In Bangladesh, we talk of women’s empowerment, but do we mean a word of it?
So what if we have had two women as prime ministers of Bangladesh? So what if there have been remarkable women who have served as ministers in the various governments we have been privy to? And does it matter at all that women of accomplishment have been civil servants, have been ambassadors abroad, have served and are serving in the armed forces, in the police and in education? There is a rising class of women entrepreneurs in the country, but do we care?
Going by the move by the parliamentary standing committee on the Liberation War Affairs Ministry, none of this is of consequence. The committee, in absolute indifference to the constitution and to the heritage we have upheld through the centuries, has come forth with the advice that women civil servants, in this case upazila nirbahi officers, should not play a role in according guards of honour to freedom fighters when the latter breathe their last. Local residents, we are given to understand, are upset by the sight of woman officers of the state doing the honours for deceased freedom fighters.
And that is the latest we have on the chauvinism which, for all our professions of loyalty to the cause of a modern society, remains the underpinning on which our society operates. You could call it misogyny, up to a point, but that we are yet a society which has not taken kindly to women holding centre stage in national life is a truth now reinforced by the recommendation of the parliamentary committee in question.
And there goes out the window all our talk of women’s empowerment, for even as we mouth all those platitudes about women being half the nation’s population and therefore natural participants in the process of national development, we do not mean a word of it.
Think back on the Hefazat-e-Islam, which would dearly like to push women back into the kitchen rather than have them emerge into the sunlight as symbols of social progress. If yesterday it was the Hefazat, today it is that parliamentary committee, ironically linked with the Liberation War Affairs Ministry, a department which acknowledges and celebrates the role of men as well as women in the struggle for independence a half century ago.
But, yes, there is the larger issue: Five decades on, how do we treat the women of Bangladesh? The simplest of answers is -- badly.
We are yet to ensure that single women pursuing careers can find places to stay in urban areas, for landlords are not willing to let rooms or apartments to such women. In buses, unscrupulous men go on occupying seats reserved for women and will only move when the language of humiliation is deployed against them.
On the roads, a young woman riding a motorbike or driving a car is an endless object of curiosity, with all those gaping men staring at her.
On billboards, there are yet those horrible moments when facial cream extols the virtues of a fair skin and so pointedly insults women of a dark hue.
At funerals, we still have clerics, as distinct from religious scholars, decreeing, without logic or historical precedent, that women cannot be present at the burials of their loved ones but must watch it all from afar.
In our movies and drama, the leading female character is a woman of full blown, sensual beauty, while every other woman around her -- her friends and acquaintances -- is painted in mediocre colours, those of an average woman. Again, there are the billboards for movies which deliberately depict the leading women characters in the films in provocative light, an instance being to show as much cleavage as possible in them.
At launching ceremonies of bank branches and other offices, there are pretty young women present with pairs of scissors, to be handed to the chief guests, all men, who will slice through the inaugural ribbons. That, sir, is objectifying women.
It is chauvinism which easily slips into the misogynistic. In Ramadan, we expect women news readers and anchors on television to pull the ends of their sarees over their heads in deference to the sanctity of the faith. But we do not ask their male counterparts to don skullcaps on their heads for the same reason.
Discourses on religion, on television and elsewhere, are restricted to men advising women on how best they should follow the rules of the faith. But how often have we come across women preachers and religious experts proffering advice to men?
We consistently demand that women be modest in everything they do, but we say not a word when a man in the course of his conversations expounds on the anatomy of women, on how they should cover themselves so as not to arouse the basest of instincts in men.
Ours is a society where the rise of powerful women is distinctly uncomfortable for large sections of men. Women lawmakers and mayors asserting themselves have all too easily borne the brunt of a backlash from men who have felt underwhelmed before them. There are the tales of brave, enterprising women, working for NGOs in the rural area, persecuted by men whose attitudes remain grounded in a medieval past. When a powerful man in a village rapes a married woman or an unmarried young woman, the shalish committee goes easy on the criminal but will make sure that the raped woman is punished and has the remains of her honour ground to dust through ostracism.
And so, as we return to that parliamentary committee. Are the women of Bangladesh second-class citizens? Have we pushed them into being a lower category of individuals in a caste system we are giving shape to? Are women an aberration in the history of creation?
If our women UNOs take the lead, as they must by reason of their official responsibilities, in offering final tributes to dead muktijoddhas, why must men look upon the entire exercise from the perspective of sexism?
One final point. The American feminist Gloria Steinem gave us interesting, if worrying, food for thought decades ago: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” she averred.
Do the chauvinists among us have a response?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.