Reflections on Women Development Policy and IOJ’s hartal – PART IV

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By, rahnuma ahmed

I had ended last week’s column (Part III, April 9, 2011) with these lines, What I find striking is how few women’s organisations, human rights and cultural activists are willing to publicly condemn the war on terror zealots, as they do the religious zealots. I had raised the question, is it odd to ask, what holds them back?

An unstated reasoning, seemingly, is that any condemnation of the `war on terror’ will further embolden those characterised as religious zealots, but this, to say the least,  is problematic. It is unethical. It makes our silence complicitous in international war crimes, in a context where people of conscience the world over have been demanding the trial—not assassination Abottabad-style—of George Bush Jr., Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Tony Blair, aka `Bliar,’ for nearly a decade. In present Bangladesh, as various political and social forces align and re-align themselves in their efforts to re-fashion a secular order, one notices two different streams, one, more prominent than the other due to the power structures in which it is embedded, which through its silence on WOT may be regarded as friendly towards imperialist forces, the other, more fragmentary, articulated by left parties and left-leaning intellectuals, which is critical of imperial invasion and occupation. The latter includes parties such as the Communist Party of Bangladesh, Workers Party (electoral allies of the ruling Awami League), Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal, and intellectual-activists, such as, Badruddin Umar, Farhad Mazhar, Anu Muhammad, Salimullah Khan, Nurul Kabir.

One would have liked to see leaders and activists belonging to the women’s movement taking a principled stand too. To see them express their solidarity with the sufferings of women in US `occupied territories’ (Afghanistan, Iraq), and in Palestine. It should have come forth easily because of our experience of 1971, particularly, because of the women’s movement’s acute awareness of the gender-specific impact of war, summed up beautifully in the words, narir ekattur. It is the name given to an edited collection of oral histories recounted by women who survived 1971, a collection markedly pluralistic through its inclusion of Bengali and adibashi/indigenous women, and women of diverse religious backgrounds, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists etc. (researched and published by Ain o Salish Kendra, 2001). `Women’s 1971′ thus is more than a mere book title, it encapsulates a perspective instead, from within which Bangladeshi women/feminist authors, researchers, artists and film-makers have developed critiques of masculinist accounts which glorify the 9 month long liberation struggle, the sacrifices made (only) by Bengalis. War impinges on all women’s lives. But despite our tales of suffering being distressingly similar to those of women living under US occupation now  —deaths, of husband, children, other family members, economic ruin, sexual assault, rape, fleeing from home, becoming refugees overnight, turning to prostitution to survive, to support children, to feed maimed male family members—expressions of solidarity with women elsewhere, are yet to occur.

Samajik Pratirodh Committee has, since its April 28 mass rally, held a series of human chains and rallies in support of the Women Development Policy—passed by the cabinet, awaiting parliamentary approval—urging the government to implement it immediately, despite its acknowledged shortcomings. In the meanwhile, ShomoOdhikar Amader Nunotomo Daabi (or, SAND; the name was inspired by the slogan of the Iranian coalition of women’s groups, `Equal rights is our minimum demand’ which launched the One Million Signatures campaign in 2005), a platform headed by left women’s groups and trade union activists, has been formed protesting the WDP. SAND demands a new women’s policy which will provide for equal rights to property/inheritance, marriage, divorce, rights over children for all women in Bangladesh (of whatever religion, caste, ethnicity or language). Which will also abandon neo-liberal policies imposed by the World Bank and IMF, pursued by the present and former governments, which have deepened poverty, affecting women in particular. Having joined the platform, I have had the benefit of participating in several internal meetings, an exchange of views programme, and the May 6 press conference in Dhaka where SAND was publicly launched.

However, it is not SAND that I wish to discuss, but instead, property. I have felt for a long time that a deeper understanding and critical appreciation of social and historical processes—to quote anthropologist Talal Asad, the `progress of glacial powers that have altered the conditions, [our] values, [and] desires’—that has made us what we are, and what we aspire to be, is largely lacking. That the present moment, defined both by party parochialism, and unproblematic understandings of modernity, secularism and religiosity, forecloses a closer understanding of our colonial, and post(?)-colonial histories, a situation which I find intellectually and politically-speaking, most perturbing.

Part of our intellectual deficit has to do with uncritically accepting the Enlightenment’s meta-narratives about reason, progress and secularisation, refurbished in the 20th century through the traditional vs. modern society dichotomy, to which our political activists remain wedded. It has led to simplistic and over-generalised accounts of women’s history where large periods are characterised as being unchanging in its oppression towards women, `thousands of systems of oppression towards women continued in male-dominated societies for thousands of years’ (Badruddin Umar, 2003); where pre-colonial Bengal is often characterised as belonging to `the dark ages of medieval history’ (Ayesha Khanam, 1993). Scholars have generally not performed too well either, most having been content with platitudes such as, Bangladesh is ninety percent Muslim. It is ethnically homogeneous. It has followed a syncretistic Sufi Islamic tradition.

But, since I want to dicuss property, what better place to start with than Marx? Marx’s materialism, as Ann Whitehead points out, is not based on an `ahistoric’ concept of property, arguing as he did, that the ownership of capital and labour power essential to capitalism requires a specific legal form of property, namely, private property Capitalist property, writes Whitehead as she draws on Pashukanis’ ideas, is basically the freedom to transform capital from one form to another. It thus requires the assertion of an individual’s rights against all other individuals. It requires, and I quote Whitehead, the `separation of property out of social relations so that it becomes a characteristic inherent in the object which can be disembodied from the individuals who now stand in relation to it’ (amar shompotti amar, bhai ey khabey keno? `it is my property, why should my brother live off it?’). Readers familiar with Marxism will be reminded of his notion of commodity fetishism which refers to the mystification of human relations so that a commodity (Coca-Cola, Fair & Lovely) appears as an object exchanged through the medium of money, concealing the labour time, derived from socialised production (including sweat-shops, workers rights, their struggles for fair wages etc., etc.), which produces it (Ann Whitehead, `Men and Women, Kinship and Property: Some General Issues,’ 1984).

To return to property, the separation of property as an object divorced from social relations entails a `corresponding transformation of the legal concept of the person,’ i.e., a legal subject who is the bearer of rights (with exclusive rights to buy, sell, benefit from its fruits whether agricultural yields or rents etc., etc). Now, it is important to bear in mind, reminds Whitehead, that these concepts of property are specific (historically, culturally) to western, or capitalist, or bourgeois societies, that these, i.e., firstly, the legal separation of subject and object, and secondly, the legal separation of subject from subject in his or her capacity to have control over the disposal of a thing which has been designated his or her property—do not occur in non-western societies. Thus, she writes, bound up with the concepts of property are concepts of the person, these concepts can be characterised by their degree of individuation within social relations (once again, amar shompotti amar, bhai ey khabey keno?).

Interestingly, Whitehead adds, whatever the nature of the economic system, whether capitalist, or pre-state and non-class societies such as foraging ones which practise technologically simple agriculture, `women’s capacity to act as fully acting subjects in relation to objects (property), or the aspects of person which may be being treated as objects (rights in people), is always more circumscribed than that of men.’ That, it is the kinship or family system which generally serves to construct women as less able to act as subjects, in comparison to male subjects.

I will not pursue Whitehead’s observation about women and families in capitalist societies, but turn instead to the issue which concerns me most, a historical query : did Muslim women in eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) enjoy rights to property as decreed by sharia inheritance laws, i.e., half the share inherited by her brother, as Muslim communities settled, grew, and expanded in pre-British Bengal (13th-18th century)?

Land, in the Islamic property rights framework, as we know, is conceived of as a sacred trust, but individual ownership (along with a strong re-distributive ethos) is promoted;  the precise and intricate fractional division of inheritance helps remind us that Arabia, at the advent of Islam, was a money economy. But what about Muslims in pre-British eastern Bengal? Was land individually-owned and held among the general Muslim population? Or, was it owned by the joint family where women, whether Muslims or Hindus, had rights to maintenance till they were given away in marriage, with the right of return in the case of widowhood. If so, how and when, through which processes, did change occur?

This, as far as I know, is an abyss in the social history of Muslims of eastern Bengal, a gap, a hole, covered up by platitudes repeated endlesly by scholars as they utter, the majority were Muslims. They followed a syncretistic Sufi Islamic tradition. A picture that is undoubtedly complicated by insights such as these into the politico-economic system of pre-British India: the system was centred upon control over the land. What was crucial however, was not control over land per se but, in economic terms, control over the people on the land. The rights to the produce of a particular piece of land were distributed among a number of persons or bodies, from the ruler at the top to those lower down; the political hierarchy was constituted by the relations between these persons or bodies, force acted as a fundamental element in the system. Zamindars had a degree of political autonomy within the Empire, retained as long as they provided the Emperor with troops and tribute (Chris Fuller, `British India or Traditional India?: Land, Caste and Power,’ 1977).

But what about family life? What about Muslim family life, how was it organised? Was land in rural Bengal (and eastern Bengal as we know was overwhelmingly rural) individually-owned and held, to be divided at the death of the father among his sons, with daughters and widowed wife/wives too receiving their appointed shares according to sharia rules? Or, was `jointness’ practised by Bengali Muslims, which involves a concept of property rather alien to Islam?

Asad argues in a highly insightful study of colonial Punjab that prior to its annexation by the British (1849), the differences in the forms of family organisation between Muslims and non-Muslims were, for the overwhelming portion of the population `negligible or non-existent,’ not out of ignorance, but because following it would have meant altering the very basis of social organisation on which these peasant communities were built. That, since Muslim law was applied only in the urban centres, it was only here that the differences between Muslims and non-Muslims was marked. However, during the British period, as the colonial government gradually interpreted and administered Muslim law, a `profound change’ occurred in the family structure of the Muslims, resulting in Muslims either having to decide or being compelled to by the courts, to `order their affairs in accordance with the principles of Muslim family law.’ (Aspects of Change in the Legal Structure of the Muslim Family in the Punjab under British Rule, unpubl B Litt thesis, 1961).

The social tensions that rage over claims to resources among Bengali Muslim families now, that erupt when women ask for their share of the inheritance, or, is expressed in women’s repeated complaints, bhaiera to 2 ana o dey na, persuades me that Asad’s argument—that landed property was jointly held by male kin among Punjabi Muslims, that women had only maintenance rights—is true not only for pre-British Punjab, but also, for the Muslims of eastern Bengal.

I was telling Naseem Akhter Hussain, convenor, SAND, and political science professor, Jahangirnagar university, about these little-known histories, and as I rushed along, tossing out one reference after the other, saying excitedly, we shouldn’t ignore these studies, do you think it’s possible to incorporate these histories into our struggles for equality and justice, she butted in, But if what you say is true, I want to know where were these mufti-maulanas then? When Muslim law was being administered, when the process of Islamisation was occurring under British rule, did they insist that women be given their 2 ana rightful shares? Did they say this in their Friday khutbas? Humph, I’ve never heard imams urge believers to do so, not once, not when I was growing up in the ’60s, nor later, after we became independent. What happened to Quran-Sunnah then?

Published in New Age, Monday May 16, 2011

http://newagebd.com/newspaper1/editorial/18760.html , the version uploaded here, is a brushed-up one (typos corrected, references provided).

The concluding piece, Part V, to be published tomorrow…

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