Of Solidarity and Distrust: Morals as Perils in Bangladeshi Feminist Movement

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Feminist scholarship and activities in Bangladesh have never had consistent agendas or check lists. Quite understandably, like the scenario in working class politics too, the activities often were a series of responses to the ever-hostile social norms and dominance of patriarchy. While I do not mean to undermine those responsive activities, I am of the opinion that those activities mostly were based on ad-hoc agendas and often are seen as dealing with the situations of working-class women. There has always been the firm conceptualizers of broader gender issues, from historical and philosophical perspectives and with global understandings, which involved middleclass experiences. But women’s movements, as a general tendency, lacked the necessary connections among its actors, a situation that can be found in working class politics as well. Along with disparity on broader social perceptions, actors in the women’s movement mostly differ on the question of sexuality. In other words, the morals and norms regarding the monogamous heterosexual (and legitimate) relationships are so strong that some actors would prefer not to be categorized as feminists at all. Feminists, hence, stand for all the ‘immoral’ sexual behaviors, even to their counterparts.

The exile in probing
I have often been an open critic of the popular and established thesis of the infamous exile of Taslima Nasrin. Among all the cultural-intellectual events that took place in Bangladesh, this perhaps was the single most discussed case across the globe. I am definitely not one to discount the threats posed by the ‘Islamists’ to her life, or to the lives of the liberal intelligentsia in general, a situation that intensified over the time. But my take on the whole issue is much more complex. I cannot spare the liberal actors in Bangladesh for their role in creating an atmosphere that actually was hostile to Taslima. This is a very risky position even to think of. For the secular middleclass, my position risks of siding with the ‘Islamists’, an allegation I am not unfamiliar with due to some critical stances that may appear unfitting to liberal-secular narratives in Bangladesh. Quite obnoxious, this labelling of ‘pro-Islamist’/‘pro-Jamaat’ is a tool to overpower any opponent who does not conform to the ruling dogmas.

What actually disgusted and distanced liberal actors in Bangladesh from Taslima Nasrin is her overt position about sexuality, and perhaps her blunt utterances about her experiences with men. She was considered to transgress the set boundaries of silence by talking about taboos. This was by any means a persistent act of being the ‘deviant’, not only to her male counterparts and the broader male chauvinist professional world, but also to the cautious women activists, especially those who hesitated to name themselves as ‘feminist’. But with closer inspection in the episode, one cannot but discover more subtleties. Sexuality seems to be a difficult issue to deal with, not only by more cautious women activists, namely liberal social organizations who uphold women’s right issues, but also by some apparently well-grounded feminist groups too, especially in the public spaces. Part of the crisis must be understood in the context of challenges posed by the orthodox schools; but the remaining part should be linked to a general anxiety about sexuality. To be fair to the more prepared feminist groups in Dhaka, it was their inability (lack) in bringing forward any manifesto regarding sexuality, not even when the political scenario was a little more relaxed, during the late 80s. Taslima was found alone and unaccompanied with what she was doing and was singled out by the ‘Islamists’.

‘Bad girl’ and ‘bad guy’ connection
It is a no-brainer that the masculine regime is firm and definite in endorsing the ‘bad guys’, assuming there is a little common space for understanding the category between and within the contesting genders. More often than not, ‘bad guys’ are seen to be ‘winner’ among males, capable of manipulating sexual situations and experiencing a series of ‘sexual encounters.’ Professional position, fame, age, and few more things can play as advantages in his mission. Often they do in any context. In a strictly maintained male set of principles, all these activities are celebrated unless intervened by the organizational rules or punishment. This is a global scenario that the women are fighting against with various grades and levels in actual local contexts. I mean to underline the principles of solidarity that play in a given situation to bring out the worst of the male stakes in gender politics.

The same thing cannot be said about the possible solidarity of women, or at least about women’s solidarity in Bangladesh. There was a famous feminist saying: ‘Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to everywhere’. Women’s solidarity in Bangladesh, however, is not that inclusive it seems. ‘Bad girls’, assuming the category refers to sexual behavior, mostly are not celebrated among their own gender for ‘winning’ a situation. On the contrary, they are seen to spoil the ‘pride’ that women could negotiate for within a contested space. If a girl is a victim of any sexual assault or harassment, taking middleclass professional scenarios into consideration, the first and foremost scrutiny is likely to be directed toward her ‘sexual behavior’ – commonly assessed through her costume, laughter, mixing with the male colleagues, her willingness to attend social gatherings, etc. If the girl is found to be ‘guilty’ for being ‘social’, her case is lost long before any organization could actually even think of probing into the case. The question of solidarity is important because the scrutiny is not something that comes from men, but also from female counterparts. Most sexual offenses against girls invite an obvious discussion, which is precisely engineered within set rules of male desire, about the females’ sexual behaviors, and they rotate around issues far from actual sexual desires or actions. Solidarity in different genders works in very different manners and strengths.

Backlashes in the era of #Me-Too
My association with feminist activities has three distinct phases. First, as a potential ‘feminist male’, discovered in more or less an early phase of critical feministic understanding in Dhaka, and by some composed and active feminists. Back then, I used to be considered a ‘bad boy’ by the governing bodies and not by the activist women. The famous anti-rape movement at Jahangirnagar University, along with my feminist friends, laid the foundation for an easy space for males to participate in feminist causes. Second, the ever-growing propagation for ‘gender’ by the state and international agencies made it very difficult not to be a skeptic about the wave. More importantly, I myself was seriously examining the upper middleclass activities and their lack of understanding about practical matters concerning class differences and their lack of interest in engaging in more delicate issues like sexuality. I did not find myself anymore connected to core feminist circles, except on a few occasions. The third phase came as a shock when the #Me-Too movement had its part in Dhaka, for a brief period but with some surge, especially in cyberspace. I felt that I was reduced into an apologist’s position, quite unknowingly.

Some five or six cases were raised and transmitted, all in cyberspace or on ‘social’ media. The tensions around colleagues were evident, and I had to probe into the issues. It all began with my partner’s (wife, in legal term) intervention in another sensitive claim, also on ‘social’ media, made a few weeks before the harassment cases were mentioned. A television actress made a public claim that the girls working in media (actors and models she meant) are being sexually proposed, and the girls who complied with those proposals were the ones who succeeded or could continue with the profession. The provocation of the claim was obvious and caught civic attention rapidly. Unfortunately, some of the feminists, who in other situations have been firm and critically acclaimed for years, missed a fundamental trick in this public claim, and later they dragged the issue into the #Me-Too phase. That claim played as a whistle-blower role for sure, but at the cost of the ‘sexual moral integrity’ of the girls who were ‘successfully’ continuing work in television media. It was meant to ‘point’ at the ‘wrong-doer’ males in charge of the television media, but it ended with ‘fingering’ at the girls seen on screen for their ‘sexually deviant’ compromises. On a television talk-show regarding this issue, my partner Bonna Mirza, who herself is a known television actor, pointed at the loophole of the claim and accused the whistle-blower for playing ‘moral’ cards against women, something which should have been done by her more systematic feminist friends. She questioned the merit of criticizing the working girls in media, and not actually implicating the males involved, and thus fueling the already negative social norms about women in media. I thought Bonna was very clear about her position to challenge the acts of ‘criminalizing’ a profession as well as ‘sexualizing’ a group of professionals.

Instead of being credited for bringing subtlety into the debate, she actually was thoroughly framed for working ‘against’ the ‘#Me-Too’ movement, something that even started later. Both newspaper columns and ‘social’ media updates by contemporary women activists shamed her for ‘going against women’ and instead serving ‘peer group males’ from the media. Bonna later explained her position in her articles on different national dailies. No bridge actually seemed to be established between two parties even after her attempt. The episode highlights a serious area to look at for feminists and their allies. Moral tricks are repeatedly played not only from the annoying male corners, but also from the perplexed or underprepared women alliances too. Things can become even worse when they are taking place as a manipulative act to undermine the greater gender politics. Until we trust our longtime comrades, and unless we have a workable manifesto – if not public, at least in confidence – on sexuality, then gender politics can be slippery.

Manosh Chowdhury teaches social anthropology at Jahangirnagar University, lectures in some other areas, writes across genres, mostly in Bangla.

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