Mapping female emancipation
autonomous womanhood vs. dasi

By rahnuma ahmed

His comments made me stop in my tracks, I began re-thinking why I had proceeded as I had. I’d suffered nagging doubts about Part II after it had been published. May be, the discussion had been too academic, may be it had turned some readers off.
My brother, the one in London, had e-mailed me, saying among other things, ‘[I look for] what can you tell me that reveals a little more about the relationship [she] had with [her] work…[I read, to discover what], as people say, delivers that one ‘a-ha’ moment.
As I began working on Part II, I remembered something which I’d been told long ago by a faculty member at Sussex university just before her seminar began. ‘Oh, 90% of my presentation will be a preamble.’ ‘Preamble? You mean as in the constitution…?’ ‘Yes,’ she chuckled. ‘It’ll be about the purpose of my study, it’s philosophical underpinnings, how I steer and navigate myself through what has been written thus far on the subject…where I situate my own efforts.’
May be I could re-direct Saif’s comments toward myself, I thought, my relationship with this business of re-reading. It would help recap what I’d written in Part II. It would also help readers see where I situate my own efforts.

Begum Rokeya (1880-1932)

Re-reading Begum Rokeya for me, has involved taking stock of what has been written about her. Of critically thinking through what sense we have made of her life and struggles, her achievements, what we think she was up against and why. It has meant engaging with some thorny issues in feminist theory. And of course, it has inolved returning to Rokeya Rachanavali (1984), again and again.
Why does Rokeya matter? For me, this is the same as asking why does women’s emancipation matter? The answer should be obvious to my readers, I will not belabour the point.
What, however, I have been dissatisfied with for long, is the tradition vs. modern dichotomy which provides the lens through which social transformation is viewed, including the revolutionary changes to the situation of modern Bengali Muslim women which were initiated to a large extent, through Rokeya’s efforts. Both at the material level (establishing the Sakhawat Memorial School), and also, very crucially, in the realm of ideas. In the battle over ideas.
I’m in agreement with Lata Mani who has perspicaciously pointed out that the tradition vs. modern dichotomy colors our understanding of colonialism, that we are reduced to holding the view — with a great deal of stubbornness I might add — that colonial rule had, as she puts it, ‘positive consequences’ for certain aspects of women’s lives. That it had, if nothing else, positively influenced our ideas about women’s rights. I agree with Mani that such a stance leaves unproblematic what she, and other scholars of colonialism as well have insisted, namely, that the notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ originated during the colonial period, in, and through, colonial discourses.
I regard the dichotomy as being part of the complex of colonial ‘other’-ing, which as Edward Said has informed us, helped to define Europe (or, the West): ‘European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.’ Being the ‘other’ means being an ‘object’ of study. Other-ness stamps its objects as ‘being passive, non-participating…above all, non-active, non-autonomous, non-sovereign with regard to oneself.’
The West’s self-definition, produced and re-produced through a vast plethora of material that ranges over a period of several hundred years, has asserted that the West is not only different to, but superior in comparison to all non-European cultures and peoples. This has become a part of the ‘common-sense’ of European society; it has also been accepted by large numbers of non-Europeans — its ‘others’ — who have, as Talal Asad has repeatedly stressed, either been coerced, or persuaded into accepting the West’s right to civilise us. It is an acceptance which, in my opinion, circumscribes our capacity and means to resist, even when the political purposes which Orientalist knowledge is put to, is very violent. Very destructive. Nakedly.
The death toll in Iraq of 650,000, calculated by the British medical journal Lancet’s researchers (2006), was challenged by many. Some scientists alleged that the numbers were ‘overstated’, that the methodology pursued was ‘fundamentally flawed.‘ But it is not irrelevant to point out that before the spurious ‘war on terror’ began, the number of Iraqi deaths resulting from economic sanctions was put at half a million. When the American secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s attention was drawn to this in an interview, ‘half a million children have died. I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima,’ she had acquiesced with the numbers when she replied, ‘the price is worth it.’ (May 12, 1996).
What I mean to say is this, colonialism then, and colonialism now, needs to be taken seriously by our scholars and researchers, by intellectuals and activists. Continuities need to be investigated; colonialism needs to be viewed not only as a system of economic exploitation (favored by Marxists), but in its totality. Which means temporally, spatially. It means its geographies and histories; it means investigating the complex and complicated inter-meshing of race, class and gender relations .
Taking it seriously means conducting honest, dispassionate and scupulous investigations, ones that will help prevent ‘blaming everything on the white man’ allegation, often used to rubbish all intellectual efforts to engage with colonial history, both here and elsewhere.
It might well require dismantling conceptual tools, such as, ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity.’ Letting go of assumptions dear to us, such as, at least it had ‘positive consequences’ for women, for ‘ideas of women’s rights.’ Complicating our notions of history that are straight and unilinear, that are only made possible by applying and re-applying ‘narratives of progressive modernization.’ Of not viewing feminism as an ‘imperialist conspiracy,’ overtones of this can be found in Badruddin Umar’s introduction to Nari Proshno Proshonge (edited, Dhaka: Srabon, 2003). Of critiquing, instead of re-circulating, as does Umar, labels such as ‘ugro naribadi’, which, if translated as ‘extremist feminists,’ dilutes its overtones of being ‘wild.’
It might also require ‘unpacking’ other dichotomies, religion vs. science, for one. Of discarding notions of ‘science’ as an unquestionable universal good, and attempting to learn instead from recent theoretical critiques, such as the one made by Dr Mae-Wan Ho (geneticist, bio-physicist), founder of Institute of Science in Society, a telling name (science ‘in’ society). Science, she says, is the dominant knowledge system of the west, but despite being the intellectual driving force behind globalisation, behind its instruments of destruction and oppression, it is not questioned. It might lead to discarding notions that ‘modern medicine’ is beneficial par excellence as opposed to all other ideas and practices of healing, dubbed ‘unscientific’, if not, ‘quackery’ by corporate-funded medical establishments. Here, and elsewhere.
It might also require unpacking the religion vs. secularism dichotomy, but I will not dwell on that now.
Re-thinking not only Begum Rokeya, but the whole ‘woman question’ on fundamentally new lines becomes even more urgent with the deluge of male sympathy for Hasan Sayeed Shumon, after he recently committed ‘suicide’ in his Dhaka prison hospital. His wife Rumana Manzoor, teacher of international relations, Dhaka University, was repeatedly battered by her husband, the last incident of assault took place in mid-June this year, when he gouged out her eyes and bit off the tip of her nose. As his ‘defence’, Sayeed raised allegations of an extra-marital relationship, a white lie if ever there was one; sympathy for Sayeed after his death has been expressed through a revival of those allegations. Baybhicharini (‘adultress’, with connotations of ‘whore’), scream male responders as they post comments on blogs and online newspaper sites. Seemingly diverse male voices converge in an attempt to shift the terms of public debate, from, as Nasrin Khandoker tells me, ‘violence against women’ (with accompanying emotions of sympathy for the woman), to ‘woman’s wayward sexuality’ (harsh censure for the victim, ‘she deserved what she got’).
In other words, as I had pointed out rather obliquely yesterday, the notion that it is women who are sexual beings, while men are not only sex-neutral, but sexually-neutral — that too, needs to be dismantled. Labelling men nor-poshu (animalistic men), when acts of violence against women have been publicly exposed, on and on, is too convenient, as Anu Muhammad has often reiterated. It is another expression of ‘other’-ing, of refusing to conceptually engage with the relations of control and domination exercised by human beings over animals.
Besides my brother Saif’s comments, I have received others as well, on both Parts I and II. A lovely, thoughtful response from Farida Majid (New York), and another from Seema Amin, a young woman who writes poetry in Dhaka, with a finely-calibrated sensitivity. Their questions and comments have helped sharpen my thoughts.
I choose to paraphrase what Farida wrote, and to pose it as a question, ‘was Rokeya class-ist?’ (I hope you will forgive me, Farida!).
No, Farida, I don’t think Rokeya was class-ist, or, that she discriminated against other social hierarchies and inequities. There are innumerable instances of that besides ‘Sultana’s Dream,’ where women live in an apparently class-less society. In her short story ‘Prem-rohossho’, one comes across Tahera, the central character, declaring, ‘I have loved those belonging to all religions, whether a Hindu, a Christian or a Muslim.’ Nor do I think that Rokeya was age-ist, for as Tahera continues, ‘I have loved balika [young girls], those older, those who are elderly ? [women] of different ages.’ (Ogronthito Rokeya, edited by Avijit Sen, Kolkata: Noya Uddog, 1998).
I must now gather my thoughts and keep it brief as I am running out of time and space, and I intend to stick to my promise to both New Age, and my readers, to conclude this series today.
If one accepts that Rokeya’s ideological assault was aimed at socially powerful Muslims, at men and women belonging to the ashraf (noble, high-born, landed) class, and the increasing number of Bengali Muslims who were joining the ranks of the educated middle class — not the untold millions who were oppressed, who lacked the power and authority to change the destinies of women — then it is only logical to assume that the practices, ideas and values which she directed her biting satire against, must have been shareef ones. That Rokeya, was specifically targetting shareef patriarchy when she attacked the ideas and practices of seclusion. And, that seclusion among the shareef (and those who had aspirations to being regarded as shareef, this increases the numbers manifold) was a noble virtue, albeit a gendered one. Household space itself was gender-divided, there was a mardana (male living quarters), but women’s seclusion also meant that their physical mobility outside the home was restricted.
What strikes me when I read ‘Avarodhbasini’ (transl, In Seclusion, written 1928-30), is that Rokeya interchangeably uses the words dais (female slaves), chakranis (domestic servants), and poricharikas (maid), and also, what I cannot help but note is that only their role of ensuring shareef women’s seclusion, that no other domestic duties are mentioned (except for a brief mention of Altar ma pouring out water for obulations, oju). As such, they were the functionaries of the patriarchal order, they were the ones who opened the doors to palkis (palanquin) in the courtyards of shareef homes, slept on the floor beside the wife’s bed when the husband was away so that she would not be afraid, hurriedly held up a large piece of cloth beside the bed to maintain porda when thieves tunneled into the zenana quarters in the middle of the night, who chaperoned borkha-clad little girls as they got out of the cloth-covered bus and walked towards the entrance of Sakhawat Memorial School. Chakranis and dais stood low in the hierarchy within a shareef ghor, and when Rokeya, in ‘Streejatir Obonoti’ (1904) lashes out, are we dasis in this civilised twentieth-century world? I am inclined to think that, for it to resonate among shareef women, to give birth to a sense of dignity, one of the referents conveyed (for words, of course, have plural meanings), was that of a chakrani, the despised ‘other’. It is most unfortunate that the voices of chakranis, dasis are muted, at least, in terms of written and published works.
Seema has written, ‘Formidable (comme en francais). The way you unfold that it is not an epiphenomenon. Now I’m waiting for what it is — according to Begum Rokeya’ — in response to this I would say Seema, from my reading of Begum Rokeya, one would need to tackle the institution of marriage, of husband-hood, head-on. Rokeya repeatedly locates male domination in the institution of marriage, she personifies the husband (shami, korta) as ruler. One of its clearest expressions is to be found in Padmarag (novel) when Siddika/Joynab says, ‘If I were to forget all the neglect and insults that I have received and to return to my domestic life, then, grandmothers and grand-aunts will point out my instance in future to spirited young girls, they will say, ‘Hey, forget all your resolve and pride, look at Joynab, even after all that happened to her, she returned to a life of devoted service to her husband. And men will pronounce with tremendous arrogance, ‘However highly-educated, high-minded, spirited, great and noble a woman might be, she is bound to come back and fall at our our feet.’ I want to show everyone that married life is not the penultimate goal of womanhood, that leading a domestic life is not the meaning of life [for women].’
And significantly, Rokeya critiqued not only shareef marriages, but ones among other classes too, she included subaltern marriages, and those among the newly-emerging middle class. I do not know whether the change in nomenclature — for middle class women for many a decade have shown a preference for the English word, ‘husband’ instead of shami (owner) — has anything to do with Rokeya’s deconstruction of the term. To quote her, ?When we lost our capacity to differentiate between freedom and servitude, between advancement and debasement, it is then that men became ?bhusshami? (owner of land), ?grihosshami? (owner of the homestead), and gradually, our ?shami? (owner/husband).? (Streejatir Obonoti, 1904).
Rokeya, I think, is too radical for even now.
Begum Rokeya (1880-1932)
Published in New Age, Wednesday, 14 December 2011
The first few paras have been re-written to depict my e-mail exchange, my doubts and methods, with greater complexity, more precision.

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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