Do we know
who we are?
The other day while waiting for an interview, I overheard one male candidate discussing with another the high probability of a female candidate getting chosen for the position because of her “face value”. The same day I had to hear from two other male candidates that our prime minister and the opposition leader are maintaining their position for more than a decade, only because they are the daughter and wife respectively of two renowned politicians. Comments like these are frequent and we the female populace are often not surprised let alone shocked by such finger pointing. As if we take these accusations for granted rather accepting that the positions we achieve in our life are only the result of pity of our male counterparts. Our intellect, our inner strength, our skills account for nothing. Whether a woman secures the highest power in the country or obtain a good job all of these are attributed to the position of the male relative or the “face value” of the woman in question. However, had we the women of today's Bangladesh known the history of our predecessor's struggle to bring for us the freedom that we enjoy today, we would have been more vocal against such iniquitous indictment.
Aditi Falguni has tried to bring forward the history of the struggle of the Bengali women in her publication “Banglar Nari Shongramer Itihas” published by Onneshwa Prokahsani in this year's Ekushey book fair. She has thoroughly researched on this topic and presents insights into the thoughts of women as far as the Vedic period. We come across Gargi, a woman philoshoper in the Vedic period, who was threatened physically when she raised questions on the many issues of the Upanishad. Here in an era when probably few women had the chance to obtain higher education or any education at all, Gargi evolves as a woman with a view and mind of her own capable of challenging the norms of a man-made society. Starting from Gargi the book takes us on a journey through the ages introducing us to women who had raised their voices against social and political injustice. Many of these women were not the more highlighted ones as we find in the history books, princesses and scholar women from upper class; rather Falguni has presented to us the struggle of women from all walks of life.
The early non-Aryan societies of the sub-continent were matriarchal, as a result the questions of discrimination or rights never arouse. However, as civilization moved from a more subsistence society towards gathering of wealth, the issues like power, inequality and discrimination evolved. Women from her independent status as a partner in the ongoing struggle of life were marked as assets just like the metals and crops that the men gathered. Ensuring succession of property inheritance in a group or clan became more important and women were forced to take up the role of child bearing and rearing. Thus it wasn't surprising when the more civilised Aryans invaded and settled in India, they had to break up the foundation of the matriarchal non-Aryan societies to the extent that they even degraded the female goddess of the non-Aryan societies into consort of the more powerful male gods.
Unfortunately this degradation of the female populace has not stopped through the centuries that followed. Rules after rules, laws after laws were written and issued, sometimes by political leader but mostly by religious philosophers to ensure the dominance of male power over female. Religion has been used repeatedly against women to confine their roles with the limit of their homes. Surprisingly, even the fear of religion could not stop the women of Indian subcontinent to come out of their homes to fight side by side their male counterparts in times of need. That is why in Aditi Falguni's book we come across countless village women who had participated spontaneously against British rule, suppression by landlords and autocratic governments.
An interesting feature of the women's liberation movement as depicted in “Banglar Nari Shongramer Itihas” is that women in the Indian subcontinent unlike those of the Western world had initially raised their voice for a greater cause like independence, social justice, farmer's rights, labour movement and so on. They worked side by side the male populace for the greater cause of an independent nation. Women's rights itself often became secondary. The more successful women's association during the British period had a wider objective rather than just establishing women's rights. A similar tone is found among the women of the post-partition Pakistan. They had to engage themselves in the language movement, democratic movement and ultimately independence movement. Women of the subcontinent have always considered themselves as equal part of society. This is reflected in Matangini Hajra's death under the national flag, Pritilata Waddedar's self-sacrifice while fighting against the British, Ila Mitra's unprecedented fight to establish the rights of the Santals, Mamtaz Begum's (principal of Narayanganj Morgan Girl's school) sacrifice of her family for protesting in the language movement, Taramon Bibi risking her life to present us with an independent homeland. Each of these women and thousands like them had shoved aside all social restrains and moved forward in the dire times of their country or community whether they had the support of their male comrades or not.
Women in Bangladesh almost form fifty percent of the workforce. Their contribution in the country's economy is not something that can be sidelined any longer. Yet to the male mind we remain an unworthy lot always ready to be pitied. Is it only our silence that allows the men to demean our contribution to the formation of our history and the development of the country? We the modern women indulge ourselves in bewitchment of the consumerist society turning ourselves into commodities, whitening cream products winning the hearts of audience, employers by our beauty and not wit. The glorious history of the struggle of the Bengali women is overshadowed by our pursuit of the glamourous man-made world, man-made definition of a woman. Our ignorance about our predecessors could be a reason for our low self-esteem. Apart from a few important woman figures, we hardly learn about the ordinary women's participation in the hundreds of the movement that took place in our history to give us what we have today. It is time that we come out of our shells, look back and take lessons from our history. Aditi Falguni's “Banglar Nari Shongramer Itihas” could be a good start.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010