By rahnuma ahmed
As the idea gradually took hold, I thought, horror of horrors, what on earth will I tell Zaman (deputy editor, New Age)?
`Reflections on Women Development Policy and IOJ hartal’ had expanded. Initially, I’d thought of writing two parts but ended up writing five. Before that, my Weather series had kept unfolding week after week. It took more than two months to complete, and had, in all, 9 parts!
Given my infamous track record, it is no wonder that Zaman repeatedly asks me whenever I begin a series, as opposed to my one-off pieces, `Are you sure you’ll be able to finish it in so-many parts? Are you absolutely sure that the next one will be the last one?’
But to return to the Women Development Policy series, beside my embarassment over what to tell Zaman, there were practicalities involved as well. What could I call this new one? A sequel to the Conclusion? A post-Conclusion? Ohhh!
As I began devising excuses, I thought, why not blame it on my reader-friends. After all, one of them had sms-ed me, shesh hoeo jeno shesh holo na lekhata, it seemed not to end even after ending. Another had said on g-chat: I think you should write a post-script. If not right now, then later. The last section of your concluding part left me in a state of suspense. Post-script, hmm.
As I toyed with the idea, I thought of all the things that had gotten left out of the 5-part series because of space and time constraints. I also thought of a male friend’s playful banter about the name of the platform, `ShomoOdhikar Amader Nunotomo Daabi’ (SAND). `Hey, if equal rights is the minimum, what’s the max? Us guys are undoubtedly very supportive, goes without saying, but we need to know don’t we? For God’s sake, there are male interests at stake.’ To which the best answer I felt was to yell that his wife, who’d wandered away in search of something, come over and join us.
Laughter all around forced me to give up the idea of trying to explain that the ShomoOdhikar movement was not only about rights. Not merely about achieving equality with men. At least, that’s the way I see it. That men are not the standard, the norm, which frame women’s aspirations and struggles. That inequality is not only gendered, but is also class-ed, is ethnic (aspects of which are racialised). That it is built along communitarian lines. That these interweave in complex ways. No neat fits. No easy solutions. Given our long histories of deeply-founded, well-entrenched and overlapping systems of exploitation and social injustice, a mere overhauling will not do.
However, legally-enforced equal rights, are undoubtedly an essential element of that struggle. As many Roman Catholic women seeking a divorce will tell you. As Hindu women deprived of rights to family property, will insist. Or, as Muslim women seeking equal shares to inheritance, and rights over children, will explain.
But simultaneously, one needs to bear in mind that there are limits to a rights-based discourse, ones, which are difficult to think through because of its hegemonic status. For, as Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak says, liberalism and other modernist emancipatory formations are “that which we cannot not want” (emphasis mine). Wendy Brown agrees. In a sexually exploitative world, we cannot not want rights. The right to vote. To work. To equal wages. To not be sexually harassed. To be free from domestic violence (Wendy Brown, `Suffering the paradoxes of rights,’ 2002).
While discussing these issues, a historical perspective, I think, is essential, because the notion of rights are inextricably linked to modernity, to the powers of the modern state. In the pre-modern state, as Talal Asad explains, individuals were dependents of the sovereign power, they were subordinate to him, subject to his power and protection. But the modern state presupposes the `equal’ citizen?not subject to a superior power, rather, the subject of specific rights, a part of the sovereign body, in that sense, of the state. The formation of modern states on European patterns throughout the world led to the development of new vocabularies, new political practices, oriented toward struggles within and about various legal categories (personal/family laws, workers rights, protecting the environment etc., etc.). This is because the Law in the modern state is one of the social conditions of our existence, making struggles of modern politics very different in character from those occurring in premodern politics. And one must bear in mind, as Asad reminds us, that laws are enacted `not simply to command obedience and to maintain justice, but to enable or disable its population.’ What better instance of this in contemporary times than the US government’s discriminatory targeting of Muslim communities in counter-terrorism investigations?
If it enables some, while disabling others, if rights, because of their hegemonic status, is that which we cannot not want, where does this place women’s struggles for equal rights? Where else but the need to remember that rights mitigate, they do not eliminate. They `soften’ the effects of the subordination and violation to which women are vulnerable, they do not `eliminate’ masculine dominance, as attested to by the proliferation of women’s rights over the past century (Brown). This, of course, does not mean that it is wrong for women to seek equal rights, ask a raped woman who’s seeking justice, she’ll tell you. However, we must not forget that rights are formulated in a manner which enable the victim, the subordinated, to escape from the site of that violation. The `site’ has a fence built around it, writes Brown, so as to regulate the violations that occur (for e.g., acts of rape). But these rights do not challenge the regime of masculine domination. Nor do they challenge the mechanisms which reproduce it.
There are other critiques to bear in mind as well, emphasised by Marxists and neo-Marxists. In inegalitarian societies, rights differentially empower different social groups. `The more social resources and the less social vulnerability one brings to the exercise of a right, the more power that exercise will reap’ (Brown). Walk into a public hospital and you will see how we middle class women, with all the social resources that we embody, physical appearance, grooming, clothes, diction, get medical attention more easily and for much longer than our subaltern sisters, more likely to be barked at. To be treated as riff-raff. As social outcasts.
According to Islam, insists Islami Oikyo Jote leader Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini, “a woman can never be equal to a man.”? Equal shares to inheritance is against the Quran and Sunnah. Female leadership is haram. To the latter, Mohd Shahjahan Khan, shipping minister, had retorted, if that is so, what did you do during cabinet meetings? (when IOJ was a partner of the BNP-Jamaat led government, 2001-2006). Did Khaleda Zia wear a borkha (an obvious dig at the former prime minister’s attention to clothes, to her personal appearance), or did you shut your eyes? (Kaler Kantho, April 29, 2011) I come across other news reports where Amini, in response to some remark made by Sajeda Chowdhury, deputy leader of the House, counters by saying, if surrounded by women who do not wear veils, I’ll be rescued by women who do (The Independent, April 2, 2011).
Through these attacks and counter-attacks, attention once again shifts?as has occurred repeatedly in Bangladesh over the last two decades?in this case, from issues of property, inheritance and ownership to focusing on `personalising’ political differences, fought, as one can see, over notions of womanhood, female propriety, and an essential (i.e., unchanging, monolithic) Islam. But what interests me more are class differences among women in their access to property and ownership, mediated as it is by familial ideology.
First, let’s take the case of Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina’s respective grab for state resources, framed under the rubric of familial ideology by their respective supporters: widowed woman/homeless daughters in need of a `roof over their heads’?each attempt thwarted by the other, when she gained political power. Khaleda was forcefully ousted from her Dhaka cantonment house, `a home full of memories of family life’ by armed personnel (November 13, 2010), aided by a Supreme Court verdict which declared her possession of state-owned property to be illegal. Whereas earlier, the caretaker government cancelled the order by which Sheikh Hasina had awarded herself the ownership of Ganobhaban when prime minister, and the BNP government, subsequently voted to power in 2001, cancelled Hasina’s awarding her sister, Sheikh Rehana, another house in Dhanmondi (Arshad Mahmud, Our leaders? penchant for big house, November 22, 2010). Both political parties had recruited familial ideology to benefit their own women leaders (while denying the claim made by the other), attempts which turned out to be unsustainable with the loss of political power.
But these unsuccessful attempts, much in the public eye, invisibilise other social trends, which should be of equal theoretical and practical concern to leaders and activists in the women’s movement. As the rich have gotten richer, acknowledged by the current finance minister himself, it is an open secret that members of the fantastically rich include sections of the civil-military bureaucracy. It is also an open secret that they invest their ill-gotten wealth in property (house, land; beside educating children abroad), which is often registered in their wives names to escape corruption charges. What happens to the marital tie here, and what conceptual tools do we draw on to analyse it? Do we view it as a strengthening of the monogamous marital tie, and therefore celebrate it (as opposed to bad polygamous Muslim marriages)? Or, do we inquire into whether it increases the wife’s dependence on her husband (bad for female autonomy)? Or, do we view it as a mutually interdependent relationship, one in which both husband and wife are `thick as thieves’? That women of highly-placed army officers are prone to taking on their husband’s status and position, that this created deep resentment among the (male) rank-and file, were reported in news reports of the BDR tragedy, before being hurriedly consigned to oblivion.
Poorer women, deserted women have less entitlement to familial ideology since, according to ruling ideologies, their marriages are breakable (not cemented by property ties?), their associations are loose, their morality is suspect.
The ruling class (and this includes women) seeks comfort in easy answers, since the truth is hard to confront.
Published in New Age, May 22, 2011 http://newagebd.com/newspaper1/editorial/19659.html