When was the last time you heard that your life won’t have any meaning unless you’re a wife and mother by 35?
After completing your undergraduate studies, how many times has the talk of “finally getting married” been brought up?
Forgive me if I’m projecting, but whether we’d like to be married by 25 or not, pursue higher education, live life travelling or being promiscuous, it’s no news that there are some decisions that women just can’t make on their own.
Or rather, we aren’t allowed to.
Decisions such as these (or perhaps, all?) always come with the baggage of honour, stigma, what-will-the-neighbours-think, and boyosh-bere-gelo
. And questions such as those are always asked with the answers already formed.
We often associate these questions and assumptions with relatives at family dinners, and thanks to the flourishing local meme culture, these attributes are even more firmly subjected to such “aunties.” But sometimes, even the most progressive of people -- and indeed, women as much as men -- will adhere to the stereotypes that they themselves claim to be fighting.
Recently, I attended a panel at the Dhaka Lit Fest, where a few panelists consisting of editors, journalists, and writers sat together with their moderator, and discussed the “Bangali naree
The panel was entirely composed of women -- a fact one of the panelists expressed her annoyance about.
The women spoke about the works of Begum Rokeya, and how furthering women’s position in our country has been in the works for over a hundred years. They spoke about oppression against women being ingrained deep in the crevices of our society, with male privilege flourishing at home, and women being taught to applaud tokenism at work.
If we recognise the need for feminism, then we must recognise how our movements can become enabling
Hearing these ladies highlight the plight of Bangali women and championing our rights was a wonderful thing. While the newer generation admittedly acquires a lot of its feminist values from Western media, academia, and literature, we must not forget that the seeds of women’s liberation have also been planting themselves in our own soil for a very long time.
Begum Rokeya is Bengal’s very own pioneer of women’s education, and a strong feminist who dreamed of a land where the day’s work ended in two hours and the religion was of love and purity. Who wouldn’t like to get behind that? Her work in liberating Muslim women of her time through education, and unpacking the harmful positions of power that Muslim men held, are relevant even today.
But, what that panel of women at the festival continuously insisted on was the tendency of men to see women as inferior, especially in a country like Bangladesh. And what they left out was the same degree with which women do the exact same thing, to themselves as well as the women around them.
Always in shackles
Just like it’s hard not to ascribe to notions of hierarchy based on colour, after being colonised for a couple of hundred years, similarly, it’s incredibly difficult not to internalise the notions of patriarchy that has engulfed the world for eons.
It’s hard not to tell a woman that getting married is the right thing to do, because you won’t get “that kind of freedom” at home. Because the joy of motherhood is one that has exceeded any other happiness in your life, it becomes impossible to not want that for someone you care about.
For the Bangali woman, her country might have been a great source of such joys. But the Bangali woman in 2017 is past the fourth wave of feminism and well into the fifth. She is bombarded with knowledge of how strong patriarchal values penetrate deep into nation-building, and into the wars fought to build it.
For her, loving her country also comes with the awareness that women’s contribution to the project of the nation can be quite different from that of men, and that history plays a tremendous role in making us feel the way we do about our country.
Romance with resistance
As women, we maneuver around patriarchy the best we can. If the safest way to travel is to supposedly dress a certain way, then on goes that orna
But if we recognise the need for feminism, then we must recognise how our movements can become enabling. While we look outside at the oppression, especially as women fighting for the cause of equality, we must also look inside and search for the ways we too have internalised the very things we fight.
It becomes necessary to be able to understand the nuances and see that, for example, motherhood and marriage aren’t for all women, just like choosing career over family isn’t for all women either.
The cause becomes divisive only when we refuse to acknowledge the dangerous irony of propagating feminist values and notions of equality, and at the same time adhering to stereotypes of what a woman should be.
It becomes dangerous to be sitting in a panel, talking about women’s struggles, and stating to the audience that becoming a mother gives a woman lifelong happiness.
I don’t have the answer to how we can un-internalise systems that have been so pervasive for so many generations before us, or if that’s even possible. And this is not a rant -- I quite enjoyed the panel at the DLF. But as I walked out of the tent that day, I understood that as well-meaning as we can be, it is the intention of good that ends up sheltering oppressive regimes.
And what I take away from it is that, yes, we have come far, and yes, things are still quite bad. There’s hope, but there’s much to do. And we can’t do it without holding ourselves accountable. And we can’t do it without growing up.
We don’t have to be bigots to further the gender gap, we can be well-meaning men and women, still deeply tethered to the values that have shaped us since childhood. And that’s normal. But it is owning up to the harmful ones which makes all the difference.
Luba Khalili is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune.