Sunday, November 15, 2015

History as Ethical Remembrance: Dhaka University, Shaheed Minar and CP Gang’s ‘Bessha’ Banner – IV

By Rahnuma Ahmed
November 14, 2015
CP Gang’s “buddhibessha”: a purposeful metaphor
THE CP Gang’s use of “buddhibessha” is exactly what Jonathan Charteris-Black would call a “purposeful metaphor.”
A metaphor, as readers know, is a word or phrase which ordinarily designates one thing but is used to designate another, in the case of the banner, bessha has been conjoined to ‘intellectual’ (buddhi, short for buddhijibi), to distinguish between (good) intellectuals who tell the truth about ’71 (are not whores), and those (the bad ones) who are “dangerous” and “harmful,” who mix truths with lies and confuse the public, all in exchange for cash, just like harlots.
A “purposeful metaphor,” writes linguist Charteris-Black, provides insights into the “social and political motivation” of the metaphor, making it preferable to the notion of “deliberate metaphor” which treats the metaphor as a phenomenon “exclusively… related to thought or language.” In contrast, a purposeful metaphor lays stress on its “communicative purpose,” for instance, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down the wall,” uttered by US president Ronald Reagan (Berlin, 1987).
Purposeful metaphors exhort an audience to do something, indicated by the “imperative,” by the “absence of doubt,” and an orientation to the metaphor’s “intended outcome” (Charteris-Black, 2012). I quote,
…persuasion does not occur by chance but because of a speaker’s underlying purposes and ability to communicate this intention effectively through rhetoric. The purpose will be to change the audience’s mind about something, because unless there is a change of opinion, the audience cannot be said to have been persuaded. (Charteris-Black, 2011).
There are multiple ways of communicating a proposition, but language users choose a particular metaphor over others, for instance, a racist chooses “floods or tidal waves of immigrants” instead of say, expressing happiness at other races coming over, leading to the growth of a “mosaic” society. Therefore, when we are confronted with a metaphor, we need to ask: why this particular metaphor and not another? As Stephen J Ball puts it so aptly, “why, at a given time, out of all the possible things that could be said, only certain things were said” (cited by Charteris-Black).
Which brings me back to the question I had raised earlier, why “buddhibessha” instead of “Razakars buddhijibi”?
The notion of choice is important, says Charteris-Black, because it draws attention to the process of selection, the ones that are deliberately selected fit with the “writer’s goals,” they “heighten the emotion of fear.” The metaphor chosen reflects the “dominance of a more powerful social group over a vulnerable one.”
And why is it important that we analyse metaphors, and their purposes? To raise “awareness” about choices which “reflect and reinforce social beliefs — especially when these enforce exploitative social relationships?”
And that, precisely, is my argument: Besshas and Birangonas are socially vulnerable. They are ideologically marginal. They are silenced by dominant voices, the silencing works through rendering the woman who is accused of being a Bessha mute. It is a slur which is un-contestable within patriarchal discourses (even Sita, despite having passed the ring of fire, failed) and this is precisely why, I contend, it was chosen by the CP Gang.
Upholding the “true history” of the liberation war was never the intent.
BishKanta: `No one ever sought forgiveness’
“Sem-pros [semi-prostitute].”
Thus spoke Abdul Wahab Sheikh in the opening shots of director Farzana Boby’s documentary film on war heroines, BishKanta (The Poison Thorn, 2015).
You know what ‘pros’ means, don’t you? Sheikh adds.
He had been asked,
Did you know ‘boro pagli’ [older mad woman, crazy, loony]?
Yes, I have known her since she was a little girl.
Artist Dilara Begum Jolly and I were plying Boby with heaps of questions. We wanted to know about the three war heroines — Ronjita Mondol, Roma Chowdhury and Halima — the central characters in her documentary, how she had gotten to know them, had it been difficult to get them to agree, what had made her decide to make a film on Birangona after so many years. There was another angle to my interest, I’d offered to brush up the sub-titles, and whatever I could learn about the women and how they viewed their lives would help me interpret what had been left unsaid, it would assist me in making the translation more nuanced.
It was probably out of affection, said Bobby, parents and close kin would call Ronjita’di boro Pagli, her younger sister, Chhoto Pagli, and her brother pagol. But after ’71, Pagli no longer meant the same thing.
She is a Deshi Birangona, says Wahhab Sheikh, a Khulna rice trader. She is our local war heroine.
I stumbled, had I heard right? Deshi? What does he mean? Are there bideshi birangonas too?
No, no, says Boby, he means that she was raped by a Bengali. A razakar, a local. Not by a Pakistani soldier (foreigner).
Ronjita’s family were well-to-do peasants. Since the beginning of the war we hid in the trenches, my father refused to go to India. No one will harm me, he would insist. I don’t have any grown-up sons. The villagers love me. Where will I go? I don’t know how to get to India. Nothing will happen to us. I would rather die where my ancestors had lived.
It was Srabon or Bhadra, it had been raining, it was all muddy. We left the trenches, came home. It was 11 at night; 20–30 men surrounded our house. Khokon, Khanjahan and Chan Khonkar entered, they tied up my parents, I begged and pleaded, I called them ‘father.’ I was only twelve, my breasts hadn’t developed yet. I was wearing a sleeveless genji (top), and half-pants. They yanked it down.
Wahhab Sheikh went on,
Who knows how many times she got married. Maybe ten, maybe twelve, she has married both Hindus and Muslims, has had children from all.
What ten or twelve marriages, I wondered as I watched the film, and heard Boby respond to my searching questions: the Razakars took away all they could; her parents never recovered from the shock, her father became bed-ridden. Ronjita’di was married off to a low-caste boy, an agricultural labourer who worked on their family farm because everyone knew about the incident. They had children but he suddenly went away one fine morning to India. No, he never returned. Why did he leave? Oh, it might have been due to communal tensions. And the kids? Ronjita’di raised her daughters singly. Life became more difficult with regime change, with the rehabilitation of the Razakars, they taunted her, grabbed her land.
The pain has never left me. Wouldn’t it hurt you, if you had been raped in front of your parents?
This Chan Khonkar is dead now; he could have come and asked for forgiveness before he died. But no one ever did. No one ever begged forgiveness.
Not only did those on the ‘wrong’ side of history not do so, those on the ‘right’ side of history spouted venom.
Life-stories of prostitutes: Raped, tricked, cheated, abducted
Selling one’s body for money…is not harmful for the country.
The CP Gang assumes that prostitutes themselves are never harmed, that they enter the sex trade because they choose to do so, that it is an exercise in free will.
Qurratul-Ain-Tahmina and Shishir Moral, investigative journalists, conducted an excellent study of prostitution, although somewhat dated, I still regard it as an invaluable resource, Bangladeshe Jounota Bikri: Jiboner Dame Kena Jibika (Selling Sex in Bangladesh: Livelihood purchased with one’s life), Dhaka: SEHD, 2000.
Only Yasmin, of all the girls and women interviewed, had said she had chosen to become a prostitute. Her father worked in Dhaka, she hated village life and would often come and stay with him. “I wasn’t particularly attached to my parents. They weren’t badly off. It wasn’t due to scarcity, I came of my own free will.”
But it was very different for Monimala, Diparani, Chompa, Momtaz, Momena.
Monimala was deserted by her husband when she was 16–17 years old, she found her way to the Daulatdia brothel in Goalundo port (Faridpur). She worked as a chhukri (bonded sex worker) for the brothel’s shordarni (female brothel keeper). A chhukri’s life is that of a sexual slave, “the shordarni forces you to work day and night, whenever a client turns up.”
Diparani got lost as a child at a crowded bus stand. She was crying when two men accosted her, they promised to take her home safely but sold her to a brothel in Jessore instead. Many years later, she traced her way back to her village home, her father agreed to meet her after her third visit, but it had to be elsewhere, not at home. After that, her younger brother began dropping in at the brothel every week, she would give him a bit of pocket money. When he promised to buy her a piece of land, she gave him the nearly one lakh takas she had saved. It was the last she saw of him.
Momtaz’s father took a second wife, the two wives didn’t get along, Momtaz’s mother left her children, crossed the Bangladesh-India border seeking employment as a domestic maid. She was sold off to the brothel in Sonagachi. Her husband went and brought her back but news had travelled, the villagers refused to let her enter. Momtaz’s parents took their three daughters and settled in the brothel in Jhikorgachha (Jessore), later they moved to the Borodol brothel near Khulna. “Immediately after my eldest sister started menstruating, she was put to work. I remember my father beating her with a bamboo and forcing her to enter the room where the client [was waiting].” After her sisters stopped supporting her parents, Momtaz relented and took up prostitution (I want to return to Momtaz’s story later).
Champa was a minor when she was sold off to the brothel in Kandupotti (old Dhaka). She ran away from home because her parents were about to give her away in marriage, “I didn’t want to get married, I was going to school.” A village girl who worked in Dhaka told Champa she would take her to her aunt’s, who would surely find her work. The aunt turned out to be a shordarni in Kandupotti brothel, when we went there, several shordarnis flocked around us, they were bidding for us. I was 10–11 years old, my menstruation began a few months later. “One day, I too was given to a man in a room.” The shordarni said she was like my mother, but if I didn’t want to do “that” work she would scold me and beat me, she would even cane me.
Momena’s father was a sharecropper, she had been given to work in another village home. “The mistress of the household would beat me, I ran away.” She got on a bus to Dhaka, when she got off a man promised to find her a job in a garment factory. She went with him, he sold her in Kandupotti brothel.
Professor Zarina Rahman Khan, one of the first researchers to conduct an empirical study of prostitution in Bangladesh (with co-researcher professor Helaluddin Khan Arefeen), says, girls enter prostitution only because alternative professions and means of livelihood are unavailable. Women wouldn’t come, she insists, if other options existed (cited in Bangladeshe Jounota Bikri).
Julia O’Connell Davidson, who has conducted ethnographic fieldwork, including interviews with sex workers and their clients in the UK, and has conducted research on tourism-related sex trade in a host of countries (Thailand, Cuba, Costa Rica, Venezuela, India, South Africa, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Russia and China), author of several books on the sex trade, including Prostitution, Power and Freedom (1998), makes a similar argument but in a more nuanced manner. The boundary between women who are willing to commodify their sexuality and those who are not “remains significant” in cultures where heterosexual practices are dominant. Individual women who take up prostitution may no longer be castigated in western cultures, but the trade is generally seen to be “beastly.” Women who are perceived to have used their sexuality for instrumental purposes are disparaged. Women who succeed in careers other than prostitution are slagged as having ‘slept their way to the top.’ The truth is, “for many women, the economic value placed upon their sexuality remains far higher than that placed upon any other skill, talent or capacity they might sell across a market.”
I will now return to Momtaz, this is what she recounts of 1971: I was studying in class three. I went with my father to the Haat (market), that’s when I first heard that the “military” (the Pakistani army) had come. People left everything, vegetables, and whatever they were carrying, they just dumped it and ran. We rushed back to the brothel but it wasn’t safe, so my father took us to the village, to a Hindu house which he had occupied. But my mother didn’t come, she remained at the brothel with my sister’s son. We crossed a river, the boatmen had fled, so we had to swim. The “military” had reached the bajar by then, they fired at us, but we managed to reach the Hindu house safely. My sister was wearing a red sari, maybe it was the colour that caught their eye, but they eventually found us. They surrounded our house, bound my father and took him to the river. They also took my eldest sister. They wanted to kill him but my sister intervened. She went with them for the night, they let her go the next morning. She returned home with my father.
What happens to the CP Gang’s version of liberation war history now? Their ‘definition’ of prostitution does not admit the possibility that Besshas too can be raped, and, if their thinking is followed through logically, it would imply that a Bessha cannot be a Birangona either (but of course if a Birangona is labelled a Bessha or a “sem-pros” — no one need bat an eyelid). The liberation war was a people’s war, which means people of all hues and shades took part in the war, peasants, boatmen, traders, cobblers, Rikshawala, petty thieves, beggars… And also, women who worked as prostitutes.
But the CP Gang’s banner unquestioningly assumes that Besshas did not/could not (heaven forbid!) have taken part in the liberation war.
Yet another denial of “true history.”
Jonathan Charteris-Black, “Forensic Deliberations On Purposeful Metaphor,” Metaphor and One Social World, 2(1), 2012.
Jonathan Charteris-Black, Politicians and Rhetoric: The Persuasive Power of Metaphor, Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Qurratul-Ain-Tahmina and Shishir Moral, Bangladeshe Jounota Bikri: Jiboner Dame Kena Jibika (“Selling Sex in Bangladesh: Livelihood purchased with one’s life”), Dhaka: SEHD, 2000.
Julia O’Connell Davidson, “Sex for Sale,”


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