with prominent writers. It is the most accomplished of her literary pieces, but it still failed to draw any criticism based on literary lines. Almost all discussions of the book revolved around scandals, and Taslima’s immorality as a woman.

The wider level of reaction towards the book reveals the patriarchal double standards that reign over the culture of Bangla literature. It is very common for male writers to write about sexuality, in fact Sunil Gangopadhay’s famous biographical travelogue, Chobir Deshey Kobitar Deshey, openly discusses his sexual experiences in the United States and Europe. Gangopadhay’s biography does not bring into question his moral integrity because male writers are not only sanctioned to talk about sexuality, but writers like Sunil Gangopadhay, Shomoresh Boshu, and Buddhadev Bosu are acclaimed for talking openly about sexual experiences, thus ushering in a new state of modernity in Bangla literature.

I want to argue that Taslima Nasrin is condemned, especially in the literary circle, because she is the first woman to talk openly about female sexuality in Bangla literature. She is also the first one to write openly about her sexual encounters with other writers (may they be true or fabricated). Whether Taslima’s accounts in Dwikhondita were based on reality is an entirely separate debate, but from the ill reaction towards the book, we come to understand once again that when a female talks openly about her sexuality it is not well received.

It strikes me as a strange phenomenon, since most of Bangla literature, even pieces by Kalidasa, use women’s bodies and sexuality as a prominent theme of rasa. The social approval for male writers to write about female bodies, and the imposed silence on women writing about their own bodies highlight the overall contour of Bangla literature where women are officially denied access to conceptualize, and write about, their own sexuality.

When a woman writes, it is essentially different from a man writing, because women’s personal experiences have a political implication. Women’s personal experiences reveal the division, and implementation of patriarchal power through women’s intimate experiences of sexual objectification.

For example, the recent publication of Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals and unrevised version of her book of poems Ariel, with a forward by her daughter Frieda, informs us of Plath’s extreme marginalization as a female poet, and her intimate experiences of sexual objectification in her marriage with poet Ted Hughes.

Plath’s work makes so much more sense when she is contextualized as a female poet fighting against the odds of 1950s patriarchal culture of the US and the UK. Virginia Woolf has pointed out that intellectual freedom depends on material things, and it informs women’s psychological lives and their creative outcome.

Esther, the protagonist of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, sits down in front of her type-writer to write a novel and realizes that she cannot write, simply because she has “no experience.” Domestic isolation, narrow social exposure, lack of access to material things to own a “room of their own” restrict women from writing about their unique experiences of objectification and marginalization.

Woolf has also pointed out that telling the truth about one’s experience as a body means “rejecting the ideal, pure image of woman.” That is exactly what Taslima Nasrin has attempted to do in her literary work.

Nasrin has flipped the use of womb from a place of reproduction to a place of resistance. The main protagonist of her novel Shodh uses her womb to give birth to an illegitimate child in order to take revenge on her husband. Whether or not this form of rebellion is desirable, or even empowering, is a separate debate. What I want to draw readers’ attention to is Nasrin’s alternative use of the female body, not only as a passive object, but as an active agent resisting an oppressive cultural code that masters women’s bodies and reproductive organs.

When Nasrin described a rape scene in Nimontron, many people found it to be completely obscene. In fact when I read it as a school-girl I thought it was a little too much, but now that I reflect back upon the book as a graduate student, I can finally find some relevance in actually spelling out the totally obscene, violent, and perverted lust that is being played out on women’s bodies everyday. After all, why do we feel so uncomfortable reading a female writer writing about rape, when we are totally comfortable reading the newspaper reports on rape, mostly written by male reporters, which are sometimes not very far from being pornographic.

It is a pity that men and women have shied away from benefiting from Nasrin’s keen and sharp analysis of gender and power dynamics of women’s sexual objectification.

Her literary work creates a rupture in the episteme of patriarchal power-knowledge nexus, and opens up a space for the expression of female individuali but we have failed to take advantage of that space because the patriarchal media and literary circle have scandalized Taslima Nasrin to an extent that we do not even stop give her a second thought.

We fail to acknowledge that Taslima Nasrin is actually a pretty good writer, and, in fact, she is the first one to openly speak up about issues of sexuality ranging from menstruation, sexual harassment, rape, masturbation, etc. It is not uncommon to read passages in Bangla literature about male masturbation, in fact a great literary link is established between the male sexual organ and his poetic exploration of imagery and emotions.

Males are given the social approval to openly explore their sexuality and establish a link between their sexual experiences and the conceptualization of the world around them.

Females, however, are totally condemned for writing about their own sexuality, which is symptomatic of the fact that society wipes out all agency from the hands of women in controlling their own sexuality, and puts it in the hands of the males. In order to claim one’s space in society as a free agent, one must, primarily claim rights over one’s own body.

The NGO movements attempting to stop dowry, polygamy, or child-marriage do not cause a big stir in our social fabric, because those movements do not reach into the depths of patriarchal value and power system.

Taslima, however, by claiming rights over her own body and sexuality, has shaken the core of our patriarchal value system. She has stepped out, and declared that she is not afraid to be called “fallen,” because to be emancipated as a woman means in many ways to be recognized as “fallen” in our societal system.

Rubaiyat Hossain is an independent film-maker and Lecturer at Brac University.

© thedailystar.net, 2006. All Rights Reserved

source link : http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2006/december/taslima.htm

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Is Sex Work, Work?

Volume 4 Issue 77 | December 30, 2005 | Perceptions

Is Sex Work, Work?

Rubaiyat Hossain

The other night I was sitting by my window submerged in Kathleen Barry’s ground breaking book on female sexual slavery, and suddenly I heard a sharp voice pierce through the stillness of night-air, ‘kaaj korba?

There was a young woman in her mid twenties wearing a white shalwar kamiz standing on the pavement opposite to my house. The sodium light fell upon her, and I could see her face as she spoke again, ‘kaaj korba?’ I assumed that she was talking to someone, but I couldn’t see who it was since the other side of the street was dark. I had little trouble understanding that this woman was a sex worker, and she was asking a man, most probably a young boy (since she called him tumi: kaaj korba?), if he wanted to buy some sexual pleasure out of her that night. It is not uncommon to see sex workers roaming around in Gulshan.

When Tanbazaar and Nimtali brothels were evicted in 1999, and Kandupatti in 1997, one of the major concerns of the women’s groups and NGOs was that the eviction would disperse sex workers around the city, as a result of which a) availability of street based sex workers would increase, b) larger access will be created especially for young men, and c) finally risks of STDs and HIV AIDs would let loose. That is exactly what had happened, not to mention the increased suffering of women who are involved in this profession.

Whether or not sex work should be considered a profession is a long standing debate, but the immediate truth and urgency of the situation lies in the fact that we can see no way in the near future to put an end to men’s need for hired sex, thus whether we recognise sex work as a profession or not, it is, and will continue on.

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh says, “The State shall adopt effective measures to prevent prostitution and gambling” (Artclie 18 [2]). However, there is also provision for an adult woman to take up prostitution by making an affidavit with a First Class Magistrate’s Couth with a Notary Public. This provision is proof enough that the state doesn’t prohibit selling sex, rather by introducing the affidavit option the state makes it legal on the part of the pimps, and other beneficiaries of the sex trade to employ  women without any legal intervention.

Most of the women who are bound to sex work have little or no rights. They are forced into the profession by abduction or trafficking. Some join prostitution after being tired of getting raped on the streets over and over again. When we see young street children, we must think twice while looking at the girls, because one of the most unfortunate and unavoidable fate that awaits street dwelling girls is rape.

Every woman fears rape. Sometimes it is considered worse than dying because of the psychological trauma, and the social stigma that arises as an aftermath. For those of us fortunate women who have had safe enough lives not to get raped or end up in prostitution, live in a world that is utterly different and ‘other’ than the one inhabited by sex workers. Their lives and experiences are constructed as normal for them while it is completely obscene and impossible according to our ‘normal’ standards. It is this type of contradiction that helps us to focus on society’s need to channel its perversion into a realm of untouchability to constantly exploit a group of women for the fulfillment of male sexual fantasies. As social stigma around prostitution is profound in our culture it further hides the sex workers from the social sight of us so called ‘bhadraloks’ and ‘bhadramahilas.’

We may choose to deny the existence of sex workers in Bangladesh, but there are actually thousands of them working in the twelve well known brothels around the country, and many scattered around the country, working on the streets.

A girl of ten who may be gang-raped and then sold to a brothel has little help available to her from the society. Once a girl has crossed the boundary by losing her virginity, and stepping over the threshold of the red light zone-nobody is willing to take her back. Sabina Khatun of Naripokkho points out that the majority of the sex workers are providing money to support their families, though they are not welcome to go back home. Similarly, many sex workers have lovers or husbands who they give money to on a regular basis (even for his other wife and family!) simply out of the intense desire to receive love and affection. Sabina, the coordinator of Shonghoti, a coalition of 86 voluntary organisation networking and advocating human rights for sex workers says, ‘one
major problem is guardianship rights for sex workers with children.’ Sabina pointed out that it is a common phenomenon among sex workers to give birth to, and raise their own children. In most cases the identity of the father is not disclosed, therefore, these children remain as illegal citizens unable to attend schools or access any other facilities.

The only hopeful side to the whole scenario of sex work in Bangladesh is the stunning survival stories of women who survived the brutality of sex work, and attempted to come out of it to seek a new identity for themselves. After all, it takes a lot of patience, and high spirit to come out of the atrocity of prostitution, swallow all the social stigma and marginalisation, and finall organise on a platform to help others who are suffering.

Women at Durjoy have set an example by organising a platform to demand rights as sex workers. It all started off on January 14, 1998 when CARE Bangladesh’s SHAKTI (Stopping HIV AIDs through Knowledge and Training Initiatives) project in conjunction with Naripokkho held an workshop with street based sex workers from Dhaka, Tangail, Jamalpur, Mymensing and Narayanganj. The most immediate concern of the sex workers was not HIV, but police brutality, mastaan atrocities, denied access to the legal system and health care, and finally the well being of street based sex workers’ children. Ten selected sex workers from this workshop were sent to Kolkata the same year to attend a  conference organised by Durbar, an organisation based in Shonagachi, the biggest red light area in Kolkata. The women at Durbar were very well organised; they even had a cabinet minister attend their meeting, and they raised the slogan of ‘gotor khaaitiye khai, sromiker odikar chai’ in order to claim rights as working women. This conference was an eye opener for sex workers in Bangladesh who came back, and immediately got together under the platform of Durjoy Nari Shongho with the support of CARE Bangladesh on February, 1998. Durjoy functions through eight drop in centers (DICs) in Dhaka city to provide a resting place, health care and access to legal aid to street based sex workers. Durjoy with the support and guidance of CARE Bangladesh is disseminating information to help prevent HIV AIDs. Durjoy identifies its urgent goal to establish the fundamental citizenship rights for sex workers and their children. Women at Durjoy have participated in various research projects on sex workers in Bangladesh, they have written in books, newspapers, and journals, and finally they run a childcare centre for children of sex workers.

One of Durjoy’s agenda is to establish sex works as a legalised profession. The chairperson of Durjoy, says, ‘even if with all these women working as sex workers, there are so many news of rape and sexual abuse everyday, think about what might happen if there were no sex workers!’ She does have a point, and it makes us ponder about the rising rate of sexual violence, forced prostitution, and trafficking of women around the country. The government policy of condemning sex work via the Constitution and validating it on the other by the affidavit option is quiet ambiguous. It rings a bell to the patriarchal framework of statecraft, which is reluctant to ensure the rights of those women who have been forcefully put into prostitution for the sexual fulfillment of the male members of our species.

The least we can do as privileged individuals is to simply acknowledge these women as survivors of continuous violence and deprivation, and shift our sense of stigma from these women to those men who actually force young girls into this profession and sustain them for the purpose of fulfilling a perverse desire to master, manipulate and exploit female sexuality.

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