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Volume 3 Issue 7| July 2010



Original Forum Editorial

An Honest Budget--Sadiq Ahmed

The Long View-- Jyoti Rahman
Meeting the Major Targets-- Fahmida Khatun
The Good, the Bad, and the Uncertain
--Syeed Ahamed
Digital Bangladesh: A Grassroots Approach-- Anir Choudhury
Fixing the System
--Naira Khan
Photo Feature: Survivors--GMB Akash
Buried Treasure
--Md. Mahmoodul Haque
The Crying Quarter
--Wasfia Nazreen
Confessions of a Development Practitioner--Shahana Siddiqui
Women on the Move?
--Rubaiyat Hossain


Forum Home


Women on the Move?

Rubaiyat Hossain ponders whether equality is all that it is cracked out to be


Twelve years ago, I was thrown out of a rickshaw by the richshaw-wallah because I had lit a cigarette. Today, more and more women are smoking in Dhaka city; their portrayal also visible in the media. One can say that the social and culturally defined role of Bangladeshi women has shifted significantly over the past decade.

For one thing, this nation has been bowing its head down to female PMs for the past twenty years! Women have become more visible in the workforce. In the public domain: their presence can be noticed on top rungs of the corporate ladders, they now hold important political positions both in central and local government.

Our Nobel prize winning enterprise Grameen Bank's success is largely due to the honesty and diligence of its female clients, gender studies departments have been set up at public and private universities, and finally, our highest foreign currency buying products are produced by women.

Most importantly, when I walk around Dhaka city in a pair of jeans I feel significantly more comfortable and secure than I did twelve years ago. Our society, I feel, has taken a somewhat positive turn where the necessity and reality of having women in the workforce, in the public domain has become accepted as the larger social and cultural normative female ideal.

There are now single women renting their independent flats in Dhaka city, sharing places with room-mates and enjoying relatively greater scopes of social freedom in comparison to their sari-blouse-petticoat-clad domesticated mothers and mother in-laws.

Today we need to ponder, what does it really mean to be a free woman? Freedom itself is a relative term. Does being free simply mean to do as one wishes? Or does being free mean having the opportunity to develop one's fullest human potential, get an education, get a job, be equal to men?

Or does it mean the time and scope to explore one's personhood, grow one's subjectivity and opt for a greater level of transcendence, where the fullest shape of female subject manifests itself, not with men as the ultimate ideal in the horizon as their standard of freedom to achieve, rather a horizon where the Feminine Divine entity glows as the final destination of surrender for female subject.

The earliest feminist movements concentrated their strengths to gain women's voting rights, property rights, and women's rights over their bodies and selves. There has also been another very important factor, and that is the mushrooming of gender studies departments in western universities.

The psychoanalytic school of thought, especially the contributions of Freud and Lacan, have situated gender and sexuality at the analytical core of identity formation. It can be said that gender and sexuality have become a part of academia, maybe not exactly in the way feminist scholars would like it, but at least the visibility of the issue has emerged significantly over the past years.

Women can now marry women and even have babies. If heterosexual unions are painful and oppressive, then today there is a socially accepted route provided to seek refuge in homosexual unions.

Women can today choose to live with a man without the union of matrimony, women can today make the decision to be single mothers with multiple lovers, women can today have a husband and a lover too, women today are permitted to go to parties and drink, women today can have jobs and money and power, women today can do whatever men do. But is this what we really want as women? To be equal to men?

French feminist Luce Irigaray rightly points out that it is extremely misleading to desire to be equal to men. Women must strive to be equal to themselves. Women today must strive for what is truly feminine in their nature and try to nurture and nourish the feminine element in them.

Today, the ideology of masculinity has already failed: the fallacy of western philosophy has been stripped off by Foucault, Derrida and the French feminists, the new world order of nation-state-democracy-capitalism is gasping to deal with the ghost of terrorism it has created, the phallo-centric philosophical claim to a binary of either/or, and the claim to one unitary phallic linear truth has created nothing but violent ways of living in politics, media, culture, religion even relationship. There seems to rise a need today to look outside the masculine ideals of power to look towards a feminine principle of surrender, acceptance, love, and sustainability.

Rabindranath Tagore in his play Rakta Karabi has offered an analysis of the cultural economy created western science and philosophy. He defined Rakta Karabi as the vision that has come to him in the "darkest hours of dismay," thus, this piece of work is ought to be looked at carefully.

When the play came out, western readers were very confused about the content; thus Tagore wrote a short piece in English to explain the context and content of Rakta Karabi. I will here quote a rather long passage from Tagore because his viewpoint about western civilisation is best understood in his own eloquent words:

"It is an organised passion of greed that is stalking abroad in the name of European Civilisation. I know that this does not represent the whole truth as to its character, and therefore the pity of it is all the greater when mainly this aspect of it is forcible presented to us, causing the spread of dumb sadness over a vast portion of the world and the dread of a devastation of its future into an utterly bankrupt life. Such an objectified passion lacks the true majesty of human nature; it only assumes a terrifying bigness, its physiognomy blurred through its cover of an intricate network -- the scientific system. It barricades itself against all direct human touch with barriers of race pride and prestige of power. The impersonal pressure which, from its aloofness, it applies our living soul is enormous, ever narrowing our prospect of growth, something the power in initiative of our mind."

In Rakta Karabi, a highly allegorical and symbolic play, Nandini, the central female character is considered the ultimate saving grace, because unlike others in the underground mine Nandini is unaffected by the chains, whips, and shovels. She is not scared of the opaque omnipresent king. She is free and fresh and innocent. She is the only one still alive enough to comprehend absolute beauty, love, the Divine. In Tagore's own words: "The divine essence of the infinite in the vessel of the finite -- has its last treasure-house in woman's heart. Her pervading influence will someday restore the human to the desolated world of man."

Just as the French feminists are seeking a new feminine multiplicity of knowledge in search of a female subjecthood, it seems Tagore has also hinted towards the feminine principle as the saving grace of humanity as the "darkest hours of dismay."

Now the question that looms large over our heads is: what is femininity? How much of what we conceive as femininity is social constructed, how much of it is myth and how much of it is real?

If we leave aside the discussion of femininity as social and cultural behaviours, codes and practices; and in order to get to the root of matters ponder upon feminine principles in philosophical terms, then we are left a very important question: what should the feminine subject look like?


How does the feminine subject differ from the masculine subject? I will attempt to answer these questions mainly drawing from two prominent French feminists and philosopher, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.

Kristeva uses the female body as a metaphor for feminine subjectivity. The significance of the maternal body is that it cannot be neatly divided into subject and object, self, and other. For Kristeva, A woman or mother is a conflict -- the incarnation of the split of the complete subject.

Pregnancy is an identity that turns in on itself, and changes without becoming other. If pregnancy is a threshold between nature and culture, maternity is a bridge beztween singularity and ethics.

When Kristeva talks of the maternal as a site of splitting, she employs it as a metaphorical device, rather than a literal description of a mother's body to illustrate the temporary constitution of the subject, a subject-in-process.

Subjectivity, for Kristeva, appears to reside in a gap, and the constant dialogue between self and other. Kristeva wants to offer a means of dismantling the binary logic of the selfsame, and of putting in its place a dialogic frame for subjectivity that crosses back and forth between self and other.

According to Irigaray, western civilisation is without any female philosophy or linguistics, any female religion or politics. All of these disciplines have been set up in accordance with a male object. In the 60s and 70s, she went on to philosophise that social order determines sexual order, and that our cultural economy is based upon the commodification of the female.

Another of Irigaray's major theoretical contributions is the idea that sexual difference exists only in nature -- not in culture. According to Irigaray, "man" does not mean the same thing as "male," "woman" is distinct from "female."

The latter terms are inescapable qualities of being, while the former involve the cultural qualities we assume after birth. Inevitably, women will remain faithful to their biological sex (female), but should question those gender identities that exist in society (including "woman"), for these constructions originate with men.

Irigaray makes a very important point about the construction of female subjectivity. In her own words: "If she is to become woman, if she is to accomplish her female subjectivity, woman needs a God who is a figure for the perfection of her subjectivity."

If women look up to man as the ultimate model of what they can become, then women will be bankrupt. She needs to look towards the horizon and imagine a God with feminine principles. In Christianity the struggle to comprehend a female God is very stark since the holy trinity of Father-Son-Holy Spirit leaves very little room for the female to be anything more than the flesh and blood entity whose only purpose is to give birth to the son of God.

However, in Islam we are privileged to have Allah who is gender neutral. The sinful attribute bestowed upon Eve and the biblical interpretation of Adam and Eve's fall from Eden is also absent in Islam. In Quranic scriptures Adam and Eve are equally blamed for consuming the forbidden fruit thus being banished from Eden. In Islam, men and women must struggle together to get back to Eden.

Though the women of today have overcome the social and cultural to enjoy greater privileges and scopes to explore and enjoy life, are today's women really becoming real feminine subjects as described by Tagore, Irigaray and Kristeva?

The answer seems to be a very grim "no" to me. It seems that the women of today are eager to do what the men do, today's women have found a rather easy route to power and success by following the masculine principles; thus, instead of becoming feminine subjects, they are simply becoming men with breasts and ovaries. The sexual identity and behaviour of today's woman probably best illuminate this fact.


Women find it liberating to have multiple sexual partners, to pose in provocative positions in front of the camera, and to use sexual charms to buy power. However, what women do not realise is that by conforming to the ideal of sexually desirable women, they are yet again, despite of all their hard earned freedom, happily wearing the shackles of sexual subjugation and abiding by the rules of sexual desire set by men.

Women today often find religion to be oppressive, thus they never have time to look back at the powerful women of Islamic history such as Khadija, Fatema, Ayesha; rather, even among Muslim women Draupadi is a popular role model due to her power of juggling five sexual partners.

Women today do not find it degrading to wear little or no clothes to grab attention. Women today have thrown out of the window their ethical morality of keeping a family together, the role of women as sustainers of the family has been brought into question and the family structure itself has been somewhat broken down.

As a result, women today are enjoying their lives more, indulging in their so-called freedom more, and having orgasms more. But none of these have brought women close to freedom. It has rather brought them an illusion of material freedom, but their feminine souls remain locked under masculine principles, and the purity of their feminine body organs are sold in the market more nakedly than ever.

Without comprehending the spiritual centre of the feminine heart, without searching for the "divine essence of the infinite" as Tagore puts it, women can never become complete human subjects.

It is women's duty today to look beyond material pleasures and gain to hold in their hearts the feminine principle related to nature, love and absolute beauty. After all, it is women who have been gifted with the capacity to give birth to life and nourish life with milk produced by their own bodies.

If women go against their nature and opt for masculine principles as a short cut to power and success than it would cause them to go around in a circle of disillusionment. And if women escape heterosexual unions simply because they are oppressive, and if feminists today call to dismantle the gender binary, then it would be in Luce Irigaray's words, "the biggest catastrophe of humankind."


Rubaiyat Hossain is an independent researcher and film-maker.


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