Farah Mehreen Ahmad
Published in the Daily Star Forum on 4 July 2011.
This piece examines the issue of women’s bodies as sites of violence.
Life, they say, and death, for sure, are beyond our control. Just like my worth. “Ajke tumi 100,000 taka, kalke 50,000, porshu 25,000, aar tar porer din … NAI!” is what he said to me when I told him I am in my twenties and not interested in getting married at the moment. “Boyosh toh are kom holona!” he said, “Taar upor dekhteo eto bhalona. Kaalo. Shomoy thakte thakte biyeta kore felo. Eto porashuna-ghuraghuri-chakri-bakri diye ki hobe?” (You’re not getting younger! On top of that you’re not that good-looking. Dark-skinned. Tie the knot while you still have time. What are you going to do with all this education-travelling-work?)
A couple of years back, I had gone to this monk with flowery expectations — spiritual detoxification, carnal detachment, cathartic solace … blah blah blah. Clearly, I got none. And if you’re thinking he stopped with the spiel on my age, looks and depreciating market value, you are mistaken. He ended with a death threat.
He gloated about how he has Jinns; how an elephant once bowed down to him; how someone was once rude to him and he broke that guy’s neck just by lightly stroking it and immediately healed it with another stroke; how a recovering alcoholic once promised him he’d never touch liquor again, but did, and died. Yes, he told me the guy died solely because he broke his promise. I lost my attention somewhere around him telling me how he cured his own “purushali okkhomota” with his special powers.
Photo: LAURENT HAMELS/GETTY IMAGES
I do a pretty neat job of zoning out while making a person think I am paying attention. So I launched my tried and tested method of staring and nodding at skewed frequencies. All of a sudden I snapped out of my daze when he said “Shotti toh?” I just smiled not knowing what he was talking about. He continued, “Ei chaar deyaler moddhe bole jokhon diso, tomar agami bochhorer jonmodiner moddhe biye na korle kintu tumi moray jaba. Aami chaina tumi moro, kintu amar kacche je protiggya bhange, shey moray jaye.” (Since you have made a promise within these four walls, you will die if you don’t get married by your next birthday. I don’t want you to die, but whoever breaks a promise made to me, does.)
But I didn’t say a word! He said my nod was my proxy for a verbal promise. Talk about backfire! It has, however, been a couple of years since this encounter. Birthdays have come and gone, you still haven’t received a wedding invitation from me (I promise biriyani at my funeral), and I am still around. As is the unenlightened, inhuman and adamant malice this man represented — a contrived, persistent and rampant value index of a woman’s worth.
My experience with the monk is nothing out of the ordinary. He is like those aunties you meet during the wedding season, which is like a series of Black Fridays for the meat/marriage market. “Haate bhalo chhele ase.” Please aunty, keep your Tom Thumb in your purse. I’m no Thumbelina.
His forecast of my value being on a slippery slope runs parallel with the general practice of the commodification of women — that same bhanga record reminder of women’s diminishing marginal utility — the inversely proportional relationship between maturity and desirability. The only deviation from the norm in this case is that it came from a monk. But he is afterall, a product of this society. What this really was, was a reassertion of an abominable normalcy. Whether we have cut across all classes, religions, ethnicities in other ways or not, in terms of disseminating vulnerability and objectification of women, we have.
Normalcy as reminder that our bodies are not wine and don’t get better with age; that flawed skin, vintage uterus, active and assertive vocal chords don’t make quality potpourri. It is the same normalcy that insists that women remain useful yet docile — functional, maternal, absorbent (popular as ‘tolerant’ in misogynist vernacular), obedient (“feminine”), subservient (‘soft type er‘), silent; that asserts that we are at the disposal of others and it is alright for us to be treated however they want; that our bodies are something to be ashamed of, and that body parts are hierarchical; that normalcy kneads us into dough — play and edible.
What is alarming is how unalarmed we often are. It is most pronounced in our dealings with children. I remember this conversation I witnessed when I was around eight or nine years old. A three-year-old boy had said “aami amar bouke fan er shathe jhulaye dibo,” (I will hang my wife from the ceiling fan) when one of his parents asked him “tomar bou jodi shoitan hoy ki korba?” (What will you do if your wife turns out to be evil?) “Kintu bou jodi shundor hoy, taile ki korba?” (But what will you do if your wife is pretty?) He had said, “taile ekta thappor marbo” (in that case, I will slap her). I think I remember this conversation still because I found it disturbing then, but did not know why. Now, I am constantly reminded of it when I witness similar cutesy, seemingly harmless backdoor entrance to subconscious-building — othering the (female) partner, insisting on heteronormativity and most horrifyingly, normalising violence.
On a popular talk show on NDTV, there was a debate on attire. One participant claimed that women should dress “modestly” and wear the hijab since they would otherwise be inviting trouble. She said, “When you walk by a bakery and you see all those pastries lined up, you say to yourself ‘I want that pastry! I want that pastry!’ So it only makes sense that if your body is revealed men will want it.” If I was on the show I would have asked her if I see a pastry, salivate, break into the shop, rob some and run off, how long the shopkeeper should be imprisoned for? Minus the fallacious and degrading logic of the argument, what is striking here, as is in most metaphorical conversations on women’s bodies, is how it is consistently equated with consumable items. When I was discussing this with a friend sometime back, she mentioned that during the anti-rape movement at Jahangirnagar University, a professor had remarked, “mangsher tukra shamne thakle kukur toh mukh dibei.”
The same sentiment comes through when a woman complains about a lewd remark made about her sleeveless top or when a rape victim is asked what she was wearing at the time of the incident. All these lean towards holding women as consumable items and provocateurs of that consumption, especially if they display no guilt about having a body.
I’m sorry I have arms, I really didn’t mean to. And if you can find it in your generous heart to ignore my ankles today, I promise I will put them away tomorrow.
What this also brings me to is how problematic the language we use is. Let’s take “eve-teasing” as an example. A word that dilutes the gravity of an act that infringes on basic human rights — right to education, right to independence, right to mobility, right to life; that leads to self-mutilation, suicide and murder — is harassment. It’s torture. It’s violence. Similarly, “street Romeo” imbues a playful, almost romantic accent to the harassers. As far as I know, Eve was tempted not teased and Romeo was a lover. Calling harassers street Romeos is like calling Oedipus a momma’s boy.
Earlier last year, there was a fairly regular influx of reports on suicides and murders associated with sexual harassment. Elora (Madhya Nandipara) and Reshma (Sherpur) took their lives with pesticides when they could no longer tolerate the torture. Chand Moni (Kishoreganj) hung herself from the ceiling fan from the same reason. Iti (Kalachandpur) quit school a year ago for the same reason, and then lost her parents to murder when they did not consent to marrying her off to her harasser. This form of harassment and the fatal eventualities that often accompany them aren’t new to us. In fact, I would also call the suicides murder, because the way I look at it, the social infrastructure provoked and enabled their deaths.
Once in Pabna, I met with a group of young girls who were compelled to change their courses of life to avoid harassment. Some quit school, some were married off soon after they hit puberty, and some before. All 25 girls in the room, regardless of age, were burkha and hijab-clad. Not only that, but of the very few girls and women that were actually visible on the streets, not a single one had an uncovered head. Conversation with the girls and locals revealed that their mobility is restricted by the Nakshal and Bahini goon-squads, as well as individuals who notoriously harass girls, especially in public spaces. The area’s low literacy rate and high rate of childhood marriage were attributed to “teasing.”
We haven’t come across as many stories on “eve-teasing” recently. Maybe it’s not the fad anymore. Tenacity can make something bland and I suspect, we won’t read about Rumana or domestic violence after a while. It would probably become oh-so-five-minutes-ago five days later. We don’t really talk about the 13-year-old girl who was gang-raped and has still not recuperated socially and emotionally. We probably don’t even remember her. Just the same way, Rumana will take a backseat in our zeitgeist very soon. Something else will come up and we will roar and howl for a while.
Our collective voices do a Mexican wave as if in a stadium. Fluid and rotational. Ebbing and tiding across galleries. It is of course not just ignorance or negligence. While a part of it is time and other constraints, another part of it is a culture of denial and a deviation from nuanced thinking. We believe in the arithmetic of visible fatal eventualities you see. No gore = no malady. No rape + no out-of-wedlock pregnancy = no problem.
It reminds me of that arts and craft show artist Mostofa Manowar used to host. In one episode he drew a line on a piece of paper and asked a participant to make it shorter without touching it. After the participant gave up, Manowar drew a longer line under it. I often feel, in evaluating our social circumstances, we play a similar game of relativity.
I find flickers of self-gratifying, uninformed and unrefined “progressive thinking”, simultaneously amusing and unnerving. Especially, when the “kintu/tobe” arrives after a declaration of how wonderful it is to see women doing well for themselves, as a reminder to continue mollycoddling our male counterparts — our heroes and our babies: “…tobe jotoi modernity fodernity’r kotha bolo na keno, ekta kotha aami bolbo, meyeder khub smart hote hoy. Bujhte hobe chhelera alladi. Raag kore, distracted hoy. Meyeder dayitto manaye chola, bujhaye nawa.” (“…but no matter how much you talk about modernity, I want to say one thing; women need to be really smart. They need to understand men need to be pampered. They get angry and distracted. It is the responsibility of women to adjust themselves accordingly and comfort them). In a similar vein you hear “jedi meyeder borkot hoy na,” “jei shob meyera beshi golabaji kore, oder bhalo hoy na,” “meyeder beshi ambition bhalo na,” etc. And then there is my all-time favourite ‘olokkhi.’
The Rumana Monzur case is an excruciating example of this mindset. Let’s do a little exercise. We will insert some of these adjectives into this story and try to find a happy ever-after:
It was really good to see independent Rumana pursue her academic ambitions with thesupport/permission of her liberal-minded husband Sumon. When Sumon, in a vein of alladiasked Rumana to discontinue, jedi/teji/beshi ambitious Rumana refused. Naturally then, raager mathaye adhkaana (one of Sumon’s excuses is he does not see well without his glasses, so he “might have” hurt her eyes), Sumon made Rumana full-kaana. Olokkhi Rumana was unable tomanaye chola. We hear this wasn’t Sumon’s debut into physical expression of alladi. Rumana must have been jedi/teji/olokkhi for 10 years.
(I could also insert the “affair cholchhilo” bit into this, but even sardonically, I can’t develop an appetite to accommodate it.)
The Canadian Bangladeshi community came in with a dilution plan in support of Rumana Monzur, complete with a character certificate. This testimonial is a reassertion of parameters and possibilities. Since she has managed to comply with an acceptable code of conduct, this incident is condemnable.
But what if Rumana wore short skirts, was an atheist and drank wine? What if she was loud, laughed too much and did not have that “childlike simplicity and innocence”? What if she was rude and ill-tempered? Would that make her less of a woman, mother, daughter, person? Would that make this crime less of a crime? If she did not abide by the said parameters, would/should there be a possibility to justify what happened?
What if she wasn’t Rumana? What if she was Romela, a village home-maker or Rozina, a domestic aid or Rahela, a slum-dweller? Would there even be a conversation?
They are venomous, these “buts.” They insinuate invitation and prohibit victims from reaching out and escaping abuse/harassment/torture. “But… she asked for it.”
I remember last year, when a 13-year old girl was gang-raped in Faridpur and escaped being married to the main perpetrator at the very last minute. The incident was recorded on a phone, along with an earlier recording of her conversing with one of the men. Smiling. When the story hit the papers, the OC of the area claimed, “kintu agey theke toh porichoy chhilo. Amra dekhsi ok ei loker shathe heshe kotha bolte” (but they knew each other from before. We have seen her speak to them amicably).
There have been girls and women like the ones I mentioned before, and there will be more like them after. Not all of them will make it to the newspapers. Maybe we won’t know about the wife who is being tortured by her husband as I write this. We may not hear about the girl who is being molested as you read this. We probably will never know of the girl who stood by the doorstep, when you sent your last SMS, afraid to walk to school because of the eyes that will devour her on the way and the lecherous voice(s) that will haunt her for a very long time.
But we do know that we can’t rely on a constant supply of losses and losses of lives to shake up our zeitgeist. What good would it do if this attention is only a temporary and impulsive reaction to the moment’s malleability?
We know that women’s bodies are sites of violence and we need to shatter the foundations and tamper with the architecture of misogyny and patriarchy; of cosmetics of progress and half-hearted consolation.
We know when we are wronged, we are wronged; and there is no “but.” We don’t ask to be beaten. We don’t ask to be harassed. We don’t ask to be raped. We don’t ask to be blinded. We don’t ask to be burnt. We don’t ask to be afraid. We don’t ask to be silenced. We don’t ask to be murdered (even if it is called suicide).
We don’t ask for any of it.