By Rahnuma Ahmed
November 19, 2015
“THEY want to steal my words, silence my tongue,” the first line of legendary singer and song-writer Abdul Latif’s immortal song, written in memory of the 1952 Language Movement.
The opening lines are followed on by, Koito jaha amar daday, koise taha amar babay, Words my granddad spoke, my daddy did repeat…
The birth of Bangladesh, nearly four and a half decades ago, has reinstated the language to the state (the central demand of the language movement). Maybe it is high time we moved away from eulogising Bangla endlessly (we are the only nation to have shed blood for our language, our sacrifice has gained international recognition, etc) to conducting a forensic examination of the language: its built-in sexism, the seepage of poisonous meanings into other words to render mute women speakers. Maybe we could place it beside other languages, languages spoken in equally patriarchal societies, to see how masculine supremacy is asserted in those, linguistically. For instance, democracy in Urdu is “jamhuriyat,” an online search tells me, it has Roman (not Sanskrit) roots. The word for democracy in Arabic is “hukm ash-sha’b,” government of the people (Orin Hargraves, 2011). Neither words seem to be connected to female chastity, or the male obsession to control and regulate it. Forensics and comparative analyses, I contend, are necessary to “de-besshafay” (as in decolonise) our minds.
As bell hooks reminds us, “Language [itself] is also a place of struggle.”
Were there any protests against the CP Gang’s “bessha” banner? Of course not. Did anyone protest? I know of only two (I would of course love to be proven wrong).
CR Abrar wrote of his perplexity at the “stark stillness” of the rights activists and the women’s organisations, he condemned the “conscience keepers of the nation” for being silent, and wrote, “declaring an individual persona non grata to Shaheed Minar on grounds of being ‘intellectual prostitute’” is not only “offensive,” but also “criminal” (The Daily Star, October 22, 2014).
Nurul Kabir, in a talk show soon after (‘Frontline,’ on Bangla Vision channel, October 20, 2014; interestingly, the anchor of the talk show is Motiur Rahman Chowdhury, editor, daily Manabzamin, his photo too, graces the CP Gang’s banner) was dismissive, he obliquely referred to the banner as being oshlil (vulgar), and implied that the CP Gang and other participants at the “laasher bhar” Shaheed Minar event, were orbachin (immature), and “jokers.”
For the life of me I cannot understand why Abrar bhai and Kabir, two outspoken public intellectuals, Kabir, who I know to be very combative, failed to, at the very least, recognise the sexism inherent in the word “bessha.”
Without going into the matter in great detail, I will end this section by quoting a passage from Geraldine Forbes’ book review (2001) of Sumanta Banerjee’s Under the Raj: Prostitution in Colonial Bengal, because I believe it partly assists in illuminating the problem,
In the epilogue Banerjee calls this a beginning and urges other historians to focus their attention on prostitution. Asking why this subject has not attracted more attention given the importance of prostitutes to the colonial authorities and bhadralok, Banerjee suggests historian sons of bhadralok fathers feared contamination with the topic. Here I think Banerjee is too dismissive of the gendered nature of scholarship and scholarly inquiry. To begin with, historians of the West as well as India scorned women and gender issues until well into the 1970s and even now gender and women are rarely integrated into the meta-narratives of Indian history.
Not engaging with feminism, not taking it seriously? Yes, that is very true of male academics and public intellectuals in Bangladesh (I’m sure it must be obvious to readers that I’m not speaking of token/rights-based mention of the “womens’ problem”). At the same time, it is important to add that women’s organisations do not engage with feminism either, that there is not any, so to speak, feminist debate among women’s organisations and activists, most of them largely rely on the policy documents of the European Union and the World Bank for intellectual guidance (theories of “women’s empowerment”), but that deserves a separate discussion.
While I think Forbes’ point about the gendered nature of scholarship is relevant for us — with my additional clause that women’s organisations in Bangladesh are largely foreign-funded NGOs, and the latter, in collaboration with some human rights organisations, have coopted the women’s movement — I think Banerjee’s comment about the fear of “contamination” is applicable on this side of the border as well.
I find it reprehensible that scholars, researchers and intellectuals (including those among the left) have not been able to recognise and distance themselves from middle class squeamishness about the issue of sexuality. Public discussions of sexuality revolve around, and are usually exhausted by, condemning sensational rape cases, which are constructed as acts of sexual aggression done by lower class, irrational men. If asked why theoretically-informed public debates of sexuality have not developed, many intellectuals, I am sure, would lay the blame on `Islamic fundamentalism,’ a useful cover for concealing one’s own complicity in historically-rooted class and gender prerogatives.
As for bhadralok fears, I want to cite the words of Tara Bannerjee, a Hindu birangona (Ami Birangona Bolchhi). After relating the story of the muktijoddha army officer who had refused to take his birangona wife home from the Dhanmondi rehabilitation centre, she had acerbically remarked,
You know what, I think the more the Muslims got educated, the more they became bhadra (gentrified), they became the equals of Hindus by imitating them.
High Court directive: Protect sanctity and dignity of Shaheed Minar
A CONTEMPT rule was issued on the government and others, by a two-member bench of the High Court, Justice Mohammad Momtazuddin Ahmed, Justice Naima Haider, in February 2010, instructing them to explain why steps had not been not taken to protect the sanctity and dignity of the Central Shaheed Minar. It was in response to a writ petition filed by a human rights organisation (Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh), alleging that the area had become a refuge for drug users and homeless people, that this demonstrated a lack of respect for the national memorial.
The High Court issued eight directives in August that year instructing the government to prepare a list of language heroes, set up Shaheed Minars in all universities and educational institutions, set up a museum and library at the Central Shaheed Minar etc, but what interests me more is the list of concerned agencies and institutions against which the contempt order had been issued:
The secretaries to (a) the Prime Minister’s Office (b) the Ministry of Cultural Affairs (c) the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs (d) the Dhaka mayor (e) Dhaka University vice-chancellor (f) chief engineer and (g) chief architect, of the public works department.
If the High Court had found the CP Gang’s “bessha” banner undignified and disrespectful of the spirit of the Language Movement, if it had issued a contempt rule, I wonder what the defendants/their legal counsel would have said.
Would they have collectively apologised or would some have broken ranks and turned on the Dhaka University vice-chancellor? (Like the recent incident when the AL presidium member Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim accused information minister Hasanul Huq Inu (leader of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, partner of the ruling AL-led alliance) of having paved the way for Sheikh Mujib’s assassination.)
Orin Hargraves, “Translating Democracy,” visualthesaurus.com, May 2, 2011.
Geraldine Forbes, Under the Raj: Prostitution in Colonial Bengal (book review), Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, Vol 2, No 1, Spring 2001.
Nilima Ibrahim, Ami Birangona Bolchi (“I Am the Birangona Speaking,” 1988), Dhaka: Jagriti Prokashoni, 2013.
To be continued.