Street defenders

Naeem Mohaiemen

Published in the Daily Star on 11 April, 2009.

…there was a particular way that Taslima ignited passions. She was unique and necessary, in that Bangladesh of that time. That earlier role has evolved today not into any central feminist icon, but rather many activists, many movements. Working quietly and loudly, with negotiation and confrontation. For the rights of women on the factory floor, corporate office, university classrooms, home sweet home, and of course, the streets.

LOOKING at a new wave of feminist organising around the right to space and respect on the streets (Drishtipat organised Ey Poth Amadero), I was reminded of earlier street movements, earlier organisers. A younger Taslima Nasreen in her not-so-lost days.

Isolation from the creative ferment of Bangladesh, a life as shut-in floater in European capitals, resulted in a shrinking of Taslima’s intellectual space and thinking. When she talks and writes now, her analysis is at times blunt and tone deaf. She seems disconnected from broader political movements even in her immediate surroundings (e.g., Nandigram in Kolkata).

But I remember a very different Taslima. The edgy writer who exploded onto the Dhaka scene in the late 1980s. Long before Lajja, before Amar Meyebela or Dikhwandito (books the world discovered after exile), there were the weekly columns for a purely Bangladeshi audience. Even the wikipedia entry on her starts a list of achievements with her 1992 Ananda Puroshkar, i.e., with her discovery by an overseas intelligentsia (the seduction of the Indian literary circuit, which used and then disposed of her). But there is a different Taslima, from a period before fame, with a lot of earnest and effective feminist action activism.

The topics she wrote about in the late 80s may seem like Feminism 1.0 or established home truths now, but at that time she was a molotov cocktail into the complacency of Bangla bhodrolok circles. Within the hallowed space of Bangla kolchor, Taslima was the first to write in 1989 about how the narrow confines and massive crowds of even Ekushey Boi Mela were cover to groups of hungry hands.

In angry, clean, precise Bangla, she described which line, which area, which body part, which finger, where-when-how — the mathematics of invasive groping. Through that campaign of writing she managed to inspire activists who formed human chains at boi mela. Angry, confrontational and necessary gender politics, all of which retreated in the face of internecine warfare of the 00s.

In 1990/91, I could feel my head crumble as I read her angry columns, week after week. That in-your-face, “disobedient girl”, smash-the-patriarchy feminism was raw and direct. Eve teasing goon squads, lit cigarettes flitting into rickshaws, why women rode motorcycles side-saddle, the old uncle molesting his young ward, the sexist nonsense being taught in schools, the hypocrisy of the prostitute-frequenting middle class, Biman Airlines’ discrimination against older stewardesses any and everything were targets of her early attacks. Wanting a room of one’s own, many of us learnt about Virginia Woolf via the Bangla translations in her column (as well as Humayun Azad’s Naari). Essential work in a xerox world before wiki and google.

Of course there is much to criticise of Taslima. The way she allowed herself to be appropriated post-1992, and especially the BJPs’ embrace of Lajja, which she failed to distance herself from. The arrogant perch from which she surveyed the larger feminist movements on the ground. Compared to an early pioneering role, her writing and public posture now seems frozen in time. A radical whose newer writing seems stilted, cut off from meaningful challenge, isolated from debates going on inside Bangladesh (which have advanced eons since her exile).

At the time of the Taslima conflagration, wall graffiti went up with Niemoller’s line “First they came for…” The last line there was “Today they come for Taslima…” Soon, those grafs were painted over with much bigger slogans in cherry red “Taslima-r chamra/tule nibo amra.” Perhaps they meant clothes, not skin, back to that ultra-violent energy she wrote about. In the face of that organised fury, the genteel secularists beat a hasty retreat.

Remembering the earlier, angry Taslima, Shabnam Nadiya wrote: “I wept when I read Taslima describing a young man burning her arm with a cigarette in public. Or when I read, “Women who emerge from the home to set foot in the street; those women — not only me — are all prepared to bear silently any obscene remark in the streets. This was the first time I realised that what had happened to me on that bus and later as well, happened to others, and was not my fault.” (“Woman Alone”, Star Literature Eid Issue, 2008)

There were then, as now, thousands of NGO activists working quietly in every corner of Bangladesh — bringing incremental, meaningful and slow change to the lives of urban and rural women. That work was away from the spotlight, the media glare. Some would argue that this quiet work can have more of a long-lasting impact.

But inside the alternate space of polemic and headlines, within the role of a public provocateur, there was a particular way that Taslima ignited passions. She was unique and necessary, in that Bangladesh of that time. That earlier role has evolved today not into any central feminist icon, but rather many activists, many movements. Working quietly and loudly, with negotiation and confrontation. For the rights of women on the factory floor, corporate office, university classrooms, home sweet home, and of course, the streets.

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