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     Volume 5 Issue 78 | January 6, 2006 |

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Defining Liberty

Hana Shams Ahmed

The word 'feminism' has been used so rampantly over the ages that it's true meaning has been lost. Many of us have complained and have tried to stand up for the rights of women only to realise that we are asking for special privileges that only goes against the very basic idea of equality. Germaine Greer, the famous women's activist and author of several books on feminism visited Dhaka recently to talk about her view of feminism and social values in our country.

Greer received a Ph.D. and became a lecturer at The University of Warwick and is also a fellow at a women's college in Cambridge. Greer has played a big role in international feminism through her several published books and articles like The Female Eunuch (1970), The Madwoman's Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings, 196885 (paperback, 1990), Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women's Verse (1989), Women, Sex, & Desire: Understanding Your Sexuality at Every Stage of Life (1996), and The Whole Woman (1999), among others.

Naripokkho organised an open discussion titled 'Equality or Liberty' with Greer on Thursday, December 29 with journalists, women's rights activists and NGO workers. She declared at the outset that she wasn't there to tell the women of Bangladesh how to lead their lives; on the contrary she was there to learn and discuss issues of interest.

Greer compared 'liberation' with jumping from an aeroplane. One does not know what it is like to jump from a plane and is terrified of doing so. 'Equality', on the other hand is conservative and she has found several cases of discrimination from the women, which might not be just as apparent for us. To illustrate her point she quoted a news from the front page of The Daily Star where Prime Minister Khaleda Zia declared in Natore that if her government where re-elected she would ensure free education for the women there till degree level. Greer said that something as blatantly discriminatory (against male students) would be unthinkable in the West.

Greer cites the instance of American women who demanded that their call for help when stranded on the highway be given priority on the grounds that they were harassed on the highways by men passing by. The request was denied by the authorities because it was discriminatory towards men.

Greer expressed her deep resentment for big institutions, especially universities, which, she believes practice the worst kind of chauvinism and get away with it. "I have seen in all universities that the men run the establishments and leave the teaching jobs for the women. Since the women tend to be more hard working they are exploited". This she says is as true for the West as it is for the East. She compares the 'masculinist' society with apes, where the silver ape or the top boss, according to her, does nothing but give orders to his subordinates. Giving an example of the women's college where she is a Fellow, she says that segregated society sometimes work more efficiently.

She also expressed her displeasure with the legal system. She quoted a story from The Daily Star on Bangladesh National Women's Lawyer's Association (BNWLA) holding their second convention where they said that women lawyers could play a significant role in ending violence and discrimination against women. "No legal system anywhere in the world ever made laws (regarding women) from the point of view of women. They were all made by men. So how can they be fair towards women?" Greer casts her doubts hoping that the women lawyers who said that would hopefully not follow the conventional law.

Germaine Greer speaking at the open forum

Greer also spoke about different points of view on abortion. She said that it's very easy for us to say that abortion is either right or wrong but unless we know the situation from the woman's point of view we really shouldn't pass our judgement. She spoke about an instance where a Punjabi woman aborted her unborn foetus when she learned that it was a female. From this story one might easily judge that the woman was wrong in carrying out the abortion but no one knew the real story behind it. The woman had three daughters and used to do the bookkeeping at her husband's shop. She realised that it would be impossible for her to continue her work if she gave birth to another baby and so took such an extreme measure. Greer says that no one has the right to make another person's moral decision. She also adds that abortion might have been totally unnecessary if the man had used contraception.

Greer also gave opposing views on wearing hijab. She spoke about how in 1972 she went to Iran on an invitation from the Shah of Persia and found out that the authorities took a step to forbid wearing the veil in public. Women were stripped off their veils if they were found wearing them. Some women were so scared of losing their dignity that they went home and just didn't bother to come out. She says that it is very easy for Western feminists to declare the veil as a sign of oppression towards women but at the end of the day it really is a choice for a woman to make.

Greer also brings up the issue of sexual enslavement, which is imposed on women in the name of sexual liberation. Pre-teen girls for instance, she says, are taught to look 'hot' with their clothes and make up. Thus while in the East women are sometimes forced to follow rules of propriety by the men of their society, in the West women must expose themselves to be acceptable to men.

Photo Credit: Naripokkho

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