Of Our Pride and Our Prejudices
Srabonti Narmeen Ali
It's always nice to escape into the world of Jane Austen -- to marvel at how ahead of her time she really was, as she conducts her tongue-in-cheek commentary on the stifling rules and modes of conduct in the society that she was a part of. There is nothing I love more than to lose myself in her world of necessary politeness and subtlety, of words not being said, but rather being implied, of an altogether different time period -- that is, until I realise that the society that I now live in, almost 200 years later, is pretty much the same as it was for Ms. Austen back then.
At the risk of sounding like a traitor to my society and maybe even my generation, I have to say that the suffocation that Jane Austen's heroines (and presumably the author herself) felt is very similar to the frustration that many people living in Dhaka society may feel every day.
Author Jane Austen: 1775-1817
It all starts with the inevitable race for money and social status. As we see in most of Jane Austen's books, a nice boy or girl is not of any significance unless he or she also has a 'nice' income and is of a 'nice' background. And although Jane Austen's heroines usually have happy endings I am sorry to say that in Bangladesh, if a man or a woman is considered of a lower status and might be involved with someone who is apparently 'above' him or her, chances are that it will not end very happily. Society is unfortunately just as, if not even more so, unforgiving than it was in the days of Jane Austen. If a person of so-called more humble beginnings does somehow make it into the higher circles make no mistake that although on the outside people may act normal, deep inside they hold onto their prejudices.
Dhaka society's obsession with money and getting ahead monetarily is perhaps the reason we are in the predicament we are in today -- being one of the most corrupt countries in the world. And rather than having many male gold-diggers -- such as Wickham and Willoughby as Austen had in her books, those of us who are privy to Dhaka society have the luxury of witnessing the works of the female ones -- those who marry for money and material gain, and in the process often sell off their souls. It is more sad than anything to witness these women, who, although married for money, often think themselves to be higher in class than most others.
The double standards that define propriety in Bangladesh are, unfortunately, very much the same as they were in 19th century England. For example, if a young, unmarried woman were to walk around with a man, unaccompanied by anyone, in both societies, she would eventually find herself ostracised. Her life would be finished. His life, on the contrary, would go on unhindered and while people would talk about his 'indiscretions' behind his back they would almost border on being congratulatory. The young woman, however, would not have a chance of living a normal life. People would talk about her for as long as she lived. And if, on the off chance that she did get married -- despite the fact that she had ruined her prospects forever -- if some kind, gentle man did take pity on her and deigned to marry her at some point, people would still discuss the 'mistake' that she made years and years ago, perhaps even taking it out on her children. In an extreme situation the woman's past may even affect her daughter's chances of getting married.
And that's another thing. Most of us become increasingly frustrated at Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice for her obsession with getting her daughters married to men from privileged backgrounds. When we think about it, however, is this so far from our reality? In fact, are not most Bangali women brought up for the sole purpose of finding a respectable groom? As is the case in Austen's novels most women of middle and upper classes are brought up with a strong hold on social decorum, well read, often trained in music or dance and educated. And aside from the small handful of careerwomen in Dhaka city trying to make a difference and create a niche for women who come after them, in many of these cases all this education and training that women get are very often, as is in Austen's stories, used for the sole purpose of being a trophy wife for her husband, for his entertainment and intellectual amusement.
It is a disappointing reality that the overall mentality of our society resembles the mentality of a society that lived almost two centuries before us. And although one may argue that despite the fact that the western world has progressed in so many ways, there are still a number of problems that plague their societies, I still must say that when it comes to freedom -- of any kind -- they have far preceded us. For though the western world is full of ignorance, prejudice and bigotry, I can safely say that the days of Jane Austen's England, where women have no say in what their future holds-- where a poor man or woman has no power over their circumstances, where education and goodness count for nothing in comparison to money and power-- are over in that part of the world. Meanwhile for us, in Bangladesh, it is only the beginning of another Jane Austen novel, but very likely to have an unhappy ending.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007