Let’s keep filming and fighting

Even after the censor board passed “Meherjaan” with five severe slashes, the film had to be stripped off theatres due to the objection some quarters of the society voiced against it.

Let’s keep filming and fighting

Rubaiyat Hossain

Facts about our films:

* The first motion picture was projected in Bangladesh on April 4, 1898 in Bhola.
* The first cinema theatre in Bangladesh was called Picture House, located in Armanitola, Dhaka, which was set up around the time of World War II in a building originally built to store jute.
* Bangladesh’s first silent features: Shukumari (1927-28) and The Last Kiss (1931) made by the affluent young members of Dhaka Nawab family.
* The first talkie feature titled Mukh o Mukhosh was made in 1956.
* In 1971, there were 1,500 cinema halls in existence, today 500-600 theatres remain in Bangladesh, most of which are in bad condition.
* Currently in Bangladesh, each year about 40 films are released.
* Bangladesh has one of the highest cinema ticket taxes — 150 percent.

Ticket sales drastically fell as soon as the pirated copies of “Monpura” were made available in the market.

In today’s market and imposed capitalist desire driven cultural economy it has become next to impossible for filmmakers to engage in the profession of filmmaking without thinking of the language of profit-making. Just to survive in the industry and keep making more films, a filmmaker must adhere to the local popular demands. Filmmaking, unlike other forms of creative arts, requires huge financial, technical and infrastructural support. Half trade-half craft, filmmaking offers a double-edged sword to walk on for its practitioners.

Those who want to translate into films their own personal philosophy or creative thoughts are struggling all over the world. In Bollywood for example, Farhan Akhtar makes Rs 100 crore budget films studded with stars and item songs, whereas a filmmaker like Onir still struggles to have a 70 print release of his critically acclaimed film “I AM” which deals with the complexity of relationship, political boundaries and sexuality.

The space for different kind of cinema is slowly emerging in Bollywood, especially due to the advent of multiplexes. Since multiplexes can simultaneously play more than one film, they can now afford to play slightly off-track films, at slightly off-track hours; for instance “Delhi Belly” screened at 2 am at Mumbai Juhu PVR. It ran houseful; it was a hit!

Thus, ‘multiplex films’ have emerged as a term in India, whereas, by the term they denote the films that will not pull the masses like “Singham”, but these films pull a considerable amount of audience. These films, banking mostly on urban multiplex going audiences — like “I AM”, “Iti Mrinalini”, “Shor in the City” — are made within Rs 1-3 crore budget, recovering the original investment and profit by getting themselves a 70-100 print release.

With so many awards in their bags, one would think producers chase filmmakers like Aparna Sen or Onir, but the reality is quite different. Aparna Sen struggled to find a producer to raise her frugal Rs 1 crore budget for “Iti Mrinalini”. The reason why I bring up examples from Bollywood is because I want to highlight the struggle of filmmakers in an established industry like Bollywood to contextualise the predicament of Bangladeshi filmmakers where there is no coherent film policy or organised film industry to begin with.

Recently the government has granted a Tk 59 crore budget to modernise FDC production and post-production facilities. Now we will witness longstanding tender issues and corruption. Eventually will FDC be modernised? The answer is not a very hopeful ‘yes’ from where I stand.

The biggest challenge for Bangladeshi filmmakers is the calamitous lack of infrastructure. There is no viable network among filmmakers, producers, distributors and cinema hall owners. The advent of private television channels has taken over this empty field and initiated a culture whereby films are made within very limited budget, premiering on television and theatre at the same time. This makes the films more prone to piracy, thus reducing the audiences at the theatres.

Bangladesh also has one of the highest rates of ticket tax in the world. Whereas, our neighbours in South Asia have changed their film policy and reduced the entertainment tax, Bangladesh still holds on to a 150 percent ticket tax adhering to a law that dates back to the British period. In Catherine Masud’s recent writing on Film Policy in Bangladesh, she has mentioned that not only the poor production of films, but also the tax factor has been pivotal in the recent shutting down of dozens of cinema theatres in Bangladesh.

Another huge challenge for local filmmakers is the lack of proper post-production, printing and processing lab facilities in Bangladesh. Most films that have managed to pull audiences to the theatres lately in Bangladesh had to travel to India for superior post-production facilities. Bangladesh Bank does not provide viable options to take money out of Bangladesh into India for post-production facilities, thus filmmakers have to opt for alternative ways to shuttling their resources to India for the post-production of their films.

The quality of local sound studios is also very poor; as of now we do not have a proper mixing studio. DOLBY sound system is not yet properly introduced in Bangladesh; Star Cineplex being the only theatre with a functioning DOLBY sound system, that too with speakers that are not aligned properly! The quantity and quality of 35mm, 16mm and digital cameras are also very scanty, not to mention the scarcity of lens. “Meherjaan” was shot only with 4 lenses at our disposal, 50 percent of the HMI lights we rented from FDC and private enterprises blacked out during shots and/or gave out flickers. These conditions largely hinder the execution of a filmmaker’s creative vision, and a filmmaker in Bangladesh has to constantly tailor his/her creative needs to the inadequate reality of local production facilities.

Due to meagre post-production facilities and the terrible projection quality in the cinema theatres, the audience today are unable to take pleasure in the joy ride of cinema. It is better for them to watch a film in the privacy of their homes on computer or TV-DVD player rather than going to the theatres with no AC, low hanging loud ceiling fans, bad sound and picture projection quality and very uncomfortable seats.

Finally, there are no private or national film institutes in Bangladesh who can produce technically competent directors, cinematographers, editors, gaffers, sound designers and sound engineers. Thereby we are working with a film crew who are self taught, thus in the process of filmmaking in Bangladesh each director has to go through an endless saga of technical breakdowns and subsequent troubleshooting.

Nurul Alam Atique's “Dubshatar” ended up having a television premiere, deeply disappointing the filmmaker and crushing his dreams about the possibility of digital cinema in Bangladesh.

When I spoke to Giasuddin Selim, the financially successful director of “Monpura”, he said the biggest challenge for him is the lack of professional producers who would raise the funds, create a film’s production and release plans and create a framework for the director to execute his/her film. For Selim, raising funds and retrieving it from the market is not an issue, he has proven that with “Monpura”, but where Selim struggles is with his double role as a creative director/writer of his film and dealing with the ruthless business world to create the material conditions to make his film — a job originally designated for a professional producer. Piracy is also a major issue according to Selim. He lamented that ticket sales drastically fell as soon as the pirated copies of “Monpura” were made available in the market.

Abu Saeed, an award winning filmmaker who mostly makes films for the festivals with small release and a very small audience pull in Bangladesh said that he will not stand down from his creative impulse to make issue-based cinema which do not draw big audiences in Bangladesh. Saeed sticks to his commitment to make serious cinema that are not popular to the mainstream, thus, he struggles to make films with very small budgets, often facilitating his own projection facility to screen his films in theatres as he did with his last film “Opekkha”, which was shot digitally and released for digital projection in Balaka with his editor Sujan Mahmud’s aid.

Catherine Masud in her recent writing about film policy in Bangladesh has proposed the promotion and introduction of at least 2K digital projection system in Bangladesh. So far, there is no hope that we will see the day. In recent times some interesting films have been made by independent filmmakers in the digital format which did not see the light of theatre release due to the lack of digital projection system in the country.

Nurul Alam Atique’s “Dubshatar” ended up having a television premiere, deeply disappointing the filmmaker and crushing his dreams about the possibility of digital cinema in Bangladesh. When I spoke to Atique, he expressed that he still harbours hope for the possibility of digital cinema in Bangladesh. “As we constantly work with limited funds and production facilities, but we have endless stories to tell, digital format can prove itself to be the most effective medium in Bangladesh,” Atique said.

Ishtiaque Zico, a 28 year old independent filmmaker whose short film “720 Degrees” premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival and was critically acclaimed in the festival circuit, said, “As an independent filmmaker, I am responsible for (not) making my film. Internationally the condition and struggle of independent filmmakers are also very tough; maybe the texture is different in Bangladesh.”

Currently Zico is working on his second film “Southeast Loves” with a couple of foreign producers. When I asked him about the challenges of making films in Bangladesh and how he saw himself getting involved in the local film industry, he said, “I don’t have an expert-like opinion, I am confused and clueless too. Every possible blame-objection-suggestion regarding the condition of our film industry has been expressed. This is not the time to comment, let’s keep filming and fighting.”

“720 Degrees” premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival and was critically acclaimed in the festival circuit.

I could not agree with Zico more. This indeed is a time for us to keep filming and fighting, tracing alternative ways to make our voices heard as filmmakers in this adverse terrain. From my experiences of filming “Meherjaan” and releasing it into the mainstream theatres, to my utmost disappointment the biggest hurdle proved to be censorship. Even after the censor board passed “Meherjaan” with five severe slashes, the film had to be stripped off theatres due to the objection some quarters of the society voiced against it. Presently, as I gather all my strength and work towards my second project, I am so much more aware of the official and social censorship of Bangladeshi society.

To bypass our society’s narrow threshold of issues tolerated in cinema, I am opting for a joint production with India; my deduction being if Bangladeshi society censors my film, at least I will have an alternative audience base and market to recover the investment from. This certainly is not the desirable or a particularly hopeful scenario for a filmmaker, not to mention the overall patriarchal attitude that rules the film world and questions my credibility as a fe(male) director every step of the way.

In Bangladesh, we in fact, have nothing going for us as filmmakers except our dreams and desire to make films, and the large number of film lovers who still rush to the theatre the moment a watchable film is released. We as filmmakers are at our own risk, walking a path that has not been charted adequately by the state and our predecessors. As Nurul Alam Atique puts it, “Pothik, tomake khuje nite hobe nij poth.” (Traveller, you must chart your own path.”)

Rubaiyat Hossain is a filmmaker and researcher.

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Source Link: http://thedailystar.net/suppliments/2012/anniversary_2012/section1/lets_keep.htm
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Taking Women Forward: The Role of Begum Rokeya and Sultan Jahan

Volume 5 Issue 12| December 2011

Taking Women Forward:
The Role of Begum Rokeya and Sultan Jahan

RUBAIYAT HOSSAIN examines the lives, works and social influence of Begum Rokeya and Sultan Jahan Begum of Bhopal.

The sudden reformist zeal of the 20th century South Asian Muslim communities has been an important entry point in understanding the crystallisation of Muslim national and political identity, that later came to determine the fate of the three major South Asian states: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The theological school of Deoband (1867), the Muslim education reform of Aligarh (1875), the peasant movements under an Islamic banner in rural Bengal, the partition of Bengal in 1905, and finally the creation of Muslim League in 1906 — all indicate the coming of a modern Muslim identity under the back drop of a colonial political economy. It is worth inquiring: if during late 19th and early 20th century a modern Muslim identity was in its making, then what changes were occurring in the social, cultural and religious lives of South Asian Muslim women? Looking at the discourse produced by early female educationists, reformers, writers, campaigners, can we sketch out the prescribed, resisted and socially practised idea of Muslim womanhood? How did the discourse on women’s reform produced by women reformers vary from those produced by their male counterparts? By examining the life, work and social impact of Sultan Jahan Begum (1858-1930), and Begum Rokeya Hossain (1880-1932) I will demonstrate the fact that, the primary difference between the works of male reformers versus the female reformers rest in fact that: while the former group recognised women as only means to others, let it be mothers, wives, or upholders of national identity; the latter group recognised women as independent agents, thus as means to themselves.

Women: The timeless safeguard of South Asian nationalism and modernity

Ram Mohan Roy’s campaign for abolishing the practice of burning Hindu widows according to the re-interpretation of shashtras, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s campaigns for remarrying Hindu widows, the Brahmo Samaj’s activities in promoting female education, the re-creation of a mythic pure Hindu woman by the Arya Samaj, the reform agenda for Muslim women pronounced by the ulamas, and finally the new sharif identity that was constructed through the discourse around the modern sharif or bhadramahila’s social and cultural repositioning — all have an underlying common theme and that is, these discourses if scrutinised carefully, reveal themselves to be the grand narrative of South Asian modernity and nationalism where women figure merely as carriers of ideology and symbolism.

In the South Asian context, culture specific construction of woman as a social category has to be contextualised within the trajectory of colonial intervention and subsequent advent of modernity. Women here performed a particular role not only as a moral platform for the national political articulation of sovereignty, but also functioned as a vessel of cultural signifiers central to the South Asian synthesis of modernity unique to the West. Women’s biological bodies, its reproductive functions, sexual access to it, and finally the ‘autonomy’ of it became the force to move the wheel of prominent social reform agendas such as the Abolition of Sati Act 1829, Widow Remarriage Act 1856, and finally The Age of Consent Act 1891. These three major social reform agendas created the platform whereby a debate was initiated about notions of modernity, sovereignty and nationalism.

The space which was assigned to women was the private, the cultural, the spiritual and the timeless, which altogether made up the nation’s core or “inner domain of sovereignty”1. Whereas during the first half of the nineteenth century social reforms regarding the social and cultural positioning of Hindu women were advocated by a large number of reformers, by the end of the 19th century women’s issues had become internalised in the private realm of national life. The British were no longer allowed to modify any norms regarding women rather, by the time of the Age of Consent Act 1891, Bengali men had successfully constructed the home, the private and the women as a sovereign domain where only the native rules would be followed. Western philosophy was recognised to be superior in the material or outer domain, however, the inner or spiritual domain South Asians were believed to be superior, thus following the West was not only unnecessary, but also harmful. This inner domain was symbolised by the woman who was to remain timeless as the bearer of tradition and spiritual superiority as nation fulfilled its trajectory from barbarity to civility, from tradition to modernity. As the British missionaries and officers commented on the backward status of South Asian women and the inhuman and vulgar practices carried out in women’s private quarters — the treatment and control of women gained a new dimension of significance within the colonial discourse.2 Muslim women’s suffering under purdah, especially in reference to education, polygamy, child marriage, mobility, health and hygiene became strong issues of criticism from the British official and missionary camps. Within this discourse, as women’s rights became a yardstick for measuring society’s progressiveness, modernity and civility; the obvious response from the South Asian camp was to engage in a process to firstly, improve women’s fallen status and treat them more ‘humanely’, and secondly, to take the authority and responsibility of controlling the female folk by making it the nation’s private business. The end result was, the social reform agendas of colonial South Asia did not take into account the sharif woman’s individual rights as their central issue of debate, rather as Lata Mani argues, “tradition is reconstituted under colonial rule, and women and brahmanic scripture become interlocking grounds for this re-articulation” (Mani in Sangari and Vaid 90). This aspect of using women and religious scriptures to reconstitute tradition to create a new modernity is common both in the Hindu and Muslim communities of South Asia.

The social and political developments of South Asian Muslim communities crystallised especially after 1857 when gradually the Muslim modern identity began to articulate itself. The concept of sharif or ashraf was understood as something that was previously only attainable through birthright now could be acquired through education, self discipline and strengthening of one’s own modern national identity.3 Muslim women’s social reform fought against two external ‘others’, the Hindus and the British. Thus, Muslim bhadramahila or women had to differ themselves not only from Western women, but also from their South Asian Hindu counterparts. Purdah, in this became an extremely important marker of Muslim identity, which visibly set Muslims apart from Hindus and British as a social, cultural and religious community. Muslim women, therefore, had an added burden of cultural symbolism on their head, one that seriously restricted their mobility, avenues for education and employment; in turn making the entire debate around modern Muslim woman’s social repositioning even more complicated.

Social reform of Muslim women: Men as agents of change
Women are lazy, and they put off a job scheduled for one time to another time. This often causes harm and disruption.
–Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi4
I consider purdah which is customary among the Muslim women to be the best we can have.
–Sir Sayyid Ahmad5
You should consider the man a thirsty traveler and the woman a spring.
–Khawaja Altaf Husain Hali 6

Unlike the Hindu women’s reform movements, which depended heavily upon legislative changes, Muslim women’s reform was carried out on a more social level around issues of education, purdah, heath care and appropriating a literate modern Muslim identity. In addition, issues related to marriage, divorce, polygamy and inheritance also figured as prominent issues, and the application of Sharia law was offered as a revolutionary solution to the deprived status of Muslim women in 1937. The social reform of Muslim women can be best viewed from three different angles, a) ulama-led attempts to purify Muslim women and their religious practices through educating them about the true Islamic teachings, b) Modern educationist- and reformer-led movements for women’s education, c) literary solutions offered to uplift the moral psyche and provide a guidance for the modern Muslim woman’s subjectivity. The underlying theme of all three strands of reform was the overall effort to come in terms with a modern Muslim identity via manipulating, re-conceptualising and appropriating the modern Muslim woman.

The ulama idealised women’s purity, religiosity, morality and loyalty to Allah and the family of utmost importance. Women’s unconditional submission for the cause of the family was glorified. Women’s religious obligations were considered to be of more significance than that of men, since the zenana was considered to be ‘corrupted’ by non-Islamic rituals, which was recognised as a great threat to the Muslim identity since women were the primary caregivers of children and managers of the household. It was believed that if women were given proper Islamic education then it would be possible to restore the true Islamic teaching to the entire community. Thus, within this discourse women became the vehicle through which a desired code of Islamic sanctions was to be disseminated. This domain of reform is perhaps best manifested in Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi’s exemplary work Bihishti Zawar. Since its publication in the beginning of 20th century this book has become a guide for respectable Muslim women, it has been translated into many languages and is widely circulated and read even today. One may ponder about the lasting popularity of this text. The primary reason this text became so important and durable over centuries is because of the basic egalitarian premise it sets itself off from. The text claims no innate difference between men and women, and considers women to be equally capable of acquiring knowledge and spiritual height. As Barbara Metcalf argues, this text is unique in the sense that it differed from Victorian and Bengali reform agenda which located women as a locus of home, whereas Bihishti Zewar “sought to do nothing less than bring women into the high standard of Islamic conformity that has been the purview of educated religious men” (Metcalf 7, 1990). However, this argument does not suffice because Thanavi never questions men and women’s social role and power dynamics, moreover, his text is heavily underlined with a sense of women as ‘lesser beings’. How does one account for such duality in this text, which on one hand proposes an egalitarian Islamic sanction for men and women, and on the other hand propagates highly problematic patriarchal value systems?

I would like to argue that, it is precisely this duality that leads us to the crack points of Thanavi’s patriarchal discourse. Even though his attempts to set Muslim women apart on a high moral and spiritual ground of knowledge is noted by Metcalf as an attempt to break away from the Bengali and/or Victorian ideal, Thanavi’s text falls into similar traps when women’s societal roles remain unchanged and their function remains reforming the home domain. Moreover, when Thanavi’s concludes that women were controlled by their nafs over aql, he justifies a pretext for women’s subordinate position in spite of Islamic egalitarian principles.7

 Muslim women’s education was conflicted with two issues — firstly, the early schools for girls were run by Hindu and Christian authorities and secondly, the challenge to package women’s education in such a way that it would not supersede the boundaries of prescribed social seclusion. Sir Sayyid Ahmad, the paramount figure of Muslim modern education, did not favour institutionalised schooling and Western education for women. His dualist approach towards men and women’s education clearly demonstrates his ideological split between the home and the world, where Western scientific education was necessary in the outer realm, whereas for the inner realm, for women Quranic education and primary knowledge of literacy was considered to be sufficient. Though Sayyid Ahmad Khan did distinguish between secluded purdah and purdah with mobility, he strongly adhered to the point that women should receive home-based education whilst upholding the social institution of purdah. However, there were more progressive men at Aligarh who initiated institutionalised schooling for Muslim women. Shaikh Abdullah started a girls’ school at Aligarh in 1906. He also assisted his wife in editing a women’s magazine in Urdu published from Aligarh titled Khatun. Sayyid Karamat Husain established women’s section of the Muhammadan Educational Conference in 1896 and founded a girl’s school in Lucknow 1912. Apart from women’s schooling, the role of print media became crucial in voicing the women’s opinion and creating a discourse about the modern sharif Muslim woman. Middle class Muslim women writing in Urdu became visible during this period and they wrote on varying issues. However, as Minault rightly points out, these debates did not challenge the basic ideology of the reform agenda and its project of reinterpreting scripture, creation of modern identity, re-inventing a glorious past, since middle class modern Muslim women had “much to gain from the enhancement of their position in the household, while maintaining the status and honor of their male kin” (Minault 157, 1998).

If education and religious reform sought to uplift women’s status by introducing Islamic principles and schooling, the vibrant literary genre fulfilled the responsibility of providing guidance for women’s moral, psychological and spiritual development and goals. Among other notable authors of this time, Sayyid Ahmad Dehlavi must be noted for his important work such as the Dictionary of Begumati Zuban, Rahat Zamani Ki Mazedar Khahani (The Amusing Story of Rahat Zamani), Qissa-i-Mehr Afroz (The Tale of Mehr Afroz) and Rasum-i-Delhi (The Customs of Delhi). Nazir Ahmad Dehlavi’s Mirat ul Arus (The Bride Mirror 1869), a story of two sisters Akbari and Asghari, became very popular along with Khwaja Altaf Hussain Hali’s Majalis-un-Nissa (Assemblies of Women). These texts offer women a proper diction to speak in, role models to follow and a modern identity to strive for. They offered moral lessons in forms of stories, for instance, in the story of Asghari, Nazir Ahmad proposes a revitalisation of home schooling through his heroine’s initiatives in becoming a successful mother, householder, wife and social reformer by providing education for girls in the secluded domain of her home. The literary genre was dominated by the Western influenced modern idea of emotional restrain, reason and consciousness. These elements were considered necessary for religious reform in accordance to the logic that, if self control, reason and consciousness reigned over one’s mind, purification and revival of a pure and high form of Islam was possible in the modern social life of South Asian Muslims. Women once again were located as the domain of superstitious practices in this discourse, and the women’s reform was to serve two purposes at once: uplift women’s moral and spiritual plane, and by becoming compatible companions to entice modern Muslim men from ill practices such as visiting courtesan women and indulging in unnecessary polygamous marriages. Once again, women in these narratives appear devoid of individual desires, aspirations and zeal, once again, women are modelled as the givers and means to other, but not as means to themselves.

South Asian Muslim feminist discourse: Towards an equitable discourse

The most important social impact created by Begum of Bhopal and Begum Rokeya was their relentless effort to promote education for Muslim girls. As the social and cultural practices of purdah restricted the mobility of Muslim women to a great extent, institutionalised schooling became a very significant social debate in early 20th century Muslim reformists. In fact, since there has historically never been anything parallel to the suffrage movement in South Asia, the efforts by female icons like Begum of Bhopal and Begum Rokeya to initiate female education to eventually merge women into the public sphere could be understood as the inception of modern Muslim feminism in South Asia. As I have argued earlier, the primary difference between the Begum of Bhopal and Begum Rokeya and their contemporary male counterparts lie in the fact that these female reformers understood women as means to themselves, and their success in breaking down the home-world, private-public, spiritual-material demarcation of nationalism pronounced by patriarchal reformists. Though Begum of Bhopal and Begum Rokeya to a large extent adhered to institutions such as purdah, and designed domesticity-inclined curriculum for their schools, their basic approach was underlined by a deep-rooted understanding of women as individual agents; thus, their final call was to the awakening of the individual subjects in Muslim women who were to be in Sultan Jahan Begum’s words, “polite, free-thinking, patriotic, civilized, high-minded and sympathizing” (Lambert Hurley 77, 2007). As Lambert Hurley rightly points out, it is crucial to focus on women as agents of reform and change, in order to get a historical picture that is not completely dominated by “male regulated agenda” (Lambert Hurley 7, 2007). Thus, in this section I will discuss some of the elements of Sultan Jahan Begum and Begum Rokeya’s reform agenda to mitigate such “missing links,” and also to demonstrate the fact that the most important social impact created by these female reformers was the fostering of a feminist ideology, which will come to provide guidance for modern Muslim women not only to become dutiful mothers, wives and citizens, but most importantly to become individual agents capable of free thinking.

Sultan Jahan Begum: A feminist ruler creating a women’s sphere

Sultan Jahan Begum, who came from a strong lineage of female rulers, was highly active in state craft, domestic matter, religious piety and finally, social reform for women. South Asian history can recall many noteworthy women who played very important political roles and superseded the socially prescribed role of a passive veiled spectator. However, Sultan Jahan Begum is perhaps the only female ruler who consciously and actively designed and carried out social reforms in order to uplift the status of Muslim women. Sultan Jahan followed Sikandar Begum and Shah Jahan Begum’s footsteps in education reform and women’s health care. Sikandar Begum and Shah Jahan Begum played extremely important roles of initially setting up schools for girls as well as providing avenues for women to seek healthcare within the parameters of purdah. Sultan Jahan Begum was successful in expanding her predecessors’ influences to a greater extent where she used her political power to gradually shift the public opinion towards female education to a more positive bent. Her most significant move was to claim authorship over female curriculum, “the female temperament and character can be understood by women, and by women alone” (Lambert-Hurley 80, 2007), thus marking an autonomous domain for women with an understanding that women’s reality was to be understood and reformed with a particular gendered specificity. Including establishing Sultania Girl’s school in 1903, she revived the institutions started by her predecessors, and provided significant patronage to establish and sustain many girls’ schools outside the state of Bhopal, especially that established in Aligarh by Shaikh Abdullah. Sultan Jahan not only functioned as an icon of female individuality and provided patronage for women’s education, but her recognition of women as individuals and not mere wives and mothers led her to solve some of the crucial problems faced by women during that time period.

Except for schools run by Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam, the male reformers cared very little about education of non-ashraf women. Their primary target was women who could be turned into wife material eligible for the new modern Muslim man. The Begum on the contrary was concerned with women from poorer classes and most importantly with women who were older, widowed and left with no means to support themselves. Sultan Jahan established technical training institutes for such women and offered them avenues to earn wage-earning skilled labour. This is where Sultan Jahan’s reform agenda splits from her male counterparts, as she recognises women who are not potential brides as independent agents of change. Through her efforts to train these women to become independent wage earners and active contributors to the state’s economy, she flips the concept of women as extensions of men (where women’s reform was only necessary in order to support the male domain), to refigure women as equal members of the state, regardless of their affiliation to the marital institution.

Sultan Jahan also recognised the problems related to the domestic sphere of child birth, hygiene and medical practices. She established schools for mothers, school to train indigenous medical practitioners, training for midwives and sanitation projects. In a speech given at Maternity and Child Welfare Exhibition held in Delhi in 1920, the Begum noted the negative effects of lack of hygiene and poverty on women’s health. It is noteworthy that in her health reform efforts she did not dismiss indigenous practices of yunani and dais, but recognised the popularity and viability of such institutions, thus seeking to modernise them without discarding them wholly. Sultan Jahan’s approach was to achieve a middle ground whereby reform would be introduced in accordance to the material conditions present in specific social contexts.

The Begum’s “distinct feminine sensibilities” (Labmert-Hurley 174, 2007) enabled her to employ a set of reform that would be most effective for the current social structure. She did not outright dismiss institutions such as purdah, but drew examples from Islamic history to demonstrate that purdah certainly did not mean lack of mobility and independence. It is this re-inventing of institutions such as purdah that highlights the Begum’s approach towards women’s reform. She preferred to take a middle path, and instead of rejecting social institutions, sought a reform agenda towards recognising greater women’s rights. This theme, as I will demonstrate in the next section, is eminent in Begum Rokeya’s reform agenda as well: the adherence to societal norms with a disguised feminist agenda. A suitable and effective reform agenda was sought, and the goal was not to achieve feminist emancipation through rejecting all patriarchal institutions, but to introduce gradual and sustainable institutional resources to strengthen the women’s domain, which was achieved not by “storming the bastions of male supremacy, but by building gradually of existing practices in order to introduce limited change” (Lambert-Hurley 3, 2007).

Begum Rokeya: A fierce feminist critic of patriarchy

Begum Rokeya single-handedly ushered in Muslim women’s reform in Bengal. The most interesting element of her work is the duality where she on one hand fiercely criticises patriarchal institutions, rejects religion as authored by men, and displays utter disgust towards institutions of purdah, on the other hand, her reform agenda comes around to follow the similar middle path as the Begum of Bhopal whereby gradual change was introduced in accordance to social reality and with respect to social practices. The most important features that distinguish Rokeya from her male counterpart reformers are her sharp feminist critique of patriarchy in her writing, her emphasis on women’s physical fitness and development of mental faculty, her recognition of women’s education as means of economic independence, and finally, her distinction between abarodh and purdah. Whereas abarodh was understood by Rokeya as the negative and extreme application of purdah, the practice of purdah in itself was not condemned, rather welcomed as female propriety. As she dismissed abarodh as a practice where women were “shut off from public space, or any healthy participation in society” (Amin 145, 2001), and purdah as means of female modesty with mobility and public participation, she broke down the demarcation of women into the private sphere in the name of purdah or modesty. It is this sharp analytical ability of Rokeya that echoes in her work and writing that still makes her into the only female feminist icon contemporary Bengali Muslim women look up to even today.

The resilience of Begum Rokeya’s social impact lies in that fact that her writings, actions and resistances strategically pin point, analyse, and to some extent resolve gender biased social, cultural and political practices. Besides establishing a girls’ school, she was also the founder of Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam (1916). Rokeya’s personal life was overwhelmed with tragedies with the early loss of her husband, and the loss of her two baby daughters in infancy. She suffered immensely from a wave of criticisms and various obstacles in initiating social change for women, but she worked relentlessly literally till her last breath to bring changes to women’s downtrodden status. Begum Rokeya offered Bengali Muslim women books instead of kitchen utensils. She told them about the vast world outside the bundles of saris and jewellery, inspired them to break out of the patriarchal framework and taste their own individualities, and finally she called out to them with a sense of feminist sisterhood — Jago Go Bhogini or Wake Up Sisters!

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in 1880 in Rangpur. Her father was a local zamindar and preferred to maintain strict purdah for the women in his family. Women in the household were taught only Arabic in order to read the Holy Quran, but as Rownak Jahan pointed out, “defying custom, and valuing their Bengali identity over their religious one, Rokeya and her gifted elder sister, Karimunnesa persisted in learning Bangla.”8 Rokeya continued her studies with her elder brother Saber without the knowledge of other members of the family and continued to feed her passion for knowledge after getting married at the age of 16 to Syed Shakhawat Hossain, a widower of 39, in 1896. Rokeya was well-versed in Bangla, English, Urdu, Arabic and Persian, but chose to write the bulk of her literature in Bangla except for a few pieces in English, including her first novel Sultana’s Dream (1905). Rokeya started writing her reformist pieces for various different magazines starting from 1903, which were later published under the title Motichur in 1908. Motichur part two was published in 1921, Padmaraga (novel) in 1924 and Oborodhbashini or the Secluded Ones in 1928. Rokeya Racanavali published by the Bangla Academy in 1973 included her unpublished writings and letters both in Bangla and English including her unpublished poetry. Begum Rokeya died on December 9, 1932, and up until 11 pm on December 8, 1932, she was working on an unfinished article titled, ‘Narir Odhikar’ or Women’s Rights. Two major organisational contributions Rokeya made for attaining women’s rights were her school and ‘Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam’ (Muslim Women’s Association). Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School started off with eight students in 1911 in Kolkata, and by 1915 the number of students increased to 84. By 1930 the school had become a high school, including all 10 grades. The curriculum included physical education, handicrafts, sewing, cooking, nursing, home economics and gardening, in addition to regular courses in Bangla, English, Urdu, Persian and Arabic.

Rokeya emphasised on physical education because she believed that it was important to make women physically stronger, fit and confident. Rokeya also recognised the importance of women’s economic independence. Her curriculum therefore, included vocational training in crafts and sewing. She realised the importance organised action for changing women’s position and raising public opinion for it, therefore, she founded Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam in 1916. The activities of this organisation related directly to the disadvantaged and poor women. It offered financial support for widows, rescued and sheltered battered women, helped poor families to marry their daughters, and above all helped poor women to gain literacy. Rokeya ran a slum literacy programme in Kolkata by forming work teams to visit women in the slums to teach them reading, writing, personal hygiene and child care. Even though Rokeya made important contributions through her organisational effort, her writing remains her most significant gift to Bengali Muslim women.

Begum Rokeya believed that men and women were created differently, but equally. In her views, the subjugated position of women was not due to Allah’s will, but due to men’s immorality, “there is a saying, ‘Man proposed, God disposes,’ but my bitter experience shows that, ‘God gives, Man robs’.” Rokeya believed that, “Allah has made no distinction in the general life of male and female — both are equally bound to seek food, drink, sleep and pray five times a day.”9 Rokeya used a fascinating logic to enforce the notion of gender equality within an Islamic framework, “[h]ad God Himself intended women to be inferior, He would have ordained it so that mothers would have given birth to daughters at the end of the fifth month of pregnancy. The supply of mother’s milk would naturally have been half of that in case of a son. But that is not the case. How can it be? Is not God just and most merciful?”10 Begum Rokeya coined the term ‘manoshik dashhotto’ or mental slavery to describe the loss of individuality in women, and identified this psychological phenomenon as the main force behind women’s subjugation. She believed that social systems like seclusion and purdah intentionally make women unfit and weak for survival in the public realm. Rokeya believed that men deliberately refuse women equal opportunities to cultivate their minds with the purpose of sustaining women’s dependence on men and further perpetuating women’s dependence on their own inferior status. Rokeya used examples of women who earn more than their husbands, but still submit to the men folk at home to point out that the framework of women’s subjugation exceed economic parameters. In Begum Rokeya’s view, manoshik dashhotto is at the core of women’s subjugated position. She summoned women to overthrow the invisible bondages of our brains, to strip off the transparent patriarchal exploitation, “The seeds of higher attributes have been destroyed in the female minds. Our inside, outside, brain, heart — all have become enslaved (dashi hoiyaa poryiachee).” We are not entitled to have the freedom of our heart or perform the actions of our choice. Neither do we notice any effort to gain our freedom as women. Therefore, I want to say: Jago, Jago Go Bhogini!”

1 Chatterjee Partha, The Nation and its Women in Guha, Ranajit, ed. Subaltern Studies Reader 1986-1995. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
2 Karlekar, Malavika, Voices from Within: Early Personal Narrative of Bengali Women. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.
3 Minault, Gail, Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India, Delhim Oxford University Press, 1998.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Metcalf, Barbara, Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar, University of California Press, 1990.
8 Jahan Rounaq and Hanna Papanek, Sultana’s Dream and Selections from the Secluded Ones, Feminist Press, 1998.
9 Kadir, Abdul, ed. Begum Rokeya Rochonaboli. Dhaka: Bangla Academy 1984.
10Kadir, Abdul, ed. Begum Rokeya Rochonaboli. Dhaka: Bangla Academy 1984.

1. Ahmed, Rafiuddin. The Bengali Muslim in Search of Social Identity 1905-1947. Dhaka: UPL, 1998.
2. Amin, Sonia. Women and Society in Islam, Sirajul, ed. The History of Bangladesh 1704-1971 (volume three). Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 1992.
3. Amin, Sonia. The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal, 1876-1939. New York: Leiden,: Brill: Koln, 1996
4. Bagchi, Barnita, Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag: Two Feminist Utopias, New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2005.
5. Chatterjee Pratha, The Nation and its Women’in Guha, Ranajit, ed. Subaltern Studies Reader 1986-1995. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
6. Forbes, Geraldine, Women in Modern India, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
7. Jahan Rounaq and Hanna Papanek, Sultana’s Dream and Selections from the Secluded Ones, Feminist Press, 1998.
8. Lambert-Hurley, Siobhan, Muslim Women, Reform and Princely Patronage: Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum of Bhopal, London, Routledge, 2007.
9. Metcalf, Barbara, Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar, University of California Press, 1990.
10. Minault, Gail, Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India, Delhim Oxford University Press, 1998.
11. Karlekar, Malavika, Voices from Within: Early Personal Narratives of Bengali Women, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1993.
12. Kadir, Abdul, ed. Begum Rokeya Rochonaboli. Dhaka: Bangla Academy 1984.
13. Khan, Shaharyar M, The Begums of Bhopal: A Dynasty of Women Rulers in Raj India, London, I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2000.
14. Kumar, Radha. The History of Doing. Delhi: Kali for Women, 2001
15. Ray, Bharati, Early Feminists of Colonial India: Sarala Devi Chaudhurani and Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.
16 Sangari and Vaid ed. Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Rubaiyat Hossain is a filmmaker and researcher.

© thedailystar.net, 2011. All Rights Reserved

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Sylvia Plath

Volume 5 Issue 6 | June 2011

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963):
Stars open among the lilies . . .

RUBAIYAT HOSSAIN delves into the love, loss and life of an extraordinary poet.

Sylvia Plath, who has been called the Marilyn Monroe of literature, killed herself on February 11, 1963 at the age of 31 by putting her head in the oven. She left two children behind, the manuscript of Ariel and barely without any recognition as a poet. It was only after her death that the poems written during the last days of her life were compiled and published under the title Ariel by her husband Ted Hughes in 1965. However, it was not until 2004, after Ted’s death, that the original version of Ariel, along with the original facsimile of Plath’s manuscript, was published with a foreword written by her daughter, Frieda Plath Hughes. In 2004, Diane Middlebrook came out with her book Her Husband, which in many ways revolutionalised the ways in which the Sylvia-Ted relationship has been understood in the past. As Middlebrook points out, there was a real significant romance between this couple, and the relationship shaped both their lives and poetic careers in major ways.

Middlebrook’s basic argument is, no matter how you look at it, Plath and Hughes were meant for each other in some “weird cosmic way”. Destructive the union may have been, but Plath and Hughes embarked on the marriage thinking they were meant for each other. As Plath and Hughes both said in their work, “while from the bottom of the pool fixed stars govern a life,” indeed, both believed that the stars had contrived to join the two. Both indulged in magic and astrology, and they believed their lives were predestined from the moment of conception.

Sylvia (2003), directed by Christine Jeffs, offers a non-biased and clear depictions of the issues that rocked the Sylvia-Ted relationship. In many ways, Sylvia, being a woman in the context of early twentieth century sharply patriarchal culture of the United States and Great Britain, constructed enough tropes for both of them to fall into; thus, driving the relationship to a destructive end. Setting aside any sense of vengeance or value judgments, Jeff’s film and Middlebrook’s book both point to the fact that, certainly Hughes was not the best husband. However, we also learn of Plath’s moodiness as well as Hughe’s, and the many difficulties that the couple had to face in their life together. For instance: their lack of money, both pursuing careers in writing, having two babies relatively soon after their wedding, Sylvia being stuck in a foreign land (England), Ted’s continual attraction and involvement towards the outside world and especially towards other women, and finally Sylvia’s earnest effort in paving a way towards Ted’s successful career as a poet; versus, Ted’s rather patronising and often undermining attitude towards Sylvia Plath’s poetry — all drove the relationship to a dead end, where Sylvia had no option but to end her life.

There is a scene in the film where Ted and Sylvia are having a conversation about Sylvia’s poetry and she says, “you know what my problem is? My problem is that, I have a husband who thinks he can tell me how to write poetry!” This statement precisely hits home the main issue that disturbed the union between Sylvia-Ted, and that was Ted’s lack of respect and acknowledgement for Sylvia Plath’s creative abilities.

It should be noted that Plath spent a great deal of her energy and time making sure that Ted’s work was published, read and constantly reprinted in various magazines and journals. Though Hughes clearly had the raw talent, it was Plath who in many ways was responsible that the talent was manifested in reality and recognised by the public. As trained at Smith College and Cambridge in English literature, Plath was well-equipped to function as a very sensitive and efficient literary agent for her husband. One may wonder, without her, whether or not Ted would have had the discipline to compile and send his work out in the first place, or mostly importantly, without her love and encouragement whether or not he would have actually believed in himself. Sylvia was Ted’s number one fan and on many occasions she prioritised his work, putting her own work aside.

However, as pointed out by Plath’s biographer Middlebrook, the intellectual and poetic connection was crucial between this couple in shaping their literary works and career. After Sylvia’s death, Ted spent a considerable amount of time publishing her writing and working with her manuscripts and journals. Finally, in 1998, before Ted’s death, he published his collection of poems Birthday Letters, a book dedicated to his children with Plath, Frieda and Nicholas. Reading through the poems on the pages of Birthday Letters, the reader feels Ted’s deep understanding of the trauma suffered by Plath. It is apparent from his words that her memories were with him until the very last day of his life. However, after Sylvia’s death, Ted married twice and had relationships with numerous other women. He went on to become the Poet Laureate and enjoyed a full public and private life. Sylvia at the end of the day remained only as a memory, only as a story to tell, “you are ten years dead. It is only a story. Your story. My story” [Birthday Letters].

The controversy around Sylvia’s death and actual role played by Ted has been a longstanding debate among literary historians and critics. Plath’s journals and her own writing, along with Ted’s verses in Birthday Letters perhaps describe the relationship between the couple with earnest honesty. Plath started keeping a diary at age 11, and kept journals until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her first year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1980 as The Journals of Sylvia Plath (editor, Frances McCullough). In 1982, Smith College acquired Plath’s remaining journals, though, Hughes sealed some volumes including the final one. During the last years of his life, Ted started working on a fuller publication of Plath’s journals. In 1998, shortly before his death, he unsealed the journals, and passed the project onto his children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to

Karen V. Kukilat Smith College. Kukil finished editing the journals in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. According to the back cover, roughly two-thirds of the Unabridged Journals is newly released material.

It must be noted that, Ted faced criticism for his role in sealing and destroying Plath’s final journal. Ted claimed to have destroyed Plath’s last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death, in order to protect their children! In the foreword of the 1982 version, he wrote, “I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival).”

The project of coming to terms with Sylvia’s death and Sylvia’s representation of her husband and their relationship had been a lifelong struggle for Ted. However, one cannot forgive him for destroying his wife’s final journal and wiping out the very last words that came out of Sylvia Plath’s pen. Ted’s insensitive role as a husband not only murdered Sylvia’s corporal body, but the patriarch in Ted saw to it that even her very last words were annihilated. Thus, Plath has been removed from the grand narrative of time both in material and spiritual terms by her husband. What remains of her is, his reconstruction and that of numerous literary critics’, fans’, journalists’, film-makers’ and teachers’ and students’. The real Plath, whom we could have hoped to recover from the last bit of her journal pages, are gone forever!

Sylvia’s attraction for Ted and their very first meeting had a definite violent sexual flare to it. Sylvia was attracted to the masculine ‘man’ that was Ted, her jaguar, “that big, dark, hunky boy.” After their first meeting, “[S[uch violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists. The one man in the room who was as big as his poems, huge, with hulk dynamic chunks of words; his poems are strong and blasting like a high wind in steel girders. And I screamed in myself, thinking: oh, to give myself crashing, fighting, to you.” Later after their marriage break up she wrote,

Panzer man, panzer man
Oh you, not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through
Every woman adores a fascist
a boot in the face,
the brute brute heart of a brute like you. [“Daddy”, Ariel]

It seems that the ‘man’ in Ted whom Sylvia loved appealed to her with a certain amount of force and violence; it is this brute force in Ted that Sylvia was attracted to. One may ponder why did Sylvia marry a man, whom she instinctively knew from the first meeting to be trouble? Why did she put up with the marriage and have two children; more importantly, why did she attempt to reunite with him even after he had cheated on her?

This predicament suffered by Sylvia Plath is actually a very common phenomenon for women universally. To some extent we all love a boot in the face. We all aspire in mastering the wild horse, the untamed masculine energy into our neatly constructed nest of home and family. However, what makes Sylvia Plath so extraordinary is her ability to write about the intimate issues that affect women’s psyche when they are in love with men under the backdrop of the patriarchal culture and value system. All along there was a split in Sylvia Plath, she wanted to be a successful poet and also wanted to be a happy homemaker, she wrote in her journals, “I am inclined to babies and bed and brilliant friends and a magnificent stimulating home where geniuses drink gin in the kitchen after a delectable dinner and read their own novels…”

Sylvia, after her marriage with Ted, suffered from spells of depression and low self-confidence about her own work. The entries in her journal testify to the acute dilemma she suffered from being in the predicament of performing as a loving wife and mother and an aspiring poet. The fact the she worked very hard to get Ted’s work published, gave birth to two babies, ran the household, and worked a job, left her with very little time to work on her own poetry. Perhaps, if Ted had reciprocated Sylvia’s efforts by publishing her work or had been more supportive in understanding the creative frustration suffered by Plath, the relationship could have been more productive. Sylvia kept lamenting in her journal about rejection of her poetry from various magazines, her lack of ability to think and write, and finally her frustration with being the wife of a successful poet whom she sometimes considered to be a better poet than herself.

Even though she was happy enough to be Mrs. Hughes and see her husband succeed as a poet, without receiving even the minimum recognition for her own poetic work left her feeling creatively barren, “that’s why I could marry him, knowing he was a better poet than I and that I would never have to restrain my little gift, but could push it and work it to the most, and still feel him ahead. I must work for a state in myself which is stoic: the old state of working and waiting. I have had the most unfortunate hap: the bright glittery youth from 17 to 20 and then the break-up and the dead lull while I fight to make the experiences of my early maturity available to my type writer.” Even though Sylvia dreamt of producing “a book shelf of books” with Ted and “a batch of brilliant healthy children,” the fact that she could not write up to her own expectations after her marriage remained a lingering dark shadow in her journal pages.

The final words of Plath did not come until her break up with Ted in 1962 following Ted’s involvement with another woman who eventually became pregnant with Ted’s child. This is when Sylvia started living in London alone with her two children while working on some of the most significant poems of Ariel. It seems that finally getting out of a marriage where Sylvia was clearly deprived of her emotional needs, though extremely painful for her, gave her some independent space and freedom to explore her unique voice in poetry. When Sylvia writes in “Daddy”, “the tongue stuck in my jaw, it stuck in a barbed wire snare. Ich, ich, ich, ich. I could hardly speak…” and ends by saying, “Daddy, daddy you bastard, I’m through,” she is actually saying good bye to patriarchy. At this point of her life, she had reached the point where the socially imposed norms and desires of femininity and masculinity started to seem absurd to her, thus she begins “Daddy” by declaring that she has clearly outgrown her old ways, “You do not do, you do not do, any more black shoe, in which I have lived like a foot for thirty years poor and white barely daring to breath of Achoo.” Ariel, though written during the darkest days of Sylvia’s depression, is laced with a wonderful sense of love, magic and hope. In her original manuscript she had arranged the poems in such a way that the first word of the book appeared to be ‘love’ and the book concluded with the word ‘spring’. She ended her book with a desperate quest and hope,

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

Unfortunately her hive did not survive. She died prematurely with a lot of pain in her heart. The pain of her broken nest, the pain of her lost love, the pain of her never becoming the powerful poet she always secretly desired, but never wholeheartedly believed that she was. Living and operating in a male-dominated literary circle can often break a female poet’s morale, making her feel inadequate because of her inherent feminine experiences and expressions. The Pulitzer Prize that Sylvia was awarded and the world wide celebration of her life and poetry after her death is of no comfort to her. The world today has recognised the sophisticated literary mastery, the deep personal narrative and unconditional honesty that makes Sylvia Plath into a legendary poet, whom history will always remember; but the human Sylvia, the living Sylvia died, her last days spent alone with two young children, little money, the coldest winter London had seen in decades. However, there is something spiritual about Plath being able to leave it all behind, her ties with the world, even her children and departing for the unknown, the mystical, the only Real realm — death.

Apart from Sylvia’s feminist zeal, the profound solitude and spiritual plain reached by her words makes her into an extraordinary poet. At the end of the day, she was a poet of loneliness, she was to hear the murmurs of fishes under the water, sense the round flat darkness of the leaves of water flowers, scream with the scathing moon, and ride the indefatigable horses that were her words, “dry and riderless”. Running through the verses of her poetry, laced with a sense of melancholy and malignity is a sense of wonder, a spiritual link that ties the Orion’s belt to the loaf that she baked and the blood that ran inside her veins. If Sylvia Plath is to be compared with any Bengali poet’s poetic temperament, then it would most certainly be Jibanando Das, because both poets lived farthest among the stars and died longing to hear the inaudible tunes of mystery,

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.


Middlebrook, Diana, Her Husband Hughes and Plath: A Marriage, Little Brown Book, Great Britain, 2004.
Plath, Sylvia, Ariel, Harper Collins Publisher, UK, 1961.
Hughes, Ted, Birthday Letters, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1998.
Kukil, Karen V, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Anchor Books, New York, 2000.
Jeffs, Christine, Sylvia, Focus Features, 2003.

Rubaiyat Hossain is a film maker and researcher.

© thedailystar.net, 2011. All Rights Reserved 
source link : http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2011/june/sylvia.htm
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Female Directors, Female Gaze

Volume 5 Issue 5 | July 2011

Female Directors, Female Gaze:
The Search for Female Subjectivity in Film

RUBAIYAT HOSSAIN takes an incisive look into women, femininity and sexuality in film.

aparna sen

“A woman’s vocabulary exists, linked to the feminine universe. I feel this occasionally in that I am inspired by a certain number of attractions, subjects which always draw me rather more than they would if I were a man…I don’t want to make feminist cinema either, just want to tell women’s stories about women.”
–Agnes Varda

According to Agnes Varda, one of the pioneers of French new wave movement –a woman whose name is often conveniently overlooked in the main/male stream saga of European new wave — a woman who has been hidden behind the shadows of Godard, Truffaut brotherhood, there after all exists a “women’s visual vocabulary”.

Women’s existence in society and culture places her in a certain parameter from within which space, from within which safe circle of respectability, freedom and individuality prescribed to her by the patriarchal reform agenda — a woman must operate, bearing the burden of cultural, national, ideological, and spiritual iconification. She is never fully recognised as a human subject; either a Goddess, or a Whore, an animal who is only valuable because of her body parts that can give pleasure to men, procreate to continue the patriarchal kinship lineage.

From the vantage point of a woman, reality is not the same episteme we see in the mainstream world of representation around us. Men and women don’t live the same reality. They belong to different plains of power and are meant to see different versions of the same images as they both stare at one single object, or truth, or reality. The phrase ‘personal is political’ was designed to draw attention to the political meanings and imperatives that derive from women’s everyday experiences of their personal and private lives. In MacKinnon’s words:

“To say that the personal is political means that gender as a division of power is discoverable and verifiable through women’s intimate experience of sexual objectification, which is definitive and synonymous with women’s lives as gender female. Thus, to feminism, the personal is epistemologically the political, and its epistemology is its politics.”

Following feminist scholar MacKinnon and filmmaker Agnes Varda, is there a specific currency in which the female film director’s gaze behind the camera must translate reality? Claire Johnston, the first feminist film critic argues that myth invades film representation in much the same way as it does other cultural artefacts, “myth transmits and transforms that ideology of sexism and renders its invisible.” Social and cultural myths about women transmit themselves in the main/male stream filmic representation validating and creating models for real women in the society to follow and perpetuate the myth of the man made female, creating a vicious circle. The representation of women as subsidiary characters to men in main/male stream films not only validates women’s position in society as sexual objects, but women’s role in the ideological realm of the masculine construct of identity and nation-state:

“Iconography as a specific kind of sign of cluster of signs based on certain conventions within the Hollywood genres has been responsible for the stereotyping of women within the commercial cinema in general.”

A woman’s right to her own body, control over her reproductive organs, choice over her pleasures and desires is the first step towards recognising and realising oneself as an individual female subject. This is exactly what a group of female film makers have been consciously trying to capture in their work — the intimate sexual and larger philosophical discourse of a female’s life. As Agnes Varda has pointed out, there certainly is a female visual currency, a female pool of stories to choose from and female sensibilities to represent.

In today’s world there is no ‘one’ feminist ideology or vision, feminism today is not a single vision, it is rather “a visionary way of seeing”. Today there is no ‘one’ type of feminist films, rather there are films made by different women, representing diverse women, depicting ranges of experiences, feelings and senses women feel — elements that never make into the main/male stream currency of images and desire. The masculine visual economy of desire will only place women in a place from where her sexual beauty is desirable and enjoyable, and secondly place women in a place from where she is forever the secondary object, never the central human subject.

Here we begin to tread on uncomfortable territory. When talking about women’s images as currency of desire, should female directors shy away from showing feminine beauty and sensuality? Should female directors, in order to represent their female protagonist as a ‘human being’ and not a sexual object, defeminise the protagonist, strip her of her female beauty, a beauty which may in many ways overlap with the male/main stream cinematic representation?

Take for instance Aparna Sen’s Parama (1984) and Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1985). In Vagabond we see a female subject and her journey. Mona, the vagabond is dead, and we trace back to her life to find out why and how she died. The answer is chilling: Mona’s (The Vagabond’s) persistence to struggle against both capitalist and patriarchal structures brings her to death, just like the protagonist is driven to death in Aparna Sen’s Sati (1989). Sen’s Parama attempts death to evade the patriarchal structure, but she survives, finally at the end the human subject Parama emerges; as opposed to the prior sexual object Parama, she is now shaven headed, colourless, stripped of the earlier sexual charms.

Agnes Varda said about the representation of Mona in Vagabond: “it’s clear that she died. Alone in a ditch, frozen, which is an awful death. And the way she looks — she is a mess — she’s the colours of the ditch almost, like the colour of gun.” Thus, stripping the female protagonists of her femininity, her beauty, her sexual charm — has been used as a technique by Aparna Sen and Agnes Varda as one way of representing the female protagonists as human subjects. Curiously, years down the road, following Aparna Sen and Agnes Varda’s recent films, we find validation of feminine beauty, romance, sexual fulfilment — quite contrary to their earlier representations. Did these film makers change sides? Or did they simply, in trial and error method live their lives, make their choices, represent women in their films and finally come to a consolidated space to find the female individual subject — a subject that is all too human and all too woman — strong, confident, pretty, soft, emotional, sexual and sensual?

This leads us to a very tricky question: following feminist theorist Monique Wittig if, “womanhood is a myth”, then how much of it is myth and how much of it is real? If women’s economy of desires has been created by the patriarchal masculine episteme, then how do we know what is our real desire as women and what has been imposed on us? Perhaps, the best way is the trial and error method. As women we need to run free with our desires to come to a place when and where we know who we are and what we desire. This is exactly what the recent prominent female film directors have been doing: searching for the female currency of desire to weed out the myth, bringing in front of the world the personally political narratives of women’s lives, and making visible in front of the world images that are feminine; in Varda’s words again, “the woman’s visual vocabulary”.

Agnes Varda, The pioneer of french new wave

In the past decade very important interventions have been made by female directors to represent the diverse experiences and narratives of women all over the globe. Some of these films have been critically acclaimed, for example in recent times a number of female directors have received prestigious awards in Cannes film festival: Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993, Golden Palm), Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, 2009, Jury Prize), Samira Makhmalbaf (The Apple, 1998, Official Selection), Nadine Labaki (Caramel, 2007, Camera d’Or), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, 2007, Jury Prize). Directors such as Niki Caro with films like Whale Rider (2002, Audience Choice Award, Toronto International Film Festival), North Country (2005), Laurie Collyer with her debut film Sherrybaby (2006, Official Selection Sundance Film Festival), Deepa Mehta with Fire (1996), Videsh (2008) and Susan Streitfeld with her hugely controversial film Female Perversions (1996) have made extremely important contributions to the examination, analysis and construction of the female subject in film.

Finally with Agnes Varda’s autobiographical film, shot on the occasion of her 80th birthday, The Beaches of Agnes (2008), Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer (2001) and The Japanese Wife (2010), and Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002) — the journey to find the consolidated, at ease, at peace individual female subject seems to have arrived at the doorstep of female representation in film.

Psychoanalytic theory, especially with the influence of Freud and Lacan has put sexuality as the centrepiece touchstone to theorise identity formation process. In the language of film searching for subjectivity through the exploration of sexuality has been a very prominent theme in the recent female directors’ works. Parama, Fish Tank, The Piano, Female Perversions, Sherrybaby, Caramel, Fire, Water — all these films deal with woman’s journey into finding herself through the route of sexual exploration. This exploration in some cases remains within the straightforward parameter of breaking social taboos and opting for greater freedom over one’s body. For instance, Aparna Sen’s representation of Parama’s extramarital relationship with a younger man, the lesbian currency of desire created by Deepa Mehta in Fire, Lebanese women’s struggle to gain more control over their sexual life, pre marital sex, quest for love represented by Nadine Labaki in Caramel — all demonstrate women’s social and cultural struggle to gain control over their bodies, their desires and in doing so attempting to sketch out a path to find their individual selves.

Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis demonstrate the social struggle against conservative Muslim cultural norms and local practices that restrict women from let alone exploring their sexuality, but showing their faces unveiled in public.

The films of Jane Campion, Andrea Arnold, Laurie Collyer, Susan Streitfeld go very deep into the female sexual psychology to trace out the process of female identity formation process and the desire of her unconscious that drives her sexuality to create an identity where she will perform according to the male desire. Her adherence and resistance to perform this role is something these directors have very successfully represented in their films. Jane Campion’s The Piano’s protagonist — a woman who does not speak, but plays the piano with passion and senses, finds herself in a troubled relationship with a tribal man who at one point sexually abuses her, takes advantage of her. But in some crooked way, she falls in love with him and him with her.

Now, whether or not this kind of relationship is politically correct according to the feminist ideology is a separate issue. What is interesting is that Campion has successfully explored and represented this dark side of the female psyche with extremely beautiful, poetic and feminine images. Campion has engaged to ponder the price we pay as women for growing up in the episteme of masculine sexual economy — we learn to sleep with the enemy, take pain as pleasure, love the oppressor, sexually desire the killer. In Jane Campion’s erotic thriller In the Cut (2003), the protagonist is immensely attracted to and sexually involved with a man who is a serial killer, a man who kills women, cuts the body parts into pieces and throws them in body bags or down the garbage disposal.

Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank deals with a coming of age girl of 15 who is metaphorically and visually juxtaposed in the film to a chained horse. Fish Tank’s protagonist has a troubled relationship with her mother — a mother who is a sexually starved-drunk-drugged woman in the ghettos of London. The young protagonist falls in love with her mother’s lover, the so-called caring father figure. She ends up sleeping with this man, and when the man refuses to engage in the relationship any further because she is too young, she follows him to his house. When she finds that he has a wife and daughter, she tries to kill his daughter by drowning her in water. The Freudian sexual discourse has been played out in this film where the young girl is at the same time finding a lover and a father in her mother’s lover — she is contending the man’s lover (her mother, whose lover she wants) and the man’s daughter (the daughter she wants to be).

Finally, Susan Streitfeld in Female Perversions gives the most vivid, elaborate, accurate representation of what women become by living under the patriarchal sexual economy. In the beginning of Female Perversions a text appears, providing definition of a perverted object as something that has been restricted to grow in its natural way and forcefully grown into an unnatural shape. Thus, by the title of the film Streitfeld is actually making a point about the patriarchal hegemony — a system of power that forces women to deviate from growing into their original forms, and into ‘perverted’, ‘unnatural’ objects.

Streitfeld’s protagonist, the paranoid, success hungry, outwardly confident, but inwardly extremely insecure and vulnerable attorney who sleeps with both men and women and lies her way around to make it to becoming a judge breaks down one day and goes to spend the night with her sister. While at her sister’s she has a dream, not really a dream, but recollection of an old memory: her father was reading in his study, her mother came in wearing an attractive outfit, sat on her father’s lap and asked for sexual attention. The father blew her away rudely with his fist, she fell on the ground, her nose bleeding. After having this dream the attorney wakes up screaming next to her sister saying, “do you know what I did? I didn’t go to her, I went to him.”

The ultimate complexity of women’s sexual psychology that enables her to live with the oppressor and evolve to love him and stand by him has perhaps not been better depicted in any film than Female Perversions. In all these narratives I describe, at the end the female protagonists get some sort of a resolution, they either go away, or settle with the lover, or realise their inner complex of loving the oppressor and seek to find a way out of it. However, these narratives remain only the first step towards realising the full potential of female subjectivity. Sexual exploration, experimentation and freedom can be the first step, but dwelling in this step a woman will not gain individual subjectivity; rather, prolonged fixation over sexual exploration as a tool to gain subjectivity will drown her further in the masculine sexual economy of desire. This is why, in all these narratives the directors show at least some level of departing from the plane of sexual exploration as the way to find identity and subjectivity.

To put the abovementioned narratives of female sexual deviation in the theoretical context, it is perhaps helpful to revisit Lacan’s discourse of female subjectivity. According to Lacan, the girl’s acquisition of her gendered identity requires the acceptance of her identity as lacking what her mother wants, of what marks cultural identity and power, namely the phallus, the man, the power and his position as the central subject [similar notions explored in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank]. For Lacan, the difference between a young girl and boy is that the girl, as lack, is constituted as a site of negativity; although both genders lose the fusion with the mother’s body, the girl additionally loses any sense of the legitimacy and wholeness of her own body because she lacks any straightforward possibility of identification with the legitimising primary signifier, the Phallus, the Father, the law of the father.

Women in Lacan’s terms represent “the lack of the lack” and her only way out of this lack is to perform the gender role men want her to perform, to see the desire in his eyes for her, and by doing so getting as close as possible to the ultimate object of desire — the phallus — the centre of power — only by reaching this place a woman may gain subjectivity, but since she can never get there the process of gaining a woman’s subjectivity remains unfulfilled in Lacan’s discourse.

Luce Irigaray, a rebel out of Lacan’s school — a woman who challenged masculine philosophy and showed ways to build a female language to author female subjectivity concludes that female subjectivity cannot be articulated within Aristotelian logic. Irigaray rejects the coherence and forcefulness of analytic argument. She defies Lacan’s theory about ‘women as the lack of the lack’ and proposes a new language to understand the identity formation of the girl child. Like Agnes Varda claimed “women’s visual vocabulary”, Irigaray came up with the notion of ‘parler-femme’ [speaking (as) woman]. Irigary has theorised culture and language as phallocentric and unable to express the female currency of desire. Thus she proposed a feminine way, a way out of logic and currency of masculine vocabulary to find women’s individual subjectivity. Irigaray does not believe in the school of feminist thoughts that attempt to abolish the category of gender binary altogether. For her, the demand for equality as a woman is a mistaken expression if a real objective: “to demand to be equal pre supposes a point of comparison. To whom or to what do women want to be equalized? To men? To a salary? To a public office? To what standard? Why not to themselves?”

For Irigaray, it is important for both men and women to discover the new men and women who could coexist together. Women should continue to search for themselves in the feminine language, feminine economy of sexual desire, but at the end of the day, women must finally create their subjectivity based on the idea of a spiritual Divine,

“If she is to become woman, if she is to accomplish her female subjectivity, woman needs a God who is a figure for the perfection of her subjectivity…Divinity is what we need to become free, autonomous, sovereign. No human subjectivity, no human society has ever been established without the help of the divine. There comes a time for destruction. But before the destruction is possible God or the gods must exist”

Agnes Varda and Aparna Sen have seem to have reached a space where they have out run the necessity to show disturbed female embodiment of sexuality and search for subjectivity. In Aparna Sen’s representation of the mentally challenged woman in 15 Park Avenue — the protagonist who disappears into the oblivion of madness due to her insistence of getting the patriarchal prescribed notion of love, marriage and happiness — Sen has created the new female, the woman who can love and contain the ‘Other’ within herself and make the journey to create a ‘new’ man along the process. In Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife and Mr and Mrs Iyer, the female representations are very different from that of Parama and Sati. Sen’s protagonists are now in charge, beautiful, sexual, happy and moreover able to create a ‘new’ relationship with men where the woman retains her subjectivity and the ‘new’ man enters the feminine domain of love and coexistence. Perhaps with time, with life, and with experiences Aparna Sen, as a woman in real have reached a consolidated space and that is why she is able to give us the ‘new’ woman in her recent films, where the journey from sexually volatile, fractured female subject emerges as the ‘new’ woman — a woman way too comfortable in saris and feminine charms, kindness and love.

Niki Caro’s Whale Rider brings forth the narrative of claiming a little girl as the prophet of a community, thus seeking the Divine as Irigaray has mentioned in her work. Against all social odds and taboos, Caro’s protagonist establishes herself as the prophet, breaking the myth that only men can be prophets, spiritual leaders and reach the highest state of spiritual excellence. Deepa Mehta’s Videsh departs from the masculine realm of logic and creates a surreal environment where the magic, potions, and superstitions of the private feminine domain appears as a sight of resistance. The protagonist of Videsh is able to conjure up a snake with magic potions in order to fight with reoccurring domestic violence.

The latest film of Agnes Varda, The Plages d’ Agnes or The Beaches of Agnes (2008) is possibly the most successful experimentation by a director to represent the nature of cinema and the deconstructive approach to represent the director within the frames her film. This film begins with Varda setting up pieces of mirrors on the beach and directing her crew. On this beach, she will narrate the story of her entire life: from a little girl growing up and becoming the 80-year-old woman she today is. The images are exquisitely pretty, the use of humour, cartoon, silly female charms, in depth narrative about her relationship with her mother, her husband, her children, the letters she wrote to her unborn child about the father, the love between her and her husband, her career as an independent producer and director, her involvement in the feminist movement, her trips to Cuba and China and finally the death of her husband all feature in this film. Varda talks about the unfortunate exclusion of her as a film director from the grand narrative of New Wave, even though her film Cleo was among one of the very first films of the New Wave.

In one sequence of the film Varda is talking about her love for the beaches and the sea. She says, “beautiful oyster, beautiful waves, the new wave”. As the image of an oyster, resembling very much the female genitalia, dissolves into images of waves on a shore, the cartoon character appears and asks in a funny tone, “Hey oyster! Mussel! Wave! Enough! Tell us instead about the birth of the New Wave.” Another image appears on screen: Varda shows a still image of herself in the middle, index finger on her lips, all around her the pictures of male film directors of the new wave; the cartoon character asks, “Trufaut, Godard, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Demy, And you Varda?” Agnes Varda took her exclusion from the main/male stream patriarchal saga of filmmaking with a twist of feminine sense of humour because she has already created herself as a female subject. Even if she has been hidden behind the shadow of her male counterparts, history will seek her out.

In another image we see Varda dressed like a queen, sitting on a very colorful seat in the belly of a huge colorful whale made out of paper. She says, “nothing could beat surrealist poets and painters, mad love, Baudelaire, Rilke, Prevert and Brassens. We played chance. I feel safe in this belly of this Whale. Shelter from the world.” Then we see her, sitting on chair after her 80th birthday party with a picture of herself framed in her hand. The images dissolves into the small frame, another frame appears and dissolves, as the images keep dissolving into one another, Varda says, “It all happened yesterday and it’s already the past. A sensation combined instantly with image which will remain, while I live, I remember.”

In the end sequence of the film we see Varda sitting in a room on film cans. The walls of the room are made of exposed film strips. She says sitting on cans of exposed film prints,

“once upon a time I made a movie with two beautiful actors which turned out to be a flop. I got all the cans, and unrolled the reels, and two good and beautiful actors became walls and surfaces, bathed in light. What is cinema? Light coming from somewhere, captured by images, more or less dark or colorful. In here it feels like I live in cinema, cinema is my home. I think I have always lived in it.”

Varda seems safe and sound in the belly of the whale — the female world, the currency of female desire and vocabulary of female images, the female subject that she has become and depicted in cinema, the female gaze and female subject she has created for herself and for the next generations of women to come.

Rubaiyat Hossain is a filmmaker and researcher.

© thedailystar.net, 2011. All Rights Reserved 
source link : http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2011/May/female.htm
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‘Women as Nation’ and ‘Nation as Women’

Volume 5 Issue 4 | April 2011

‘Women as Nation’ and ‘Nation as Women’:
Literary solutions to the Birangona problem

RUBAIYAT HOSSAIN examines the representation of the Birangona in fictional literature as a larger picture of the role of women in nationalism.


The iconification of ‘women as the nation’ creates a framework of imagination where women’s bodies appear literally as the map of the country. The spatial connection drawn between the female body and the territorial landmass symbolises women as the nation. Rabindranath Tagore’s famous song, ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ or ‘My Golden Bengal’ uses this template of representation as the landscape of Bengal transforms into different parts of the female body. The mother’s face, her smile, the ends of her sari all become diffused in the visualisation of the nation as the female entity assumes a maternal role:

“Oh mother, in autumn, I have seen your sweet smile in the harvesting fields, Alas! What I behold, your sweet smile, my golden Bengal, I love you…what a sight, what a shade, what gentle love, what attachment you have spread with the ends of you sari…”

As the ends of the mother’s sari become the umbrella of national solidarity, motherhood is politicised and “stereotypically situated” (Mookherjee 2003) at the breaking down point between the public/private dichotomy. The iconificatoin of ‘women as nation’, on the other hand, imposes the qualities of the nation on to women. Nineteenth century Bengali nationalism sought its unique, spiritually superior and private domain of nationalism by locating unique national attributes in women. Women, thus, became the ground upon which nationalism flourished and modernity was authored. For example, the 19th century Bengali nationalist interpretation of the word ‘freedom’ differed from the Western notion. 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 freedom from one’s ego, the capability to sacrifice and serve willingly. Imagining ‘nation as women’ thus, operates with the logic of imposing national cultural attributes on women, resulting in the deliverance of a circumcised notion of individuality to the modern Bengali woman.

Women’s bodies with its reproductive capacity, symbolic significance, and socially prescribed feminine attributes become an integral part of national imagination of cultural identity and political solidarity. The national “battle over the cradle” (Peterson 1998), thereby, appropriates its authority over women’s reproductive activities. In this context, raped women even though, impregnated involuntary, fall in the category of having stepped out of the national mold of women as subvert and chaste cultural symbols. The loss of women’s chastity results in the visibility of women’s sexual and reproductive activities outside the kinship of family network unauthorised by patriarchal nationalism. Being raped and carrying a war baby brings out the individualistic expression of the female sexuality into the uncomfortable zone of the public, thus, the appearance of these women calls into question the ambiguity of Bengali modernism, which fails to deliver individualism to its women, “[It] is this double helix of the posturings of modernity of the progressive middle class’s resistive politics along with hypocritical value judgment and moral positions that place the raped woman in a place of taboo and transgression” (Mookherjee 2003). As Nayanika Mookherjee argues in her article “The Body-Politic of Raped Women and Nation in Bangladesh”, the appropriation of Birangonas is then made possible by the “aestheticization of rape” and the “mothering of the raped woman”. However, as I will argue, the literary representation of the raped women does not only limit itself to the feminisation of nature and mothering of raped women, but engages in a multilayered literary approach towards neutralising evidence of women’s sexual and reproductive activities outside the socially sanctioned marital affinity.

The multilayered literary solutions offered to the Birangona problem unfolds on the premise of rendering rape and unwanted war babies in coherence with the national imagination of women as chaste, sacrificing, loyal in upholding the nation’s superior cultural identity and continuing the national solidarity and kinship. The loss of chastity and women’s reproductive activities outside marriage is reinterpreted in this context by understanding rape not as violence against women per se, but as women’s unlimited capability to endure pain and self sacrifice for the cause of the nation. Similarly, women’s unauthorised reproductive activity is rendered unproblematic by flipping the passive role of the womb as a tool of ethnic cleansing to a tool of extending the family kinship. This template of representation erases women’s individual accounts of rape and blends them into the glorious narrative of nation. However, in order to understand the pattern of literary and visual solutions offered to the Birangonas, one would have to understand the politics of Bengali masculinity, and the symbolic significance of women in the trajectory of Bengali national imagination between 1947 and 1971.

Certain ideals and practices of female sexuality was central to both the Bengali Hindu and Muslim imagination of the colonial construction of ‘the private’ — a site from where nationalist movement would eventually be launched. Chastity, selflessness, obedience to the family and finally the assigned position of women in the spiritual realm was further layered by the social institution of purdah for Bengali Muslim women. Purdah was widespread both among Hindus and Muslims, though for Muslim women the measures were more strict. They were not allowed education until the later part of the 19th century, whereas, Hindu girls going to school had become prevalent both in urban and rural areas, “as for the Muslims in Bengal, a large section of the community were opposed to education for women on the grounds that it would violate the sacred custom of purdah” (Amin 1992, 740). For Muslim women the initiative for establishing educational institutes for girls came from women themselves, Faizunnesa Chaudhurani (1847-1903) established a girls’ school in Comilla in 1873 and Begum Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain established a girls’ school in Bhagalpur in 1909 which she moved to Calcutta in 1911. The notion of purdah is directly in link with keeping the feminine and masculine attributes separated and distinct. It is articulated by contemporary fundamentalist leaders like Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami in Bangladesh that public surveillance of women reduces their fertility. The beauty and sexual appeal of women is also named devious and destructive for the public sphere of society. Thus the added burden of Muslim Bengali women is the over-emphasis on purdah, which denotes a stricter management of female sexuality and more restrictive measures against her mobility in comparison to Hindu women.

As Bengali women of East Pakistan, Muslim or non-Muslim, became the target of racialised gender specific mass violence propagated by the West Pakistani Army, the Bengali women actually became the battle ground between West Pakistani Muslim masculinity versus the East Pakistani Muslim masculinity. The East Pakistani people were considered less Muslim than the West Pakistanis since “poor Muslims of lower profession in rural Bengal retained many of the customs and manners of Hinduism from which they were largely converted” (Shah 1992), and the Bengali passion over the language and literature further emphasised the cultural division between West and East Pakistan. Women in this cultural debate, yet again, became the contesting ground. It would be faulty not to mention that, from the inception of Pakistan, women have been an active force in politics, especially in Communist peasant movements and student movements in the Eastern wing. East Pakistani women’s mobility and cultural affiliation with the so called Hindu culture became the moral grudge of West Pakistani authority:


The attitude of the ruling power was always disapproving of Bengali culture and its latent nationalism especially in the formulation that culture received in the life-styles of Bengali women. Thus in the cultural milieu of the period immediately preceding the mass uprising of 1969, all the cherished cultural paraphernalia of Bengali life, the red and yellow festive sari worn by the women, the ‘tip’ on the forehead, the local flowers, melas or fairs, the Bengali diet of puffed rice and molasses, Tagore songs, and poetry sessions, assumed the significance of a symbolic protest–a form of cultural resistance.

When Bengali women were raped in 1971 it was not only women’s bodies that were violated, but the very sense of Bengali masculine pride was violated “[T]hese horrifying actskillings, rape and the mutilation of women and children — are understandably an embarrassment to the sensitive people of Bangla Desh now locked in the battle for their homeland” (Mascarenhas 1971). The mass rape of Bangladeshi women created a moral dilemma of Bangladeshi masculinity, which failed to provide any strategic protection for its women at a moment of crisis. The very question of national integrity was at stake, and the superiority of West Pakistani Muslim masculinity loomed large over the Bengali Muslim masculinity. In the British colonial context, Bengalis had been identified as the non-martial race by the British, but Muslims in general were thought to be more masculine than Hindus. When Pakistan was created with two wingsthe Bengali Muslims were identified as “gentle and artistic” (Aziz 1974), and the “official recognition of the superiority of the West Pakistanis over the East Pakistanis as ‘Martial Race’ to rule over the East Pakistanis” (Khandaker 1977) a scale of masculinity was created where the West Pakistanis held the highest rank. Bengali representation in the military service was minimal and Ayub Khan in Friends Not Masters clearly and vulgarly claimed the superiority of West Pakistani masculinity. All these factors accentuated the crisis of Bengali masculinity in the newly formed nation. Thus, successful management of this crisis was vital in restoring the supremacy of Bengali masculinity.

The literary solutions offered to the Birangona issue tackled the crisis from several different angles. First of all, these women never appear as individuals, but always as someone’s mother, daughter and sister, however, never as wives. Secondly, these women always appear as peripheral characters and never as main subjects. The incidents of rape and women’s trauma, therefore, are merged into the larger landscape of military atrocities. In this landscape there is no particular difference between the hay stacks burning, villages massacred and women being raped all at the same time. Often a line of respectability is drawn between the author and the rape victims where chastity yet is represented as women’s most valuable possession, a loss of which is incomprehensible to the author as he/she laments for ‘others’ who have lost it. Bulk of literature on 1971 and special volumes on women’s contribution to the freedom movement represents women as mothers in which context she is completely stripped out of her sexuality and represented as the eternal icon of love, sacrifice, endurance and service for the patriarchal nation. It is this mother’s spiritual high ground that is glorified in the larger literary template of rendering rape or the loss of chastity in coherence with national morality. However, there are very few literary pieces that speak directly about victims of rape and the social aftermath of it.

Mainstream Nation Literary Representation: “In order to protect their sacred izzat from West Pakistani invasion, they heroically jumped down from the roof one after another…”
Radio Bangladesh in 1971 declared that “of all the outrages of Yahya against the people of Bangladesh the one that closely follows the act of genocide has been the violation of Bengali women with senseless brutality” (Alamgir 1984), but they also did not forget to ask the most crucial question, “who will be responsible for these products of sadistic crime? What will happen to these unwanted but otherwise innocent children?” (Alamgir 1984). The concern here is not the women who were violated, but the illegitimate children they were going to produce. This attitude dominates the national archive of ‘Banglapedia’ where Biranganas appear as a footnote to war-babies. Women’s death prior to the violation of their izzat is glorified in the nationalist narratives such as Muhammad Nurul Qadir’s Dusho Cheshotti Diney Swadhinota (Freedom in 266 Days) to an extent that the mass rape of Bengali women at Rokeya Hall (the largest women’s dormitory in Dhaka University) during Operation Search Light on March 25, 1971, is eliminated from his narrative,

Even though the Bengali women fought for their ijjat and the freedom of Bangladesh, they failed against the armed military force. In order to protect their sacred ijjat from West Pakistani invasion, they heroically jumped down from the roof one after another. They preferred death with smiles on their faces, rather than staying alive and becoming prey to the barbaric military force (Qadir 1997).

The report provided to the Bombay Weekly Biltz (April 6, 1971) by British businessman A. Sanders contradicts Qadir’s description of what actually happened at Rokeya Hall. Whereas Qadir’s narrative denies any incident of rape committed at Rokeya Hall, Sanders’s narrative reproduced in Jag Mohan’s The Black Book of Genocide in Bangladesh testifies to the fact that, mass rape of Bengali women was indeed committed at Rokeya Hall. Such is the nationalist narrative that denies mass violence against women and declares them dead prior to enemy invasion.

Literary Fictions: Motherhood is Sublime!
Women’s role in 1971 in the fictional genre is glorified primarily as mothers. As women are represented as mothers their sexuality automatically is muted and their sexual activities only remain visible in the realms of reproduction and child rearing. The identification of mothers as the nation draws a parallel between the mother’s endless endurance and the national resilience to survive against the odds. The mother is also viewed as the singular entity who at all times, and under all circumstances denies to let go of the glorified memories of those sons who shed blood and died in 1971.

There exist fictional works of female authors that represent raped women as subjects and carriers of war babies. Here, the topic of rape is dealt with intricacy to locate a sense of purity even in the context when chastity is lost. I will discuss Selina Hossain’s Kath Koylar Chobi or ‘Charcoal Drawn Picture’, and Shayamali Nasrin Chowdhury’s Nirudishto Maayer Khoje or ‘In Search of the Lost Mother’ to demonstrate how chastity is restored in the context of rape.

Nirudishto Maayer Khoje is a story about Jim, a war baby who was adopted by a Canadian family in 1972 and comes back to Bangladesh is search of his mother in 2003. As soon as he lands at the Dhaka airport he feels a ‘naarir taan’ or the pull of the mother’s umbilical cord and the immediate connection between the biological mother and the mother nation is drawn. As Jim goes on looking for his mother with the help of a NGO worker he encounters the hidden stories of women who were raped in 1971. The search goes on without much success as most women remain unwilling to speak. Finally a letter arrives from a woman named Bokul with some news of Jim’s mother. Bokul was in the same room when Jim’s mother Naznin gave birth to him in the rehabilitation center in Dhaka. Bokul testifies that Jim was not after all a war baby, because he was conceived when his parents were still together before the war separated them. Bokul sent her blessings to Jim and reaffirmed her need to remain unindentified as her current family life could be disturbed if the past was revealed. In the last scene of the book Jim travels to his mother’s village only to find that the whole village now was under water. There was no trace of even the land where his mother had stepped her foot on, “the last sign of remembrance, the village…even the village was under water! Father, mother, grandfather, grandmother all are gone! Even the village!” Jim insisted that their boat be taken to the exact spot in the river where the village once used to be. Touching the water and being bathed in the rain Jim felt,

Even if everyone else may leave me, my country will stand by me. Today I am without any burdens, I am free. I do not have an identity crisis anymore. The disgrace of ‘war baby’ has been lifted from my head. Like all others, I am also the sign of my parents’ love. (Chowdhury 2004).

Even though the novel addresses the issue of women’s sexual slavery at the Army barracks, mass rape of Bengali women and the consequences of war babies, the disclosure, recognition and self-identification of women as sufferers of rape is completely absent. The Birangonas in the novel are living without revealing the experiences of 1971. One woman Jim meets in a village, comes wearing a burqa and says, “I don’t wear burqa to observe purdah, rather, I wear it to remove myself from public gaze, otherwise people still point fingers at me” (Chowdhury 2004). As these women hide themselves and their stories from the public gaze, the only pre-condition for them to exist becomes the very denial of rape as a crime inflicted on their minds and their bodies. Chastity is located in Jim’s mother Naznin, who even after being detained at the Army barrack secretly prayed for her baby to be safe, as she considered the baby as the last sign of her husband. Her devotion to the child and ultimate mental breakdown and death after the child was given up for adoption validates motherhood and women’s commitment to sustaining the family heir or the national kinship network. Finally, with the entire village submerged under water even the grounds upon which Naznin once walked upon was annihilated and purified by the river.

The very presence of Birangona is set on a literary platform where chastity is re-entered by denying existence, autonomy and individual voice to the women. They could certainly exist, but, under the mass head quote of, “two million mothers and sister’s lost their izzat” which yet again denotes that it was the loss of chastity that was the key factor. Recognition of women as human subjects and rape as a war crime becomes irrelevant — not worth restoring in the national moral imagination. It is chastity, the magic element, which needed to be restored. Even the literary solutions offered to the Birangona problem by most prominent female writers in Bangladesh deeply sympathetic to the cause, strictly follow this nationalist pattern. As motherhood works as a force to dilute the threat of Birangona’s sexuality, Selina Hossain in her novel flipped the notion of womb from a passive object to a space of resistance and agency.

Kath Koylar Chobi is a story of Dulal, another war baby from Canada who comes back to Bangladesh to find his mother in 2000. Unlike Jim from Chowdhury’s novel, Dulal brings with him his mother’s address, which his adopted parents had collected at the rehabilitation centre before taking the child away. Dulal, however, is HIV positive and this makes the search for his mother a story of death and lost identity. He attempts to piece together an identity for himself before he prepares for death. In a parallel story line, we meet Choiti Rani, an old woman working as a day labourer at a tea estate in the North Eastern part of Bangladesh. Choiti Rani’s family was brought to this area by force during the British colonial period. Choiti Rani and her community lost their tribal kinship and community and lived as outsiders in Bangladesh, working under inhuman conditions with very little pay from the tea estate. There always remained a great desire for this community to go back to Assam where they had originally come from and re-establish their own clan. It is this desire of establishing a clan and starting a new social order away from the oppressive structure imposed at the tea estate that drive Choiti Rani’s narrative forward.

Choiti Rani was married as a young girl and her husband died shortly after. She was then raped by the Bengali tea estate manager and eventually taken into the Army barracks during the 1971 war. She kept her son from the first rape, but the second one was taken away from her by force at the rehabilitation centre. Choiti Rani named her first son, Kukua Kanu and imagined him to be the head of the new clan she is to establish. As Kukua Kanu did not have a father’s identity he was independent to start a clan of his own, as Choiti Rani said, “because he doesn’t have a father, he will be the prodhan or the chief. He will grow with his own identity and name. There will be no father figure over his head” (Hossain 2001). Later, Choiti Rani initiated a sexual relationship with another tea estate worker Joton to increase the number of people in Kukua’s clan, she approached him saying, “ami Kukuar gotrer ak ek jon manush barate chai” meaning, “I want to increase the number of people in Kukua’s clan” (Hossain 2001). A woman’s role as the biological reproducer of the nation reaches its ultimate height with Choiti Rani literally using her fertility to give birth to new members of her clan. The spatial attribute of the nation is imposed on Choiti Rani’s body as it is visualised exactly like a fertile piece of land, ready to be ploughed and grow green in crops:

Joton feels that Choiti Rani’s clay body is amazingly fertile. As if it doesn’t have a shape. As if her entire being is like a spread out farming field. Wherever Joton puts his hands, grass grows, and wherever he puts his lips, grass grows. The barren land turns into a wide meadow, ready to welcome new settlements. (Hossain 2001).

The entire idea of rape and forceful pregnancy is flipped in this context to make the womb and the female body a space of resistance and rebellion holding the agency to rebuild the nation by literally biologically reproducing the members of it. It is this particular use of the female body and its biological functions that renders the incident or rape and loss of chastity unproblematic, even glorious in this narrative.

In course of time, Choiti Rani loses her first son (whom she got from the Bengali manager) Kukua Kanu and decides that Kukua Kanu’s son Agun would be the head of the clan. As time passes, the oppression of the tea estate authority reaches its peak and Choiti Rani loses her fertility to give birth anymore. With her only son dead she is stuck at a point from where she would have to wait a really long time for her grandson to grow up and have babies. It is a perfect moment for the new and long lost clan member to arrive,

Choiti Rani feels she can’t stand up anymore. It is not Dulal who is standing in front of her, but the entire Muktijuddho of 1971 was standing there. Military atrocity was going on every day and women were tortured. The blood of their body, the blood in the wounds — like red blood jabas. She stands face to face with Dulal and says, ‘I never found my younger son. He was born two months after the war. His father is one of the Pakistani militaries at the camp. I don’t really know who his father is. Neither do I care to know about the father’s identity. I know he is my [my emphasis] son. I have been waiting for my younger son. I still have hopes that he is alive and one day will come back to me. I heard you came here in search of your mother. Will you tell me your mother’s address? (Hossain 2001).

Choiti Rani’s emphasis on the mother’s identity and not the father’s is a technique that has been used by Selina Hossain to locate agency in the woman, but this agency is only delivered to her when she assumes the role of a willing mother ready to endlessly biologically reproduce the nation. It is at this juncture that Choiti Rani is redeemed of her disgrace of being raped and losing her chastity because of the transformation of her entire self into the vehicle of continuing the community kinship network. It is yet again, through the light of the virtuous presence of motherhood, the literary narratives to render the figure of the raped woman and her loss of chastity sublime and spiritually uplifting to the national moral imagination. It is only by assuming the role of a mother that the raped women are allowed to exist in literary representation where the topic of rape is yet again, further removed from the context and the rectification of chastity becomes the grand narrative:

Dulal’s [the war baby] voice ‘Maa…Maa’ spreads all over the tea estates and open meadows. Thunder lightening came from that call with scattering lights. As if the light was standing on the tea garden and Kukua saying, God has come to my virtuous mother. Megh Boraik saying, there is no sin on my virtuous daughter (Hossain 2001, 219).

One must note that Selina Hossain locates her narrative of the raped woman in the tea estates in a migrant community where matrifocal structure could be tolerated. The kuli or day labourer community has a separate set of social norms than the average Bengali community, and it is by creating this safe distance that Hossain situates the incident of rape and the figure of the raped woman in the narrative of 1971. Further distance is created between Choiti Rani (the raped woman) and Bangladesh as a nation by tracing her identity from beyond the borders of Bangladesh by the mechanisms of forced migration. This absurd placing of the Birangona, in this context, highlights once again the need to remove these women as far away as possible from the centre of national imagination. If Birangonas are to be given a space to exist, it is given either by killing them (Nirudishto Maayer Khoje) or by tracing their ethnic and national identity from beyond the border of Bangladesh (Kath Koylar Chobi). It is by creating this distance that the disclosure of the Birangona figure is made possible in the fictional literature work by women.

Rubaiyat Hossain is a filmmaker and researcher.

© thedailystar.net, 2011. All Rights Reserved 
source link : http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2010/july/women.htm
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Empress Extraordinaire

Volume 5 Issue 3 | March 2011

Empress Extraordinaire

RUBAIYAT HOSSAIN traces the intriguing life and persona of the empress, Nurjahan.


Nurjahan has been made into an icon amongst the Mughal women and her image has been popularised in literature, songs and poetry. However, recent day scholarly studies have somewhat deflated the image of Nurjahan by introducing a whole line of Mughal women who held powerful positions and negotiated important and sensitive political treaties.1 Yet Nurjahan remains one of the most extraordinary Mughal women because of her assertive female individuality that challenged the normative role of a Muslim woman.

When revisiting historical figures such as the Mughal women, especially Muslim Mughal women, it is useful to break down the public-private dichotomy established in earlier historical representations and locate women outside the realm of submissive privacy of the sexualised harem; it is however, also necessary to recognise the unique individual qualities asserted by certain females like Nurjahan, who actually superseded many of her predecessors and successors. It is because of the unique qualities possessed by Nurjahan along with the circumstantial elements that made her stand up as a strong female icon even in the face of orientalist patriarchal historiography.

The implications of contemporary historical recreations of the Mughal emperors are loudly pronounced over the politics of national and communal identity making processes in South Asia. The recreation of Aurengzeb as a liberal king who has actually been tainted by Western scholarship is reproduced in the 2004 version of secondary Bengali history text books published by the national education board of Bangladesh2; such revision is directly linked with the rise of a Sunni Islamic ruling bloc in Bangladesh in 2001.3 As the recreation of Mughal emperors and their roles in history have far fetching consequences in contemporary identity making processes and national politics; one may ask, what implications does the absence of such simultaneous female characters have to reveal about the social role and identity of women in contemporary South Asian societies?

Popular history remembers Shahjahan as a great and eternal lover, but little is known about Mumtaz Mahal in that respect. Similarly, popular history may venerate Akbar or Aurengzeb, however, it is not until specialised scholarly research is carried out by historians equipped with a feminist lens, that we come to find out about the extraordinary political role played by Mughal women, Gulbadan Banu for instance.4 The construction and reconstruction of historical figures in popular imagination is symptomatic of our present day social context. The limited role that has been attributed to modern day Bengali bhadramahila5 cannot possibly fit into its past a Muslim female predecessor who led a pilgrimage to Mecca almost 500 years ago. Thus, Gulbadan Banu figures nowhere in popular history. Similarly, popular history has remained silent about Hameeda (Babar’s wife and Akbar’s mother), Ruqiya (Akbar’s wife and Shahjahan’s foster mother), Mumtaz Mahal (Shahjahan’s wife and Aurengzeb’s mother) Jahanara, Rasuhanara (Shahjahan’s daughters and Aurengzeb’s sisters) Zeb-un-nisa (Aurengzeb’s daughter), and other significant Mughal women. However, Nurjahan somehow managed to seep herself into the realm of popular imagination, as she figures in Bengali songs, plays, novels and TV dramas. Though in these imaginations Nurjahan is actually represented as nothing more than a sensual lover versed in Persian poetry; nevertheless, the important point to note is: unlike other Mughal women, Nurjahan could not be ignored!

The historical sources available in English about Nurjahan can be differentiated into three broad categories, a) European ambassadors’ and travellers’ representations which looked through an orientalist lens, where India always figured as the extreme other, and Muslim women were assumed to be veiled passive spectators of history located in the sexual arena of the harem,6 b) representations by South Asian historians who also participate in constructing the picture of the harem as a realm of primary pleasure and desire, thus women are again stripped off of individuality and historical agency,7 c) finally, the recent re-visiting of Nurjahan that attempts to establish historical agency to her by scrutinising the reasons behind the token iconisation of Nurjahan by the first two categories of representation8.

The Persian chronicles pay considerable attention to Nurjahan9 and she certainly figures as a very important character in Mughal emperor Jahangir’s memoirs, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Taking a cursory look at the gamut of popular Bengali literature, European travellers’ accounts, Persian historians, Jahangir’s memoirs, contemporary South Asian historians, it becomes apparent that Nurjahan has been given her share of historical representation, however misrepresented or wiry it has been.

Then, one may inquire, what is the reason behind such utterance of Nurjahan when history generally remains silent about its female figures? Was there actually anything extraordinary about Nurjahan that won her a somewhat significant role even in an overall patriarchal landscape of history? A critical re-evaluation of the events of Nurjahan’s life can perhaps illuminate the process of iconification of her in history.

Nurjahan was married to Jahangir at the age of 34 and bore no heir for him, yet her name was inscribed on the gold coins, she was in possession of the imperial seal and actively signed farmans.10 As generally assumed by historians, if the importance of Mughal women lay in bearing illustrious heirs, then how can one explain the extraordinary importance of Nurjahan given her childless status? If the importance of women in the harem primarily corresponded with their sexual charms, then what could be said about the legendary partiality of Jahangir towards his favourite wife who was a 34-year-old mother by the time they got married? What could be said about the fact that, three of the most notable Mughal women: Nurjahan, Mumtaz Mahal, and Jahanara all share a lineage of descending from the house of Persian immigrant Asmat Begum and Ghiash Beg?

Finally, let us ponder: does the life of Nurjahan really set her apart from other Mughal women? If she has been iconified, demonised, romanticised, idealised in the popular and historic imagination, then what could be charted as the reasons behind such recreations? Beyond the layers of Mughal historiography, popular South Asian literature and Western scholarship, can we trace the individual woman Nurjahan? It remains a challenge since she did not leave any of her own writing in the form of biography, poetry or fiction. Is it then, possible to reconstruct at least some of her thoughts, aspirations and motives by looking at the literature produced by historians and images that has been circulated about her?

The legendary qualities that have been historically bestowed upon Nurjahan could be attributed to a few events of her life. Firstly, the story of a Persian immigrant girl who was born during her parents’ exile and later became one the most powerful women of the Mughal empire has always captured the imagination of historians as well as popular writers. Secondly, Nurjahan’s marriage to Ali Quli, Ali Quli’s controversial murder and finally, Nurjahan’s four-year long confinement in the Mughal harem after her husband’s death created avenue for dramatisation and much creative speculation. Nurjahan’s keen ability in poetry and literature, her craftsmanship let it be in fine arts, fashion, embroidery, architecture or writing, all gave her a special flare among the Mughal women. Finally, her father Ghiash Beg and brother Asaf Khan’s prominent position in the ruling affairs of the Mughal court and Nurjahan’s close relationship and power over Jahangir labelled her in history as one of the extraordinary Mughal women. Perhaps a discussion about these defining features of her life and the historical interpretation of it is necessary in order to deconstruct the real Nurjahan beyond the layers of historiography.

Story of a Persian immigrant girl born to destitute parents during their exile

The distracted parents finding no alternative, after lingering reluctance, decided to abandon the infant. It was a painful sight. The helpless mother gave a parting kiss to the infant, and handed her over to the husband. The perturbed father carried her to distance and placed her under scanty shade of a tree. He covered her with leaves of the tree and discarded her at the spot on the mercy of the God…
— Saha, B. P. Princesses, Begams and Concubines, Vikas Publishing House, Delhi, 1992.

Whether or not Nurjahan was abandoned by her parents during their journey from Persia to Delhi has been historically contended11, however, this information is widely used in the historical recreation of Nurjahan by South Asian writers.12 The infant who was abandoned, in fact, became the saving grace for her family since she considerably raised her brother, father and niece to very powerful positions in the Mughal empire. This story is underlined with a profound twist of fate and destiny that seems to have become an attractive element for South Asian writers to ponder upon. This dramatic beginning of Nurjahan’s life certainly has created avenue for her to be romanticised.

Her story and that of her family’s also comment on the socio-economic backdrop of the Mughal empire, where it was actually possible for immigrants from all over the world, especially from Persia, to make a position for themselves merely by the virtue of mastery over certain fields of knowledge and expertise in politics, art, religion or culinary skills for that matter. Nurjahan grew up in Agra as her father started working in Akbar’s court, though, little is known about Nurjahan’s childhood. The next historical reference we get of her is regarding her marriage to Ali Quli, his murder and finally Nurjahan’s subsequent confinement into the Mughal harem.13

Jahangir: A persistent lover and a controversial murder
Nurjahan was married to Ali Quli in 1595 and Ali Quli was murdered in 1607. The role of Jahangir in this murder has been historically contended, however, Jahangir in his own writing has seemed to remain ambivalent and rather regretful about this event. It is also noteworthy that, Ali Quli once saved Jahangir’s life from a tigress and he was given the title of Sher-i-Afghan, however, followed by this, a few years later, after Jahangir ascended the throne in 1605, Ali Quli was transferred to Burdawan and he was suspected of aligning himself with the rebellious faction of Man Singh. In Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri this transfer is mentioned and one can hear a tone of resentment towards Ali Quli in Jahangir’s voice,

When I came from Allahabad to wait on my revered father, on account of the unfriendliness that was shown to me, most of my attendants and people were scattered abroad, and he also at that time chose to leave my service. After my accession, out of generosity I overlooked his offences, and gave an order for a Jaigir for him in the Subah of Bengal.14

A jaigir in Bengal was not exactly a very lucrative deal due to Bengal’s far off geographical location in relation to the centre in Delhi. The humid climate in Bengal also made it an unattractive spot. The far off location of Bengal made it susceptible to numerous rebellions, thus Ali Quli was also suspected of rebelling against Jahangir. He was finally killed by Governor of Bengal Qutubuddin Khan, a childhood friend of Jahangir. Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri mentions the incident of the killing with a sense of contempt. Jahangir records the incident under the impression that Ali Quli had actually challenged the imperial authority. In the end Jahangir remarks, “what can I write of this unpleasantness? How grieved and troubled I became! Qutubuddin Khan Koka was to me in the place of a dear son, a king brother and a congenial friend. What can one do with the decrees of God? Bowing to destiny I adopted an attitude of resignation?”15

Some historians directly link Jahangir to Ali Quli’s murder,16 but some contend it.17 However, given Jahangir’s detestation towards Ali Quli in his memoirs, the complicated political landscape of Bengal and finally the interest of Jahangir towards Nurjahan can certainly reveal some connection between Jahangir’s motives and Ali Quli’s murder, especially when most murders in the empire were politically constructed, and Ali Quli and Qutubuddin Khan, those who died in that particular incident held powerful ruling positions in the empire. However, since there is no actual historical reference to support the fact that Jahangir actually met and developed interest for Nurjahan prior to her marriage to Ali Quli, Jahangir’s motives in murdering Ali Quli to marry Nurjahan cannot be proved.

The legendary qualities of Jahangir and Nurjahan’s love story rely heavily upon young Selim’s encounter with Mehirunnessa during a Meena Bazaar.18 This early encounter, Jahangir’s prolonged wait for her, the carefully crafted murder of her husband, her confinement into the harem, her marriage to Jahangir, and finally her becoming his favourite queen, all create a continuum in Jahangir’s emotional journey and justifies and/or explains the reasons behind his partiality towards Nurjahan. Though the early meetings of Selim and Mehirunnessa cannot be historically established, the fact that it has been so strongly established and widely circulated in later European travellers’ accounts and contemporary South Asian narratives, I would argue is symptomatic of the patriarchal historical lens that, in an attempt to understand Nurjahan’s extraordinary powerful position, conjured up an intense and dramatic love story to explain her assumed power over her husband.

Virtuous widow to sensual empress

No Mughal queen either before her or after played such a dominant role as Nurjahan did. But when she married Jahangir in 1611, her vivacity and loveliness along with her innate wisdom and sharp intellect grew with her experience and age.
–Anad, Sugam, History of Begum Nurjahan, Radha Publications, New Delhi, 1992.

The four years of Nurjahan’s life in the Mughal harem prior to her marriage to the emperor have been open to fabrication and romanticism. She has appeared as a virtuous widow mourning her husband’s death, a woman with self-respect who instead of taking resort in her father’s house sought employment at the harem, an attentive reader and teacher of the Quran, a skilful seamstress and gardener, an eloquent poet and a singer, an elegant designer in clothing and jewellery, and finally a culinary master. These reconstructions have come into being much later and thus remain open to critical historians’ interpretation.

However, it must be noted that, Nurjahan’s versatile talents have been widely accepted by well-reputed historians.19 Historians have attempted to understand the motive behind Jahangir’s marriage to Nurjahan, given she was a 34-year-old widow with a child at that time, and since the marriage entailed no political gain. Nurjahan is imagined and reconstructed through a patriarchal lens as a desirable woman who not only fulfilled Jahangir’s thirst for beauty and sensuality, but also stimulated him intellectually.20 Finally and most commonly, a sense of intense love between the two has been widely used as the most common logic to decode this marriage.

Jahangir’s consort: The most powerful Mughal empress

She and Jahangir were married in 1611 and, due to his increasing addiction to alcohol and opium, she immediately ascended into the vacuum of power. Nurjahan had a decisive influence on religious policy, artistic and architectural development, foreign trade, gardening, and the opening up of Kashmir.
— Findly, Ellison Banks, Nurjahan Empress of Mughal India, Oxford, New Delhi, 1993 (back cover)

Nurjahan was not the only Mughal woman to have exercised political authority, engaged in overseas commerce, designed architecture, figured as a great patron of art, signed farmans; many other Mughal women played similar roles;21 though Nurjahan was the only one to have coins struck in her name. What I intend to propose is, the political authority exercised by Nurjahan was not extraordinary in comparison to her predecessors and successors, however, the reason why historical imagination recreated her as the most powerful and influential woman of the Mughal empire is because of the subtle influence that she exercised over Jahangir, a fact, which becomes apparent from the utterances about Nurjahan in Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri. Nurjahan remained an empress for 15 years and 15 out of 21 years of Jahangir’s reign she remained his wife. If the latter part of Jahangir’s reign is considered significant due to his keen engagement in art, architecture, trade, building and efficiently managing sarais or rest houses for travelling traders, and the relative success in nipping some of the early buds of resistances around the empire; then one could possibly link it with the involvement of Nurjahan in the state affairs, given Jahangir testified to such facts in his memoirs.

She has been historically reinterpreted as Jahangir’s consort who fed into his fixation of a strong and pious female figure such as the Virgin Mary.22 Finally, her father, brother and niece’s involvement in the power politics of the empire created avenues for much speculation regarding a certain theory of a junta.23 Furthermore, Nurjahan’s diplomatic and military role in making sure the succession of her daughter Ladli Begum’s husband Shahriyar to the throne versus Shahjahan has established her in history as an empress who not only signed farmans for mere land grants, but actively participated in the forefront of the complicated web of power network that pulsated around the issue of succession in the Mughal empire. Such involvement of Nurjahan in aligning herself with the key players of the empire, Jahangir’s growingly ill heath, the struggle for throne between Shahjahan and Shahriyar, gave Nurjahan the impact she has had in history. It is due to such important involvement of Nurjahan in the political matters of the empire that she could not be ignored by Persian chronicles, Western travellers, and South Asian historians.

The author of pietra dura and creator of gardens with a humble grave

On mine, the outsider’s grave,
No candle and no light,
No burnt moth wings,
Nor nightingale song…

–Schimmel Annemarie, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture, Reaktion Books, London 2004

After Nurjahan’s father’s death, she inherited his entire estate, defying the usual Muslim inheritance laws. Among Nurjahan’s other architectural designs the tomb of her parents occupies a special place because the white marble pietra dura mausoleum creates a divine effect, which later manifested itself so gallantly in the design of the Tajmahal, Nurjahan’s rival Shahjahan’s gift for his loving wife Mumtaz Mahal, Nurjahan’s own niece. Nurjahan also carried out the designing and building of Jahangir’s tomb with special attention, and her humble grave utters only the words that leave a melancholic sigh to the reader. Unfortunately, whether or not the tone of her epitaph resulted from her surrender to a simple spiritual life under the influence of prominent Sufi tariqas circulated around that time, or it stemmed out of her failed spirit which lamented her powerless position will remain unknown. Nurjahan’s life beginning in a dramatic way comes full circle when the Persian immigrant girl, once the powerful, sensual and lavish empress of the Mughal empire, lies in a humble grave.

The juxtaposition of historical reconstructions such as, “[Y]et it was beyond her own imagination that for one born in the desolate desert…destiny distinctly planned for her the occupancy of the throne,”24 with the humble sigh on Nurjahan’s epitaph neatly folds up the legendary, fair tale story of her life, with a moral message of denouncement of worldly possessions and a profound realisation about the helplessness of human beings against the force of fate and destiny. This particular humble ending to Nurjahan’s life, I would argue, has gained her a sympathetic spot in historical and popular recreations. With her epitaph the story ends at an appropriate pause to give rise to later romanticism about her; in a way this simple and humble ending qualifies her to figure in legends and fables more prominently and favourably than it would have had she died as a powerful empress manipulating the strings of Mughal power politics.

Historical recreation driven by patriarchal value judgment does not tolerate women who desire powerful positions for themselves. The European traveller’s accounts often attributed negative qualities to Nurjahan. Her involvement with the matters of the state is not admired in these representations, rather, criticised in a harsh tone to morally degrade Nurjahan,

Jahangir disregarding his own person and position, has surrendered himself to a crafty wife of humble lineage, as a result either of her arts or her persuasive tongue. She has taken, and still continues increasing to take, such advantage of this opportunity, that she has gradually enriched herself with super abundant treasures, and has secured a more than royal position.25

Surprisingly, a very similar recreation of Nurjahan is found in the critical re-evaluation of her by Findly. Though the book critically re-examines the events of Nurjahan’s life and her role in the Mughal empire, the back-cover text certainly attributes a power hungry and negative tinge to her. In accordance with similar patriarchal value system, some South Asian historians try to portray Nurjahan as nothing short of a devout loving wife who was only concerned with the well-being of her husband,

She personally looked after him with great care and affection and was very loyal to him. She served as a sound advisor to her husband…after his death she preferred to lead the life of a recluse rather than take active interest in politics. It can be argued that her interests were confined to Jahangir and Jahangir alone.26

This sympathetic recreation of Nurjahan by a South Asian female author in the 1960s attempts to strip Nurjahan of her power-hungry image and bathes her clean with the utmost virtue of a South Asian Muslim woman. Nurjahan is thus recreated as a woman whose interest in politics or life in general for that matter began and ended with her husband.

The spiritual attributes surrounding Nurjahan’s life are interesting and shed some light on explaining the possible reasons behind her unique character and role. Strangely enough, Bengali popular imagination recalls Nurjahan as a devotee of Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi. It stands in legend that Nurjahan bought heaven by sending food to and tending to the confined Shaykh.27 Findly, however, links Nurjahan’s Shia faith, Sirhindi’s anti Shia attitude, and his confinement to naively speculate that Nurjahan must have been anti Shia. Nurjahan’s participation in Urs of Muinuddin Chisti has been noted in history,28 along with her keen knowledge of the Quranic scripture and devotional Persian poetry of Firdous.29 Nurjahan remained sympathetic to the Sufi traditions, and enough historical references are not available to actually link Sirhindi’s imprisonment with her personal motive of being a Shia woman.

The later confinement of Nurjahan to Lahore until her death in 1645, and her humble grave have been explained by some historians as her retirement into a spiritual simple way of life.30 In many ways Nurjahan transgressed the role of a typical Muslim woman, however, one must note that, as pointed out by recent scholars such as Kozlowiski, Islamic practices were much diverse back in the Mughal era. Women descending from the Persian lineage enjoyed relatively more freedom and power within the family structure. Nurjahan’s identity as a Muslim woman thus needs to be understood free of charge from contemporary scales of appropriate Muslim womanhood in order to comprehend her powerful position both in her family and in Jahangir’s.

Nurjahan’s Persian lineage made it possible for her to transgress many of the conventional roles of a South Asian Muslim woman, and it is this lineage that is attributed to her sensual appeal by 20th century Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam in his popular song titled, “Nurjahan”. In his verses, Nurjahan embodies the Persian literary and aesthetic motifs imported and plated in the South Asian terrain, “you brought roses, grape vines, the love story of Shiri and Farhad and the verses of Shiraz in the wine cup of your body, bulbuli dilruba is your name, floating through Sindhu river you arrived at the land of monsoon clouds, you Iranian gulistaan!”31 The marriage of Jahangir and Nurjahan in these verses becomes the symbolic marriage of South Asian and Persian aesthetic elements. The song then goes on to comment on the divine love of Selim for Nurjahan which completely intoxicated him and enabled him to defy social rules and regulations.

Popular history remembers the love story of Mumtaz Mahal and Shahjahan because Shahjahan built the Taj for his beloved wife, however, the love story of Nurjahan and Jahangir has not been made immortal in popular remembrance by any architectural monument built by Jahangir, but by the extraordinary life led by Nurjahan. Thus, she figures as a strong icon even in the face of patriarchal history-writing and popular literature simply because of qualities innate in her own personality and specific circumstantial elements of her life.


1 Lal, Ruby, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005.
Schimmel Annemarie, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture, Reaktion Books, London 2004.
2 Chakrabarti, Ratan Lal, and A. K. M. Shahnewaz, Bangladesh O Prachin Bishwa Shobbhotar Itishash. Dhaka: Jatiya Shikkha O Paddho Pustak Board, 2005, 90-102.
3 Riaz, Ali, God Willing: The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
4 Lal, Ruby, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005
5 Amin, Sonia, The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal, 1876-1939 (New York; Leiden: E J Brill: 1996), Chatterjee, Pratha, The Nation and its Women, in Subaltern Studies Reader 1986-1995, ed. Ranajit Guha (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1997). Chatterjee discusses the national positioning of modern nineteenth century Bengali ‘bhadramahila’ in the private-spiritual-ahistoric-timeless domain of nationalism. This domain was considered superior to the West, based on a spiritual-material dichotomy where East was superior to the West due to the spiritual nature of its inner domain of sovereignty. In this imagination, women were drained of their individual freedom and locked into a timeless zone of nationalism to uphold cultural symbolism of spiritual superiority over the West.
6 European travelers such as Sir Thomas Roe, Caption William Hawkins, Francisco Pelsaert, Peter Mundy, Manucci wrote about Nurjahan based on personal accounts and public speculation.
7 Nath, R, Private Life of the Mughals of India (1526-1803), Rupa and Co, India, 2005, K.S. Lal, The Mughal Harem, Delhi, 1998.
8 Misra, Rekha, Women in Mughal India, Munshiram Manoharlal, Allahabad, 1967, Anad, Sugam, History of Begum Nurjahan, Radha Publications, New Delhi, 1992, Lal, Muni, Jahangir, Vikas Publishing House, Delhi, 1983.
9 Anad, Sugam, History of Begum Nurjahan, Radha Publications, New Delhi, 1992.
10 Findly, Ellison Banks, Nurjahan Empress of Mughal India, Oxford, New Delhi, 1993.
11 Findly admits that the incident of Nurjahan’s abandonment by her parents during their exile has been reconstructed by Persian chroniclers and European travelers almost 100 years after the actual incident, thus, such reconstruction must be critically scrutinised by contemporary historians.
12 Anad, Sugam, History of Begum Nurjahan, Radha Publications, New Delhi, 1992, Lal, Muni, Jahangir, Vikas Publishing House, Delhi, 1983, Saha, B. P. Princesses, Begams and Concubines, Vikas Publishing House, Delhi, 1992.
13 Findly, Ellison Banks, Nurjahan Empress of Mughal India, Oxford, New Delhi, 1993.
14 Beveridge, Henry, ed. The Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri, Munshiral Manoharlal, Delhi, 1914.
15 Beveridge, Henry, ed. The Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri, Munshiral Manoharlal, Delhi, 1914.
16 Anad, Lal and Saha’s interpretation creates a direct link between Jahangir’s motive to marry Nurjahan to Ali Quli’s murder Prasad and Finley argues, “there is nothing to prove tat Jahangir had ever seen Nurjahan before her first marriage, while there is every reason to believe that he sought neither the life not the wife of Sher Afghan (Prasad, Beni, History of Jahangir, Oxford University Press, Madras, 1922.
17 Prasad and Finley argues, “there is nothing to prove tat Jahangir had ever seen Nurjahan before her first marriage, while there is every reason to believe that he sought neither the life not the wife of Sher Afghan”– (Prasad, Beni, History of Jahangir, Oxford University Press, Madras, 1922.)
18 Siddiqui, Anis, Mughal Haremer Antoraley, Oitijjo Publishers, Dhaka, 1969.
19 Schimmel Annemarie, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture, Reaktion Books, London 2004, Women in the Medieval Islamic World, Robinson, Francis, The Mughal emperors : and the Islamic dynasties of India, Iran, Central Asia, 1206-1925, Thames & Hudson, London, 2007.
20 Anad, Sugam, History of Begum Nurjahan, Radha Publications, New Delhi, 1992.
21 Some farmans signed by Nurjahan are available in the Rajasthan State Archives in Bikaner, Misra provides a list of such farmans in her appendix-B, in, Misra, Rekha, Women in Mughal India, Munshiram Manoharlal, Allahabad, 1967.
22 Findly, Ellison Banks, Nurjahan Empress of Mughal India, Oxford, New Delhi, 1993.
23 Habib, Irfan, The Family of Nurjahan during Jahangir’s Reign: A Political Study, in Hasan, Nurul, ed, Medieval IndiaA Miscellany, vol. 1 Asia Publishing House, Aligarh, 1969.
24 Anad, Sugam, History of Begum Nurjahan, Radha Publications, New Delhi, 1992.
25 Moreland, W.H, Gyle, P, trans, Jahangir’s India: The Remonstrantie of Francisco Pelsaert, Cambridge, London 1925.
26 Misra, Rekha, Women in Mughal India, Munshiram Manoharlal, Allahabad, 1967.
27 Siddiqui, Anis, Mughal Haremer Antoraley, Dhaka, 1969.
28 Findly, Ellison Banks, Nurjahan Empress of Mughal India, Oxford, New Delhi, 1993
29 Anad, Sugam, History of Begum Nurjahan, Radha Publications, New Delhi, 1992.
30 Misra provides a list of such farmans in her appendix-B, in, Misra, Rekha, Women in Mughal India, Munshiram Manoharlal, Allahabad, 1967.
31 Qadir, Abdul, ed. Nazrul Rochonaboli Shomogro, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1977.


Rubaiyat Hossain is a filmmaker and researcher.

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Belief in Bengal

Weekend Independent | Friday, 17 December 2010 |  Rubaiyat Hossain  

Belief in Bengal

The starting point and the very historical processes of mass “conversion” to “Islam,” in South Asia has long been contested and politicized. For instance, the heavy Muslim settlement in the Eastern Delta of Bengal became a very important political factor in 1947, when the nation-state building apparatus drew boundaries to join the eastern delta of Bengal to West Pakistan on account of the high concentration of Muslim populations in both the regions. There followed yet another consequence of that partition: after the formation of Pakistan with the two wings—East Pakistan and West Pakistan—the heavy concentration of peasant Muslims in the Eastern Delta, the rural atraps found themselves under the economic, political and socio-cultural hegemony of the West Pakistani ashraf. This created rifts between both groups on issues of economic exploitation, political policy and leadership, language, culture, and religious practices. Ultimately Pakistan broke in half, a new country emerged: Bangladesh.

What were the socio-cultural, economic, and political phenomena that can account for the failure of Pakistan—the Muslim majority state of South Asia? When the persistent dreams of a separate homeland for the South Asian Muslims had actually been materialized; one may inquire: what was the array of forces that eventually led to a mass revolt against the West Pakistani military atrocities to establish yet another Muslim majority nation-state, those belonging to the Eastern Delta of Bengal in the South East?

This question has been instantly answered by Bangladeshi historians with the model of an unequal relation between the Eastern and Western wings of Pakistan tied in an unhappy marriage of economic exploitation, top down imposition of socio-cultural and political hegemony, and finally a clear-cut racism of the West Pakistani ashrafs over the East Pakistani atraps.

However, by looking carefully at Richard Eaton’s theory about the mass conversion of low caste Hindus to Islam in the lower delta of Ganges and Brahmaputra, the Eastern delta of Bengal today Bangladesh, between sixteenth and eighteenth century; one could provide a missing piece of Bangladesh’s socio-cultural and religious history to explain the gulf of differences, which remained so persistent and bore historical consequences for the Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims.

Eaton accounts for the high concentration of Muslim population in the Eastern delta of Bengal to the changing courses of the major rivers in region, which resulted in the creation of new land in the lower delta of Bengal. The new agrarian developments created settlements, habited previously uninhabited areas, and a new peasantry came into being between sixteenth and eighteenth century under the Mughal rule. Eaton concludes in his deduction that, the eastward movement of the Mughal empire’s agrarian frontier and the incorporation of the rice boom in East Bengal into the economic hub of the empire created a new wave of settlements in East Bengal; where “Islam” was introduced in the new lands as a, “Civilization-building ideology associated both with settling and populating the land by constructing a transcendent reality constant with the process.”

Sufi masters were sent by the Mughal kings with land endowments, grants for building of a mosque to initiate civilization in the new settlements. It is no wonder that most myths surrounding renowned Sufi masters like Hazrat Shah Jalal, Shah Paran, Makhdum Shah relate to the miracles or keramats performed by these Sufi masters to clear out the area of inauspicious elements: Jinns, ghosts, snakes, tigers, crocodiles to create habitable landmass. The famous 19th century scroll depicts a Sufi master riding on a Royal Bengal Tiger, in his right hand prayer beads and in his left hand a snake.

The Eastern delta of Bengal—the landmass, which is now Bangladesh has historically been a downward pushing delta frontier. It has been settled by Dravidians and looked down upon as ritually impure area in the Vedas. These areas also lie outside the geographical stretch of Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Thus, this area possessed its own local pagan religious practices different than Brahmanical Vedic Hindu practices. In Abul Fazl’s Ain-e-Akbari, the region of Syhtlet was described as a place where people lived in caves and practiced black magic and paganism. However, Sylhet appears again in Ibn Batuta’s narrative in 1345 when a Sufi khanqa or monastery has been established under the leadership of Hazrat Shah Jalal. The myth tells of Hazrat Shah Jalal crossing the river on his prayer rug and coming to Syhlet with 313 men. These men married into the local society and preached the message of Islam.

In Bangladesh/East Bengal, even though Sufi saints started to appear as early as 11th century; between 16th and 18th century there was a wave of massive conversion of the rural peasantry. During this time the changing courses of the rivers created new land in the lower portion of Bengal delta where the Sufi masters would simultaneously preach Islam and initiate a process of civilization building. These two processes went side by side, and Islam became the most important force for the peasantry to count on against natural calamity, epidemics, snakes, wild animals or bad harvests. As Islam’s reach seeped down into the soils of East Bengal to initiate a rice boom and shaped an agrarian civilization, Islam also reached very deep into the bones of the East Bengali peasantry as it continued to support them against natural adversities to harvest their crops.

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