This country is not just fighting a pandemic of Covid-19 and rape, but also that of misogyny
This feature story is long overdue. I watched the online play Spectrum of Choice on Zoom on July 18 and am writing about it only now. I attribute the tardiness to various personal problems of mine, and I offer my sincerest apology to the cast and crew of Spectrum of Choice, who have been waiting for this piece to be published for almost forever. However, now that the piece has finally started, it will definitely end. Whether it is good or not, is up to the readers.
Before delving into what the play Spectrum of Choice is all about, I want to remind the readers of the things we have been witness to since July of this year. Simultaneously with the Covid-19 pandemic, another epidemic has gripped the nation. I am obviously referring to the “rape pandemic.” Every day I open various Facebook pages of popular news portals in the country, and the vast majority of them are littered with news of rape, sexual harassment, violence inflicted on women, wives, girl-children, cyber bullying and harassment of female celebrities, and the ever-growing list of murdered women. I am not going to provide any statistics, as all the news is available for you to find in each and every news website popular in this country, and if you want cold hard numbers, you can always visit Ain O Shalish Kendra.
This country is not just fighting a pandemic of Covid-19 and rape, but also that of misogyny. For the layman, misogyny is hatred of women, and misogynists are the bane of existence for feminists, who want to establish equal and equitable rights for women.
By now you might be thinking, “Oh no! Yet another piece by a feminist reminding us of the horrible conditions in this country.” I, as a writer, will not mind if you are thinking that, because all I request you readers is to finish the entire piece before forming judgments. This piece is not about giving “broken-tune-like” reminders of how horrible this country is towards women, but to offer an innovative solution to the pandemic of rape and misogyny.
What is that solution I offer? We should have more screenings of the online play Spectrum of Choice! This solution was not innovated by me. It is an innovative production of Bonhishikha and Mondro, organizations that believe in starting off dialogues among Bangladeshi youth about their roles in society. If you have recently seen videos circulating on social media showing Bangladeshi women conducting flashmob on the streets of Dhaka and chanting slogans such as “Tui Dhorshok” (“You are the Rapists!”) then you know what Bonhishikha is all about. It is a theatre troupe that plays an active role in the feminist movement in Bangladesh. And Mondro is a non-profit volunteer-based cultural organization of the queer community. Mondro also has the first largest queer archive of Bangladesh.
And Spectrum of Choice is Bonhishikha and Mondro’s joint production and first “virtual” theatre production by the organizations; the play can be only seen on Zoom. The purpose behind the production is “to educate the viewers about the entirety of the spectrum of people that makes up the society we live in.”
According to the playbill provided, the brains within Bonhishikha and Mondro ideated “Spectrum of Choice” with the “specific intention of shifting focus towards gender and sexuality, and the constraints that we have created around these topics within Bangladesh’s society.” After watching the play only once (that too on the second virtual screening of the play), I must say they have most definitely succeeded in leaving a permanent impression in my brain. I have already childishly requested for a third virtual screening to one actor in the play, but until that happy occasion arrives you have this written piece to get a glimpse of “Spectrum of Choice.”
Societal Issues depicted in ‘Spectrum of Choice’
The play is structured like an anthology of stories which make up the acts in the play. And each act is about one specific recurring problem in Bangladesh.
The first act is titled “What will people say?” That age-old justification given by our elders for any new thing we try? Yes… that is exactly what the first act is all about. I found this very relatable to my life, as each dialogue uttered by the actors in this act was something I have heard, followed by “What will people say?”
I have grown up watching my grandmother chastise women in my family with statements like, “Don’t sit with your legs like that,” “Don’t talk so loud,” “Don’t laugh so loud. Smile politely,” etc. As a boy I have also been attacked with statements from friends in school. I have been on the receiving end of sentences such as “Boys don’t cry!”, “Dude, why can’t you grow some beard?”, “You throw like a girl,” “Stop swaying your hips like that… makes you look gay,” and so on.
One of my closest friends is very lean and he has been bullied all his life for his leanness. My female friends, who have a higher pigmentation on their skin, are rejected regularly by successful men, when they bring marriage proposals.
And obviously there is the ever-increasing pressure to get married for my women friends who have graduated from university. Often they receive proposals from men who belong in powerful families and have a lot of wealth, but these same men have also had previous marriages, and are many years older than my friends. Some have children from their first marriage.
All of the situations mentioned above and a lot more are mentioned in the first act “What will people say?” Regarding the first act, founder of Mondro Tanveer Anoy said: “Society has been constructed corruptly in a binary way, where hierarchy is maintained by patriarchy. Some people have always something to say to hurt other identities and expressions, so particularly this piece is a reflection of all those hurtful remarks, which people have been telling others. We made this piece not only for ourselves but for every victim who has been hurt by such remarks. This piece is for enlightening some luminous souls, who fight for their existence every day. The lines are not fictional, but more like the word-to-word transcription of stereotypes. It might be done in a funny and light way - but the approach is to make people aware of their actions by using irony and sarcasm. I hope people would ditch the stereotypes, and start ‘thinking outside the box.’”
The second act of the play is titled “Mirror Mirror on the wall.” This act deals with the fictitious standards of beauty set by consumerism and capitalism. The act begins with a monologue of someone talking about their reflection, and wondering what perfection is. A second actor then talks about how she learned the societal standards of beauty. Then a bunch of actors each gives an attribute they have heard from society, that is used to describe “perfection.” These attributes include remarks like “Arabian skin,” “a Russian chiseled jawline,” “the abs of a Greek God,” “Bengali breasts,” and so on.
One male actor narrated the following anecdote: “Once, an elderly uncle of mine waved me over to him at a family wedding. As I walked over, he shouted loud enough for everyone to hear: ‘Aren’t you ashamed? You have gained so much weight!’” When I heard this, I immediately had tears in my eyes, as this remark is something I have been hearing from an uncle of mine for the last 15 years of my life. Every family visit to my aunt (my father’s sister) is filled with memories of being fat-shamed by the man she has married. Therefore, the second act was also very very relatable.
Regarding the second act one of the actors Shakil Ahmed said: “Just like beauty standards are not universal, there isn’t a universal list of hurtful remarks that one should avoid while conversing with others. One remark could come off as a compliment for an individual, and another might very well be a very hurtful insult, as per the interpretation of the recipient. Therefore, people should be always careful about commenting on another’s body; better to not comment at all. One funny comment could lead to a chain reaction of a lot of people making that same comment on that same individual, and eventually it could lead to people ganging up on that victim, and it turns into bullying. You can never predict from beforehand what a person is sensitive about.”
The third act is titled “Desired” and it features the actor Mitul Mahmud, who previously starred in “An Inspector Calls” - a production by Jatrik. The third act features three actors, including Mitul, and each of them give monologues about how the characters they were portraying were treated in their respective marriages. Each story is different, and each monologue is full of vivid and visceral images. And each story deals with violence committed by men with their wives under the protection of the societal institution called “marriage.” This segment made me recall long repressed memories of my Biological father being abusive towards my mother. I distinctly remember this one instance, when I saw my father strangling my mother.
Remember me writing that I requested for a third screening of “Spectrum of Choice” to an actor in the play. Well I asked Mitul and this is what she said: “We are not sure if there will be a third screening. Even if there is one it will probably not be for the full show anyway. There was a screening of some of the pieces at a festival recently.”
Regarding the act “Desired” Mitul said: “Living in a country where marital rape isn’t formally recognized yet, talking about the violence that happens between husband and wife is a dreadful taboo. Having survived an abusive marriage myself, performing this piece was particularly cathartic. I experienced a close sense of solidarity and strength through the words of the woman I was playing.”
This act should be especially relevant today, as the educated mass - including me - is shocked at the recently published news of a child bride, who passed away from injuries received due to marital rape.
If there are more acts like “Desired” in plays like “Spectrum of Choice”, and if such plays had reached the masses, maybe, just maybe, innocent deaths like that could be prevented?
The fourth act is titled “The Future of us” and it is a story about a homosexual couple and the societal restrictions that prevents them from being together. This act helped me recall memories of an old work colleague of mine, who belonged to the Garo community. He is a homosexual man, and he did open up to me back in the day, of how it is hard for him to convince his parents that gay men can get married. He even showed pictures of his then-boyfriend. I met that colleague of mine during my work at a call center. The act within the play and the memory I recalled makes me wonder, as to how many homosexual couples in this city endure sleepless nights; imagining scenarios where they open up to their parents about their sexual orientation, and suggest marrying their same-sex partners?
Swatil Binte Mahmud, member of Bonhishikha and founder of the organization Swayong, is an actor in the piece “The Future of Us.” Regarding the act she said: “We worked on the ‘Spectrum of Choice’ for almost a year. Getting the scripts to perfection took months, and then rehearsing for the event was suddenly stopped due to the pandemic.
“I wanted to do justice to this beautiful piece, as it was a big responsibility for me to realistically bring across the emotions, thoughts and fear a person belonging to the queer community feels in our country.
“The piece ‘The Future of Us’ is very close to my heart. It talks about the sad reality of same-sex couples in Bangladesh. I feel that displaying love in our society is almost always greeted with a lot of hate. I hope one day, each and every person can love freely regardless of their sexual orientation, and without fear.”
The next act is titled “Single in the City” and this one describes the misery of women being single in Dhaka. This is once again a very relatable segment for me, because I was raised by a single mother, and each day she would come back home from work, and give me a list of men who have given her marriage proposals, or wanted her phone number, or made rude and disgusting innuendos during conversations, etc. Even now, when I at the age of 26 have moved into a house with my mother - after her separation from her second husband - the neighbour aunty knocks every day and wants to find out what my mother does all day all by herself. Seeing the lack of furniture in our apartment she began a conversation with my mother with the assumed suggestion “new couple?” I was just dumbfounded when I heard this from my mother.
The pang of single women trying to find a safe place to live in Dhaka is very real, as my mother and I experienced every time we shifted house in Uttara. And the Bangladeshi society we live in treats single women as an object to be hidden, or discarded, or turned away at the doorstep. Why? Mainly because society thinks of the age-old excuse, that a single woman may date men and ruin the reputation of the “ohh so” respectable landlord and landlady.
I feel that the third act “Single in the City” will be relatable to all single women who live by themselves in Dhaka. This is what Tasaffy Hossain had to say about this act: “I loved working on putting this piece together, and gathering stories from single women who have struggled to live in Dhaka. I myself have faced these types of questions consistently in offices and from family. A lot of times, we say that part of being social is to ask questions to our acquaintances, to show interest in them and their lives. We don’t consider these as an intrusion into different people’s privacy, or consider what comfort level they might have.
“We also don’t consider how our own biases affect how we talk to or about others making their personal life choices. Just like the rest of the show, we just wanted to showcase that being single, living alone, enjoying solitude, could also be choices that people, especially women should be able to make for themselves. Does it matter so much how another person chooses to live their lives, if it makes them happy?”
Reasons why “Spectrum of Choice” should be screened again
There are two more acts in the play that deal with sexual fantasies and sexuality. I will not give details about them as these two acts are the most important surprises of “Spectrum of Choice.”
However, remember when I suggested that I want to offer “Spectrum of Choice” as a solution to the ongoing pandemic of rape and misogyny? Well, these two acts are the reason why. In our country sexual education is a taboo topic due to people’s devotion to religion. Even Humayun Ahmed’s legendary drama “Kothao Keu Nei” depicts an escort service in such a subtle way, that to an inexperienced mind the actions of the Madame of that escort service will be inexplicable.
“Kothao Keu Nei” was shown on Bangladesh Television at a time when there was no internet. Now, people have access to the internet through smartphones in the remote corners of this country. Pornographic websites are banned in this country according to government directive, but for a long time it was accessible to the general public. People may outwardly scoff and turn away from topics of sexually intimate affairs and intimate relationships among men and women; however, a visit to any eatery in Dhaka will show you how capable Bangladeshis are in the “having relationships” department. Teenagers endlessly gossip about relationships they experience or see their friends experiencing upon hitting puberty. The middle-class families have become upper middle class with the internet age, but the educational institutions in which their middle-class children study in, still does not teach sexual education as a subject.
The acts “Simple Fantasies” and “Sex, Sexy and Sexuality” in the play “Spectrum of Choice”, I feel, will be perfect educational videos that can be shown to the general mass, to educate them about the “spectrum of choices” that exist, when it comes to sex.
Regarding these acts Chenoa Chowdhury said: “‘Simple Fantasies’ was written around an online anonymous survey we encouraged residents of Dhaka to participate in. Sex, sexual experiences and fantasies may not be openly discussed in our society, but this piece shows they are normal and healthy thoughts and experiences. Open dialogue is so important and our storytelling helps educate people around these topics that they should not be taboo.”
The final act of the play is titled “Dear Society.” Regarding this act Nahid Hassan said: “‘Dear Society’ is the piece which depicts the stereotypical societal norms and behaviors towards each and every living being. It is about those who do not fit in their mould. It strongly portrays the emotional and physical trauma of a person caused by the society, and about those who wishes to be their own person or act how they truly feel. This piece is full of life and reality that there’s no room to feel alienated when someone watches it. I wish the purpose of this piece in the play can serve the masses and inspire the audience to think differently with a more open and accepting view of life.”
And it is the perfect conclusion to the acts preceding it. If I reveal more, the cast and crew of “Spectrum of Choice” might be out for my blood, as already I think this feature story has given liberal amount of spoilers. However, I would like to end this story with a quote from “Dear Society.” Before I write the quote I urge the readers of this piece to definitely keep their eyes and ears open for news of a third screening of “Spectrum of Choice.” As soon as you get that news, purchase the ticket to watch the play. The ticket price does not go into anyone’s pockets. But rather the ticket price goes to an organization that works for the transgender community in Bangladesh.
“Spectrum of Choice” was ideated for education, and educated you will be, if you manage to watch it. The educated folks of Bangladesh need to reclaim their “spectrum of choice” from the religious zealots in this country. And the time of that reclamation is very near. Here follows the ending dialogue of the play “Spectrum of Choice”: “Someday, I know that people will forgo their biases, and political agendas. Someday, they will accept everyone for who we are. Maybe not today, but I spend my time looking forward to such a future. Yours truly, Abnormal.”