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Taslima’s response to Tahmima’s story is relevant but oversimplified

  • Published at 05:29 pm August 5th, 2017
  • Last updated at 05:33 pm August 16th, 2017
Taslima’s response to Tahmima’s story is relevant but oversimplified
Taslima Nasrin's response to Tahmima Anam's short story, “Garment,” is timely and relevant but it falls short of presenting us with a nuanced discussion that captures the whole picture. She begins by sharing her own experience as a writer – what she’s gone through or how her fictional works have been received especially when they deal with the subject of women's sexuality, or women's desire to be precise. They’ve been termed “porn” by male critics. But if the same subject is written about by a man, she argues, it's all good. She then unearths the presupposition underlying such attitudes or responses towards women writers: Women have a boundary as much in society as in representational and sexual norms and if any woman is found to have transgressed or stepped beyond that boundary, she has to be vilified. By writing “Garment” Tahmima has stepped beyond that boundary, Taslima claims, so she faces unfounded criticisms now. It does not require a close examination of Bangladesh’s literary culture to understand that Taslima’s claim makes sense, that our literary culture is worryingly patriarchal. To take a recent example, in the wake of Women’s Day this year, Facebook literally exploded with posts and counter-posts inflaming a debate that we found hard to believe was really happening in this time and age. The debate was about whether women can produce quality literary works or not. We were ashamed that this was still a debate but not a fact that women can write as powerfully and potentially as men. When it comes to evaluation of their work, many women face criticism just because they are women. None has faced this more than Taslima. There’s no denying that. But after reading “Garments,” when I read Taslima’s article for a second time I found her critical position to be oversimplified and lacking nuance, failing on that account to grasp the many dimensions of representation at work in the story.
But when she brushes aside the other criticisms on the same ground, even those which might be free from a gender bias and might call our attention to other aspects of representation, questions arise if she’s implying that women’s writing is above criticism
Taslima hits the nail on the head when she says some of the criticisms levelled against the story are made by male readers/writers because one of the women characters reveals her desire for sexual fulfilment and questions why a woman should put up with a husband suffering from chronic erectile dysfunction. She argues a woman writing about another woman’s sexuality in this way threatens male authority and makes men feel disempowered. Some of the reactions (or overreactions?) that this story saw on Facebook were exactly of this kind. One must make no bones about condemning such criticisms or reactions because we believe we have made enough progress in the realm of literature to say loud and clear that any effort to stifle female writers’ voices must be politically motivated and therefore, be repulsed. If a man has the right to talk about everything under the sun, sexuality included, then so has a woman, and that’s it – end of discussion. But when she brushes aside the other criticisms on the same ground, even those which might be free from a gender bias and might call our attention to other aspects of representation, questions arise if she’s implying that women’s writing is above criticism, or that any man critiquing a woman’s work is unacceptable. Are we then to believe that a woman writer or reader never makes an unfavourable critique of another woman’s work? No one is above criticism and not all criticisms are biased. All we need to look out for is how the criticisms are made: Whether they are carried out objectively or motivated by narrow political or ideological goals. The criticism about “inaccurate representation of garment workers’ lives in Bangladesh,” I believe, does merit a critical discussion as writing about Bangladeshi female garment workers, targeting a Western audience, brings several questions to the fore: Whether this portrayal has highlighted some aspect and disregarded some other; whether this portrayal frustrates or fulfils Western expectations in the post-Rana Plaza era. Imdadul Haq Milon or Selina Hossain writing about persecutions of women during village salish or arbitration for the Bengali audience and Tahmima writing about them for a western audience are two different things. When the target audience are Bengali readers, you have nothing to worry about western perceptions even though you might be influenced by them. But when you write about a South Asian country mainly for western readers, chances are you might highlight aspects that go perfectly with western tastes and perceptions. Tahmima's story is premised on the presupposition that a female garment worker is safe as long as she’s married, even if that marriage is a mess, even if her husband has two other wives. It is about three of them: Mala, Jesmin and Ruby, with Jesmin’s memory, tribulations and dreams forming the plank of the narrative. Through her memory, the context extends to her past in a village where she was accused of seducing Amin, a married man, with whom she had an affair. The village salish punished her in a hut where she was forced to take off her clothes and stand naked in front of a group of men that included Amin, too. After that she was ousted from the village.
There is proof that to this day women face persecution in village arbitrations which have nothing to do with the country’s law as such. But Bangladesh certainly has moved on from that place. One can debate about the change being positive or negative, but one cannot deny a change has taken place, as much in literature as in society.
The story also touches upon how unmarried female garment workers face sexual harassment at the hands of male supervisors; how bad the food they are served at lunch is; how unprotected they are when it comes to the safety measures they are provided with; how male supervisors force them to lie when representatives from a foreign organisation come for factory inspection. These bits, one must admit, portray the overall inhuman working conditions in which they work and live. The fictional moment when Jesmin tries a panty, stolen from a batch she has been stitching at her factory, holds a lot of ironic potential and is politically significant; it reminds us that different articles of clothing that western women wear daily, perhaps, are made by women in a faraway country where their experiences are entirely different! The overall picture, nonetheless, is bleak. It situates Jesmin between two equally repressive milieus: In village face sexual abuse and shame, and in city live as a married worker, sharing a husband who’s incapable of consummating the marriage. So, that's the material of the story based on which Taslima definitely has the right to say all of it has been wonderfully executed in the story, which she did. Based on the same material, however, someone else, too, should have the right to raise question about the context's extension to a village, to incorporate Jesmin’s sexual abuse at the hands of her lover and his friends. Isn't that one of the familiar lines along which representation of Bangladesh is stereotyped in western media narratives, and thus, in western discourses? Bangladesh, the country ravaged by natural disaster, and political and administrative corruption; it is a country where women face dorra and acid violence, not to mention rape and other forms of abuse. There is proof that to this day women face persecution in village arbitrations which have nothing to do with the country’s law as such. But Bangladesh certainly has moved on from that place. One can debate about the change being positive or negative, but one cannot deny a change has taken place, as much in literature as in society.
This change nonetheless must be taken note of, not to see things in a good or bad light, but to stay true to the lively story that is not static and that keeps moving on
Not all garment workers have the same experience as Jesmin’s, or Mala’s, or Ruby’s. I interviewed nearly 15 female garment workers back in April 2011 while working on a feature story for Star Weekend Magazine, targeting the May Day. It was published on April 29 in the title, “Half a life.” The angle was to bring out the story within the story, focusing not so much on how their rights were being violated as on how and when they got involved with this work. I distinctly remember two of them. One was Shirina Aktar, a middle-aged woman with two school-going kids. Divorced for 12 years, she was supporting her children’s education with her job at a garment factory. She lived in a women’s mess at North Begunbari where mostly unmarried female garment workers lived. Hers was a tiny room with two narrow beds that she shared with three other women on the first floor of a two-storey building. The walls were erected with corrugated iron sheets and the floors were laid with wooden planks. With every step that I took up the wooden staircase or on the floor, it seemed the whole rickety structure would come crushing down, but nothing happened. We talked sitting inside her room, me sitting on one of the beds. No, she didn’t have to get married to an impotent man to get a seat in the mess. Another worker was Dilu, a young, unmarried woman who lived with her parents and siblings in the Kalapani area of Mirpur 12. She left home early in the morning and came back in the evening, sometimes working overtime. Her father had left their village home in Kishoreganj for Dhaka about a decade back. As he had no fixed income, Dilu gradually became the breadwinner for the family. She grew up in Dhaka with her other siblings. Compared to her brothers and father, she had better earning opportunities -- at a garment factory. Her parents stayed at home, taking care of household chores, looking after the younger children. These two stories are markedly different from Jesmin’s or Ruby’s. In Shirina’s and Dilu’s stories, exploitation by garment owners remains the same but they incorporate the very significant increase in their bargaining power over family matters. Their contribution to the family is solid; other members in the family in fact depend on their income. On one hand, they are being exploited by capitalism, and on the other, their financial strength has shaken the very foundation of traditional gender roles. Dilu’s story does not offer us a tale of positive change as such, because workers are still being denied their basic human rights, including their right to form trade unions. This change nonetheless must be taken note of, not to see things in a good or bad light, but to stay true to the lively story that is not static and that keeps moving on, taking on new aspects and dimensions, some of which might be positive while some others might be negative. But if you are being selective and focusing on the darker side only, questions must be raised about that particular hue of representation and its implications. We must expose our politics because that's what writers do but in so doing, we cannot afford the risk of villainising brown men in a way that might justify the European white men's intervention, taking us back into the all-too-familiar fold where you think “Brown women need to be saved from brown men by white men.” In the movie, Runway, Tareq Masud shows the struggle of a poor family living in the outskirts of Dhaka, somewhere near the airport. The father, the mother, the son and the daughter-- all four of them are in an uphill battle against poverty, and social injustice. The father has left for a middle-eastern country in the hope of a better fortune there; the mother has taken a micro-credit loan from a local NGO and is always fawning over the man appointed to collect the installments; the daughter has a job at a garment factory; the son is being drawn to radical Islamist circles out of frustration with his own experience of social injustice. The father’s news, whether he is dead or alive, is unknown to them; the mother fails to pay the NGO instalment, and the son joins a radical group but the daughter gets her salary and the mother uses that money to pay up her debt to the NGO. All of them are being exploited, no doubt, but Masud’s story stands out, bringing into play the other dimensions at work. The mother in the story is also a woman and her exploitation by NGOs with micro-credit programmes is no lesser affair. You are caught here between a rock and a hard place, no doubt, but we should not forget that both the rock and the hard place are equally important parts of the story.
Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.