I am not a hanger for your ideology

dhaka tribune

June 01, 2013 | Op-Ed | Rubaiyat Hossain

Why have women’s bodies become a political battleground?

Their attire should be based on their personal beliefs, not what a man chooses to mandate for them

Their attire should be based on their personal beliefs, not what a man chooses to mandate for them

I had faced the threat once before. It was in 2001. Delwar Hussain Sayedee’s tape titled “Nari O Porda” (Women and the Veil) was selling everywhere.

Bangladesh was going through a process of Islamisation. The horror of imagining Bangladesh turning into a state where I would be forced to confine myself in veils was lurking around the corner.

Then followed the years when America’s ongoing war on terror unleashed chaos in the Muslim world, the word Islam became synonymous with terrorism; progressive France put an embargo on wearing veils to school.

These are the years when I grew closer to my identity as a Muslim woman, wearing the veil didn’t seem like such a farfetched idea, after all, political Islam had kicked in for the progressive Muslim; wearing a hijab was even considered the “in thing” to do. One could wear a hijab and eloquently, theoretically, politically convince you that, after all, it is a choice.

The hijab has acquired a new meaning apart from symbolising backwardness, barbarity, lack of freedom — it has now morphed into a mark of political identity, its wearing a mark of resistance against the imperial West.

Nonetheless, the problematic issue remains: the hijab doesn’t hang in a vacuum; it needs a woman’s body to make its appearance, to proclaim identity, to preach ideology.

Over and over again, it is the woman’s body that becomes the battleground, the ground upon which the winning side will display its ideology.

A few days before Hefazat’s Dhaka siege, I spotted two boys dressed in Madrasa attire staring at my bare arms as if all of a sudden my genitalia had appeared there. Wearing a sleeveless top seemed just as nude as that. Later I recalled the repulsion I saw in their eyes. They looked at my arms as something terribly vulgar, a pound of flesh that should have been covered up, a pound of flesh they are restricted from seeing, let alone touching.

It is not only women’s bodies, but men’s bodies, and their desires that are threatened by the Islamist forces in Bangladesh.

Repression is their mantra, adding more repression to the already conservative Bengali culture can only aim to create a society where sexuality is considered vulgar, women — the object of desire is rendered impure and unclean, segregation is indispensable for maintaining social equilibrium.

As Hefazat proclaimed, women will walk to work safely clad in their layers of burqa, even when it is a 100 degrees outside. Women will abide by Sharia law, and who will interpret Sharia law and Quranic injunctions for them?

None other, but the leader of our home grown Islamist politics, the successors of the rural mullahs, those men who have authored their fatwas over women’s bodies, thrown stones at her, because she was fallen, because she was raped.

On the late afternoon of the Dhaka siege, I got a call from one of my ex-students who told me about her encounter with four men who stopped her rickshaw around Jatrabari.

These men in their beards, white kurtas and religious caps told her not to roam alone without a male “guardian,” they told her to cover herself like a good Muslim woman, then they pulled down the rickshaw hood and sent the young woman off. Sitting with her head hanging low, wishing she had a bigger scarf, terribly scared, she asked: “Is it real? Can they really going to force us to wear veils, here in Bangladesh?” I had no answer for her.

Bangladesh has reached a political milieu where the promises of a secular homeland are clearly dwindling.

The country is now divided into two: the infidels and the believers. I am no infidel, but I refuse to adhere to the brand of Islam proclaimed by Hefazat.

I do not care if they represent the masses, neither am I ready to give them any mileage as some home grown anti-imperial political force. Thank you, but no thank you, I do not need a hijab, or a veil, or a burqa.

I want to stand outside soaking my skin in the sun because I am a free human being. I do not care if you are going to argue back that the concept of freedom is constructed, and it is essentially a Western construct.

I am not on the side of any particular political camp, I am neither on the left nor the right. I am just not interested to become a hanger for any particular political ideology.

I do not need to be spoon-fed either freedom or dignity. I do not stand for or against the empire, or nationalism and nation-states for that matter, because by the virtue of their constructs these institutions have failed to deliver me anything but the pigeonhole reality of symbolism, stereotype and sexual slavery.

I am on my own side, on the side of “women,” committing the sin of imagining “Bangladeshi women” as a homogenous group – a group that has proved to be resilient against all odds; earning the country its highest export income and a prestigious Nobel prize, sitting for exams even after fingers have been hacked off, continuing their education even after being blinded by husbands, mere children taking to the streets to demand justice against sexual assault by school teachers, and the list goes on.

It is the resilience of Bangladeshi women that stands as a beacon of hope in a nation that is blindfolded by its political leaders.

Bangladeshi women know better than to let their bodies be hijacked by varying forces of this deluded nation that is still piecing together and trying to come to peace with its national identity, a journey grievously incomplete forty two years after independence.

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The fractured Bangladeshi nation

dhaka tribune

May 24, 2013 | Op-Ed | Rubaiyat Hossain

The national rhetoric must evolve and learn from history


Today we stand fractured as a nation. The umbrella of homogenous national identity is ruptured. We are divided in the way we recall our history, recollect our dreams, and reconstruct the birth moment of our country.

There is only one Bangladesh, but its citizens comprise diverse political and ideological camps. To make the matter more complex, each political-ideological camp whether it is the centre, the extreme left or the extreme right, all believe in polarised binaries. It is no wonder that the counter force to the Shahbagh movement, Hefazat-e-Islam, is demanding the same exact punishment that Shahbagh demanded — a noose.

Today you are either an Awami League or Bangladesh Nationalist Party supporter, today you are either “secular-athiest-pro liberation force conscious of its ethnicity as Bengalis” or “Islamic-fundamentalist-religious-anti liberation force conscious of its identity as Muslims first and Bengalis afterward.” What if you don’t want to belong to either of these camps? Well, tough luck!

Looking at the declining number of Bangladesh’s Hindu population and the atrocities carried out in the CHT, it is evident that the secular badge of honour of our cultural elites is more a sham than the real thing. This observation would surely earn one the title of a “neo-razakar.”

The weakest part of the Shahbagh movement has been its intolerance, its obsession with capital punishment, its tendency to witch hunt anyone who evokes any ifs or buts. What Shahbagh demanded was to take time back, but it is not possible once the clock has clicked away for 42 years. Bitter as bile, we must be able to admit and comprehend what we have become. Bangladesh is not a plain slate like in 1971.

Our political past is mired with military coups, military government morphing into democratically elected political parties, not once but twice: under Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Muhammed Ershad, leaving Awami League as the only party with a legitimate political history. The political ideologies upheld by the democratic parties formed by these two military personnel gave space for those who had drifted away from Awami League or differed from Awami League’s position. The defeated forces of 1971 after being restored to Bangladeshi politics followed by the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had also grown as a prominent political force under the banner of Jamaat-e-Islam.

When Awami League initiated the process to bring war criminals to justice, the majority of the country seemed to have applauded the trial. We all agreed: it has been a long overdue verdict, justice should have been served a long time ago, now is the time to amend past mistakes, we will exterminate the war criminals, we will wipe the slate clean, and we will go back in some imaginary time machine to 1972, and restore our original constitution.

The generation that roared at Shahbagh, for the most part, had been born after 1971. They are not the dreamers of a “Shonar Bangla,” but rather the citizens of a harsh Bangladesh where every dream seems to have fallen through the cracks of an inadequate nation-building process. For this disillusioned generation, 1971 appears as a moment of utopia, a moment of possibility, a moment when a new beginning was possible. Thus, they create an illusion of returning back to the moment, imagining that it is possible to wipe the slate clean of the betrayals, blood and utter stupid politics that followed in the years after independence.

Shahbagh is no 1971 and murdered blogger Rajib Haider no Asad. The too-quick emotional fireworks of the youth has been championed by politicians. Soon after Shahbagh became a hub of public support, the government infiltrated the movement by putting Awami League’s cultural wing and Awami League’s student leaders at the forefront with Shahbagh blogger leaders. Jamaat-Shibir took a very calculative and measured step in allegedly murdering a person who was at the fringes of the Shahbagh movement, a person who wrote disturbing posts about Islam and the Prophet in the private confine of his computer and personal blogs.

After Rajib’s murder while leaders shed tears and named him “Asad,” termed him a martyr, Jamaat played its biggest ploy of publishing the private blogs in public space, in newspapers for the entire country to read. Simultaneously they ran campaigns about the infidelity of the bearers of the Shahbagh movement. The duality of Bengali Muslim identity came in play. We started questioning our priorities, are we to protect our nation’s pride or the Prophet’s? It was indeed a tough call to make. So we fractured into many.

Shahbagh had shown us the spirit of the youth, their frustration and their urge to change, but it has also shown us how the spirit of the youth had been neatly championed by political parities; each manipulating the youth for their own, regardless of if it was madrasa kids or the secular kids of Dhaka University. In this chaos, the voice of the youth demanding a Bangladesh where they can grow, has been lost. Now we only hear roars demanding the noose from all sides.

It has been the unwillingness of the Shahbagh youth to comprehend the nuances surrounding the history of 1971 that led them to overlook the complicated question of identity. By calling ourselves “Bangalee we excluded the ethnic minorities, we called for rigid positions, we made little children chant “Faashi,” and finally we ignored the complicated fractured past of Bengali Muslims.

It is absurd to demand a hardline, black and white truth because our political past is anything but. If we are not able to measure up to our conflicting political past then we can’t hope to solve the problems at hand today.

When there are multiple positions and political currents emerging, then it is perhaps best to keep a keen eye open, to examine and understand who we are as Bangladeshis, who we have become over the past decades and who we want to be in the future without holding stubborn blindfolded positions.

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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.

© thedailystar.net, 2011. All Rights Reserved
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.

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