Today it’s the teep, tomorrow it’ll be the sari

From the teep to Mangal Shobhajatra, fundamentalists have created a narrative of us vs them that has poisoned the mainstream understanding of our culture

It’s official. We might have won the battle, but the razakars have won the war.

Just look around you. Today it’s the teep that has brought on the wrath of a policeman. Tomorrow, it’ll be the sari.

For years, people have been warning about the fundamentalist problem in Bangladesh, from Holey in 2016 to the spate of intellectual killings in 2013, but it was consistently brushed aside as a “minority problem,” even when many went off to join ISIS in 2015.

Now that same poison has seeped into the police force.

Today, when police constable Nazmul Tarek does not know that it is not his job to morally police or attack people based on their cultural identity, who do we blame? The education system? The training programs? Society as a whole? How do we even begin to unpack this bias?

What can you do when women are told everyday what they can and cannot do? What they can wear and cannot wear?

When a policeman is angered by a dot on the forehead, like it was a great affront to humanity in a country that routinely tops the corruption index in the world, you have to question his value system.

Why was he angered enough to almost run someone over for a dot on the forehead? Culture war. While many went on with their lives after 1971, the anti-liberation forces, much like the American confederates, began a systematic campaign of culture wars.

Starting from the early 1980s, successive military dictators pivoted to the fundamentalists for support to legitimize their rule. The nail in the coffin was Ershad, who gave us a state religion and began sending hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to the Middle East. Consequently, these migrants not only brought back bags of biscuits and cookies, but also the religious tensions. Thus, we slowly began to drift away from traditional Sufism towards Wahhabism.

A recent study found that people in Bangladesh think educated, independent women deserve harassment. The study by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) also found that 53% of Bangladeshi people think that rape victims and sexual harassment victims are to be blamed for bringing violence upon them.

Also Read: Teep-hater cop went through sudden transformation

The researchers think that religious extremism and radical propaganda increase misogyny and sexism -- both of which key reasons for violence against women -- associating progressive women as “bad” women.

I recently had a conversation I will never forget with an American coming from Iraq to Dhaka who said: “I thought we rerouted and went back to Baghdad. The women are all in burkhas, the airport has an Arabic sign, and the men are all dressed like them too. I was told it was a secular country but it looks like Iraq.”

It wasn’t always this way. If you look at any photos of Bangladesh, from the 1950s to the 1990s, you’ll see women adorned in colourful bangles, sleeveless blouses -- and one ubiquitous dot on the forehead. All women, regardless of their religion, dressed this way. Many in villages hiked up their saris and did not wear a blouse. There was no moral policing of this, neither no shame in bearing legs. So what happened between Partition, 71, and 2022?

A loss of identity, and a new culture war began with Partition that created national identities based on religion. In East Pakistan, there was a lot of resistance and rebellion, but there was also a lot of acceptance. These people, the razakars, would evolve to become collaborators of the West Pakistani army in 1971.

They systematically targeted people who wore the teep, calling it a Hindu symbol, and saris, also calling it a Hindu attire. Those who wore panjabis, were clean shaved -- anyone who espoused cultural identity and refused to accept that religion was their sole national identity was targeted for killing. 

Does that sound familiar?

We hear the same thing today, just neatly packaged into YouTube sermons, Facebook clips, and neighbourhood waaz mahfils. 

In today’s Bangladesh, they have the audacity to break a finger off the Father of the Nation's statue, using religion as a tool to attack the man who died giving us a secular country.

What hope is there for the rest of us?

For a country that claims to respect everyone’s religious freedom, why can’t it respect its own cultural identity? Or individual rights to express that identity in whatever shape or form? May it be shorts, saris, teep, or a hijab. Why are children in schools asking to hang a teacher who says religion and science are different? Why are women threatened with rape for not wearing a hijab?

If the answer to these questions does not lead you down a broken path towards what has now become of Afghanistan, I’d like what you’re smoking.

Esha Aurora is the business editor at Dhaka Tribune