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     Volume 6 Issue 9 | March 9, 2007 |

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Sultana's Nightmare

“A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race”-Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, 'Sultana's Dream'.

Hana Shams Ahmed

A foreign friend of mine found it really difficult to believe that in a country where women are the two most powerful leaders (well not all that powerful now) of the country, the common woman still has to fight for her very basic rights. Every year on International Women's Day there are programmes on TV, special supplements on newspapers, meetings, marches, seminars and talks but on a random day at a random restaurant you will find a group of people sitting together looking intently at a pretty, fair-skinned girl, docile-looking girl with a dominating and appraising look. This is of course, the not-so-unfamiliar bride-viewing session, and if anyone thinks that it is restricted to the not-so-enlightened section of the society they will be much mistaken.

twenty-two-year-old Ila found herself in a similar situation much to her annoyance. A Chemistry undergrad student at the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, her parents convinced her to appear for a viewing session at a shopping mall in Dhaka. “It was really humiliating the way everyone kept looking me up and down,” says Ila, “I came home and cried but my mother just told me that's how it was meant to be!”

My friend can be excused for her scepticism because she is not aware of the circumstances under which these two leaders came into such a position. But what about all those seminars and awareness-raising programmes in the media, why are they not having a bigger impact on the position of women in the country? Nowadays, we have women working almost everywhere mass media, banks, universities, as entrepreneurs and at every possible position one can think of. But even these women have to face a lot of problems at their workplaces. At a meeting of women journalists recently, several of these problems came up. Everyone agreed that what women wear to work is a big issue and unless they follow the accepted norm they have to face unwanted attention. A TV journalist talked about how her producer reprimanded her for wearing a jeans and fatua to cover a prime minister's speech saying, “Why couldn't you wear something more 'decent'.” At the same time her male colleagues were dressed in similar attire with not even raised eyebrows from anyone. Another newspaper journalist who never faced any trouble with her comfortable fatuas had to hear comments about how 'pretty' she looked when she wore a sari to work one day; that too from the security guards of her office premises!

Double standards even exist in the media from women themselves. Many newspapers have supplements called 'nari pata' (women's page) while a corresponding 'purush pata' (men's page) is non-existent. These pages usually have lifestyle issues, shopping, beauty tips and cooking recipes in them as if to say these are the only things that concern women, and somehow do not concern men.

Women themselves are sometimes their own biggest enemies. How else can one explain the huge popularity of the Hindi soap operas where all these heroines in designer saris and exclusive kurtas have nothing better to do but look pretty and be dutiful 'bahus', or on the other extreme, conniving intimidators. Ekta Kapoor, being a successful entrepreneur and a role model for many, should perhaps rethink the themes portrayed in her drama serials.

Away from the city, multiple marriages, persecution for dowry, early marriages are an everyday story. But many women, even from well-off families are not spared from the occasional taunting and bullying from their in-laws' family. Many people still say things like, 'The first child should be a boy', which really sums up in a nutshell, what mindset we are living with today. Giving women a day in a year to feel liberated is really just belittling them as women, and as human beings. Ok, so maybe, Begum Rokeya's 'Sultana's Dream' will always remain a dream, but we can at least keep that as our guiding principle, so that the stereotypes that bind us and imprisons us within ourselves are forever destroyed.


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