Dhaka University, Shaheed Minar and CP Gang’s ‘bessha’ banner
by Rahnuma Ahmed

The online group CP Gang's banner reads (translated) 'Resist these so-called civil [society] liars and anti-Independence intellectual prostitutes in order to uphold the true history of the liberation war to the younger generation.' Those whose faces are crossed out are, from left to right, journalist Mahfuzullah, Dhaka University professors Asif Nazrul and Amena Mohsin, North South university professor Dilara Chowdhury, lawyer Tuhin Malik, writer and columnist Farhad Mazhar, Saptahik editor Golam Mortuza, New Age editor Nurul Kabir, and daily Manabzamin editor Motiur Rahman Chowdhury. A human chain at the Central Shaheed Minar organised by the Muktijoddha Sangsad Santan Command, Dhaka on October 17, 2014.
THIS story begins with the sudden and unexpected death of professor Piash Karim on October 13, 2014, of cardiac arrest. Piash, who had returned to Dhaka in 2007 after teaching for nearly two decades at an American university, had joined BRAC University and was teaching in the department of economics and social sciences. Dr Amena Mohsin, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, and Piash Karim got married in March 2013; high-school student Drabir Karim, Piash’s son from his first marriage, was part of their family. Earlier known in his circle of friends for his left-leaning views, Piash gradually gravitated towards the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, a centrist party and the ruling Awami League’s arch-enemy. He began frequenting television talk shows, popular, as no real debate takes place in the parliament. (The popularity of TV talk shows has drastically declined, however, with the silent black-listing of dissident voices; a couple of analysts have reportedly left the country). His comment that the Ganajagaran Mancha, initially composed of a small group of bloggers and activists calling for the hanging of war criminals of 1971, later mushrooming into a sea of people at Shahbagh square in Dhaka city and spreading nationwide, was developing ‘fascist’ undertones, earned him widespread denunciation. The movement was then riding high. Continue reading “HISTORY AS ETHICAL REMEMBRANCE”

Majority World exhibition in Rome: Justice in Focus

IDLO Photo Exhibition in Rome
Farnesina Porte Aperte 2015
22 – 29 May 2015

justice in focus in rome

IDLO’s photo exhibition “In Focus: Justice and the Post-2015 Agenda” will form part of this year’s initiative by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation to open its doors to the general public. From 22 until 29 May 2015, visitors will be able to participate in “Farnesina Porte Aperte” and view the exhibition during guided tours of the building. The Farnesina’s art collection is internationally recognized, and IDLO is proud to have been chosen to exhibit alongside this.

The photographs were also featured by The Guardian.
guardian piece on justice in focus

Curated by IDLO and the photo agency Majority World, the exhibition focuses on the challenges of development and the rule of law. From gender equality and indigenous rights to energy poverty and land tenure, it presents the rule of law as lived experience. The pictures vividly explore the human side of the rule of law and its importance in everyday life.
?In Focus: Justice and the Post-2015 Agenda? illustrates these themes through 32 images – taken by photographers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, India and Kenya – ranging from the Amazonian settlement of Colniza, Brazil, where rule of law measures have reversed illegal logging and deforestation, to the energy-starved metropolis of Kibera, Africa?s largest slum.
To sign up for a guided tour, please visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation?s Farnesina Porte Aperte website and choose the ?art route?, currently available from Monday 25 until Wednesday 27 May.
Before traveling to Rome, the exhibition was shown at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, to coincide with the 28th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Over the coming months, it will be shown in Milan, New York, Washington and The Hague, and will return to Rome for an exclusive viewing in November.
For more information, please read this article in Italy’s Corriere della Sera,?visit theIDLO mini-site and watch video interviews?with the photographers.

What Happened When My Son Wore A Pink Headband To Walmart

Katie Vyktoriah

?Huffington Post

Stay-at-home mom and blogger, amotherthing.com

This is Dexter. He is 2 years old. He loves to be Batman and Superman and Spiderman. He’s a real boys’ boy. He pretends he is flying, and he captures the baddies who threaten us.
He is the sweetest little troublemaker you’ll ever meet.
Some other things you might like to know about Dexter:
He is a fabulous big brother. He was a later bloomer vocabulary-wise. He used to be terribly shy but has recently begun to come out of his shell. He loves new people and enjoys greeting them with a big “HI!” when he meets them.
His favorite color is pink. He loves Dora the Explorer. He has been known to wear my skirt as a dress, and he delights in cuddling with his mama. Continue reading “What Happened When My Son Wore A Pink Headband To Walmart”

Her Secret Vice

By Arjun Janah (Babui)
?What’s your hobby?? asked her friend.
?You heard me. Speak, and don’t pretend.
I told you mine was postage stamps,
A pastime I acquired from gramps.
But you have never told me. Speak.
I’ve asked you several times this week.?
She could not speak, for quite a while.
But then, she tried to force a smile.
?Your game is up.? She told herself.
?It can’t be kept to just yourself,
This thing you do, your secret shame.
Perhaps she’ll understand, not blame.? Continue reading “Her Secret Vice”

Thou spoke with a man's tongue, mananiya Prime Minister!

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By Rahnuma Ahmed

Honouring Begum Rokeya, the prime minister Sheikh Hasina at Begum Rokeya Padak 2010 programme, Osmani Memorial Auditorium, Dhaka, December 9 2010. Photo: Yasin Kabir joy/focusbangla. crop: Mir Ashfaquzzaman
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina, currently the most powerful woman in Bangladesh?recently rated the sixth most powerful woman in Asia, included in Forbes’ annual list of the politically most powerful hundred women in the world ? while awarding the prestigious Rokeya Padak 2010, to give public recognition to women who have made outstanding contributions in securing women’s rights, spoke with a `man’ tongue.
In other words, she blamed women. It was vintage patriarchy, albeit, suitably modified to a modern-day context.
While prime ministerial speeches on such occasions are generally devoted to self-congratulatory rhetoric and platitudes, Sheikh Hasina’s speech seems to have been different. I glean this from news reports.
She spoke at length about stalking and other forms of sexual harassment which have escalated to outrageous levels over the last year. Which target girls and young women, in particular. Students in particular, girls who are studying in the nation’s schools, colleges, universities and madrasas.
But given the figures released by women and human rights organisations on the International Day against the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25), notably the worst in 3 years, further, the numbers reported in each category are higher than that for the whole of last year,
489 women were raped
53 women and 23 girls were killed, after being raped
4 girls committed suicide, after being raped
71 had acid thrown on them
342 were subjected to dowry-related violence
210 women and 7 girls were killed
102 women were tortured
21 women committed suicide, after being tortured
given that these figures have since increased, what could be more shocking for women?and for men too, since 9 have been killed while trying to protect girls against stalking and assaults?than to listen to the PM exhort girls and women to “face” stalkers bravely. To “show courage.” Why “choose” suicide, something as extreme as that? There is “no reason,” she said. Learn self-defence instead. Wear “modest” clothes. The last piece of advice was delivered with a personal touch, “I never encountered any obstacles.” Guardians, she stressed, should teach their children religious morals and cultural values.
The prime minister, I hasten to add, spoke of other things as well. Of policies and programmes undertaken by her government which benefit women: extending maternity leave to six months. Making it easier for a widowed woman to gain access to her husband’s pension. Initiating the payment of pensions to widower-husbands married to government employees, so as not to discriminate against men. Promising to reactivate the Women Development Policy, a central demand of the women’s movement for many years.
On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with some of her messages. Urging girls not to be frightened. Not to think of themselves as victims. To fight back and resist. To remind us that rights must be struggled for, that they are never served on a silver platter. That enacting laws is never enough. That public awareness is needed.
Of course, public awareness is needed. What Nashfia Akhand Pinky?a 13 year-old student of class IX who was incessantly stalked by her 22 year-old male neighbor and some of his friends, who persisted with “ribald comments, smutty jokes, coarse laughter, sly whistles and even indecent exposure”?wrote in her suicide note is a severe indictment of those members of the public who were present but had not lifted a finger, “When [my tormentor] pulled my scarf and harassed me physically in front of the house [when he slapped me], onlookers at the scene laughed. Nobody protested” (BBC News).
But manonio prime minister, when girls (and their families) do “show courage,” do not “choose” suicide, “face” the situation bravely, what can, and has, happened? Ten Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL) activists of a group of sixteen, allegedly gang-raped a class VII student in Pakhimara (Patuakhali) in September last year. Her relatives rushed to the scene with police officials, two of the culprits were arrested from the scene of the crime. What happened next? Were the rest of the offenders arrested? Was the case investigated? Were they tried? No. The two caught were freed, a farcical village arbitration attended by local-level Awami League influentials was held, all 16 were fined Tk 10,000 each and 100 whippings. The AL upazila Unit secretary denied allegations of rape, dubbing them (mere) “spoiled brats.” He asked the girl and her father to affix their signature to 3 blank sheets of paper, he told them to not seek justice elsewhere. The victim’s father `chose’ not to file a case, the police didn’t proceed any further.
Did high level Awami League leaders `show courage’ by taking up the matter? Did the party institute an internal inquiry, castigate local-level AL leaders, publicly extend all possible support to the victim’s family? Did the government instruct the police to proceed with a criminal investigation, did it insist that charges of rape should be brought, that those who attempted to hush up the matter should also be tried? For obstructing justice? No. It `chose’ to look the other way, to pretend nothing had happened?not only in the Pakhimara incident but in scores of others?until girls were assaulted at the Pohela Boishakh concert on Dhaka University campus this year.
The denial that had prevailed had become untenable by then, as sexual assaults and violence had not only increased but in many cases, the perpetrators were reportedly leaders and cadres of the ruling party’s student (BCL) and youth (Jubo League) organisations. But a culture of impunity had also set in, which was ideologically furthered by the `No to Eve Teasing’ campaign, launched by Dhaka University Rover Scouts in April. Inaugurated by the DU vice-chancellor, the campaign and its vocabulary, was almost immediately picked up by the education minister, swiftly followed by governmental departments, the AL propaganda machine, several women’s organisations, significant sections of the media, and the culture industry.
The seriousness of sexual offences not only became diluted, they became de-criminalised, as the elected government, in utter contempt of last year’s High Court ruling on sexual harassment, constructed victims as `Eve,’ as ones who tempt men, who make them wayward. The attitude of government policy-makers was best expressed in the name given to one of the drives to catch stalkers and assaulters: Operation Romeo Hunt.
Is it therefore surprising that the prime minister now blames women? That she says, so-called ultra-modern women “don’t bother to keep their modesty,” that they wear “too small clothes”? Sheikh Hasina would be well-advised to desist from blaming women, if for no other reason than to maintain a distance from the Jamaat-e-Islami chief Motiur Rahman Nizami’s line of reasoning on the same subject. Before being chucked into jail (presumably to be tried soon on charges of war crimes in 1971), he too, had blamed women. At a discussion on so-called `eve-teasing,’ he had said, it happens because women go out at night (Daily Star).
Blaming women, one would have hoped would be avoided by those who identify themselves as muktijuddher pokkher shokti. Because it serves to demoralise resistance. It serves to weaken arguments for seeking justice for sexual crimes committed against women, whether in 1971, or at present.
And while I am all for women learning self-defence techniques, martial arts, kung-fu, judo, karate, the whole lot, the prime minister seems to imply that the transformation of Bangladeshi girls into `tough, butt-kicking chicks’ (as in western movies) will solve the problem of stalking, harassment and rape?of all forms of sexual violence directed against girls and women. No, it won’t. Their safety and security cannot be ensured by drawing on myths of `girl power’ created and re-created by the Hollywood film industry. To attempt to do so, is a denial of culpability and complicity.
According to news reports, Sheikh Hasina quoted this line from Begum Rokeya, “Whenever any sister has tried to raise her head she has been suppressed, either through invoking religion, or through the shastra,” but to assume that it is equally true for present-day Bangladesh, would, I think, be somewhat misleading. The incidences of assault and violence that have been reported in the newspapers?which make us angry, and grieve, and resist? have not been conducted by what are generally categorised as `religious forces.’ Newspaper reports at least, do not indicate this. Unless we can specify the violence that women face under particular regimes, we will never be able to resist it. Neither intellectually. Nor creatively. Nor collectively.
There are other issues that need to be addressed. The sexualisation of women in contemporary western societies?some have termed it hyper-sexualisation?has become a matter of deep concern for many feminists. Popular culture has witnessed a highly visible shift, says Rosalind Gill, new femininities have been constructed which speak of a shift from sexual objectification of women to sexual subjectification, it capitalises on the notion of the sexually autonomous young woman. This, in the neo-liberal era, places psychological demands on young women to make life knowable and meaningful through a narrative of free choice and radical autonomy, regardless of actual, real constraints. Others have noted how soft pornography has gone mainstream in western cultures, how it pervades popular culture. Closer to home, Bollywood’s going `international’ has meant the adoption of western traits, such as songs and dances infused with hip-hop elements, leading to `sexier,’ more complicated choreography, slimmer female bodies wearing skimpier outfits, expressing, in overall terms, a “heightened sexuality.” These sexualised images travel across cultural and geo-political borders via satellites and internet in the present globalised world; they are reinforced in complex ways through the culture industry in Bangladesh (advertising, TV plays), and through the officially unacknowledged local pornography industry.
The question that we must urgently face is this: are ordinary girls, from common, struggling backgrounds?whose physical presence in public space is real (non-virtual) unlike that of their rich counterparts?having to bear the brunt of other women’s fantasies of sexual autonomy?
Published in New Age, Monday December 13 2010

Begum Rokeya is probably turning in her grave..

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By Rahnuma Ahmed

Today, 9th December 2010, is Begum Rokeya Day
We have come a long way since Begum Rokeya chaired the Bengal Women’s Education Conference in 1926, in Kolkata (Calcutta).
She began by speaking in her characteristically humorous and self-deprecating manner, although I am grateful to you for the respect that you have expressed towards me by inviting me to preside over the conference, I am forced to say that you have not made the right choice.

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hosain (1880-1932)

I have been locked up in the socially oppressive iron casket of `porda’ for all my life. I have not been able to mix very well with people, as a matter of fact, I do not even know what is expected of a chairperson, I do not know if one is supposed to laugh, or to cry.
With these opening words, Begum Rokeya launched into an incisive critique?and that too, characteristically?of the state of Muslim women’s education in colonial, and undivided, Bengal.
But before doing this, while acknowledging with all humility that the women in her audience were far better-educated than her own self, that the gathering consisted of “learned, graduate women,” she gently pointed out that her services to literature and society for the last 20-21 years, her experience of running the Sakhawat Memorial Girls School for 16 years, had provided her with the courage to speak in front of such a distinguished assembly.
To speak about women’s education means that one must necessarily talk about the social situation. This cannot be avoided, it is inevitable. And to talk about the social situation means that one must cast glances at the neglectful, indifferent and miserly behaviour which our Muslim brothers have shown towards us. That too, cannot be avoided, that too, is inevitable. We have a proverb, she said, `to speak of one’s misfortune is to cast aspersion on others.’ This, thereby, impels us to face the question, how can we give Muslim girls a good education? How do we educate them well?
Men have deceived women through the ages, said Rokeya, and women have silently suffered. Recently, however, `Sri Krishna’ has bestowed kindness on our Hindu sisters, this is why one notices signs of awakening among different Hindu communities. Women in Madras have advanced the furthest, and we now hear that a woman has been elected the deputy president of the Madras Legislative Council. We also hear that a woman has become a barrister in Rangoon. And, of course, lady Barrister Miss Ghorabji is already well-known. But what does one have to say about Muslim women, except that they continue to live in the darkness in which they have been living, for ever so long?
You will not find even 1 literate girl among 200 girls, that is the situation of Muslim women’s education. You will not find a truly educated Muslim woman, probably not even 1 in 10,000, that is the situation of Muslim women’s education; and mind you, nearly 3 crore people live in Bengal. The education department wrote me a letter last January, they needed, quickly, they said, the names and addresses of all Muslim women graduates in Bengal. But I couldn’t give them any other name than the only woman graduate we have, plus that of Agha Moidul Islam shaheb’s daughter but since Agha shaheb is not a resident of Bengal, this means that there is only 1 (Muslim) woman graduate in a population of 3 crores!!
A little later, Rokeya tucks in these lines, and this is what makes Begum Rokeya great, it is a greatness that rests on cutting-edge intellectual sharpness, is politically astute, confronts structures of power and privilege while simultaneously engaging with them, maintains a critical distance even as she works from within these institutions, and it is this, I insist, that makes her voice distinct from the `imploring’ voices which 19th-20th century Bengali women writers often adopted, or felt forced to adopt . Rokeya says, “Just as the kind-hearted British government is unable to tolerate the aspirations of the Indians?I remember, Mr Morley said 21 years ago, If they cry for the moon, it doesn’t mean we have to give in to their wishes?just as our non-Muslim neighbours generally cannot tolerate the demands of the Muslims, Muslim men too, in exactly the same manner, cannot accept the fact that women desire their advancement.” In other words, there is nothing natural about the “neglectful, indifferent and miserly behaviour” of Muslim men, they are not accidental, nor incidental for that matter, such behaviour is inextricably linked to social power and privilege, ones that are fundamental, deeply-rooted. Ones that are, in the final analysis, political, marking as they do, the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion into assemblies of the “learned” and the “educated.” Marking those who have power. Those who withhold power.
We have shown respect towards you, Begum Rokeya. The first women’s hall of residence in Dhaka university (in its early years, known as the `Oxford of the east’) was named Rokeya Hall (1964) . One of the busiest roads in Dhaka city, close to the parliament building, is named Rokeya Shoroni. The government awards Rokeya Padak each year to women who have struggled hard to contribute to the betterment of women’s lot, the government girls college in Rangpur is named Begum Rokeya College (1963), and the newly-built public university in Rangpur (2008)?the first public university in the northern region?was re-named Begum Rokeya university to honor the “legendary woman scholar who pioneered and promoted female education in Indo-Pak-Bangla subcontinent.” Social and cultural organisations too, revere you, for all that you fought and struggled for, in a life that was abruptly extinguished at 53, and of course, for the women’s movement, you are the lamp that lights our heart. Bangladesh Mohila Porishod named its safe haven for women, Rokeya Shodon, in your honor. The Department of Women and Gender Studies, Dhaka University holds Begum Rokeya Memorial Lectures on December 9th every year, and we are indebted to Rokeya Memorial Foundation, at whose initiative, Rokeya Dibosh is observed every December 9th, since 1986, the day that you were born, and the day that you left us. It would be amiss if I were not to mention our indebtedness to Abdul Kadir for having immemorialised your writings through editing the collected volume of your work Rokeya Rachanavali, (Bangla Academy, 1973). And, to Roushan Jahan too, for having edited and translated your scathing indictment of porda, Inside Seclusion: The Avarodhbasini of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Women for Women, 1981), thereby making some of your writings available to an English-reading audience.
And since 1994, Rokeya Dibosh is observed by the government, floral wreaths are placed at your birthplace in Pairaband village in Rangpur; scores of organisations take part in discussions and cultural programmes, all over the nation, all in your honor. It is customary too, for the president and the prime minister, and the leader of the opposition, to send messages to the nation on the occasion of Rokeya Dibosh to remind us of you, of all that you fought for. In her message last year, Sheikh Hasina reminded us that if you had not shown us the path, women in present-day Bangladesh would not be working in offices, courts, mills and factories, in fields and farms, and in trade and commerce.?While Khaleda Zia, as prime minister, reminded us several years earlier that we are enjoying the “fruits” of your struggle, that it is because of you that women in Bangladesh have now become judges and barristers, have joined the army, they fly planes and work in nearly all professions by dint of their “own competence and efficiency.” She had added, if not forced to enter national-level politics to uphold the ideals of her husband, the late president Ziaur Rahman, she would have dedicated herself to building up a social movement for the emancipation of women.
But present-day Bangladesh, according to newspaper reports, has registered a nationwide drop in the number of girls attending schools because sexual harassment and violence has horrifically escalated over the last year. Is it possible to talk about the “misfortune” that has befallen them, without “casting aspersions” on others?
On the prime minister?who reminded us in a seemingly self-congratulatory manner when awarding Rokeya Padak last year, that the prime minister, leader of the opposition, deputy leader of the house, home minister, foreign minister, agriculture minister, labour minister, and women and child affairs minister, “are all women”?because the leaders and cadres of her party’s student and youth organisations have allegedly been, in many cases, the offendors. That, to deflect public outrage, the long-discarded notion of `eve-teasing’ was re-introduced, in utter contempt of last year’s High Court verdict which ruled that any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment?note, not `eve teasing’?of women, girls and children was a criminal offence, that the return of `eve-teasing’ served to dilute, and to de-criminalise these?offences.? That it helped create a culture of impunity which has contributed to an escalation in sexual harassment and violence, as demonstrated by the outrageous rise in figures released on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25).
Is it possible to talk about the misfortunes of our school girls, and also, their guardians, some of whom have been killed while attempting to protect them, without casting aspersions on the leader of the opposition for leading a political party which has been galvanised into action when she was forced to leave her house, who has since preferred to desert the parliament, instead of entering it and demanding answers from the government about what concrete measures are being taking to stem sexual violence. Without casting aspersions on all who are complicit in the conspiracy of silence?sections of the media which continue to report incidents of `eve-teasing.’ Some women’s organisations which are noticeably less vocal now than when Yasmeen of Dinajpur was `eve-teased’ (raped and killed by policemen, an incident which was capitalised upon to bring down the BNP government). Will only a change of regime galvanise them into action? Into calling, for instance, a nationwide boycott of schools by girl students until effective measures have been taken by the government to ensure their safety?
Violence against girls keeps spiralling upwards: on December 4, a 17 year-old college girl in Barguna lost her leg because she spurned an `eve-teaser’ who hacked it (Daily Sun, 5 December) . And yesterday’s newspaper reports that a stalker knifed a 14 year-old madrassa girl because she refused his proposition (New Age, December 8). In both incidents, the girls and their families had lodged complaints with the local thana, but no action had been taken.
Unfortunately, Begum Rokeya, the “neglectful, indifferent and miserly behaviour” towards educating women that you spoke of enfolds us too?we, who are what we are because of you?because we are either too busy eating the fruits of your struggles, or dreaming of future fruits, or choose to remain passive, or to play it safe. You were right to remind us that education is not only about acquiring degrees and certificates, that unless a qualitative change in the state of one’s mind has occurred, we remain murkho, we remain enslaved..
And today Begum Rokeya, we, both men and women of this country, will provide ample evidence of that. Flowery words will escape many a lips, all in your honor.
As you shudder in your grave.
Published in New Age, Thursday December 9, 2010

Great Female Artists? Think Karachi

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by Alexandra A. Seno

‘Geometric Landscapes and the Spectacle of Force’, Seher Shah.
Seher Shah / Courtesy of artist and Bose Pacia, New York
?Why have there been no great women artists?? asked American art historian Linda Nochlin in a landmark 1971 essay.
Four decades later, her question still stands: while a handful of Western female painters, sculptors, and performance artists?Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Marina Abramovic?have achieved the same level of fame as their male counterparts, the West?s elite art world continues to be dominated by male artists, curators, dealers, and collectors.
Look elsewhere around the globe, however, and women are thriving in some of the most dynamic up-and-coming art scenes. They?re even achieving widespread success in a country not exactly known for women?s rights: Pakistan. Female artists from the developing Muslim nation have been recently feted in exhibits like last year?s Hanging Fire at New York?s Asia Society and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial in Japan.
Women also hold prime positions of influence in Pakistan?s art system, running prestigious galleries such as Karachi?s Canvas and Poppy Seed, and heading key art institutes such as the School of Visual Arts at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore (under the direction of Salima Hashmi), and Lahore?s National College of Arts, which is overseen by Naazish Ataullah.
One reason for the unusually high ratio of female artists in Pakistan has to do with the fact that the art industry has not traditionally been viewed as a lucrative business by men, says South Asian art historian Savita Apte, who administers the internationally renowned Abraaj Capital Art Prize. Until very recently, creatively inclined males tended to focus on fields such as advertising or illustration, leaving the art field wide open for some very talented women.
And these women have been taking the art world by storm: for last year?s inaugural Jameel Prize, an award given to Islamic artists at London?s Victoria and Albert Museum, both finalists from Pakistan?Hamra Abbas and Seher Shah?were female. (The winner, Afruz Amighi, is an Iranian woman.) And at the Hong Kong International Art Fair this year, Pakistani painter Shahzia Sikander won the SCMP/Art Futures award.
Female Pakistani artists may also be drawing international buzz because of the way they defy gender stereotypes about their country. ?Because of the perception in the Western press, which often portrays [Muslim] women as covered, when the world looks at Pakistan, they want to go into the minds of women,? says Amna Naqvi, a former investment banker, founder of Karachi?s Gandhara-Art gallery, and an important collector whose work has been lent to museums around the world.
One of Naqvi?s favorite artists is Aisha Khalid, a painter in her 30s who is married to the prominent artist Imran Qureshi?although Khalid is considered to be the bigger name. Khalid?s Birth of Venus paintings depict fully veiled figures against a backdrop of Islamic symbols. Another work combines grandmotherly embroidery with pointed sexual commentary, such as sewing pins stuck through a coat, with sharp needles exposed on the inside.
Even for artists whose work does not deal with overtly feminine symbols, the link between their creative drive and their place in Pakistani culture is evident. Sikander, who was awarded a MacArthur ?genius? grant in 2006, says: ?Women in Pakistan in general wield a lot more power than what is perceived from abroad. In Pakistani society, women are less coddled, which makes them much more resilient, resourceful, and original.?
For Sikander, her art is a means for her to ?question the social and political values of [my] time.? This places her with-in an emerging tradition of trailblazing international female artists, alongside Japanese sculptor and painter Yayoi Kusama, photographer Miwa Yanagi, video artist Tabaimo, and Iranian photographer Shirin Neshat. As artists from developing countries explode into the global art scene, these women will be leading the way.

`Dismantling the master's house'

HC judgments on sexual harassment

rahnuma ahmed

The High Court’s verdict was a `revolution’ said Salma Ali, president of Bangladesh Jatiya Mahila Ainjibi Samity (BNWLA)

In response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the BNWLA, the High Court ruled on May 14 that any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment of women, girls and children at their workplaces, educational institutions and at other public places, including roads, was a criminal offence, punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. The ruling detailed sexual misdemeanour as `any kind of provocation through phone calls or e-mail, lewd gestures, showing of pornography, lurid stares, physical contact or molestation, stalking, vulgar sounds or any display of a derogatory nature.’ The HC Bench directed the government to make a law on the basis of its guidelines; until that happened, it’s guidelines would enjoy the status of law.

On May 17, `another’ revolution took place. The same bench, of Justices Syed Mahmud Hossain and Quamrul Islam Siddiqui, in response to a writ, declared that the decision of the Jahangirnagar University authorities to exonerate Drama and Dramatics chairperson, Sanwar Hossain Sani from charges of sexual harassment and, to suspend six students (which includes four women complainants) for allegedly assaulting him, was `illegal.’ It directed the JU authorities to hold a fresh enquiry?. The new one, according to the verdict, should be conducted by `neutral persons.’ It should accord with the HC’s recent guidelines. The writ petition, represented by barrister Sara Hossain and advocate Ruhul Quddus Babu, was jointly filed by Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Nijera Kori, Karmojibi Nari, professor Serajul Islam Choudhury, and journalist Kamal Lohani.

The complaints were not proven `beyond any doubt,’ there was no `hard evidence’ — that is what the JU Syndicate had said when clearing Sanwar Hossain of all charges in September 2008. Dismissing this, the HC Bench ruled that the standard of ‘beyond a[ny] reasonable doubt’ could not be applied to allegations of sexual harassment. A slap in the face of the JU authorities? Of the members of the Final Enquiry Committee, the Syndicate, and the university teachers association (JUTA) which had expressed `relief’ at the Syndicate’s decision and had advocated that `indisciplined’ students (and not a teacher who had sexually harassed women students) be punished? Beyond any reasonable doubt.

Of course, we are happy, thrilled, and excited at the HC’s recognition, at its validation of our long-standing demands and struggles. That unwelcome sexual attention is, well, just what it is. Unwelcome. Period. And as Fawzia Karim, the petitioner’s counsel, had argued in court, the absence of a law against sexual harassment, `rampant’ in Bangladesh, means that victims can not file accusations against the offendors.

But our moment of happiness is also overcast with feelings of grief and loss. We have not forgotten our sisters, those who were either killed for having rejected declarations of love, or took their own lives at the humiliation suffered. Simi Banu, art student, taunted and harassed by local mastaans, committed suicide in 2001. Mohima Khatun, raped, killed herself in 2002. Shahinoor, a garment worker, raped, threw herself under a train, in 2003. Biva Rani Singha, a college student, kidnapped and raped for a week in 2003, later became mentally unbalanced. Farzana Afrin Rumi, a college student, hanged herself when a local group of thugs barged into her house to kidnap her, in 2003. Alpina, a class four student, killed herself after being assaulted in front of her mother, in 2003 (Farzana Rahman Shampa). Chameli Tripura, nine years old, was raped and killed in Ramgarh, CHT, in 2008. And many, many more. Killed. Committed suicide. Became mentally ill. Acid disfigurement. Humiliation. No, we have not forgotten our sisters. Nor have we forgotten sub-Inspector Bashar who went to Simi’s house and insulted her parents. He advised them to control `her’ movements. He filed a general diary (GD) against her, instead of her harassers. Nor have we forgotten countless police officers who have repeatedly refused to register complaints made by women and their family members, distraught and angry, seeking safety and protection through legal means.

It was, after all, a bloody revolution.

Will things change? Krishnokoli, a young singer and cultural activist, doesn’t think so. Mere court verdicts are not enough. The political structure of the country needs to be altered first (New Age, May 15).? I understand and sympathise with her misgivings as I turn to look at neighbouring India, at the famous Vishaka judgment (Vishaka and others vs State of Rajasthan and others, Supreme Court, 1997), which is known to have informed our own HC judgment. The Vishaka PIL arose out of the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a member of a group of women called sathins, trained by the local government to do house-to-house social work at the village level, in exchange of honorariums. Bhanwari Devi, as part of a government campaign against child marriage, had tried to prevent the marriage of a one year old girl. The family, who happened to be high caste, were outraged at Bhanwari’s audacity. Five men, including the girl’s father, gang-raped her in her husband’s presence. The village authorities, the local police and doctors teamed-up with the rapists: police were reluctant to record her statement, two government doctors refused to examine her. When she finally took her case to the state criminal court, the accused were acquitted. The judge declared that it was not `credible.’ Upper caste men would surely not stoop as low as raping a lower caste woman? The humiliation and violation of the court process, says Naina Kapur, a New Delhi-based lawyer, led her to initiate the Vishaka petition. She, like many others, was frustrated by the criminal justice system’s inability to provide tangible remedies, restore the dignity of the victim, address systemic issues, and to create social change (Avani Mehta Sood, 2006).

The Vishaka PIL has made a significant impression upon the public, says Sood, because it has led to the establishment of systems of legal accountability. It has created tremendous awareness and open acknowledgement of sexual harassment. The judgment has had a huge impact on universities and large workplaces. Women now know that there is a law, and as a human rights lawyer put it, “It makes a big difference to people harassing women as well, to know that they can be called upon it.” Awareness created by the Vishaka decision has also led to many more cases being filed by women victims, at the HC level. However, it has not yet been enacted (The Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill 2007), and the SC guidelines continue to be the law. Very few complaints comittees have been set up. Service rules have not been amended. The judgment has been flouted by both public and private employers. Social activists have claimed that the guidelines were too general, it did not cover the entire gamut of workplace relationships (for e.g., doctor molesting his patient). The unorganised sector does not fall under the ambit of the Bill. Investigations carried out by the inquiry committees have too often been bound by red-tape, leading to long drawn out cases, and thereby, delaying punishment for the harasser, and adding to the victim’s trauma. But continued activism has led to two significant interim orders being issued by the Supreme Court. One of these asks professional bodies (for e.g. the UGC) what steps they have taken to implement the Vishaka guidelines, while the other, clarifies that the investigation and report of the investigation committee is to be deemed final. Committees have also been directed to submit annual reports of complaints and actions taken, to the government.

By highlighting the problem of sexual harassment, the Vishaka judgment has simultaneously opened up questions and dilemmas over separating sexual harassment from, and its close intermeshing with, other forms of gender-based discrimination/harassment at workplaces (Kalpana Kannabiran and Vasanth Kannabiran 2002). As the authors say, the separation between professional victimisation and sexual harassment is never absolute. And there are other things too. Sometimes sexual harassment can become a weapon of retaliation for progressive dalit men who face offensive and discriminatory behaviour from upper caste and upper class, articulate women classmates and colleagues. Where systemic forms of discrimination and inequality run deep, where the legal system, in its entirety, overwhelmingly promotes unjust hierarchies, are changes possible? Or, to pose Caribbean-American writer, poet and activist, Audre Lordes’ words as a question: can the master’s house be dismantled with the master’s tools?

Not, in its entirety, no. But as I write this, it is also important to acknowledge the difference that it is bound to make at Jahangirnagar, to the lives of six young women and men-students, whose suspension will have to be withdrawn by the JU authorities. The difference that the second HC judgment will make to the lives of four young women complainants who had, against overwhelming odds, protested. Whose dignity — with the help of a new inquiry committtee composed of neutral persons, working in accordance with guidelines set by the HC — will be restored.

Laws, fortunately or unfortunately, are part of the political process. And, revolutions need to be created, and re-created. Again, and yet again.

Published in New Age 25 May 2009


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By Rahnuma Ahmed

[the relationship between class struggle and women?s liberation is] very close. Women were the first to be oppressed, and will be the last to be liberated when class oppression ceases. So the test of whether class oppression still exists is if women?s oppression still exists or not.

Comrade Parvati, central committee member and head of women?s department, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)

… communist men should know that the revolution and the gains of revolution can only be preserved and furthered when more and more women join and lead the revolution.

Comrade Parvati, CPN (M)

?IF YOU look at efforts to develop women?s leadership aimed at establishing equal relations between men and women, the party leadership seems to think that it is a waste of time. That women?s contribution will somehow be lesser. I don?t know how, through which process, they come to that conclusion. And the one or two women leaders like us, those who have managed to make it to the top, we are looked upon as exceptional. On some occasions, we are lauded, on others, condemned.?
I was talking to Moshrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers Unity Forum and convenor, Biplobi Oikko Front. In the twenty-five-plus years that I have known her, on the few occasions that we have met, nearly always we have fallen into each other?s arms and talked non-stop. About a whole lot of issues, garments workers wages, the mercilessly exploitative conditions under which they work, her party?s organisational work, the struggles of women workers as women, her own personal struggles, government persecution, the forty-odd cases against her. She has always been curious about my own work, what I am writing, what I am reading, and has always stressed the need to share ideas.
Mishu continued, there are many dedicated women, women who have ceaselessly devoted every living and thinking moment to the party, but they are not even central committee members. Look at the CPB (Communist Party of Bangladesh), Hena Das became a central committee member only when she was eighty. Or at Krishna di, she became a central committee member recently, in her sixties. Men? Oh, at a much younger age. Maybe at my age, I am forty-five now, in a few cases, even in their late-thirties. Do left women talk about these things, I asked. A bit, said Mishu. I remember, several months ago, Shireen apa (Shireen Akhter, joint general secretary, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal) took Zaman bhai (Khalequzzaman Bhuiyan, Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal) to task because Rousseau apa, Joly apa are not even central committee members. Even though they are such dedicated women, have tremendous leadership qualities and organisational capabilities. They are not even alternate members of the central committee. No woman has ever become a member of BSD central committee.
How do I dare to speak? Well, because I lead the Garment Workers Unity Forum, I work at the grassroots level. I am accepted. I think women comrades of other left parties, they might tell you one or two things but only off the record. Is it because of party loyalty, I interrupt. No, me, I am loyal too, I speak because I think it?s necessary. I think if they were to speak out they may well be suspended from the party. After all, how many heads does one have on one?s shoulders?
While transcribing Mishu?s interview, and in between breaks reading Comrade Parvati?s ?Women?s Leadership and the Revolution in Nepal?, these lines catch my eye. ?It is seen that revolutionary communist movements have always unleashed women?s fury, but they are not able to channelize this energy into producing enduring women communist leaders. The question has been raised again and again as to why there are so few women leaders in communist parties when Marxism offers such a deep penetrating analysis and solution to women?s oppression.?
This is Mishu?s question too, why are there are so few women leaders in the left movement in Bangladesh? What role have respective communist and socialist parties played in developing women leaders?

Where, I wonder, does one begin to seek answers?

?Women agitation?

The other day I was so shocked, says Mishu. Ganotantrik Bam Morcha, at present I am the co-ordinator, held a meeting to review a human chain programme organised to protest against the rise in prices of essentials. A young Morcha leader, personally I like him a lot, he is very modern in his outlook, said, ?photographers rush off to photograph Mishu apa. They want to present the protest as a ?women agitation?. I think we should be careful. We should keep an eye out for others, for senior leaders around us.?
I was truly shocked, said Mishu. I raised two questions: what do you mean by women agitation? Does that mean only men can, and should agitate, that women cannot? Even though women garment workers are a majority, even though most of our party members are women workers? Do you mean to say that these women should retreat to the back when men raise slogans, and should fall silent? You ask women to be present at the front of rallies, but when their photographs get taken, you become unhappy, you say, it becomes a women agitation. Of course, I am aware of the politics of media representation, of turning events into women events, but surely that is a separate issue.
Why does a woman leader?s photograph create problems, but not a male leader?s? Why is it that when photographers raise their cameras at me, I become a mere woman, that I am not a leader, like any other leader? Mishu added, I told them, I do not think of Tipu Biswas, or Comrade Khalequzzaman as ?men?, I think of them as my comrades. And anyway, how is it possible, amidst all that jostling, shoving and pushing, with the police coming down upon us, to keep an eye on who is where. I told them, unlike many other women comrades, I do not deny my womanness. Yes, of course, I am a woman. However, what intrigues me is why, and when, this gets raised as an issue.
Listening to Mishu, I think, so the left movement assumes that men are not gendered creatures. That men, by virtue of being men, have been able to rise above ?mere? gender concerns. That when they agitate, they do it on behalf of both men and women. That it is women who are particularistic, they can represent only other women. They alone are gendered. They alone are sexual beings. Familial beings.
Let me tell you of another incident, says Mishu. It happened when I was much, much younger. I was then president of the Chhatra Oikya Forum, the only woman president among forty or so student organisations. I was arrested, I was accused of possessing arms, and of attempted bank dacoity. A group belonging to the Sarbahara Party had been caught while committing dacoity at a petrol pump station in Gazipur, I had been publicly critical of that party, so when they were caught, they falsely implicated me. They said I had led the dacoity but had managed to escape by driving away in another car. Members of my student organisation, my sisters who were then new recruits to the party, had gone around asking left leaders to give a signed statement protesting my arrest, but they refused. They said, it was not a political matter. Nirmal Sen had wryly said, at least, we now have a woman dacoit in Bangladesh. My question is, how can my arrest, and the false cases not be political? Would they have uttered my name if I was a housewife? Some left members went to the extent of wondering aloud ? I know for sure because one of them, a woman leader later asked me ? were you romantically involved with any of the Sarbahara members? Did he implicate you because of an affair gone sour?

Listening to Mishu I think of Kalpana Chakma, a pahari leader, abducted by army personnel from her house in Marishya, twelve years ago. A similar story, that she was romantically involved with Lieutenant Ferdous, that she had eloped with him, had been spurn. That similar threads of reasoning, albeit a very gendered one, exist in discourses conducted by institutions one assumes to be poles apart, continues to amaze me.

Comrade in marriage

Comrade Parvati writes, women who have potential do not emerge as leaders of the revolution in Nepal because of the institution of marriage. The People?s War is changing the pattern but even within the PW, marriage and the decision to have children results in a lack of continuity of women?s leadership. Having children is a ?unilateral burden?, the birth of each new child brings greater domestic slavery. Communist women complain that ?having babies is like being under disciplinary action?, since they are cut off from party activities for long periods. Bright, aspiring communist women are lost to oblivion, even after marrying comrades of their choice. There is little support for women during their reproductive, child-bearing years. Women cadres are overtly or covertly pressurised into marrying since both men and women are ?suspicious? of a woman who is not married. Sexual offences, she says, are taken more seriously than political offences.
I ask Mishu, how have the social relations of marriage and sexuality impacted on women who belong to the left tradition in Bangladesh? And you yourself, you are single. Tell me, how have left women shaped and formed the project of women?s emancipation in their aspirations for bringing socialist change in Bangladesh.
What I have seen from my left student organisation days to now, at the Party level, women who are brilliant and beautiful, shundori and sharp, in the language of left men, are selected for marriage. The idea is, this will ensure that they will remain within the left. But, that is not necessarily the case, for they often disappear into domestic oblivion. I have also heard brilliant left men say, in cases where both comrades are equally qualified, have similar potential, both cannot be built up, one needs to be crucified. Well, adds Mishu with an impish smile, I myself have never seen men being crucified. Of course, people in the left always speak of the contributions of Jenny Marx, of Krupskaya, also of Leo Jogiches (Rosa Luxemburg’s comrade and lover). And I myself, I deeply respect and admire our male comrades, they have not sacrificed any less, they have endured, persevered against all odds, they are not lacking, it?s just their outlook, they are so terribly chauvinistic. Also, in a racist sense, you cannot imagine all the talk I overhear about forsha (fair) wives, and kalo (dark-skinned) wives.
Progressive men, communist men here, and I say this Rahnuma, in all seriousness, and with the utmost confidence, they do not practise equality between men and women in their personal lives. Neither towards their wives, nor their daughters, nor sisters. They emerge as korta (lord, master). I do not want to mention names, but daughters of left leaders have been known to be given away in marriage to good grooms, good meaning husbands with qualifications from abroad. I have discussed this with other women, and their experiences are similar. And what about party women who marry comrades, party leaders, I ask. Often, says Mishu, these women are new to the party, new to Marxist philosophy. In this situation, receiving a proposal and marrying so-and-so is perceived as bringing more status, greater prestige. They seem to form an elite by themselves.
What about the issue of sexuality? You are single, you have remained single, I return to an earlier thread of our conversation. This word is never ever mentioned, says Mishu. It is taboo. I have seen men sit and chat, they laugh among themselves, I can tell that they are talking about these things. I am sure if I had a couple of men friends, I would not have a leg to stand on in politics. There would be no space for me. After being released from jail, I hear the word ?sacrifice? being muttered, but I know there would be no space for me if I had lived differently. I would have liked it I had a male friend, of that I am sure. And what about male comrades, I ask. Is it different? But, of course, she replies. Many male comrades were single. It seems, they had women friends, but no one gossips about it. You mean their political image does not suffer as a result? No, says Mishu. You mean, in your case, they would call you characterless? Oh, absolutely. I wouldn?t be surprised if I were to be called a ?prostitute?. On hearing Mishu?s words, I wasn?t surprised either. As a university teacher, during the 1998 anti-rape movement on Jahangirnagar campus, an influential teacher who was furiously angry at my role in the movement had referred to me as a bessha. He had said it to another university teacher, who could not bring himself to repeat the word when he related the incident to me. Women are framed and located within a bou-bessha dichotomy, an everyday tool men use to whiplash female dissenters of patriarchy. Progressivist men dismiss it as ruchir obhab (tasteless), or nimno srenir bhasha (lower class language). The left cannot afford do it. The dichotomy itself is woven out of class-ed and gender-ed ideas. That, and its middle-class reception, both remain unexamined.
The left political tradition in Bangladesh, Mishu continues, is very masculine. That women can contribute to that tradition, both theoretically, and through their experiences as women, is something that is not seriously entertained. It is generally assumed that women can only inspire. They cannot lead. That women?s leadership can radically transform existing relations of power, this is not given any serious theoretical consideration. Men are considered to be theoretically superior. We women are adjuncts. That women?s participation, and women?s leadership can initiate changes in a masculine power structure, and that this is necessary, men in the left just do not give this any serious thought.
If we cannot create space to work together as comrades, if socialist aspirations for women are restricted to ?yes, we must do something for the women too?, if socialist ideals of equality are not practised at every level, in the party, in the family, in personal lives, in marriage, it will not happen automatically. If I raise these issues I am accused of being a neo-Marxist, of being a feminist, but what my Marxist comrades fail to realise is that this is essential for the creative development of Marxism. Her face suddenly breaks into a smile as she says, at least they no longer tell me, the masses won?t accept you. I work at the grassroots level, unlike many. I have no problems in gaining acceptance. And yes, did I tell you, women members are expected to wear mostly white saris. You mean dress like widows? Why on earth, I ask. We burst out laughing.

If I can?t dance, I don?t want to be part of your revolution, had said Emma Goldman, Lithuanian-born American international anarchist.

Women?s emancipation: a male script

Left men have created a framework. Women?s emancipation will have to be thought from within that framework. You will lead your life within that framework. If you do, you can preside at the next meeting. If not, regardless of the leadership qualities you may have, you cannot. I want to repeat, I respect my male comrades, I think very highly of them, they are not an oppressive lot, but I find it difficult to accept their framework of thoughts and ideas. Leaders of other parties will compliment me on my work, they will also expect me to seek advice from them, contrary to norms of party discipline. If I do so, I am a good woman, I mean an ideal woman leader. An ideal woman leader must be a good woman, as defined by dominant social norms. We are still expected to believe that once socialism is achieved, women will become emancipated. It will happen automatically. This is an over-simplification. If and when it does happen, we will advance only one step, women will gain a few rights. What will be achieved is macho socialism.
And what about women party members, I ask. I don?t think their experiences are very different. As newcomers, often they receive proposals. Such a situation may be upsetting. She may not like it. She may leave. She may become disillusioned. To say that women have to be strong enough to handle this, ignores the question of Party responsibility to tackle these issues head-on. To make creative space for women members. For those who are the party?s ?other?.

Our long conversation comes to an end. I am reminded of Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai who had insisted that the emancipation of women requires not only the end of capitalism, but also a concerted effort to transform human interpersonal relations ? of sexuality, love and comradeship ? along with the struggle for social change.


First published in The New Age on Tuesday the 5th August 2008

Of Roses and Sexual Harassment

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by rahnuma ahmed

`You should not have written about such sensitive issues in such indecorous language,’ faculty members at Jahangirnagar University (JU) told me and my ex-colleague, Manosh Chowdhury. It was 1997, four years before I left JU to become a writer.
We had written about the Provost of a Women’s Hall of Residence. He would target first year women Anthropology students. They handed in a memorandum to the University authorities detailing his abuse of power: he was rude to their family members when they dropped in for visits, he ridiculed what they were taught, and the teachers who taught them (this included us). What was not mentioned in the memorandum however, was that he would often barge into their dormitories. Sometimes, also into the wash rooms. The Provost’s misconduct later made it to the newspapers but what got left out was that he had dubbed three women students ‘lesbians,’ and another, ‘a cigarette smoker.’ We had included these in our article to map out the institutionalised nature of the Provost’s power, to draw attention to the systemic character of sexual harassment on campuses. We had written, The issue is not whether these women are `lesbians’. Women have been scorned on other occassions because they have ‘boyfriends’. Women returning to the halls in the evening are taunted, they are told they were `having fun in the bushes.’ Institutional sexual harassment is not about hard facts alone, it takes place through language, through words that ridicule and scorn. (`Oshustho Pradhokkho na ki Pratishthanik Khomota,’ Bhorer Kagoj, 9 July 1997).
We received no printed response, but hate mail instead. And a genteel comment on our `indecorous’ use of language. Our next piece was entitled, ‘What then does one call Sexual Harassment — A Rose?’ (Bhorer Kagoj, 24 August 1997).
The next year witnessed a student movement on Jahangirnagar campus, at forty plus days, the longest anti-rape campaign in South Asia. The University authorities gave in to student pressure, a Fact Finding Committee was formed. As events unfolded it became clear that a group of male students had been involved in successive incidents of rape which had taken place over several months, and that the University authorities had been reluctant to take action because of their political connections to the regime then in power, the Awami League. The movement was strong and unrelenting and gained tremendous popular support. Later, the university authorities meted out token punishment to those very students whom they had earlier protected, rather reluctantly.

A sit-in protest against rape in campus, brought out by the students union, in Jahangir Nagar University, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. August 24, 1998. ? Abir Abdullah/Drik/Majority World
One of the demands of the 1998 movement had been the formation of a Policy against Sexual Harassment. Dilara Chowdhury, Mirza Taslima Sultana, Sharmind Neelormi and I had worked long hours for weeks on end, to produce a working draft. I remember, our draft had said, sexual harassment is any unwelcome physical contact and advance, declaration of love accompanied by threat and intimidation if not reciprocated, sexually coloured remarks, display of pornography, any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature…

Policy Against Sexual Harassment: A Torturous Journey

Ten years later.
It’s Friday night, well after ten, Anu Muhammod has just returned from Munshiganj, and I am fortunate to get hold of him. `So Anu, I hear that the Policy has not yet been ratified by the University Syndicate?’ I ask the professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University, a well-known public intellectual and activist, and a good friend of many years. With a twinkle in his eyes and a deprecating smile, Anu launches into the story.
Naseem Akhter Hossain and I forwarded the Draft Policy to the university administration in 1999. Naseem, as you well know was the Provost of a women?s hall, and one of the most dedicated members of the Fact Finding Committee. The university administration was absolutely terrified of the anti-rape movement. For them it was finally over, some of the students had been punished, they wanted to forget the matter. The next year, 17 of us forwarded it to JU administration, with a signed letter. And in those days, the 8th of March Committee was alive, teachers and students would sit and discuss women’s issues and male power, we would hold a rally on International Women’s Day, left groups, cultural groups would join in. It was an annual ritual, each year we would send the draft to the University administration requesting that they take steps to ratify it, to enforce it, each year they would tell us that it had been misplaced. This went on for several years.
Two years later the BNP led alliance came to power, and the elected Vice-Chancellor was removed from his position. Jahangirnagar University Teachers Association (JUTA) protested against the government action. Anyway, to cut a long story short, JUTA initiated a movement in protest against the government’s high-handedness, a common platform was formed, I was present at one of the Teachers Association meetings and took the opportunity to place the Draft policy. Everyone was charged, and the Draft was approved, so you now had JUTA forwarding it to the University administration for ratification. I inquired again the next year but by then we were back to the old ritual, it had been misplaced. But soon, there was another incident of sexual harassment, a BBA teacher, the accusations were proven to be true, he lost his job. We raised the Policy issue again, each movement helped to revive it. I spoke to Professor Mustahidur Rahman, who was then the Vice-Chancellor.
`Yes Anu, what did he say?’ I am very curious about the reasons forwarded on behalf of institutions, by people in positions of power, the language in which they resist measures aimed at ensuring justice. ‘What did Mustahid bhai say?’
Anu’s smile deepened. ‘He said, yes, of course, we must look into it. But we have so much on our hands. I spoke to other teachers as well, why do we need a special Policy, they said. The country has criminal laws, University rules stipulate that teachers must not violate moral norms, we also have a Proctorial policy. So why do we need a separate Policy against Sexual Harassment? In 2007, another movement began, against a teacher in Bangla department. He also lost his job later, and talk of the Policy was revived again. Actually, the women students went on a fast unto death programme, this was very serious, later Sultana Kamal, Rokeya Kabir, Khushi Kabeer, these women’s movement leaders came and pleaded with the students to break their fast. They did, but on the condition that I would personally take up the matter with the University administration. They said, we trust you, we don’t trust the administration.
After this, the University set up a Committee to review the Policy. I was on that Committee, so was Sultana Kamal. Legal points were added, the draft was brushed up, student organisations were invited to comment on it, also, the Teachers Association. But the teachers are not happy, many think that false allegations will be made, that it will be used by those who have influence, on grounds of personal enmity. I tell them that the Policy has clauses to prevent this from happening, any one who brings false allegations will be severely punished, no law of the land, against murder, kidnapping, theft, whatever has such built-in-clauses. Surely, that will be a deterrent? But it falls on deaf ears. The draft was sent to the Syndicate, it was not ratified. The members felt that it required more consideration.
And now, the latest incident, the one involving a teacher of the Dramatics department. I believe the Fact Finding Committee has submitted its report, there is yet again talk of instituting the Policy, but this time it’s serious. There is new VC now, but this time I think they can no longer avoid it. There is strong support for the Policy.
This is how things stand at present. I think the Policy, once ratified, will create history. It will set a strong precedent for similar policies at other places of work. In garments factories, I often say, for women, it’s not only a question of wages but being able to work in a safe and secure place, free of harassment and sexual advances.
`And what about other public universities,’ I ask, knowing fully well the answer. No, says Anu, there is no talk of a Policy, let alone a finalised Draft.
Jahangirnagar has a strong tradition of protest and resistance, our conversation ends on this note. I forget who said it. Was it Anu? Or, was it me? Maybe, both of us?

Voices of Female Students

Four women students of Drama and Dramatics department have accused the departmental chairperson, M Sanowar Hossain (Ahmed Sani), of harassing them.
One of them confided to her classmates, Sir has asked me to go and see him. Well, why don’t you? I am afraid. Why? Another woman said, he has asked me to go and see him too. You too? I don’t want to. Why not?
They talked and discovered that they were not alone in their experiences of sexual harassment, that it was shared. One of them said, as is the practice in the department, I had bent to touch his feet to seek his blessings, as I rose up he pulled me and kissed me on my forehead. Another woman student, similarly abused but silent until the four junior women stepped forward, spoke of how he had grabbed her and kissed her cheek. Another woman said, I was so scared when he said I would have to go to his office, but I was angry too, I knew what was going to happen, I told a friend, I’ll carry a brick in my bag. I want to mark him, so that people kow.
But the women also spoke of how they themselves felt marked. When I went back to the hostel and told the girls they wanted to know, what did he do to you? where did he touch you? how long did he hold you? I wept inside, she said. Why didn’t anyone say, where’s that bastard? Let’s go and get him. Such responses make it so difficult to come out. Why should I take on this social pressure?
The girls also said, if it had just happened to me, if I hadn’t discovered that there were other victims, I would never have spoken out. I don’t think anyone would have believed me.

Male Academia and Its Insecurities

Why do University authorities resist the adoption of a policy that will help institute measures to redress wrongs? That will afford women protection against unwanted sexual advances, thereby creating an environment that is in synchrony with what it claims to be, an institution of greater learning and advancement.
I think what lies hidden beneath academic hyperbole is, although the university, as other public and private institutions, appears to be asexual, in reality, it is deeply embedded with sexual categories and preferences. Men are superior, both intellectually and morally, this is assumed to be the incontrovertible truth. For women, to be unmasking and challenging male practices, aided by a Complaint Cell, members of which will listen to their grievances, extend support, advocate sanctions if allegations are proven to be true, is a threat that terrifies the masculine academic regime of power and privileges.
But sexual harassment is not a bunch of roses. It is serious, it needs to be taken seriously.
An open letter to the Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University
First published in New Age on 7th July 2008