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Volume 5 Issue 03 | March 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

Sultana's Nightmare:
Henas and the Feminist Movement
--Shahana Siddiqui
Women in the CHT: The Violent Hills --Hana Shams Ahmed
Notes to My Successor:
The Forgotten Women of the 1971 War

--Ziauddin Choudhury
Liberating the Women of 1971
Interview with Shafina Lohani
Interview with Mahmuda Haque Choudhury

--Marianne Scholte
Woman on a Mission
--Marianne Scholte talks to Shafina Lohani
Project Post-1971
--Marianne Scholte speaks to Mahmuda Haque Choudhury
Her Home
--Shayera Moula
Photo Feature: Freedom at 40--Zahedul I. Khan

Journeys through Shadows:
Gender and armed conflict
--Bina D'Costa

Women as Decision Makers:
Are organisations ready?
--Dr. Syed Saad Andaleeb
Govern Migration, Take Women Forward --Farheen Khan
Women's Rights and the Fourth Estate
--Arafat Hosen Khan
Why Women in India Should
Defend Arundhati Roy

A Patriotic Dissenter
Empress Extraordinaire
--Rubaiyat Hossain


Forum Home

Sultana's Nightmare:
Henas and the Feminist Movement

Shahana Siddiqui takes a discerning look at the issue of stigma in gender based violence and the role of the feminist movement.


Some 20 years ago, a mother and a daughter visited our household to seek advice from my family. It was one of those busy days, with people coming in and out and so they were asked to wait while I kept them entertained.

Shafia Khala, our ayah, chatted with the mother while I made friends with the pretty young girl, a few years older than me. After they left, Shafia Khala re-told the story that, looking back now, seems very inappropriate for a pre-teen child.

It was a horror story of rape and pillage of that young girl and her older brother. The siblings were kidnapped when the girl was about 12 and the boy was about 14. I forget how long they were in captivity but just about every day the girl was raped while the brother was physically tortured and made to watch his sister being violated.

After spending a fortune running from one authority figure/office to another, the parents finally rescued the children. Not all the perpetrators were brought to law.

Along with the emotional trauma, the girl's reproductive system was completely damaged and her brother lost his sanity.

This story still haunts me. Her face still comes into my thoughts from time to time. Moreover, her story angers me. It angers me that 20 years later, nothing fundamentally has changed for many girls/women. It angers me that four decades of feminist movement, thousands of street protests, millions of dollars worth of gender empowerment projects, and two monumental laws (Nari o Shishu Nirjaton Daman Ain, 2000 and The Domestic Violence Bill, 2010) later, we are still haunted every day with stories of rape, violence, inhuman torture against girls and women and worst of all, the stigma that is attached to this violence that stops us from seeking justice within our families and the formal courts. From the girl who came to my house 20 years ago to the recent Hena tragedy, to be born a girl is to live a life of fear for our basic safety and this intangible yet life encompassing concept of honour.

While we write angry letters of protest against the shalish committee in Shariatpur that issued the fatwa against Hena three weeks ago; while we raise our fists against patriarchy at every public forum; while we take these perpetrators to court one by one, I wonder how any of this make the streets safe, the neighbourhood friendly, and the people more caring and respectful?

There is no doubt in any of our minds that Mahbub and the shalish committee are violators and killers of little Hena. But are they the only ones who took Hena to her untimely death?

We rightly denounce the fatwas and argue that these "religious" directives were banned by the High Court. But the sad truth remains that far too many people in Bangladesh still rely on the informal arbitration and mediation systems such as the shalish to solve their day-to-day problems. Communities revere the religious leaders and look towards them for directions. Women rights activists or other rights-promoting organisations/individuals in the local communities are respected but not seen in the same light as the religious leaders.

In a relatively conservative Muslim majority society with limited education yet strong ideas of moral codes and propriety, how much do the languages of rights and in particular women's rights mean beyond the urban elite boundaries? Even within the elite, violence against women and children is sometimes just for the talk-shop. Behind closed doors, how many of us take the blacks and blues on our bodies and souls and cover them up with expensive make-up?

Despite having an internationally recognised successful feminist movement in Bangladesh, the violence against women and children prevails with very little justice served. So maybe, there is something amiss here -- somewhere there might be a disconnect between the movements to empower women and how women survive through their daily realities. While we debate on state building at the 40th year of independence, maybe it is time for those of us in the feminist movement (both at the core and the peripheries)1 to take a step back and reflect upon how effective we have been in protecting our daughters, raising our sons to respect women as humans, paving paths for ourselves and contesting and breaking patriarchy.

Stigma and gender based violence
Under the new Human Development Index formulation, Bangladesh has improved its HDI score. But the Gender Inequality Index (GII) shows the continuation of women's inequality and disadvantages. The GII takes three dimensions into account reproductive health, empowerment and economic activity. The GII "shows the loss in human development due to inequality between female and male achievements in the three GII dimensions".2 Our GII results to a value of 0.734, ranking us at 116 out of 138 countries.

While the three dimensions serve as proxies to access to various resources and women's ability to make choices, the GII does not however capture the gender based violence. Other than police reported cases of violence and some NGO recorded data, there is no method to account for gender based violence and how that affects a woman's ability to take part economically, socially and politically.

While survivors live through the physical pains and with time and therapy, overcome the mental trauma, the stigma that goes along with the abuse is in my views, the main impediment to women fully recovering and regaining their sense of self-esteem. Gender based violence is not just the physical and mental abuse on the woman's body, but it is the entire stigma that goes along with that abuse which is socially constructed and controlled.

It is this stigma that makes acid survivors wear scarves around their faces so as to not bring any more attention to their scars. It is stigma that leads young girls to commit suicide because they must have "wanted" the sexual harassment from the parar chhelera. It is stigma that keeps the woman in an abusive marriage, because who will look after her and the children if she leaves her man?

And it is that same stigma that made Hena's parents stay on in the family homestead where Mahbub repeatedly harassed her and did not and could not do anything between the time the rape occurred, to the carrying out of the fatwa, and then finally her death.

We have failed to break this stigma. We have failed to communicate with families and communities that no girl/woman ever "asks for it". We have not found an effective way of explaining to the male members, however young or old to treat women as humans first. We have yet to break the fear among women to come out and voice out against the prejudices that perpetuate the violence.

We can blame the judiciary system, lobby hard to implement the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and ensure a gender-sensitised education policy. But stigma is beyond macro-level policies. It is a social construct that is based on society's perception of what is right and what is wrong. From a young age, I was made to believe that because I went to co-ed schools, girls like me (not the boys, mind you) were deviants from the "norms", we were considered "loose" and "fast". Immediately a judgment call is made against us. This has nothing to do with policy, rather it is the society and how it moral polices by subjugating women. That too by the elite, educated society that apparently sets the tone for progressive thinking in the country!

Many will argue that give women education and economic empowerment and that will lead to emancipation. This means (a.) the road to freedom is our onus with society bearing little to no responsibility and (b.) the manufacturing of a cookie-cutter one-fits-all development intervention.

So we concentrated all our resources into micro-credit for poor women and education for all. However, research shows that just because women have access to economic resources does not necessarily mean they have any decision making power over that money. Neither does access to finance stop the husband from raising his hand once in a while.

While we boast to the world of reaching gender parity in the primary education level, there is a high girl children drop out rate in the high schools for the simple reason that too much education ruins the chances of a good marriage proposal. And why shake our heads in dismay at rural poor families with limited opportunities pulling their daughters out of school when urban elite girls from private universities choose on their own to find economically solvent husbands right after graduation?

These choices are not made in a vacuum. These choices and decisions are made based on the society's, rural or urban, continuation of stigmas and prejudices against girls and women. Implementing national laws and policies or international treaties have trickle down effects upon the society but they do not spark off people's revolution for change.

Implementing CEDAW, contesting family laws, applying the anti-violence laws, gender sensitising work places and education systems, ensuring women's access to finances are all needed and important. I will personally never undermine nor disrespect the work and dedication of the leading women's organisations at the forefront of these macro- and grassroots level campaigns and interventions. It is from that point of respect and solidarity that I ask, what has been our impact in the wider society when violence and strong social stigma prevail? When torture, abuse, murders continue at this scale, is it not important for us to ask why is the larger audience, even women themselves, not getting the messages to fight for rights, dignity and respect? While patriarchy cannot be broken overnight, the continuation of stigma and violence makes me wonder if we have even made a dent.

The feminist impasse
The decade of 1990s was considered to be the "golden age" for women's movements in Bangladesh.3 Wider political changes, donor funding, trends in economic shifts have all affected the way feminism and feminist movements have changed over the years. But could this "golden age" which saw the rise of a number of well known women's organisations, also have created an image of the women's movement based on the strong personalities and characteristics of the leading feminists?

It is exactly this "image" that may shun many away from the movement or keep them at the peripheries. Feminists are viewed as being too "pushy", "preachy" and "judgmental". While debates keep the discourse alive, is there a general apathy towards the movement among the new generation urban educated young women? How much of the feminist chants for rights translate to the rural women and hold real meaning in their everyday lives?

Social movements are of course not static. They have their internal politics and negotiations. It is from these shifts within, the feminist movement might have given off mixed signals in trying to strategise and build partnerships. Much of the movement in Bangladesh contests the traditional religious norms that touch upon a sensitive nerve in the entire society. If the movement's leaders are perceived as non-religious, then it becomes far easier to dismiss them as people who do not understand the cultural nuances that influence the lives of women in Bangladesh. In the most unfortunate extreme, many practising Muslim women may find it difficult to align themselves with the movement that questions religious doctrines.

Does this confrontational attitude serve any purpose even as it alienates large sections of the society?

To bridge that gap, women's organisations have undertaken "capacity building" and "gender sensitising" projects with various groups including religious leaders. This formally recognises their importance in the communities. But why is it seen as some kind of a given that if the religious figures go through these gender sensitising training, they will automatically go back to their communities and actually implement these values? Obviously as a whole, these trainings have near to no real impact when there is no drop in gender based violence.

Are the feminists losing their relevance? At least among the urban affluent people this seems to be the case. Among this class, there was more vocal protest against a film on a love story on 1971 than there was about Hena. Some young feminists seem more interested in organising events that are symbolic rather than to work with communities to find the language that speak to the men, the women, the elderly, the children.

Does the wider women population understand the language of women's rights? Yes and no. There seems to be a significant gap between those at the forefronts both politically and academically and those at the back of the ranks. While there are stories of change and great achievements, there remains a large gap between the language of rights and how they translate within the dynamics of local communities. My favourite ironic anecdote is that told by a male colleague who was trying to help a female colleague after she was badly battered by her husband. After telling her over and over again that she needed to report to the authorities and the husband needed to be punished, annoyed, the woman growled back, "Apni atoh kotha bolchhen keno? Amar jamai amake pitiyechhe, apnar atoh ki?"

The dysfunctional village -- a starting point
People say it takes a village to raise a child, but the Hena case showed us how the village literally killed a child. Ours is a dysfunctional village that we cannot escape, but we have not done much to fix it either. Maybe a starting point for those of us who claim to be rights defenders would be to stop preaching and pointing out what is wrong with the village and to look at ourselves very much as a part of its dysfunctions.

I know many will protest reading this, but we are as much to blame for the continuation of the violence, fear and stigma as the shalish committee that issued the fatwa. We are to blame because we have yet to learn how to communicate with our people. The boy who whistles at the girl every afternoon; the husband who hits his wife once a week; the men who kidnap and gang rape 12-year-old girls are not some animals of a different jungle. They are our own brothers, husbands, fathers, sons. While we teach our daughters to protect their izzat, we never teach our sons to respect everyone as equals. While we dehumanise perpetrators, we never stop to think what society have we created that the men have lost their humanity?

In Sultana's Dream, Begum Rokeya's Ladyland had the men put away in the zenana. With the men away, there was peace, education and science-driven progress. The men were not changed, they were just put away.4 That was Begum Rokeya's dream, a vision beyond its time but also limited within her realities. Maybe it is time for us, this generation's women, to have our own dreams and visions for our dysfunctional village. Maybe we can dream of not Ladyland, but this world, where there is no need for zenana, because there would be no stigma.


1 Commentators of this article pointed out that I should clarify my own position in writing on this subject matter and also explain who is "we" and "us". My position -- I am woman. I identify with both those who at the core and peripheries of feminism and its several small and large movements.

2 Explanation note on 2010 HDR Composite Indices -- Bangladesh; http://hdrstats.undp. org/images/explanations/BGD.pdf

3 Nazneen, S. and Sultan, M., Reciprocity, Distancing, and Opportunistic Overtures: Women's Organizations Negotiating Legitimacy and Space in Bangladesh, IDS Bulletin, Volume 41 Number 2 March 2010.

4 Jahan, R., edited and translated., "Sultana's Dream: A Feminist Utopia and Selections from The Secluded Ones", The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1988.


Shahana Siddiqui is a member of the Drishtipat Writers' Collective. She is a development practitioner and can be reached at shahana@ drishtipat.org.


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