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Mapping female emancipation
autonomous womanhood vs. dasi

By rahnuma ahmed

In yesterday’s column, I had written that Bangladeshi scholars, researchers and intellectuals who have sought to understand and appreciate Begum Rokeya (1880-1932) have ignored issues of class and gender. Gender, too? you might well have wondered. Since Rokeya is a woman, how could any author who has written on Rokeya ignore the issue of gender?

Begum Rokeya (1880-1932)

Yes, gender as well, and to explain what I mean, I draw on an essay written by Marxist intellectual Farhad Mazhar, which, I hasten to add, is not about Rokeya but about Karl Marx’s theoretical attention to the question of women’s emancipation, ‘Narir Mukti o Shompotti: Itihash Bigyaner Moulik Obosthan Proshonge’, Women’s emancipation and property: The central position of scientific history (Proshongo: Nari Mukti Andolon, edited by Liakat Ali, Dhaka: Pothikrit Prokashoni, 1999).

In an otherwise brilliant essay, a couple of sentences by Mazhar in the opening paragraphs will surely not escape the attention of discerning scholars of women’s history. ‘Needless to say, the amount of work written by Karl Marx on ‘capital’ in no way equals the amount which he wrote on women. Women were not his subject. But does that mean that he lacked any original scientific thoughts on the issue of women? This is the central question that our essay engages with. In other words, our enquiry will be concerned with whether he did or did not have any original ideas on the issue of women, and that, whatever be the reason, these thoughts were not written down.’ (p. 80).

In this rendering, Marx, as you may have noted, appears to be sex-less. The presentation of men as being sex-neutral persona, whether deliberate or unconscious, has been theoretically critiqued by feminists for more than the last three decades. The issue, many argue, is not sexual difference (which is biological) but more precisely, the social organisation of sexual i.e., gender difference (what cultures make of biology; socially- constructed and learned differences). This is why, they add, much of history-writing, is his-story, one that excludes her’s. (Different strands of feminists have later argued that both sex and gender are socially constructed, that science too, is cultural, but I will not go into these issues).

Another point which I had raised in yesterday’s column, drawing on the Indian feminist historian Lata Mani’s study of sati, is the ‘colonialism had at least positive consequences for women’ approach to history-writing, one which Mani says, is basic to ‘even the most anti-imperialist’ of scholars and activists. This approach, she argues, occludes our vision, it fails to recognise that British colonial discourses had ‘privileged brahmanic scriptures as the key to Indian society’ (p. 114). That, it had posited tradition as being timeless and a structuring principle of Indian society, one that was enacted in the everyday lives of Indian people (p. 116). Mani insists that instead of approaching history as consisting of a ‘simplistic application of narratives of progressive modernization’ (p. 89), we should take colonial discourses on India seriously. Or else, we, as scholars, will replicate it through the analysis we undertake, and will end up lending our support to colonial rule. To not be complicit, we must be aware that ‘colonial discourses…[had] elaborated notions of modernity against their own conception of tradition’ (p. 116). That, colonial discourses had ‘contemporaneously produced’ both ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ (p. 116).

In my opinion, Bangladeshi scholars have uncritically empoyed the notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ which has bogged down their intellectual efforts, marring what are, by all other considerations, meticulous and painstaking studies (‘labours of love’) on Rokeya. One of the best such instances is provided by Shamsul Alam who writes in his scene-setting description of the historical context within which Rokeya wrote, established Sakhawat Memorial School for girls, and struggled against those who denounced and villified her attempts to educate Muslim girls — ‘Just as there was no space within the decrepit fortresses of those who were conservative, similarly so, the restlessness of those who heralded the new [Young Bengal, the Derozians], of those who were progressive, was marked by their inability to provide directions to the path of true welfare. But admittedly, the conflict between the new and the old gradually led to the development of ideals of progress and welfare. A middle path of reconciliation developed through conflicts between those who were extremists [choromponthi], and those who were soft-ists [noromponthi]. A motivation for progress was introduced into Bangladesh’s stagnant society. Opportunities arose for offering new explanations and analyses of society, politics and religion.’ (Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain: Jiban O Shahittyakarma, Life and Literary Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1989, p. 15).

Similar notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ are manifested in one way or another in all the literature that I have read to date on Rokeya; written from different angles, they seemingly converge in their approach to history, the ‘application of narratives of progressive modernization’.

These notions also manifest themselves in work written by those belonging to the leftist political tradition. One can glimpse this in the accolades heaped on Rokeya by comrade Khalequzzaman, general secretary, Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal (BSD), in his recently-published booklet on Rokeya. He writes, ‘Begum Rokeya — uncompromising, freedom-loving, social theorist, dedicated to the cause of education, extensive thinker, flag-bearer of post-Rammohun-[Ishwarchandra] Bidyasagar’s Indian renaissance, forerunner of the women’s movement, pioneer of women’s awakening — was born 130 years ago.’ (Begum Rokeya. Jibon, Shongram o Shikkha, Begum Rokeya. Her life, struggles and teachings, Samajtantrik Mahila Forum, Dhaka: Vanguard Prokashoni, 2011, p. 5).

In a section titled ‘Rokeya’s Consciousness of History’, while drawing on Friedrich Engels’ ideas on ‘the historical downfall of the female sex’, Khalequzzaman writes, ‘[the notion that women have been slaves of men from the outset of human society] is unhistorical…[as is the notion that] women are naturally inferior to men in their capabilities, intellect, and skills. Marx-Engels, through highlighting the redundancy of these unscientific explanations have demonstrated through their discussion of the evolution of human society, how women were not subjugated to men until the creation of class society and the establishment of private ownership over social property.’ (p. 28).

Much indebted as we are to Marx and Engels, to the latter particularly for having expressedly historicised women’s oppression, for having offered ‘the possibility of a materialistic explanation for women’s subordination and attempt[ed] to establish a relationship between the ownership of private property and the ideological subordination of women’ (Sayers, Evans and Redclift, eds., Engels Revisited. New Feminist Essays, London: Tavistock, 1987, p. 1), the idea that private property is the originary cause from which women’s subordination follows, that, it is, so to speak, an after-effect, has long been discarded by feminist scholars of both socialist and Marxist persuasions. Some have explicitly critiqued Marx and Engels for their ‘determinist tendency to theorize male domination as an epiphenomenon of class conflict.’ (Rhonda M. Williams, in M. Ferber and J. Nelson edited, Beyond Economic Man, 1993, p. 152).

At this point, it may not be entirely irrelevant to recollect the acute observation made by Shameem Akhtar, writer and editor then (film-maker now) well over two decades ago, ‘It is most unfortunate that leftists are making use of women’s demand for emancipation to further their organisational needs…the incorporation of women into their organisation is cosmetic…even though [left parties] propound many theories they have not yet been able to comprehend the untold significance of the issue [of women’s emancipation].’ (‘Narimukti Andolon Chintay Bibhranti. Ekti Shamogrik Prekkhit,’ Confusion in the Women’s Movement for Emancipation. An Overview, see Liakat Ali’s edited book above, p. 30).

Over the last two decades or more, the sexual composition of the industrial workforce has radically changed as a result of garment manufacturing for global capital – at present, 85% of garment workers are women, the industry generates 80% of the country’s total export revenue — but whether that has led to commensurate changes in how left intellectuals and party activists comprehend class and gender issues, is open to debate.

I now want to turn to Begum Rokeya, and to the importance of historically locating the particularity of the patriarchal regime against which she fought, and the class-specific nature of Muslim femininity which she challenged.

If one doesn’t attempt such an exercise then we must assume by default that the creation of Bengali Muslim women’s identity in the first decades of the 20th century — one in which Rokeya played a central role — was foretold. One must assume that history is teleological. That the language of women’s emancipation was not distinctive, neither to class, nor to culture. That the creation of subjective identity was external to language. That a universal discourse on women’s emancipation ‘made sense’ to women, it helped to galvanise them into action. Or, that they were passive, that it was men anyway, who decided. But, as anthropologist Talal Asad notes in his discussion of class and domination: ‘The languages of class employed in nineteenth-century Britain are not replicated in twentieth-century Egypt. The assumption is made by many students of the Arab world (those writing in English or French as well as those writing in Arabic) that in both places we may identify an urban bourgeoisie, a nascent working class, a Lumpenproletariat, each displaying a recognisable class ideology – but such an assumption is profoundly mistaken. Historical languages constitute classes, they do not merely justify groups already in place according to universal economic structures.’ (Are There Histories of Peoples Without Europe, A review article, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1987).

And it is these ideas that impel me to ask, what was the language that Rokeya crafted to create a new sense of collective identity? To make women see their oppression? To arouse in them a sense of dignity? What words did she use, what meanings did they convey, ones that would reverberate because they were a part of women’s lived experiences, women who led secluded lives, who were denied education? A language that would make what had thus far been regarded as natural, seem unnatural? What emotions did she appeal to?

Since Rokeya belonged to the shareef class, the uppermost strata in Muslim society
— landed Muslims, who, although in a period of transition with the decline of rentier income still enjoyed moral and social authority – she unleashed an ideological assault on governing norms, attacking both shareef masculinity and femininity, in her characteristically witty, intensely satirical and polemical manner.

To invoke a sense of pride and dignity among women who belonged to the class which governed social norms, but lacked social and political power, it was only natural for her to lash out, why are you dasis? Why are you enslaved?

Dear readers, as is often the case, I have ended up writing more than I had planned, I will definitely conclude tomorrow.


Published in New Age, Tuesday, December 13, 2011
This is a brushed-up, typos corrected version.

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