The familial order, not easily undone

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By Rahnuma Ahmed

The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ?knowing thyself? as a product of historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory…therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.
Antonio Gramsci, The Study of Philosophy,
quoted by Edward Said, in Orientalism
? the institutionalised forces of industrial capitalist society…constantly tending to push the meanings of various third world societies in a single direction. This is not to say that there is no resistance to this tendency. But resistance in itself indicates the presence of a dominant force.
Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion

?We want democracy in the family?

It was 1990. We were out in the streets celebrating the downfall of the military dictator President HM Ershad, in the week that followed the historic 4th of December. Hundreds of thousands of people had gathered. The procession snaked its way through the central streets of Dhaka, from Topkhana road to Paltan intersection, on to Gulistan. People held banners and placards which proclaimed their party loyalty or their ideals. Some chanted slogans, others sang. Bystanders stood, they waved and cheered us on, some slipped in and joined us.
Meghna, Suraiya, Hasina, I myself and several others held placards, we belonged to Nari Shonghoti, a small research-cum-activist women?s group, intermittently active in those days. One of these, ?Poribarey gonotontro chai? received the most attention. Co-processionist men read it and nudged others. Smiling, they shook their heads. We smiled back and amidst the riotous explosion of noise mouthed the words, ?And why not?? Women, too, smiled. Some nodded their heads in solidarity, others, like men, knowingly. They knew that this was one sphere ? home, marriage, sexuality, love, housework, the distribution of resources ? where transformative and egalitarian changes would be the hardest to achieve. Dilli bohut door ast. Both men and women who encircled us in that sea of people, rejoicing at the downfall of the autocrat, knew that.
One can know oneself only as a product of historical processes because, for Gramsci, ?each individual is the synthesis not only of existing relations, but of the history of these relations.? Men and women are ?a pr?cis of all the past.? And the past, that is history, is only traceable through its traces. History?s very mode of existence is in the traces.
I sift through feminist and anthropological studies of this region and beyond, to discover the ?traces? of our colonial legacy, thought to be beneficent in social senses (?women?s rights?, ?autonomy?), and to understand the institutionalised forces of the West that push us to desire marriage and family relationships that are ?singular?. In the act of doing so, I also draw the attention of self-consciously thinking sections of Bengali society towards their uncritical acceptance of the encroachment of the modernising state, in areas of social life that were previously unregulated. This act of ?compiling inventories? in order to ?know thyself? is motivated by what I think is necessary: a critique of social, economic and ideological processes working to effect modernising changes in marriage and family forms in Bangladesh.
I have no answers to the questions that you may confront when you reach the end of this piece. ?Answers?, as such, can only be the outcome of social and political struggles.

Colonial ?traces?: the dismantling of jointness

Hilary Standing, a feminist anthropologist, has examined the deep-seated changes that took place in Bengali families as a result of the growth of wage dependency in late nineteenth and early twentieth century (1991). In an excellent discussion on the transformation of landed households into wage-dependent ones, she details the encounter between traditional, culture-specific forms of income management, based on jointly-held property, and capitalist ideologies of wages as ?belonging? to the individual. The growth of the wage economy and the rise of the Bengali Hindu middle class (bhodrolok)?not an industrial bourgeoisie but a class of bureaucrats and professionals, in service of ?the demands of imperial capital??precipitated a huge ideological clash which shook the very foundation of Bengali households and families.
This transformation, part of larger historical processes, un-made a distinct way of life, only to re-make it along the contours of modernising (this includes capitalist) aspirations and material realities. In the case of the Bengali Muslim middle class, as I argue later, it extended to equally radical changes in marital forms: marriage was re-defined as being strictly monogamous, it was imbued with new meanings of being a civilising force in society.
To return to Standing?s work: drawing on her own research, and that of others?, she says, the Bengali middle class sustained rural-urban links through the joint family. A village home was maintained for several generations, and income was pooled into the joutho bhandar (common fund) from landed rents and the salaries of family members who were professionally employed. Ghor-bahir division was strictly enforced, men were assigned to the external economy, to culture and politics, and women, to the internal organisation of the household. The senior-most married woman had authority, which derived from the age and kinship hierarchy. She was in charge of the common fund, she paid servants, gave gifts, carried out charitable obligations. Young married women had authority only if there were no older married women in the household. Ghor was women?s arena and, generally speaking, men were absent here.
Families centring around jointly-held property subscribed to distinct ideologies of redistribution of financial resources. Both land and money income, from whatever source, was vested in the kinship group as property-in-common. Members were entitled to funds on the basis of their personal needs but this did not mean equal access, or equal rights. Women held inferior rights to landed property. Hindu widows were expected to eat little and only vegetarian food, to have few items of clothing. Claims to family and household resources were determined not only by considerations of gender, but also by the kinship status of its member.
In capitalist economies, Standing says, the wage is associated with an ideology of personal appropriation. It ?belongs? to the wage earner. He has the ?right? to use his earnings for himself; dispensing it to ?his? dependants?his wife and children?is something personal. Occupational achievement is individual. The ideology of the wage emphasises ?private accumulation, personal achievement and personal ownership? through ?individuating mechanisms? like banking, savings, and insurance policies. The introduction of the wage, and its accompanying ideologies of personal belonging and appropriation, she writes, created deep divisions and conflicts over ?earners? and ?non-earners?, ?productive? and ?non-productive? members. Degrees of dependency emerged within the wider household collectivity: male non-earners became defined as ?idle?, a burden to their earning relatives, while the conjugal tie increasingly moved centre-stage and began to pre-empt or challenge the claims of other family members to household resources.
Two official documents express the colonial government?s discursive and regulatory concern with the nature of the family. The first faults women for the demise of the joint family:
Devoted to their husband?s interest, the wives are jealous of their earnings being used by others, particularly by those who do not contribute to the family income. More petty feelings, less disinterested motives, such as the mutual jealousy of the brothers? wives, the quarrels of their children, etc also contribute to the breaking up of the family. (Government of India 1913, Census of India 1911, vol V, part 1, pp 50-1).
The second acknowledges ruptures in the principle of non-differentiation between family members on the basis of their ?earning capacity?. Standing says it also reveals the extent to which ?narrowing definitions of dependency? were coming into effect:
Many correspondents commented on the fact that the presence of a widow in a family was always welcome because she would cheerfully undertake the drudgery of the family whilst the extreme self-denial expected of a Hindu widow makes her support very little of a burden. But where she is unprovided for and has children there are bound to be heartburnings on account of the differences in the treatment which her children and those of her husband?s relatives receive. (Government of India 1933, Census of India 1931, vol V, part 1, p 402).
That a man should feel ?less responsible? for his deceased brother?s widow than his own wife, or a woman should consider her sister-in-law?s children as ?less deserving? than her own, are not, Standing argues, ?natural?, or ?inevitable?. On the contrary, they are the result of complex social and historical processes. These processes simultaneously laid a new emphasis on the role of wife as ?housewife and manager? of the allowance given to her by her husband, one that was framed by newly-forming ideas about women as being nothing more than mere housewives. Grouped together with ideas about women as ?consumer and conveyor? of new values and attitudes, these were ?essential? to the ?reproduction of the new middle class?.
Similar processes were at work among Bengali Muslims, albeit somewhat later. I realised this both during and after conducting field-work based research (shelved) in the early 1990s. It was something of a shock because I had been brought up to believe that Muslim notions of property and inheritance were vastly different to that of Hindus. In ?ours? property was individually owned and divisible, while in ?theirs? it was jointly held. This was reinforced by my own childhood experiences, based as it was on nuclear family living. I was born in the mid-fifties, my father was a government employee in what was then West Pakistan, and I grew up far away from uncles, aunts, cousins and extended kin, except for a brief three-year period that was caused, in officialese jargon, by my father?s ?transfer? to East Pakistan, in the early 60s. But I must not be too harsh on myself. My life in independent Bangladesh from 1972 onwards, and knowledge about Bangladesh society and culture that I gained later?through studying at the university, conducting research, being part of intellectual/activist circles?had led me to believe that the pooling of family income was a mere ?cultural? practice (for instance, similar to marriage rituals like gaye holud), that it was optional, since we were, after all, governed by Muslim laws. This was, and still is a commonsensical assumption in learned circles and, I contend, is a result of not seriously engaging with the nature of colonial rule, and the manner in which colonialism, to paraphrase Talal Asad, has destroyed old options, and constructed new ones, and set into motion historical trends that are ?irreversible?. More recent research persuasively argues that in the interests of controlling and regulating the lives of its subjects, the British colonial state had codified ?the laws of the Koran? for Muslims, and the laws of the Brahmanic ?Shasters? for the Hindus. It was the colonial state?s application of Muslim law through its new system of courts that enabled Muslims to freely decide, or compelled them to order their affairs, in accordance with the principles of Muslim family law.
My fieldwork based research on the Bengali Muslim middle class had gathered family and household data of both the present and 2-3 preceding generations. I had also read autobiographies and autobiographical essays written by first, second, and third generation middle-class men and women: Tamizuddin Khan (1889-1963), Principal Ibrahim Khan (1894-1978), Abul Hossain (1897-1938), Kazi Motahar Hossain (1897-1981), Abul Mansur Ahmad (1898-1979), Abul Fazal (1903-1983), Dewan Mohammod Azraf (1908-1999), Abu Jafor Shamsuddin (1911-1988), Syeda Monowara Khatun (1909-1981), Sufia Kamal (1911-1999), Kamruddin Ahmed (1912-1982), Akhtar Imam (b 1917), Jobeda Khanam (1920-1990), Umratul Fazl (1921-2005), Zobaida Mirza (1923-1993), MR Akhtar Mukul (1929-2004), Anisuzzaman (b 1937), and that of many others. My own fieldwork data, the autobiographical accounts, and also the critical scholarship that I cite above, have convinced me that before British colonial rule, jointness was family, that this was equally true for both Hindus and Muslims. Its historical ?traces? are to be found in the autobiographical writings. In these, while presenting and interpreting their life experiences, some of the men and women speak from a sense of bewilderment and loss at rapidly-dissolving priorities, while others focus on a newly-emerging set of personal and familial commitments, suitable and appropriate to the demands of a new social order. In the novels of writers like Mohammad Najibar Rahman (1860-1923) and Kazi Emdadul Haq (1882-1926) one comes across fictionalised accounts, often justificatory, of the social changes that were rapidly becoming inevitable.
My fieldwork data and the autobiographical writings I cite above, reveal something else. The growth of the wage economy had not only made kinship dependencies among Bengalis problematic, as Standing argues, but that in the case of the emerging Bengali Muslim middle class, it was accompanied by decisive changes in the form of marriage. The previous ?system? of marriage included monogamy, serial monogamy and polygamy. It was marked by flexibility (I do not use this word in any value-loaded sense). The new system, one that grew out of social upheavals accompanying middle-class formation, was strictly monogamous, it idealised marriage as involving ?commitment for life?. This was essential to the middle class? collective sense of self, that of being civilised, and of being a civilising force in Muslim society.

Colonial ?traces?: a civilised marriage as crucial to class identity

I have argued in an article published elsewhere (The Journal of Social Studies, 1999) that colonial representations of the status of Muslim women had a determining character in the imaginings of female emancipation. Colonial narratives essentialised ?Muslim?-ness; simultaneously, it ascribed Muslim women?s poor and miserable condition as being a consequence of ?seclusion?, and ?polygamy?. Both were regarded as archaic and barbaric, as being incongruent with modernity. Bengali Muslim intellectual forerunners largely accepted British characterisations of purdah and polygamy as essentially Muslim, that is, specific and universal to Muslims. Women?s freedom and emancipation was primarily imagined as doing away with seclusion and polygamy. These discourses constituted middle-class identity?its subjective and collective sense of self?which distanced its members from the uncivilised (o-shobbho), the ignorant, the large masses of poor, whose marriage practices in emerging middle-class discourse became characterised as kono thik-thikana nai, kokhono ere dhore, kokhono tare ccharey (?their marriages lack substance, living with this one here, casting off that one there?).
Gradually, marriage became binding and obligatory in new ways. It came to signify men?s worth?in their individual capacity, as a husband?as economic actors. New social concepts emerged, a husband was defined as one who had the ability to ?raise? a wife (bou palar khomota). This helped to infantilise women as wives, it lent credence to the idea that housework was not laborious, that a woman was a ?mere? housewife. The new wife was re-defined as a moral person, her task was to re-construct marriage, and the home, as a sexually sacrosanct space. Marrying-for-life was linked to notions of female sovereignty and freedom. Nowsher Ali Khan Yusufzai?s phrase (1890), although (mis-)directed at marriage practices among the Muslim aristocracy of his time, captures this beautifully: ?two lionesses cannot live in the same forest? (ek oronne dui shinghinir baash kokhonoi shombhobonio noy). Marriage no longer meant belonging to a wider collectivity, instead, it was re-defined as being an exclusive conjugal bond. This was reflected in changed modes of referring to one?s wife, instead of apnader bou, ?your daughter-in-law?, to ?my wife?, amar bou. Corresponding changes were to emerge in women?s choice of words: her husband was no longer ?your son-in-law?, apnader jamai but amar husband. Children too came to belong to their parents, amar cchele, amar meye. Earlier practices of addressing one?s wife, as Laila?r ma, or Abuler baap, have become the language of poor, uneducated people, people not conscious of their worth as individual persons. As a marker of civilisational status, it has become uncivilised, if not loathful, for modern Bengali Muslim women to voice the opinion that a co-wife means a co-sharer in domestic work. (Except, of course, as a joke). These new meanings of marriage coalesced with other ideas?education, science and rationality?and became central to class identity. They contributed to feelings of moral superiority, to the notion that providing leadership, social, political and intellectual, was a natural right of the educated classes.
I now come to the present. A general point that I would like to raise is that, progressivists, secularists, developmentalists, those belonging to the women?s movement, and also, members of the left?mostly, overlapping schools or ghoranas of thought?uncritically accept middle-class practices and ideas of marriage as being emancipatory for women, as a mark of progressiveness, as superior (?Class struggle is a struggle over morals.? Surely the words of the historian EP Thompson, famed for his ?history from below? approach? But I seem to have misplaced the reference). Uncritical acceptance on the part of the women?s movement in Bangladesh is understandable?although not acceptable, as most organisations claim to represent ?all? women?since it largely subscribes to, what Meghna Guhathakurta has described as a ?development[alist] outlook on the women?s issue?, one that she is quick to point out, is ?a-historical? (2003). This raises several problems, but let me say at the outset that what I refer to as ?the? women?s movement in the singular, is actually heterogeneous, comprising various organisations and groups with different aims and objectives, and different histories of action. However, notwithstanding these differences, I still think that the broad outlines of my critique are valid.
First, by not examining the class-ed basis of monogamous marriage, the movement is unable to conceptually deal with the issue of female subjection within middle-class marriages. To express it somewhat differently, it is ill-prepared to conceptualise modern forms of women?s subjection, since the unquestioned assumption is that modernity per se is a historical condition that emancipates women, or moves them forward, closer to emancipation. Unlike the ?backward? essence that characterises the condition of women, particularly, in Muslim societies.
Second, by not examining the class-ed basis of monogamous marriage, it is able to operate on the notion of a ?universal? (national) female experience. What is specific to class gets generalised across all classes: monogamous marriage is in all women?s interest, and equally so. It ensures security for all women, and equally so. Subaltern marriages, in my eyes (I say this tentatively, in the absence of serious research), are flexible, they combine monogamy, serial monogamy, and polygamy. Of course, processes of impoverishment, eviction from rural land, uprootment, severe unemployment and the inability to provide for oneself and one?s family members hit both poor men and women. And, of course, there is an undeniable gender dimension: wives, who have even lesser claims to social resources than their husbands, are often deserted and left to fend for themselves and their children. However, despite contemporary social processes of impoverishment and pauperisation (?the beggary of labour?) and their impact on marital stability, I still think that subaltern marriage practices and ideas are distinct and thereby, analytically separable, from that which exists among the privileged classes. To reinforce what I have just said, I think that ideas and practices of marriage in Bangladesh, and its history, is fundamentally different in class-ed senses. The women?s movements? unexamined rooted-ness in, and loyalty to class ideals, accomplishes several things. It perpetuates the idea that subaltern marital practices are a ?social evil?, in need of correction. By isolating marriage from its class-ed history, and from class-ed realities, it also, in effect, puts the cart before the horse. After all, under capitalism it is not the practice of a strictly monogamous marriage that will ensure poor women a home and three meals a day! The movement?s emphasis on legal reforms helps to ?obliterate? material differences, and the unequal strength to counter dominant ideologies, that exist between women. Through this process, the issue of equitable distribution of social resources, and the fight for social justice gets sidelined.
Third, the movement?s inability to historicise marriage by placing it within the broader context of love, sexuality and family formation means that, by default, it takes up a socially prescriptive and prohibitionary role. That hijras were a part of traditional social life, visitors at each childbirth in the locality, has been relegated to the margins of middle-class understandings of sexual differences. I remember asking a young man who belonged to one of the small campus-based left groups, ?What will happen to transgender people after the revolution?? His answer was immediate, ?They will be surgically operated on.? That all hijras might not want it was not at issue. (Let alone the fact, that small, but increasing numbers of men and women, in other words, those not born as hijras?are willingly undergoing sex change operations, mostly in Western countries, but also in neighbouring India, and that this bespeaks of a social phenomenon that should compel us to re-think our ideas). Hijras are an abnormality, in need of correction. I have come across similar ideas among women belonging to the movement, ideas that are based on compulsory heterosexuality, but un-acknowledged as such.

Other marriage histories: at the margins

I now turn to ?other? histories of marriage, in particular, to a specific practice of marriage developed and practised by Naxalites, the pro-Maoist trend of the communist movement in Bangladesh, committed to capturing state power through armed struggle. Nesar Ahmed has performed an invaluable task by interviewing women who were active in underground Naxal politics in the 1970s. The tape-recorded and transcribed interviews have been published in Jibon Joyer Juddho (2006).
In 1970, the East Pakistan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) presented itself as the East Pakistani counterpart of West Bengal?s Naxalites. After committing itself to a programme of organising guerrilla action against class enemies in the countryside, the party went underground. Purbo Bangla Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) was also committed to a similar programme of armed struggle; in popular usage, its members were known as ?Nokshali?. Many of the leaders, and a large number of its followers, both men and women, came from the middling ranks of rural and mofussil society.
The interviewed women (they include both Muslims and Hindus) speak of their family background, why, as women, they were particularly drawn to ?the? party, what they read and discussed in study circles, and of other experiences too: leaving village homes to join the class struggle, the nature of ?their? party activities, participating in armed action, getting married and giving birth to children, giving them away to be raised by poor families supportive of the party?s ideals and programmes, leading ?hidden? lives in party shelters, and the hardship of living on meagre amounts doled out by the party to its members. They also speak of familial, marital and employed life after the party renounced its programme of armed struggle in 1979, in their words, after they returned to ?social life?. Several of the women interviewed were party members whose husbands had gone underground while they struggled to earn a living, run a household and raise children.
Nokshal marriages too, were strictly monogamous, but in other aspects, they differed significantly from dominant Bengali Muslim middle-class practices. I read and re-read the interviews, motivated by my desire to gain an understanding of the politics of marriage in Bangladesh.
This is what I glean and put together from the interviews: the ceremony itself was simple. Several party members would be present. The marriage document was a written piece of paper drafted by party office-holders (women referred to it as ?the form?), the names of the two members to be married were written down. Party members, including the couple who were to be married, would sit and discuss party ideals. At the end of the discussion, they would vow to remain committed to these ideals, even after marriage. Marriages (bie. In Bangla, no distinction is made between a ?wedding?, the ceremony, and ?marriage?, a social relationship) were generally held in ?shelters?, i.e. village homes of local party sympathisers instead of being held in the bride?s home, as is the general custom among Bengali Muslims and Hindus, where her father and senior kinsmen give her away to the groom and his family. After exchanging flower garlands, they would shake hands and sign on the party form. The couple were then pronounced married.
Generally, a meal followed. Aruna Chowdhury, who was a matriculate when she joined the party says, ?We ate gur (molasses, brown sugar) and bread, that?s all we had, bas, that?s it.? She adds, ?My wedding was an ideal one. I was wearing an old sari, torn in places.? Dipti, a fulltime worker and a cell member, got married slightly better-off than Aruna. ?Comrade Wajed?s wife was present, as my friend. She went and bought me a sari, a petticoat, a blouse, oh, it was just a simple cotton sari, and a bar of soap.? But some of the meals were not as austere. As Aruna recalls, ?Some marriages were ?gorgeous? affairs, cows and lambs were slaughtered. The village people arranged everything, at least that?s what they said. Well, I said to myself, obviously people don?t love us as much, we are not big leaders.? Reflecting on these tangible differences, she says, it?s like the ghost stories you hear as a child. You grow up and read about science, about science fiction, and you know it?s not true. But still, when you return home at midnight, just beneath the mango tree, you feel scared. That?s what marriage is like. Us Bengalis, we start dreaming about getting married right from childhood. Materialism helped me to get rid of these ideas.? She adds, ?I?m not angry about those gorgeous marriages. They did take place, that?s why I bring it up.?
Naxal marriage deviated from earlier traditions which insisted that revolutionaries should not get married, a heritage shared by the communist parties of undivided India. Earlier, said Aruna, the Party had been ?rigid? on matters of love and marriage. ?But when we entered the Party we discovered that political marriages were taking place. Party workers were marrying other Party workers.? Ismat ara Rita, a 17 year-old matriculate who went underground to escape her father?s pressure to marry, to prevent her from entering revolutionary politics says, marrying within the party was particularly necessary for women. ?There was no question of women Party members marrying outsider men. After all, this is a patriarchal society, and men do have some influence on us.? Men too, she maintained, married only women party members, a wife who was not ?attached to politics? would have led to problems at home. But there were exceptions, as other interviews reveal. Aroja Begum?s husband was not a party member. ?He didn?t understand these things. But he never said no to what I did.?
Party-based marriages underwent a strict vetting procedure, casting party leadership in the role of ?guardians?. Dipti recounts her experience: ?Comrade Zakir Hossain Hobi was in charge of the district committee. He asked me one day, he said, if you don?t have any objection then I will forward a proposal to the Party.? Dipti, who had faced unwarranted proposals from other party comrades, to the extent of suffering a near-mental breakdown (?I had come to do politics?), had finally decided to get married. She says: ?I agreed. After that, the district-level Party said, okay, let?s see. By then I had been assigned to work in Kaliganj. I began working there, and I was told, you will now be tested. When Hobi asked the district committee for their opinion, they said, the time is not ready yet, we will think about it. During this period of testing, I was assigned to Chuadanga, in charge of the Party?s cell, while Hobi worked in Kaliganj. We were asked to not meet each other, nor write any letters. This was the test, they said. This continued for a year. After that, they finally gave their approval. They were convinced that we really liked each other, that it was not a mere infatuation. They said we could get married.?
The Naxal form of marriage was political in other senses as well. The marital union of two people was approved by the party on the condition that their commitment to politics?revolutionary party politics?overrode all other commitments. Further, it did not conform to legal definitions, and side-stepped religious conventions. These ideas seem to underlie a question that Nesar Ahmed asks Rita. ?Conventional marriages are performed by moulobis and moulanas, it lends them sanctity. That?s a common sentiment. But your marriages were different. How did the general public react to it? How did they view it? After all, marriages mean kolma-kabin.? She did not respond to the question on public reaction, but instead spoke of how her party had viewed it. ?The Party?s sentiment was that this kind of marriage was ?better?. It is similar to registered marriages that take place before the kazi because even though the word kobul is not uttered, it is ?written?.? She added, ?This is an advanced-modern era, Party marriages were seen as fore-runners to marriages of the future.? Her words had a ring of history.
With the renunciation of the politics of armed struggle in 1979, the distinctive marriage ?system? developed and practised by the Naxalites was abandoned. Women comrades were asked to return to their families, or to marry and settle down. Thus began, what Nesar Ahmed terms, the ?domestication? and ?house-wifisation? of Naxal women. But not all Naxal women agree with him. ?There was no other option.? The party was organisationally shattered, many of its members were either dead, or imprisoned. As one of them put it: ?The Party?s decision was right. If it had been otherwise, women comrades would either have been killed, or forced into prostitution. The Party?s policy of armed struggle, of annihilation of class enemies meant that…, well, we had created enemies in our own villages.?
I do not wish to pursue the question of whether the party?s decision was right or wrong. Instead, I want to turn to Ismat ara Rita?s words, ?this is an advanced-modern era.? I want to place these in the context of the tradition-modernity framework that frames women?s rights issues in Bangladesh, one that is conceptually unable to deal with the issue of colonial power. I discuss work that does, so that we can know ourselves better, and more critically. In the section after that, I return to Nesar Ahmed?s words, ?Marriages mean kolma-kabin? because I want to delve deeper into the institutional moorings of marriage?into the legal definition, and religious conventions prevalent in Bangladesh?and the ideas through which compliance to legal inequalities is secured. Here, I turn to my own personal history, to an incident which I think can be teased out to unravel processes of subjection that are at work.

Colonial-modernity: processes of Islamisation

The women?s movement in Bangladesh, as I said earlier, is intellectually ill-equipped to deal with the issue of women?s subjection in modernity. Lata Mani, a feminist historian of West Bengal, in a discussion on sati thinks this is tied to our understanding of colonialism. Regardless of how scholars view its impact on India?s transition from feudalism to capitalism, they all agree that ?colonialism held the promise of modernity,? that it gave rise to ?a critical self-examination of indigenous society and culture.? Even the most anti-imperialist amongst us, she says, has been forced to admit that colonial rule had ?positive? consequences for certain aspects of women?s lives, if not in practical terms, then at least in the realm of ideas about ?women?s rights? (1989).
In Bangladesh, intellectual-activists belonging to (overlapping) schools of thought?left, progressivist, secularist and also those in the women?s movement?subscribe to a simplistic and over-generalised account of women?s history. In some accounts, large periods of history are characterised as unchanging in the ?oppression of women? (?thousands of systems of oppression towards women continued in male-dominated societies for thousands of years,? Badruddin Omar, 2003). Pre-colonial Bengal is often characterised as belonging to ?the dark ages of medieval history? (Ayesha Khanam, 1993). These highly emotive accounts of history are inter-woven, they feed into each other, warding off attempts to gain a critical understanding of the nature of colonial rule, more specifically, at the colonial government?s codification of laws (in the case of Muslims, Qur?an and al-Hidaya, whereas in the case of Hindus, specifically Brahmanical interpretations of the Shasters), and its use of legislation as a technique of ruling.
But before turning to that, I will look at pre-colonial society, at the principles of social organisation in rural areas that prescribed marriage, family life and household formation. Talal Asad, in a study of the Punjabi Muslim family, has argued that ?differences in the forms of family organisation? of rural Hindus and Muslims during Sikh rule were ?negligible, or non-existent,? and that Islamic laws (Hanafi) were only followed by Muslim communities in urban centres, characterised by a market or money economy.
Asad writes, in pre-colonial villages of Punjab, rights to landed property were distributed in accordance with definite principles within a precise kin group. It was, in a certain sense, ?owned? by a lineage, but held and worked by the joint family. It was the joint family, as a whole, that comprised the work and consumption unit. The head of the local descent group (equivalent to Bengali notion of goshti) was the undisputed controller: all members together formed a single economic and legal unit. The oldest male member was its head. If relations between sisters-in-law grew strained, a separate hearth might be set up, the wife then would prepare meals for her husband and children separately, but food rations would still be taken from the common stock (the joutho bhandar). However, no changes took place in farm work, and male members continued to till the land together. Marriage was an affair that involved the entire joint families of bride and groom. It did not mean the setting up of a separate hearth, on the contrary, the daughter-in-law was inducted into the joint household. Bride-price (in Bengal, pon) was given by the groom?s family to the bride?s; with its transfer, the wife belonged to the husband?s joint family. A widow, whether chaste or co-habiting with her deceased husband?s brother (debor) or a patrilineal cousin was entitled to life-long maintenance, losing this right only if she were to re-marry outside the descent group.
The colonial state, argues Asad, initiated a ?process of Islamisation? by gradually applying the principles of Islamic law which meant that Muslims now either ?decided, or were compelled by the courts, to order their affairs in accordance with the principles of Muslim family law.? One of the results was that women, as widowed daughters-in-law, lost their customary rights to maintenance by their in-laws.
Michael Anderson in his article, ?Islamic Law and the Colonial Encounter in British India? (1990), draws on more recent theoretical tools that help us to appreciate what happened in the early stages of colonial rule. The colonisers, he says, were perplexed at the multiplicity of local customs and practices, at the many forms of legal authority that existed. In their ?quest to establish a definable and reliable relation between government and the governed,? they found a solution in law, and legal texts. Anglo-Muhammadan jurisprudence was born in the first century of colonial rule. I quote from Anderson:
The Hastings Plan of 1772 established a hierarchy of civil and criminal courts, which were charged with the task of applying indigenous legal norms ?in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste, and other religious usages or institutions?. Indigenous norms comprised ?the laws of the Koran with respect to Muhammadans?, and the laws of the Brahminic ?Shasters? with respect to Hindus. Although the courts followed British models of procedure and adjudication, the plan provided for maulavis and pandits to advise the courts on matters of Islamic and Hindu law, respectively. By the early nineteenth century, the system of courts had been expanded, a new legal profession had been established, and a growing body of statute and court practice extended the influence of the colonial state.
It was through colonisation that we began to lead lives commensurate to the demands of a modern state (more apt would be, what Asad terms elsewhere, the ?modernising? state). The distinguishing feature of a modern state, he says, is that instead of being a dominant segment of society, it becomes ?the dominant mode of organizing its life? through the momentous new categories of ?public? and ?private?. In the modern state, the social conditions of one?s existence, including their relative advantages, are determined within the domain organised as the state. The Law is one of these conditions. And this is why, it is only in the modern state that one comes across ?struggles within and about various legal categories that constitute working-class politics, the politics of gender, the politics of sexuality, and the politics of procreation.? (1992). In the case of India, as Anderson points out, it was through the legal techniques of colonial rule that the category of ?Muslim?, often ?Mohammedan?, acquired ?a new fixity and certainty,? in contrast to previous identities that had been ?syncretic, ambiguous or localised.? Each individual was now linked to ?a state-enforced religious category,? litigants were now ?forced to present themselves as ?Muhammadan? or ?Hindu?,? as courts struggled to accommodate diverse social groups within these two categories. The colonial mode of governance also transformed personal law into a ground for organised political struggle, it helped to mobilise a Muslim identity that was opposed to colonial rule.
And, I add, it was colonisation and its legal technologies that created the conditions for older inequalities to give way to ?specifically? Muslim inequalities, inequalities that became ?state-enforced? in the lives of Muslim women.
Next, I return to Nesar Ahmed?s words??marriages mean kolma-kabin??to examine the institutional and ideological processes that are at work to secure these meanings. In that section, amongst other things, I also look into how diverging trajectories of legal and political development has borne different consequences for women, as the case of Bangladesh and Pakistan post-1971 illustrates. As Asad informs us, the modern state (in our case, a ?modernising? one) encroaches into areas of social life that were previously unregulated. In the case of Pakistan, state encroachment, and thereby its power?in the form of legislation?has brought into effect a particular variant of Islamic interpretation of sexuality and marriage (as enacted in the Hudood Ordinance 1979), to regulate the lives of Muslim women in Pakistan, with the application of ?brute force?.

?Singular? meanings: marriage as kolma-kabin

?Kolma? and ?kabin?, as used by Nesar Ahmed, seem to me to be deeply embedded in two different binary oppositions. The notion of a ?kolma marriage? indirectly draws on progressivist debates on religion vs. secularism. A ?kabin marriage? (short for kabinnama) signals government prescribed forms for registering marriages as opposed to the marriage agreement drawn up in Naxal marriages, one drawn up by party officials, that the women had referred to as ?the form?. The kabinnama can be looked at as an instrument of marriage; a part of the administrative and bureaucratic procedure which enforces religious belonging, and corresponding practices, among Muslims in Bangladesh.
Let me add a few more words about the kolma aspect of a marriage: Since marriage in Islam is a purely civil contract, and no specific religious rites are necessary for the contraction of a valid marriage, the verses that the moulobi, or kazi (Marriage Registrar), or any man well-versed in religious norms and practices, chooses to recite from the Qur?an are left to his discretion (usually Fatiha and Durud). Now, on to the kabinnama (variously referred to as the ?marriage document?, or the ?marriage contract?). Generally speaking, it means the Marriage Registration Form prescribed under The Muslim Marriages and Divorces (Registration) Act 1974, which provides for the licensing of nikah (marriage) registrars. Registering the marriage can either take place on the occasion of marriage itself, or the married couple, accompanied by their family members, can later go to the Kazi Office to get it registered. The kazi?s task is to maintain the registers of marriages and divorces, and provide an attested copy of the entry to the parties. An earlier act, the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961 had made registration mandatory; in case of violation, the Marriage Registrar could be liable to punishment through a prison sentence and/or a fine.
Failure to register, however, does not invalidate the marriage. As a High Court judgement states, ?registration is not essential in order to prove the validity of the marriage, and nor is a written kabinnama [essential], if the marriage is otherwise valid? (Bangladesh High Court, March 3, 1998). ?Otherwise valid? would imply that there should be an offer and an acceptance of marriage, the document should be signed by both parties to the marriage in the presence of two witnesses, the groom should not be less than 21 years, and the bride should not be less than 18 years.
Registration may not be essential to prove the validity of a marriage but in cases of dispute, non-registration can, and does, create a host of problems since women have no ?proof? of marriage, essential to asserting their lesser rights within marriage, and to divorce, guardianship, custody of children and inheritance. Hence, women?s organisations and/or NGOs which provide legal support to increasing numbers of women, distraught at either being deserted by their husbands, or at his having taken on a second wife, or not providing maintenance within marriage, etc have demanded, in the interest of ensuring further protection of women?s rights within marriage, that the system of registration be strengthened, that it be made compulsory for all citizens. Its legislation is an important part of the Uniform Family Code (UFC), drafted by the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, the largest women?s organisation, with the assistance of Ain O Shalish Kendra, which provides legal help, dispute resolution service, and counselling to women in need. The UFC is aimed at protecting the rights of Bangladeshi women of all religions?in matters related to marriage, divorce, custody, alimony, and the inheritance of property?and is said to ?fully comply with the provisions of CEDAW? (UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The passage of the UFC has been twice stalemated, once in 2005, when the Law Commission appointed by the government to review the proposal stated that Muslim laws are based on ?the Qur?an as a revealed Book,? that its acceptance would lead to the Muslims of Bangladesh rising ?in revolt as one man [sic].? And again this year, when a section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties protested against the Women?s Development Policy (of which UFC is a part), on the grounds that the proposed reforms ?violate the Sharia law on inheritance.?
Generally speaking, marriage registration is on the rise. It is now a norm among the urban middle class. It also seems to be rising in rural areas, as a recent study of six villages reports: the marriages of eighty per cent of women below 25 years of age were registered, in contrast to only forty-two per cent registration of older marriages, women aged 45 and more. (Lisa M Bates, Farzana Islam et al, 2004).
But the administrative apparatuses of modernising states are not as efficiently regulatory as are those of older Western states, susceptible as the former are to corruption, to the misuse of public power for private gain. In Bangladesh, instances do exist of Marriage Registrars leaving a couple of pages blank in their register books, only to sell later at a ?high price?, to someone in urgent need of a ?backdated? marriage. As happened in the case of ex-President HM Ershad. Bidisha, his later wife, now-divorced, writes in her autobiography of how a Keraniganj kazi had been able to rustle up such a blank page since Ershad had been concerned to ?prove? to the nation at large that their son, was born in, and not out of wedlock. Ershad, she adds, had constantly grumbled about the exorbitant amount that the blank page had cost (2008).
?Marriages mean kolma-kabin,? and I return to these words of Nesar Ahmed now. Naxal marriages were regulated and controlled by the party, they were shaped by underground living and revolutionary ideals, but not, in contrast to dominant practices of marriage, enforced through administrative and bureaucratic procedures of the state. Marrying, for Naxal women, I contend on the basis of their oral life histories, was a political act. What does marriage mean for the middle class in general, and more particularly for its self-consciously thinking sections? I explore this question drawing on my own personal history, and on critical theoretical literature that I have discussed above. I hasten to add, my ideas are provisional.
Bengali Muslim middle-class marriage, to draw on what I had said earlier, cannot be separated from its class history. Both consciously and unconsciously, members of this class draw on means of ?othering? to mark their own practices as distinct: a polygamous marriage is its ?other? (viewed as essentially Muslim), the flexibility inherent in subaltern practices is its ?other? (kono thik-thikana nai). Now the interesting thing is that although polygamy is legally permissible (albeit subject to restrictions under MFLO 1961), it is not so for the middle class, either in terms of ideology or as a normal practice. Polygamy and other inequalities towards women that are a feature of Muslim Personal Laws in Bangladesh are anathema to the self-consciously thinking sections of society. This, I think, is partly expressed in the struggle for the UFC, which proposes to ban polygamy, declare it illegal, and a punishable offence (a polygamous marriage will not be registered). It also finds expression, I think, in the slogan that emerged in protest against the constitutional amendment of the Ershad government that made Islam Bangladesh?s state religion (1988): ?jar dhormo tar kacche, rashtrer ki bolar acche?? (to each his/her own religion, why should the state dictate?). Although the sections that had united under this slogan at processions and rallies had been small, the underlying notions of freedom and privacy that it upholds has a much broader appeal among large sections of the middle class. I now turn to my personal history, but before doing that let me brush up my question further, the one that I seek answers to: how is compliance secured to unequal laws among the self-consciously thinking sections of society?
In 1988, Shahidul Alam and I decided to share our lives, but I could not reconcile myself to getting married under a set of laws that discriminated against me as a woman. It was the inequality in the marriage laws?divorce, rights over children, inheritance, the issue of den mohor, ?why should I take mohorana from Shahidul?? ?why could he have four wives and I only one husband at a time???that angered me. Shahidul too, was troubled at the prospect of being invested with greater powers (over me) through becoming my husband, powers that were unequal and legally enforceable. I debated options. I remember that a close friend, a feminist herself, advised me to go abroad and get married. I refused. ?But that is out of the question, we are Bangladeshis.? I remember her reply, ?But why are you so worried anyway? I am sure Shahidul will not exercise his powers as a husband. I am sure you have nothing to worry about, he is not that kind of a man.? I remember that I was silent, that I did not retort, ?But how do I know? How can I know? And if I do find out, won?t it be too late?? I have no doubt that her advice was offered in all sincerity, as one expects from close friends. A simple answer would be to brush it off as an ?elitist? response, but I want to probe deeper. (How Shahidul and I eventually resolved ?our? dilemma is another story. I will not enter into that. No, not now).
Over these last twenty years, as I have observed intelligent and thinking people, whether belonging to the left or the women?s movement, and/or progressivists and secularists, get married under an undeniably unequal set of laws, I have mulled over her words, and wondered: how is a willing compliance to the laws of marriage ensured, particularly among a class of people who consider their ?others? to be religious and superstitious, leading un-progressive lives, lives that are ?dictated? by social norms, forever lagging behind in the task of re-constructing themselves as modern citizens. How is it linked to property rights? Is it reducible to property rights? Or, do we need to pose a different set of questions? I insist that I raise these questions motivated by no other desire but to understand the politics of marriage.
In his more recent writings, Asad has spoken of how ?beliefs? have become detached from social practices, of how they have become ?a purely inner, private state of mind, a particular state of mind detached from everyday practices.? (1996). He has also spoken of secular modern ideas of freedom, of ?the illusion of an uncoerced interiority? (2007). Is that where I should be seeking answers to my question? Is marriage now purely personal and private? Is that why struggles over marriage?for the liberal sections of society?take place in the arena of legal reforms (lobbying, applying pressure politics), and not in a contesting terrain of social practice, of politics?
In another sense, middle-class marital practices (strict monogamy is proposed for all, irrespective of religious differences, in the UFO) can be looked at as being similar to Naxal imaginings of its own practices, of being ?fore-runners to marriages of the future? (Ismat ara Rita?s words). Of course, I must add the caveat that progressivist approaches call on a greater extension of the modernising state?s regulative powers (but then, communist states are no different), aided by international conventions, to initiate ?legal reforms from above.? It is interesting to note that the collective self-descriptions of both middle class (?civilising force?) and Naxal marital practices (?advanced-modern era?) subscribe to ?singular?, Westernising meanings. But similar Westernising meanings may be ascribed to other marriages ?at the margins.? As a High Court judgement states: ?Nowadays the obnoxious culture of ?living together? has made its inroad into our society and this is slowly spreading its tentacles undermining our social values and the institution of marriage.? (1999). And of course, here, ?our? social values, and ?our? institution of marriage is assumed to be genuinely, culturally authentic, untainted by the obnoxious influences of other cultures.
?Processes of Islamisation? that were instituted in colonial times through legal techniques of ruling can, and have been, further exacerbated by the modernising state?s increasing encroachment into social life. Pakistan is such a case, where the state?s law-enforcing agencies and its judicial system, in combination with social forces, have employed ?brute force? against the nation?s Muslim women, targeting those who are, as often happens, less-privileged. The drafting and passage of the Hudood Ordinance (The Offence of Zina (Enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance, VII of 1979) was accomplished by General Ziaul Huq?s regime, a strong military ally of the US government. Coupled with the Law of Evidence, it was put into practice in a manner that blurred distinctions between ?adultery? and ?rape?. The effects of the application of the Ordinance, as has been repeatedly highlighted by women?s organisations of Pakistan, have been horrendous for women. Norms and boundaries of permissible sexuality and marriage, policed as they were by religious forces, were empowered by particular interpretations of Islamic notions that were legally sanctioned by the state.
In the case of Bangladesh, in the last decade or more, similar attempts to enforce sexual norms and boundaries permissible in Islam have occurred. Conducted by social actors at the village level, these assaults have been led by religious forces, at times, in a vigilante-like fashion. In all recorded cases, either only women were punished, or they were punished more than the men who were involved in the incidents. One such woman was Dulali.
Dulali, age twenty-five, became pregnant during an extramarital relationship with Botu, another resident of her village. On discovering her condition, her family arranged her marriage to another man. Her husband, on confirming his suspicions that she was pregnant, however, divorced her. Dulali?s family then reportedly called upon local elders to hold a shalish in the matter. At the shalish, Dulali was accused of zina and sentenced to be caned 101 times, to be administered seven days after the delivery of her child. No accusation was made against Botu, the man involved. (Sajeda Amin and Sara Hossain, WLUML Publications, 1996).
The authors add, national women?s organisations intervened and the presence of the police on the day Dulali was to be punished, acted as a deterrent. Later, the villagers denied that the incident of shalish and the pronouncement of fatwa had taken place. Although not punished for the alleged sexual improprieties, Dulali was no longer able to live in the village. In recent years, accusations of zina (adultery/fornication), sentencing them to punishment such as stoning, caning, and, in a particularly horrifying case, burning at the stake, has led to the death of three women. These acts of policing, I would like to stress the point, have been carried out by social forces, (thus far) they have been sporadic and intermittent. Further, these acts were not acts based on notions legally sanctioned by the state, since zina, under Bangladeshi law, is not a criminal offence.

The modern state: policing intimate relations

The modern state polices the realm of ?the intimate.? Large expanses of social life in modern industrial societies, whether capitalist or communist, are governed by a minutiae of legislative and administrative rules that define and redefine the daily conditions in which subjects live.
Western and bourgeois conceptions of morality?specific to Western history?are inscribed in the law. Asad provides us with an instance: Western normative ideas about childhood are that ?sexual excitation? is dangerous to it, that sexuality is proper only to ?adults?. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, an Act that was the outcome of a successful moral campaign to control prostitution, raised the legal age of consent for girls to sixteen. It enabled the police to gain greater powers of jurisdiction over poor working women and children. Although ideas about children?s sexuality have changed since the late nineteenth century, contemporary British society is marked with a concern to protect children against sexuality. State apparatuses, its functionaries and various professionals (paediatricians, psychiatrists, social workers, police, lawyers, probation officers) are employed to constantly police relations between children and adults. Consequently, these relations, says Asad, become charged with a sexual significance since they are objects of suspicion.
Colonial legal reforms were ?imposed upon the people from above,? they enacted Western social practices and Western morals. It was only after the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act that child marriage became an object of moral reform in colonial India. Attempts to abolish child marriage were prompted less by what was said, i.e. to protect young girls from being sexually exploited by older men (after all, a man in his fifties can marry an eighteen year old), than to forbid it in cases where both the boy and the girl are similar in age, let?s say, both are twelve years old. Another instance of Western meanings being inscribed in conformity with Western social practices is provided by reforms of Shari?a rules of marriage. A Muslim man?s right to have four wives simultaneously has been restricted (first wife?s permission is required). In other words, reforms have been conducted which restrict the traditional rights of Muslim men, but not, let?s say, enhance the traditional rights of Muslim women. Thus, no legal reform has enabled Muslim women to contract a polyandrous marriage, i.e. have more than one husband simultaneously.
As I write this section on the policing of intimate relations by the modern state, I am reminded of how these policing powers extend to post-independent Bangladesh. My British friend?s Bangladeshi boyfriend had applied for a fianc? visa to go to Britain, to join her. To convince the immigration officials he had to take their personal letters over to the British High Commission in Dhaka, which were carefully scrutinised for indications of ?authentic? love, to determine whether a visa should be issued.
I am also reminded of how legal concepts that are different to Western marriage practices and its own legal history can, and do, encounter institutional arrogance and resistance in the West. For instance, the Muslim marriage contract?kabinnama in Bangladesh, and nikahnama in Pakistan?has been generally treated by the British system (courts, and authorities, such as immigration and pensions) as a ?pre-nuptial agreement?, a concept that is alien to Muslim law. Is a pre-nuptial agreement legally enforceable, can it be the basis for gaining pension benefits? I am led to believe from researches conducted there that this question has not yet been resolved by the British legal system. As a result, Bangladeshi and Pakistani spouses of British Muslims have suffered, and continue to do so. It has also created grounds for litigation between the parties (Recognizing the Unrecognized, WLUML, 2006).

?What is done in reality?

In concluding, I return to Gramsci, to words that he wrote while imprisoned.
Possibility, he said, is not reality: but it is in itself a reality. ?Whether a man [sic] can or cannot do a thing has its importance in evaluating what is done in reality. Possibility means ?freedom.? …the existence of objective conditions, of possibilities or of freedom is not yet enough: it is necessary to ?know? them, and know how to use them. And to want to use them.?
As I said earlier, I have no answers. ?Answers? as such, can only be the outcome of social and political struggles. And, as the Italian Marxist thinker reminds us, the existence of ?objective conditions? is not enough. One has to know of possibilities, one has to want to use them.
But, there is a price to be paid for waging struggles for freedom in the realm of ?the intimate?, for they challenge a hegemonic moral order, one that is universalising in its reach.
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Originally published in The New Age on Monday the 22nd September 2008.

Our Inheritances

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rahnuma ahmed
Different Islamic organizations stage a procession outside the National Mosque protesting against equal inheritance rights of women. Dhaka, Bangladesh. March 14 2008. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews

?NO, I don?t care about the women?s development policy. I mean, I don?t think it should be looked at in isolation,? said Shameem Akhtar, feminist writer, filmmaker, a friend of many years.
She continued, ?There are other questions that need to be raised simultaneously, the caretaker government?s patronisation of Jamaat, of religious forces that are inimical to women, its stand on the issue of 1971 war criminals. I want to know where it stands, not just throwaway statements made by this or that adviser. The policy is part of larger issues, whether the government wants to encourage social forces that enable women. Whether it really wants to build a democratic state and society, and this, of course, is linked to the issue of militarisation. Whether the military and its intelligence agencies will be made accountable to civilian authority. We need to learn from history. If the government suddenly approves the policy, the one announced on March 8, am I expected to dance in delight? Of course not, I won?t. I want to know what the government has up its sleeve.?
Shameem and I were talking about the incidents of March and April this year. The chief adviser had announced the National Women Development Policy 2008 on the eve of International Women?s Day. A section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties protested. Equal rights for women in terms of earned property violates Shariah law on inheritance. A woman should get only half of what her brother gets. Weekly demonstrations were held after Jumma prayers at Baitul Mukarram. Street marches, and calls of tougher action programmes followed; skirmishes with police turned the area in front of the national mosque into a ?battlefield?. Rallies were held in Chittagong. The protests of Hathajari madrassah students turned violent.
The government formed a 20-member committee on March 27, consisting of Islamic scholars. Its task was to ?identify inconsistencies in the policy as per Islamic rules and [to] suggest steps?. The review committee handed in their deliberations on April 17. They recommended that six sections of the policy be deleted, including the one that suggested the implementation of CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. A further fifteen should be amended. Any decision regarding women?s rights, said the committee, should be taken ?in the light of the Qur?an and Sunnah?.
AF Hassan Ariff, law, justice and parliamentary affairs adviser, hoped that the recommendations would remove the ?language or interpretation gap? created around the women development policy.

Colonial history and the imperial present

I had been under the illusion that Muslim laws were applicable to Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, since the beginning of Muslim rule. On reading Talal Asad?s thesis ? changes in the Muslim family structure caused by British rule ? I realised that things were not so simple. I remember ruefully thinking how little I know. Before British rule, wrote Asad, most Muslims and non-Muslims led largely similar lives. Muslim law was applied only in the urban centres, not in rural communities. This was not due to a lack of knowledge, but because social organisation, the nature of property rights and forms of livelihood, was the same for Hindus and Muslims. Being a Muslim meant following Muslim rites of marriage and burial, maybe having a Muslim name. Nothing more. State intervention in village life was largely centred around the assessment and collection of land revenue, or military recruitment.
Later, I came across Michael Anderson, and later still, Lata Mani?s writings. Reading Anderson made things clearer. One of the major problems of colonial control was to obtain simple, reliable and reasonably accurate understanding of native social life. The colonisers were perplexed at the multiplicity of local customs and practices, at the many forms of legal authority that existed. They found a solution in law, and legal texts. Anglo-Mohammedan jurisprudence was born in the first century of colonial rule. This meant legal assumptions, law officers, translations, textbooks, codifications, and new legal technologies. It also meant mistakes. The most celebrated one was the treatment of classical Islamic texts as binding legal codes. In other words, the Qur?an was mistakenly assumed to be a code of law. The colonisers thought that the social lives of Muslims followed what was written in the Qur?an. This was in contrast to the pre-British period, where legal texts were never directly applied. Instead, a qazi, someone who had proper authority, was morally sound and knowledgeable of local arrangements, would translate legal precepts into practice. Anderson assures us that colonial judicial administration gradually became more sophisticated, but still, a basic prejudice, he insists, remained. Texts were considered more important than interpretive practices.
Lata Mani?s conclusions are similar. Colonial discourse, she says, gave greater importance to brahmanic scriptures (Srutis, Smritis or Dharmashastras), not to custom or usage. It made a sharp distinction between the ?Hindu? and the ?Islamic?, which were considered mutually exclusive and autonomous heritages. The creation of essentially Hindu, and essentially Muslim, religious identities was accompanied by justifications: colonial interventions are civilising, they rescue native women from barbaric traditions.
These myths are kept alive.
In late 2001, Laura Bush denounced the ?severe repression? of the women of Afghanistan. Life under the Taliban, said the first First Lady to deliver an entire presidential radio address, was ?hard and repressive?. Small displays of joy ? children flying kites, mothers laughing aloud ? were outlawed. Her speech, writes Laura Flanders, helped to put a feminist glow on some of the most brutal bombing of the 2001 campaign.

One million signature campaign in Iran

On June 12, 2005, women organised a sit-in in front of the University of Tehran, five days before the first round of the presidential elections, later won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two thousand Iranian women took part in the sit-in, which was unauthorised. The declaration that was prepared in advance was signed by ninety women?s groups. It was the largest independent women?s coalition since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Mahsa Shekarloo, one of the organisers, says the coalition includes both the secular, and the pious. It includes religious women who distance themselves from the term feminist, ?Islamic feminists? who argue that women?s rights can be provided from within the framework of Muslim law, ?Muslim feminists? who come from religious backgrounds but do not use Islamic law as their point of reference, and feminists who would rather not see the republic in Iran be an ?Islamic? one.
The women had gathered to protest the constitution?s denial of women?s rights. They sang protest songs, and repeatedly chanted, “Equal rights is our minimum demand.”
More than two years later, on August 27, 2006, the Iranian women?s movement launched a two-year face-to-face campaign for the collection of one million signatures in support of a petition. It is addressed to the Iranian parliament and asks for the revision and reform of laws that discriminate against women, including equal inheritance rights. At present, if a husband dies without other heirs, the state takes half the couple?s estate. But if the wife dies, husbands are entitled to the entire estate. If the couple has children, the wife receives one eighth of the husband?s estate, whereas a widowed husband with children takes one quarter. Other legal reforms that women are petitioning for includes equal rights for women in marriage, equal rights to divorce for women, end to polygamy and temporary marriage, and the right for women to pass on nationality to their children.
A number of campaigners have been threatened, summoned to court, charged with security crimes, and sentenced to prison. Nahid Jafari received 6 months, and 10 lashes suspended sentence. Zeinab Payghambarzadeh, arrested in March 2007 along with 32 other women?s rights activists who had peacefully gathered outside the Revolutionary Courts, received a suspended sentence of two years. Like many others, Payghambarzadeh was charged with and tried on security charges. These included: propaganda against the state, gathering and colluding with the intent to disrupt national security.
As I searched the internet for more information on the campaign, I came across this comment left by a blogger, probably after Hilary Clinton?s recent threat to ?obliterate Iran?:

?Iranian women?s rights activists are not a threat to Iranian national security. On the other hand, many American women?s rights activists are. Among them, Ms Hillary Clinton who… refuses to negotiate with Iran without preconditions. Ms Hillary Clinton and all the ?women?s rights activists? who support her are a threat to Iranian national security… actually, they are a general threat to people all over the Middle East.?

To return to struggles at home, like Shameem, I too think that the National Women? Development Policy cannot be looked at in isolation.
Like her, I too, am not sure what the military-backed caretaker government has up its sleeve.
And, like my struggling sisters in Iran, I too think that equal rights is our minimum demand.
First published in New Age April 28 2008

Justice for Nurjahan

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Photographs Shahidul Alam
Text Rahnuma Ahmed

It was reported in the papers as suicide. On 10 January 1993 Nurjahan, a woman in her twenties from a struggling peasant household from the Maulvi Bazar district of north-east Bangladesh, was found dead from poisoning at her parents’ house in the village of Chattokchara.
Nurjahan Begum, 7th among 9 daughters, had been married five years before the incident. However, her husband abandoned her and she returned home to live with her parents. Later, her parents arranged another marriage for her, but since polyandry is forbidden by Muslim law, it was necessary to discover whether her first marriage had been properly dissolved. Nujahan’s father consulted the village imam (religious leader), who declared that she was free to marry. However, he revoked this later and claimed that the marriage was illegal because the first still stood. A shalish (village council for settling disputes and trying offending villagers) met to judge whether Nurjahan and any of her family members had broken the law. The shalish found Nujahan guilty of fornication, on the grounds that she was still married to her first husband; after debating the punishment, it decided that 101 pebbles should be thrown at Nurjahan and her second husband.
Pebbles were preferred to stones since the intention, reportedly, was to shame the couple rather than hurt or kill them. Nurjahan’s parents were also to be punished; the shalish decreed that they should be beaten with a broom. Nurjahan was made to stand in a hole that was then filled, half burying her, to receive her punishment. As she did so a member of the shalish approached her and castigated her for the shame she had brought on her family. She was not fit to live and should kill herself. Nurjahan was found dead the next day.
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Nurjahan’s father
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Nurjahan’s father: “This is where I found my daughter’s body.”
The affair was reported in a local newspaper. A campaign was launched by women’s groups to demand a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the death. Public outrage and the success of the campaign turned it into a landmark case;
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Accused being taken to Moulvibazar court
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The accused in Moulvibazar court
proceedings were brought against the imam and the members of the shalish only a year after Nurjahan’s death. He and eight others were subsequently found guilty of abetting the suicide and received the maximum possible penalty of seven years’ hard labour. The village shordar (leader) died of illness while in custody.
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The accused in court jail.
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Imam leading prayers in court jail.
Nurjahan’s father believes that his family was made to suffer because of a long-standing enmity between him and the shordar. A female relative of the shordar spoke ill of Nurjahan. “She was a bad woman,” she said. “She would be seen working outside her home.” A rickshaw-puller from Chattokchara came to her defence. “Yes, she worked outside her home. But what other choice did they have?” he argued. “The family is poor.” But he did harbour some doubts. “Why was the wedding held secretly? Why were we not invited?”
Nurjahan’s death has raised many issues for the Bangladeshi women’s movement. Her tragedy has highlighted the manifold forms of women’s subordination within rnarriage, the family and within the community. First, Nurjahan was abandoned by her husband. Then it was the imam who held the knowledge about whether she was free to marry, and he misled her. Finally, it was the members of the shalish, all men, who judged and punished her.
Shalishes have been known to fine and discipline members of the community; at the same time, there are also instances of women disobeying or ignoring and, in some cases, challenging shalish pronouncements. Nujahan’s death has given rise to questions about the sphere of jurisdiction of the shalish, which is a community body with no legal status.
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Wife of one of the accused, waiting outside courtroom.
There are few reminders of Nurjahan herself. Of her belongings, a torn corner of a shari, and a shawl she was wearing when she died, have been put aside. Her few remaining clothes were being worn by women in her family. Her only other belongings, a pot and two pans. were being used by her mother.
The family has no photographs. Her grave, like that of the shordar is a small clearing on a hillock near the village, scarcely recognisable as such. The district commissioner promised that the site will be named “Nurjahan tila”.
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Nurjahan’s sister at her grave.
The government, in turn, announced that a road would soon be built to Chattokchara. However, in all likelihood, this is probably more significant for visiting journalists and officials, than for her family.

I can kill any Muslim

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Year end play: The Nuculier God
Theatre: The World
Set Design: Tony Blair
God: George Bush
Sacrificial Lamb: Saddam Hussein
Slaves: Saudi Royal Family and cohorts
Extras: The United Nations
Theme song: I can kill any Muslim
I can kill any Muslim
Any day I choose
It?s all for the cause of freedom
I can kill any Muslim
Wherever I choose
It is cause we?re a peace lovin? nation
So we egged him on
When he attacked Kuwait
And the trial may have been harried
So we supplied him arms
To gas the Kurds
With him dead, that?s one story buried
Violence in Iraq
Has been on the rise
The US can hardly be blamed
Our interest was oil
And we stuck to our goal
Why must my cronies be named
Saddam?s emergence
As Arab resistance
That wasn?t part of the plan
Had Amnesty and others
Kept quiet when it matters
We?d have quietly gone on to Iran
Asleep I was
When he hanged on the gallows
Well even presidents need to sleep
Oblivious I was
When the planes hit the towers
I had other ?pointments to keep
More Iraqis dead
More ?mericans too
OK they warned it would happen
Why should I listen
When I rule the world
No nation?s too big to flatten
The Saudi Kings
They know their place
At least they?ll know by now
Muslim?s OK
If you tow the line
Out of step, off you go, and how
Tony and me
We keep good company
Dictators know when it matters
Regardless of crimes
And religious inclines
Safe if you listen or its shutters
I can kill any Muslim
Wherever I choose
I choose quite often I know
I can kill any Muslim
Any day I choose
I did it so now they will know
Similar to Rumsfeld’s concern that the Abu Ghraib pictures coming out, and not about the events themselves, the Iraqi government worries about the footage of Saddam being taunted, getting out. The fact that the taunting took place doesn’t appear to be an area of concern. With the US government stifling Al Jazeera, and increasing censorship in mainstream media, citizen journalism appears to be the only way people can get past the PR camouflague.
With all political parties of Bangladesh, as well as most Muslim leaders around the world, choosing to remain silent at the execution of Saddam Hussein, it is left to human rights organizations to remind us, that despite his atrocities, Saddam will be remembered for his defiance. The butcher of the Kurds will go down in history as a victim of flawed justice. The guns are now clearly turned against Iran, but the Saudi rulers, as well as the Egyptians and the Jordanians would do well to ponder, ?Who is next??

Sitting on a man's back

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Three bombs had gone off the day before, and they weren?t comfortable about me walking on my own in the streets of Kabul.

Streets of Kabul

The driver insisted that he gave me a lift. The suggestion that a particular hill not too far away would give me a good view of the city was a good one, and the late evening light was just leaking through the haze. He offered to stay to give me a lift back, but I wanted to be on my own, and writing down that I needed to get back to Choroi Malek Asghar, I wandered off, free at last. Coming down the hill, I wandered through the back streets as I tend to do in cities I am new to. An odd conversation in my broken Urdu helped. As always kids wanted to be photographed, and wherever I went, people offered me cups of tea, or invited me home.

Abdul Karim latched on to me. Insisting that I visit his family, he took me through the narrow winding mud path that led to the tiny doorway that was the entrance to his home. My first task was to take photographs of the family. I had none of the language skills he had, but it didn?t seem to matter. Initially surprised by this stranger the man had brought home, the family quickly turned to more important things, like being hospitable to this mehman (guest).

Marine Engineer

I gesticulated wildly enough to convince them that I needed to catch the light while it was there, and Abdul Karim became my self appointed guide. I could go and take some photographs, but was to come back and have tea. The sun had almost set by the time we were back up the hill. A lone runner ran circles around the flattened top of the hillock. Football fever had set in and the shouting of the kids chasing a ball in the dried up swimming pool in the centre, carried through the evening sky. Four young men came up and made conversation. Two of them had been to Pakistan, and we spoke in Urdu and in English. One was an out of work webmaster, and wanted my email address. They posed, I photographed, and he scribbled his email address so I could email the picture back.

Four young men

The sun had set and Abdul Karim wanted me to keep my end of the bargain. The young men also wanted me to visit their homes. Perhaps they could take me out the following day they suggested. They knew great places for photography. We exchanged mobile phone numbers. Undiplomatically, I suggested that perhaps they too could come to Abdul Karim?s and then I could go with them to their homes. One young man took me aside and explained that they couldn?t go. It would be breaking purdah. I wondered how I had become an exception to the rule.

Abdul Karim, his mother, Bibi Shirin, his wife Ayesha, and their two children Mehjebeen and Sufia lived in this one room flat. There were mattresses on the floor and one television set and one radio. There was a tiny courtyard and metal steps that went up to what looked like a loft. Abdul Karim had worked as an engineer in the marines and was now out of a job. He showed me the children?s book he used, to try and teach himself English. Even with body language and the best of intensions, our communication faltered, but there was no mistaking that I was a welcome guest, and my major challenge that evening was leaving without having dinner with the family. The path outside was by now pitch black, and Abdul Karim walked me through the maze and got me to a cab. We parted with some sadness.

Back at the Aina office where I was staying, the guard with the Kalashnikov welcomed me with a smile. I could see why my colleague Nazrul hadn?t left the compound for the last two months.

Aina guard

Day before yesterday we drove up to Salang, past the bombed out ruins of what had been thriving villages, past the tank carcasses, past vast stretches of barren land, interspersed with lush foliage by the river beds. A young man took great pleasure in racing his steed against our minivan. Two boys flagged me down, insisting that their friendship be recorded in my camera.

Two boys

Back in Kabul, I did walk out on my own, without an escort, and went to the market place. The men in the bakery insisted that I try their freshly baked bread and I briefly sat with new found friends and watched Hindi films in the restaurants.

Bread maker

I spoke to Arif who ran a small studio, and came across the out of work labourers in the market square looking for work. A child and an old man reached into the gutter to pick up a polythene bag they could sell. It was in a worker?s face that I realized why people who are capable of so much hospitality, and are so willing to give, have become objects of terror to the foreigners who live here.

Labourer looking for work

They want the very things that the west has officially championed. Jobs, security, a home for their families and for their land to be free of occupation.

Organisers at the Sarina Hotel claimed it was the first fashion show in 20 years in Afghanistan. There were few tell tale signs of the riots that had taken place here a few days ago. But the white landrovers outside, four sets of security barriers, and the armed US soldiers on guard, marked the distance between central Kabul and the rest of the country.

Fashion BurkhaUS security guards

I remember Tolstoys words ?I sit on a man’s back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.? They seem to have learned little in 120 years.

Choroi Malek Asghar
Kabul
9th July 2006

Battuta Was Here

Tughlaqabad Fort is a ruined fort in Delhi, stretching across 6.5 km, built by Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq, the founder of Tughlaq dynasty, of the Delhi Sultanate of India in 1321, which was later abandoned in 1327. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Tughlaqabad Fort is a ruined fort in Delhi, stretching across 6.5 km, built by Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq, the founder of Tughlaq dynasty, of the Delhi Sultanate of India in 1321, which was later abandoned in 1327. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yusuf al-Lawati al-Tanji Ibn Battuta was more commonly known as Ibne Battuta. Born into a family of Islamic judges in the Moroccan town of Tangier, he developed a thirst for travel after going to Makkah on pilgrimage in 1325 at the age of 21. He travelled extensively, going to Anatolia, East Africa, Central Asia, China, up the Volga, down the Niger, even in the tiny Indian Ocean sultanate of the Maldives. He kept meticulous records of what he saw, what he heard and the people he met. 29 years later, he went back home and wrote about his experiences with the help of Ibn Juzay, a young scholar. He was little known when he died in 1368 as his rihlah was not respected as a scholarly piece of work. Continue reading “Battuta Was Here”

When a Pineapple Rolls

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Getting hold of a copy of the banned magazine was difficult, but most of the people who were subscribers seemed to have read the article. As often before, censorship had given the Time Magazine piece a notoriety, and readership appeal, it might not otherwise have had. The ban was short lived, and soon the article had been forgotten.
The Bangladesh government’s treatment of its journalists however had not been so short lived. The Channel 4 journalists were predictably, released well before Christmas. For Saleem Samad, and Priscilla Raj, the situation was considerably different. Tortured and terrorised, they fell victim to a government in permanent fear of being labelled `fundamentalist’. When a pineapple rolls it is the grass that suffers, and post 9/11, it is the small states that have felt the pangs of `terrrorism control’.
The ban of the 28th July 2003 Newsweek issue was based on fears at home. “Repeated bans on international magazines on account of articles on Islam constitute a flagrant violation of the free flow of information,” Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to Bangladeshi information minister Tariqul Islam.
The RSF statement fails to address the wider issue of control on the media. Arranging photo ops, planting questions at press conferences, removing access to the `pool’ for dissenters, spin, corporate control of the media and the newly found ally of embedded journalists are beyond the reach of a government with limited media management skills. Fisk, Chomsky, Pilger, Monbiot et.al. have made valiant attempts to overcome media control in the west. But neither their work, nor the excellent independent analyses that have circulated on the Net, have managed to create a significant challenge to a well-entrenched propaganda machinery. They have largely preached to the converted.
The handling of the Channel 4 incident and the ban on Newsweek by the Bangladesh government were at best clumsy. Buying out the limited copies that are imported for Dhaka’s elite, could have far better stymied the tiny readership to Time and Newsweek in Bangladesh. An “Out of Stock” label has far less glamour than a “Censored” sticker. The harassment of Samad and Raj, was unnecessary. These were ill paid professionals trying to make a living helping foreign journalists.
A flimsy majority that depends upon a small but significant Islamic party, makes things further complicated for the government of Bangladesh. Dissent within has to be managed along with keeping in the good books of powerful states. The earlier Time Magazine article on Al Qaeda links, was tenuous at best, and the Far Eastern Economic Review article on the rise of fundamentalism was shoddy journalism. But when it is so important to say one has been a good boy, any slander, no matter how unbelievable, has to be vehemently denied. Banning the award winning film Matir Moina, (now showing in cinema halls, with only minor amendments) was a knee jerk reaction, symptomatic of a nervous government trying to juggle with appeasement outside and appeasement within.
This is not the first time the Islamic parties (Islami Oikya Jote, IOJ) have played a key role in parliamentary dynamics. Popularity for major parties far exceeds the following of OIJ, a small and disciplined party. Despite their low votes however, they have had a key presence in all governments since the elections in 1991. “We could withdraw from the alliance if the demands are not met,” Mufti Fazlul Huq Amini has threatened at strategic moments, and the government does not want to rock its own boat.
While we may be thankful that the Bangladesh government is not media savvy, the more crude attempts to suppress free journalism doesn’t bode well for media professionals. We have now had three largely free and fair elections, but the elected representatives of the people have hardly behaved in a democratic manner. Each of the three governments have resorted to violent means to ensure loyalty. More recently, warrants of arrests, issued against five editors and one executive editor on defamation charges, within a period of three weeks, represents a shift in strategy. The minister’s statement “Wherever you will find journalists, break their bones,” was really intended for rookies on the streets, and rural journalists. Going for the big boys is a more recent affair.
So how does a nation, scared of big brother, and managing a rickety coalition handle the media? Letting the journalists speak appears to be the most sensible route out. Surely, not all western journalists will be as incompetent as their Times and FEER counterparts. Maybe they themselves, given a more free hand from corporate control, would exercise the journalistic rigour required of them. Strengthening local media would go a long way in providing alternative analysis to western viewpoints. Murdered journalists don’t write too well.
“Not a hair will be touched” the minister had said in 1994, when feminist writer Taslima Nasreen was facing persecution. Not a hair was touched, and Nasreen, still under threat, was provided safe exit to a land of her choosing. In the same July 1994 issue where the NYT covered this story, there was another news, of a US doctor going to work in a bullet-proof vest and being shot in the head. While one tripped over the word fundamentalism in the Nasreen article, religion or fanaticism was never mentioned in the story of the doctor’s death. When journalists regurgitate a state’s values, control is complete. Thankfully, Bangladesh has not reached such levels of state control, and our journalists have not reached such levels of acquiescence.
A responsible media which operates freely, could do wonders for Bangladesh, for its image and its people. But there is a downside to this. A more informed public would be less easily manipulated, corruption would be more difficult, absolute power would be more readily questioned. Government acquiescence in the face of western interests flies against the rhetoric of demands for free press by western states. Secret deals are more easily made in the absence of meddling journalists.
As for terrorism, we would love to see it end. If only the US would stop manufacturing it.
Shahidul Alam
Fri Aug 15, 2003

The Terrorist

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The word “terrorist” was not in fashion in 1971. The Pakistanis called them “miscreants”. They called themselves the “Mukti Bahini” (freedom fighters). The ordinary Bangladeshi also called them “Muktis”, and therein lay their strength. They had limited resources, and very little training. They survived because the people risked their lives in giving them shelter, food, money, and a place to hide. They waved from the rooftops when the Mukti planes came to attack Dhaka. Trenches had been built, but they were too busy cheering to remember them, for in some ways, they too were Muktis.
Rejoicing in our independence, we quickly forgot those nine months, and treated the people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts much as the Pakistanis had treated us. The same oppression, the same genocide. The Bangladesh government called them “insurgents”. They called themselves the “Shanti Bahini”, (Peace Brigade), as did the other hill people. Shanti Bahini, years later, fought the Bangladeshi military junta, much as the Muktis had fought the Pakistanis, years before. Again the junta retaliated by killing the most vulnerable. It was the military that the people were terrified of. The Muktis and the Shanti Bahini were their saviours.
The main “terror” today is from the guns in the streets, the knee-capping, and the acid throwing. We call the people who do this, “shontrashis”. While the Muktis did strike terror in the hearts of the Pakistani soldiers, the goal was to liberate the people. The Shanti Bahini tried to defend their people from genocide. The shontrashis use terror to subjugate people into paying protection money, to gain control, to remove competition for government contracts, and to satisfy their lust. Protected by the politicians in power, the shontrashi and the junta are the only terrorists we have known.
Terror is not about danger itself, but about the fear of danger. Does the ordinary New Yorker, wake up in the morning expecting to die? The answer is no. Does the ordinary Afghani child lie sleepless at night in fear of the bombs from the sky and the ones lurking in the ground? The answer is a sad yes.
First published in ‘Banglarights” Bangladesh Human Rights Portal

We Would Have Had So Much Fun Shooting Them Down

Paris, Charles De Gaulle airport, 13th October 2001.

The documents were impressive. I had an official letter from Le Directeur des Rencontres, Ministere de la Culture of Mali certifying that a visa was awaiting me in Bamako, a certificate of accreditation and an invitation letter from Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, a well-known personality in France and the director of AFAA/French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Still, I left well in time, knowing there might be problems. I was to do a report for the Prince Claus Foundation in the Netherlands and was on my way to attend the Fourth African
Photography Encounter in Bamako. I also had my yellow fever certificate.
None of what happened at the airport seemed sinister, until you realised what it was leading to. The immigration in Hall B in Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle is BEFORE the check-in desk. The questions started well before then. Where was I going, what did I have with me, why was I going. We went over and over the same things.
Lengthy manoeuvres that kept slowing me down. Still, there was almost an hour to go to departure time when I reached the check in desk, and immigration had already been done. I had a confirmed ticket, so I wasn’t worried. There were plenty of passengers at the check in desk, but when it came to me, the officer calmly said, “Sorry sir, the flight was closed at 10 o’ clock.” No degree of persuasion, or my insistence that I had arrived at the designated place in the airport well in time and that the delay was due to airport officials, seemed to matter. The fact that immigration, security and airlines check-in desks operate independently, made it easier for the check-in desk to deny responsibility. I had one of these cheap tickets, non- refundable, non-endorsable, so I was stuck.
Eventually, when I pointed out to the individuals who had delayed me, they did offer me an alternative booking for the outgoing flight. I could leave on a date FOLLOWING my date of return. No doubt they found it funny. I offered to pay to get onto another flight, but that too couldn’t apparently be done. By then I had worked out what was going on, and asked them to book me on the date they suggested, AFTER my due date of return. This they did. I could see people were still checking-in, and knew, if I could get through the blockade, I would get on the flight.
So I took a flight out to the nearest airport from which I could get a connecting flight. The idea being, that if I went through the check- in procedure elsewhere, where such barricades might not be present, they would no longer have grounds for refusing to let me fly. I left early in the morning from my hotel in Strasbourg, taking the tram and the bus through the fog at night to be the first person to arrive at the check-in desk. The woman at the desk at this small airport was extremely helpful. When I said I wanted to go to Bamako with a connecting flight, she immediately took my ticket and issued me a
luggage tag to Bamako. Then of course she discovered I was not booked on the flight. She made a tentative booking, issued me a `boarding pass’ without a seat number, and put in a note in the computer that I was a passenger bound for Bamako. She even gave my luggage (now tagged for Paris, in place of Bamako) a priority tag, so I would not lose time changing planes.
The luggage arrived early as planned. I rushed across to terminal B, arriving well in time to lay a claim to a seat. People were still checking in. When I approached the officer in charge, she whipped the temporary boarding pass from my hand, tore it to bits, and with a dramatic gesture, let the flimsy flight coupon fall to my hand. “The are no seats” was the terse reply.
This vulgar demonstration of power, reminded me of the article I had been reading on the 13th, the day I was first refused onto the plane, in the Wall Street Journal Europe (October 12-13, 2001, Brussels, page 3). [Lt. Ken, a 28 year old pilot from Washington state was munching on Twizzlers candy at the controls of his jet when the 57- millimeter artillery rounds started exploding below. “I’ve been peppered before, hunting pheasant, but it doesn’t really compare.” He said in Vinson’s ready room. Vinson’s air wing is trying to put all ts pilots through combat flights ? learning the tricks “before the other guys get smart,” as Capt. Wright puts it.
Capt. Wright saw two MIGs parked at the end of the runway. He fired a laser-guided bomb at one; the pilot of another F-14 nearby hit the second. “When they blew, they blew big ? you could see they were full of fuel and ammunition.” But infrared images indicated that the MIG engines were cold, which means that the jets weren’t about to take off ? much to Capt. Wright’s annoyance. “We would have had so much fun shooting them down” he said. As Capt. Wright flew back to the ship, chewing on a peanut-butter sandwich and sharing his post-battle emotions with the flight officer sitting behind, they suddenly had to dispense death to a different enemy: a cockroach had crawled up the airman’s legs. “We got a little bit of hilarity on that,” he said.]
John Wayne might have died, but these Texan-led soldiers could well have been riding into the prairie to `cut em off at the pass’. Five hundred years later, they continue to find new `Indians’ to `dispense death to’.
As for the luxuriant growth of hair on my face. I’ve decided to let it grow longer.
Shahidul Alam
Tue Oct 16, 2001