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      Volume 11 |Issue 20| May 18, 2012 |


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Strategies of Power in a Hiccupocracy

Seema Amin

Red May finds the female-class poised before an abyss. The stakes are high, and the depth of the abyss is as radical as the leap over it. We are in an interregnum: a period of discontinuity between two worlds, before the old world has completely disintegrated and before the new has grown its first firm sprouts.

As such, the battle for historical potentiality is being fought over historical latency. It is my premise that tact is a particularly regressive force in the social relations where patriarchal standards and cultural norms are negotiated in Bangladeshi society. Tact functions as a force of historical latency. And not only is tact intimately linked to a society unable to reconcile its changing values with its unchanged conventions—it is the defining characteristic of what I would like to call a 'hiccupocracy'. But first we need to understand where tact fits in the continuum of the strategies of power through which patriarchy manifests itself.


From the perspective of critical theory, it is necessary to demystify certain theories or frameworks by reconstructing the historical consciousness which generates certain social relations of domination, such as patriarchy. In, 'The familial order, not easily undone,' Rahnuma Ahmed (September 22, 2008, New Age) follows the historical construction of a modernising consciousness in Bangladesh and finds that it has largely been unexamined in its assumptions about a progressive female emancipation catalysed by the onset and progression of modernity as a stage in 'development.' Here we can see the narrow, modernist lens through which female emancipation can be imagined. This can lead to a certain lacunae — or blind spot — when it comes to understanding the adaptive capacity of patriarchy as an evolutionary animal, from feudal, to modern, to capitalist chameleon.

As an adaptive animal, patriarchy (not unlike global capital) has subtle survival strategies.

Last year, the cultural, political and ethical entanglements of patriarchy became visible in two highly publicised incidences of the abuse of women and the license we give to men as a society and polity: Rumana Monzur's blinding by her 'blind' husband and Porimol Jyodhor's sexual exploitation of a Viqarunnisa student.

In 'Confronting Blindness,' Rahnuma Ahmed (June 26, 2011, New Age) wrote passionately about the indefensible search in certain quarters of the journalist community for 'the man's side of the story' behind the blinding of Rumana. She expressed outrage at the reactions of the society at large as well—men seeking 'explanations' in adultery, or normalising 'animal' acts. Here, the column's title is particularly appropriate. Social 'blindness' itself manifesting as a world-view, is a fundamental element in the strategies of power through which patriarchy produces and reproduces itself. This blindness is a failure to see the manifestations of patriarchy at one end of the continuum of its strategies of power: the very silence in which Rumana shrouded her horrors is an example of the early normative manifestation of later more visible, more extreme violations.

The contradiction of the present moment is that patriarchy in its exposed, monstrous form transgresses some of the ethical norms of the society in which it finds itself. Thus, the worst acts of village or city salish (social arbitration), acid throwing, stoning and rape are decried as deviations from normative ethics, and yet, the complacency of the system refuses to trace these transgressions to the normative silencing, policing and 'blindness' (ignorance) at the other end of the continuum of patriarchal strategies. And yet, it is the entire system of policing and reinforcing cultural signals through which a consensus of silence, neglect or 'ignoring/overlooking' normalises domination. This 'delinkage' or inability to see the continuum of the strategies of power is manifest in the search for 'the man's side of the story' in the case of the blinding of Rumana. Yet, the story itself is that it is 'a man's world'—and this world has been attacked only to the extent that men feel compelled to give an explanation, to even have a patriarchal 'alibi.' The same can be said for the educational institutions that would normally seek refuge in silence, tact and decency when it comes to 'deviations' which are, normally, normalised. Transgressions are normalised in a hypocritical society; what about 'exceptions'?

In a society where tact plays a critical role in disciplining social relations, the norm may appear to be an exception. For example, let us look at the increasingly 'open' relations between young men and women in the 'new' Dhaka. Affairs of the heart and body are increasingly an open secret. But between generations, and for the society at large, couples still have to hide what normatively has become 'normal.' Here dissimulation is a tactic that burns the bridge between generations and thus destroys any path forward. Ultimately, this discontinuity creates a tactful hiccup in society: a society where hypocrisy tries to digest in huge, invisible pieces the change in normative ethics that forms its new, daily diet.

Now let us look at the euphemistic use of the word 'affair' itself in Bangladesh—in a society where extramarital relations and divorce are increasingly common, we continue to use the word 'affair' for any romantic or sexual relation at all. This is an ironic indication of the continued power of orthodox cultural norms, where romance and particularly sexual 'affairs' function in a there-not-here world of silence.

What does it say about our capacity to draw the line between licit, illicit and legitimate and illegitimate acts? The word affair itself is so tactful that it cannot distinguish between orthodox norms of the illegitimacy of all relations before marriage and relations outside of marriage. A matter of misappropriated English? Or uninternalised 'modernising' values?

As the west moved towards ever increasing discoursing and 'talking' about sex—what Foucault called the amplification of pleasures in The History of Sexuality 1: The Will to Knowledge, where what is 'hidden' must be revealed in the scientis sexaulis—we have continued the tactful arts of silencing all 'vulgarity' to the point of banishing language that attempts to describe the very 'vulgar' actions women must normalise if they are to remain decent. In the West, the period between the French revolution and WWI experienced a bourgeois ascendancy with an ever increasing emphasis on the private, individualized life and its secrets. Yet, surely, we do not want to choose the Western model—the over-normalisation of sexuality has created a laughable will to knowledge– although we see signs of its adaptation in the near-copy talk shows and sexual fixation in Indian television and media. But do we really know what our model is? Can we now claim that 'Good girls don't make history' and hope we are in a historic moment before we leap over the abyss of inertia, tact and euphemisms that have allowed the strategies of power to remain intact in spite of cultural prohibition of its worst abuses? Tact is such a powerful policing force in our society that the rape of nine year olds by their distant or close relatives is normalised as soon as it is mentioned.'O but that happens, that does happen—why make a fuss about it?' On what end of the spectrum such silence reigns—I cannot say. The strategies of power dictate that the worst abuses find comfort in the most common 'transgressions.' There are no exceptions in a hypocritical society: only norms, rules and dissimulations. Behold. The abyss.


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