Reporting from Bangladesh: Shahana Siddiqui
Instead of waiting for change, women must take charge of their own worlds, asserts SHAHANA SIDDIQUI.
I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address…
I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free —
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you, And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets. It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me. Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby. Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds. They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down, Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour, A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck…
–“Tulips” by Sylvia Plath
A troubled poetess wrote these lines long before she ended her own life with gas poisoning in her kitchen. Two children, failed marriage to another great poet and deep down emotional turmoil that were at times electroshocked or just left to their own devices. For many it may be because poets are just a little like that — emotional, erratic and fiery. Yet these words hold true for the 16-year-old me then and the 30-year-old me now. These words describe so many women around me and their beautifully hidden lives of everything that is hollow, empty. We know too many women who quietly hide their emotional scars and baggage behind their colourful visage and tulip-garnished homes.
I. Mrs. Rahman just turned 60. She has been married for most of her adult life. It was an arranged marriage. She has three children, all grown up, all settled in their own lives and ways. Now that she has some time in her hand to reflect on the life lived, she questions her own identity a lot. While she hated the verbally abusive relationship she endured the past few decades, her husband is the only sense of identity she has, she knows, she can relate to. She told her children several times through tears of pain and humiliation that this was the only reason she stayed on in this horrible marriage. Her children told her to leave their father, but truth is, she was too scared of what society would say about her if she had left this marriage — who does that? Leave a marriage, an institution, a society, a status after this many years? If she has taken it for this long, why not a little bit longer?
II. Sami hated Farhana’s past — she had a couple of boyfriends before they started dating. But they will marry very soon. Sami hated Farhana’s desire to have a career — he is still un-decided if she should work or not even though she holds the better degree/qualifications. But they will marry very soon. Sami doesn’t know when that soon is but he will marry her, and that should be enough for now. He has agreed to marry her, a non-virgin, woman of her late 20s, what more can she want, because given her circumstances, who else would want to be with her? He reminds her that from time to time, especially when she doesn’t feel like being physically intimate. He tells her that he loves her, especially after turbulent fights and calling her a magi/whore/bitch for hours. He reminds her he will marry her especially after a dhyl-ganjanight when he can’t remember if the bruise on her arm is from hitting or love making. But he will marry, not now, but very soon.
III. The college going bhaiya made a move on her one day when no one was in the house. She was ironing some clothes. At first she didn’t know how to react, but then she heard from others that barir korta/chhele’ra erokom ektu korey egulo mone nite hoy na. Thinking about the mouths to feed back home, she reluctantly gave in. Somewhere between the murky space of consensual and non-consensual, it all happened and kept happening whenever there was the opportunity. At other times, he keeps his distance, medhabi bhalo bhodro chhele, who studies, watches television, hangs out with friends, and asks for a cup of tea or to iron his shirt. Sometimes she hates him and sometimes she fantasises what if they had a chance? She stares at their bhodro moddhobittoyta and can’t help but smile to herself that even in this small government staff quarters, there are worlds hidden from each other.
Shongshar aar shongskar
These are the three out of numerous stories of verbal abuse, emotional and circumstantial exploitation, and depression that are all around us, inflicted mainly upon women that go silent, neatly tucked away within the household domain. These incidents we see, we feel, but we all stay quiet about. There is a fine line between familial discontent and trauma caused by a family member. For most of us, we choose to blur out that line.
Particularly in a societal culture which has its foundation on the institution of marriage (I am not passing judgment, rather stating it for what it is), it is imperative for marriages to work at any cost. Hence the private domain is forced to stay quiet, behind closed doors. Women are its pillars and everything must be done to ensure that they stay in their places, or else the foundations will fall through, break away. With long established cultural practices that cut across all class boundaries where girl children, especially when they become wives, are both the beholder of traditions as well as the victims of traditions. For them to talk about the household miseries is almost shameful, a failure as a woman to tackle that world that she has been born to deal with. To leave it, is almost unthinkable, unimaginable.
Anthropologists such as Lila Abu-Loghod, explain how women in non-western cultures form social support systems that are difficult to explain through Western feminist analysis and at times come across as supporting patriarchal normative. So the wives in polygamy become each other’s confidants, second mothers to one another’s children. The same mother-in-law who tortures her son’s wife, becomes the greatest supporter of the granddaughter’s education and livelihood. And while I understand the patriarchal system which determines our relations/relationships with each other, to always “blame” patriarchy for our actions are also to take away our own individuality, our agency and our ability to make decisions of our own. We do make conscious decisions to tell each other as friends, sisters, mothers, daughters to stay on in borderline abusive marriages, to take the emotional and physical violence, to keep at it for the sake of the children. We fall through the cracks of shongshar aar shongskar — where one minute we are denouncing the abusive partner/perpetrator and another we are telling each other to give it time to make it work. One minute we are bonded by incredible feeling of sisterhood and the next, we are our worst enemies.
In most cases of family disputes, even strong women, will counsel the emotionally abused woman to hold on, to give it time and most commonly heard advice: “oke bujhao“. Why do people think that the man who calls his wife and daughter besshhya regularly will suddenly understand how such horrible name calling destroys a person’s entire self-esteem? Why do people think that the partner who emotionally exploits his girlfriend for intercourse will suddenly understand how that can be borderline rape? Why would the man who has been cracking jokes about his wife’s weight for the past 20 years of their marriage, suddenly stop using his favourite opening line with his friends and family members? Why do people think bujh dile bujhe manush? And most of all, why is it the duty of the victim, the survivor, the violated to make her perpetrator understand the feeling of humiliation and self-desecration?
When is kotha katakati abuse?
Emotional abuse is hardly ever seen or considered as abuse. Between familial obligations, set by cultural norms, women seldom learn the language of exploitation, of emotional battering and abuse. While their primal instinct as humans tells them the behaviours they are receiving are wrong, unjust — the socially constructed “woman” stops them from voicing it out, taking a stand against anything that will break their shongshar as preached by shongskar.
Even human rights activists and feminists do not give much time to the emotional traumas that women endure (maybe even they themselves endure) on a daily basis for which there is very limited knowledge and even fewer support systems. There is a practice of disregarding emotional trauma as women experiencing “hysteria” or that she is simply “mad”.
There has been a real movement around domestic violence and other forms of physical torture upon women which have made a real break-through in the cultural silence against domestic violence. But even great initiatives have limitations where interventions are made only after physical harm has been inflicted and not when there has been a build-up to that physical abuse. And these days when even murders committed inside our bedrooms are said to be kept in the private domain, then “bedroom” kotha kata kati, jhogra-jhati are complete no-no’s to interfere in.
In addition, in the violence against women activism there is an innate class structure which goes against women of affluent families. The Rumana Manzoor case is a classic one where there was a national shock that such violence can take place in an “educated family”. More so, how could an educated woman take so much abuse over the years? These kinds of one-track understanding of women’s development/feminism, that with education and economic empowerment, women will immediately be socially emancipated — is both problematic and reductionist. This is exactly how we focus on one group of women over the other or belittle one’s problem up against the other.
Who decided which form of abuse is worse than the other? Who decided that one girl’s situation is worse or better than another? Why should the affluent woman getting violated regularly by her husband be any less priority than the rural girl getting married off at 14? In the name of class consciousness, we have created class-preferences in our interventions. In the name of strategic prioritisation to reach the poorest/worst off, we have overlooked and oversimplified another part of the women’s population. On one hand, the strong activist women are rushing to provide legal aid services to poor, physically battered women, and on the other hand telling our own sisters and best friends that last night’s hata-hati with the husband is part of dampottik jibon.
There is very little information on domestic abuse among non-poor families in both urban and rural areas of Bangladesh. What I can tell from my own observations around me is that domestic violence among the “educated”, the”affluent” is highly prevalent with many choosing not to discuss or finding mechanisms to live with the abuse (i.e. if the husbands are abusive, many wives let them continue on their extra-marital affairs so as to shift the focus away from the wives). As for emotional battering, we have yet to find the language to even call emotional abuse a form of abuse. And then there is an entire realm of women against women violence that we either “strategically” do not address or do not know how to address.
The girl effect
A friend of mine introduced this incredible animation from the Girl Effect campaign (www.thegirleffect.org) where in the end it shows how generation after generation of emotionally and physically healthy girls who grow up to be happy women can only be the solution to continuing challenges of poverty and violations.
I agree with this message wholeheartedly that investing in generations of girl children can bring the very best of the women to come. There is no one-track formula to emancipate women socially, culturally, economically. While we negotiate for greater budget for women-focused national development, we can also look to our children’s schools to ensure there are counsellors to help our daughters through troubled teens. While we raise our voices against domestic violence among the poor women, we can encourage the middle/upper class women to engage in community services. While we preach others on what happiness is, maybe we should first take one long, hard look at our own mascara-dripping reflection.
Most of all, we can continue to be supportive of each other, to point out when we are making mistakes, or when we are unhappy and sad. It is important that we take charge of our worlds and not always look for patriarchy to change, for no one will change anything for us. And that change can only come from within.
So, I decided sometime back that I refuse to tell friends that I am happy for them when they are settling with jerks in the name of love. I refuse to call hata-hati anything other than a form of violence. I refuse to advise any girl, regardless of class, culture, location that it is ever all right to stay on, to take it, to be okay with the abuse no matter how many times he comes back with apologies. I refuse to tell fairytales to grown women that slowly everything gets better without interventions. I have decided to make amends with girls I have done wrong. My approach may not earn me popularity points but neither does it make me anyone’s greatest enemy.
1.Real names have been changed
2.Abu-Loghod, L., Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories, University California Press 1993
Originally posted in The Forum Magazine, The Daily Star: http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2012/March/girl.htm