|Volume 7 | Issue 03 | March 2013 ||
Independence that Comes at a High Price
MANOSH CHOWDHURY muses on the meaning of freedom and choice for women.
The image of the girl next door, seen through a neighbour's window, is a soothing sight, encouraging literary expression of a million men. That is how the male version of aesthetics goes, historically. It is hardly as impressive if the same girl is found walking in the crowd, shopping for household necessities, waiting in a bank-queue to pay the bills, riding a bus competing with all the bullish passengers or waiting in front of a garments factory for some unwarranted call. These situations hurt the years' long image of femininity constructed through masculine desire, and denial too. Very middle-class, very dominant though. A woman occupying the social space is merely living her life, but in this process she defies the very male principles.
Independence has always been a relative authorisation, if at all willingly provided by any authority. The hype of nationalist movements around the globe in the last century has caused a serious damage in the perception of independence. After all, anything uttered beyond the nationalist territory would invite serious criticism. And I am well aware of the consequences of advocating bourgeois individualist liberty or independence. Having said so, individual liberty is exactly the reduced desire that exists among many people around. Not only is it convenient, but it is also obvious in a given political situation. Regular observation could suggest that individual liberty is a hunt for the liberal middle-class. But with a critical look into the spatial arrangement of social groups, individual liberty makes even more sense to the people beyond that particular social class. That independence is acutely a classed and stratified phenomenon which leads towards individual motivation to alter one's position. Perceptions of and practices for independence are reduced into gaining upward mobility or asserting one's own identity. An irony indeed!
This struggle for gaining upward mobility or asserting identity can itself be very challenging and carries the risk of losing space further. When Taslima Nasrin had to go into exile, a sense of relief was seen among her peer group. After all, she was not at threat for her life anymore. This, I was always sure, should be seen with deeper insight. The sense of assurance among a number of people was about the virtue of 'struggle' as a group, namely the feminists, or the women activists as they are loosely defined, against some marked opponents -- the Islamists. Taslima's exile could only extend the pride these activists nurture, uphold and exhibit. But she had long been excluded in the public sphere -- a fact that was hardly ever pointed out. Attacks from the (middle-class) male corners were apparent and obvious. Even years after her exile, when the biographical work Ka was released, major dailies published columns and reflections criticising her act of 'obscenity', most of which went purely 'personal' in nature. They went on publishing supplementary issues mocking her, caricaturing her lifestyle and statements, mostly sexualised and humiliating. Overall the middle-class intelligentsia found them okay. No challenge was posed, no disapproval noted against these acts.
Like her male colleagues -- in literature and in journalism -- the liberal women activists were never comfortable with her overt presence. They had consistently maintained an apprehensive silence to, or a distancing from, her activities. To realise the fact we have to probe more into the public discourses than the formal expressions in the writings. The anthologies compiled and essays written by the liberal women organisers concealed her inclusion in what they propagated as women's movement. In other cases, they opted for some unnecessary apologist role for the morals which by default singled out Taslima Nasrin for her overt position. It was more an expression of 'we are not like her' -- an extricating expression. Still, it was the public discourses that were crucial. Those discourses often included silly facts of her sexual life -- about how many times she got married, about how she seemed to be 'unhappy', about how she was deviant and so on. It must be noted that Taslima had threatened the liberal boundary the women leaders in Bangladesh had chosen as a comfort zone. They were not at all ready to accept any little thing that could disturb their morals and norms, anything transcendental to the very conformist middle-class sexuality. Taslima deliberately challenged the boundary and became an outsider.
Taslima's is an extraordinary case in every sense. For what could easily be an upfront fight about sexuality and morals among the women activists, can somehow be resolved, reduced too, as a fight between 'secularists' and 'fundamentalists'. A costly exile has proved to manoeuvre simplistic political polarisation and aided the nationalist project -- not only for the people of her own sex, but also for her male contenders. This is a middle-class case of exclusion at its worst.
Working class women, however, have their own puzzle to solve. Women's emancipation has been heard of for years -- partly because it has been achieved, more so because of the fact that the idea has been propagated by the local and transnational agencies. The women working in garments factories or the construction sector are not in a situation to get rid of the hype. But they cannot get over it either. Most importantly, they themselves feel the very emancipation in their mundane daily lives. As a part of the labour force, they find themselves contributing to the family in the true economic sense, a role that clearly challenges the defining principles of sex. As an urban consumer group, they explore the market, no matter how limited the opportunity is. A circular situation, this reveals a set of choices in front of them -- trivial but tidy, simple but superb. And they become the point of discussion in the neo-liberal interface of 'development' and 'liberty'.
Desiring this semi-urban 'emancipated' life is not a smooth act. The first and foremost crisis is to accept the uprooting from a familiar, rural setting. It goes far beyond what is popularly perceived as 'changes in lifestyle'. Joining the labour market actually reduces the possibility of going back to the probable lives of a 'wife' in its traditional meaning. This is a huge decision that most teenage girls take while they approach the job market. The garments sector may be an easy example of this scenario but not the sole one. On the other hand, they may end up with unsolicited deaths. Both ends are pretty familiar to them, anticipated long before they actually come. Unlike what is believed by some middle-class analysts, they are not arbitrarily joining the market and making profit for the factory-owners.
They know exactly what they are paying for and what they are achieving. It is a tricky little decision to further her boundary. With all the risks of exclusion and extermination, there is a sense of relative independence that is delicately proposed to them. They read it clearly, and grab it boldly. This is a conscious act of paying a high price.
Manosh Chowdhury is a writer, analyst and a professor of anthropology at Jahangirnagar University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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