Different Islamic organizations stage a procession outside the National Mosque protesting against equal inheritance rights of women. Dhaka, Bangladesh. March 14 2008. © Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
‘NO, I don’t care about the women’s development policy. I mean, I don’t think it should be looked at in isolation,’ said Shameem Akhtar, feminist writer, filmmaker, a friend of many years.
She continued, ‘There are other questions that need to be raised simultaneously, the caretaker government’s patronisation of Jamaat, of religious forces that are inimical to women, its stand on the issue of 1971 war criminals. I want to know where it stands, not just throwaway statements made by this or that adviser. The policy is part of larger issues, whether the government wants to encourage social forces that enable women. Whether it really wants to build a democratic state and society, and this, of course, is linked to the issue of militarisation. Whether the military and its intelligence agencies will be made accountable to civilian authority. We need to learn from history. If the government suddenly approves the policy, the one announced on March 8, am I expected to dance in delight? Of course not, I won’t. I want to know what the government has up its sleeve.’
Shameem and I were talking about the incidents of March and April this year. The chief adviser had announced the National Women Development Policy 2008 on the eve of International Women’s Day. A section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties protested. Equal rights for women in terms of earned property violates Shariah law on inheritance. A woman should get only half of what her brother gets. Weekly demonstrations were held after Jumma prayers at Baitul Mukarram. Street marches, and calls of tougher action programmes followed; skirmishes with police turned the area in front of the national mosque into a ‘battlefield’. Rallies were held in Chittagong. The protests of Hathajari madrassah students turned violent.
The government formed a 20-member committee on March 27, consisting of Islamic scholars. Its task was to ‘identify inconsistencies in the policy as per Islamic rules and [to] suggest steps’. The review committee handed in their deliberations on April 17. They recommended that six sections of the policy be deleted, including the one that suggested the implementation of CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. A further fifteen should be amended. Any decision regarding women’s rights, said the committee, should be taken ‘in the light of the Qur’an and Sunnah’.
AF Hassan Ariff, law, justice and parliamentary affairs adviser, hoped that the recommendations would remove the ‘language or interpretation gap’ created around the women development policy.
Colonial history and the imperial present
I had been under the illusion that Muslim laws were applicable to Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, since the beginning of Muslim rule. On reading Talal Asad’s thesis – changes in the Muslim family structure caused by British rule – I realised that things were not so simple. I remember ruefully thinking how little I know. Before British rule, wrote Asad, most Muslims and non-Muslims led largely similar lives. Muslim law was applied only in the urban centres, not in rural communities. This was not due to a lack of knowledge, but because social organisation, the nature of property rights and forms of livelihood, was the same for Hindus and Muslims. Being a Muslim meant following Muslim rites of marriage and burial, maybe having a Muslim name. Nothing more. State intervention in village life was largely centred around the assessment and collection of land revenue, or military recruitment.
Later, I came across Michael Anderson, and later still, Lata Mani’s writings. Reading Anderson made things clearer. One of the major problems of colonial control was to obtain simple, reliable and reasonably accurate understanding of native social life. The colonisers were perplexed at the multiplicity of local customs and practices, at the many forms of legal authority that existed. They found a solution in law, and legal texts. Anglo-Mohammedan jurisprudence was born in the first century of colonial rule. This meant legal assumptions, law officers, translations, textbooks, codifications, and new legal technologies. It also meant mistakes. The most celebrated one was the treatment of classical Islamic texts as binding legal codes. In other words, the Qur’an was mistakenly assumed to be a code of law. The colonisers thought that the social lives of Muslims followed what was written in the Qur’an. This was in contrast to the pre-British period, where legal texts were never directly applied. Instead, a qazi, someone who had proper authority, was morally sound and knowledgeable of local arrangements, would translate legal precepts into practice. Anderson assures us that colonial judicial administration gradually became more sophisticated, but still, a basic prejudice, he insists, remained. Texts were considered more important than interpretive practices.
Lata Mani’s conclusions are similar. Colonial discourse, she says, gave greater importance to brahmanic scriptures (Srutis, Smritis or Dharmashastras), not to custom or usage. It made a sharp distinction between the ‘Hindu’ and the ‘Islamic’, which were considered mutually exclusive and autonomous heritages. The creation of essentially Hindu, and essentially Muslim, religious identities was accompanied by justifications: colonial interventions are civilising, they rescue native women from barbaric traditions.
These myths are kept alive.
In late 2001, Laura Bush denounced the ‘severe repression’ of the women of Afghanistan. Life under the Taliban, said the first First Lady to deliver an entire presidential radio address, was ‘hard and repressive’. Small displays of joy – children flying kites, mothers laughing aloud – were outlawed. Her speech, writes Laura Flanders, helped to put a feminist glow on some of the most brutal bombing of the 2001 campaign.
One million signature campaign in Iran
On June 12, 2005, women organised a sit-in in front of the University of Tehran, five days before the first round of the presidential elections, later won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two thousand Iranian women took part in the sit-in, which was unauthorised. The declaration that was prepared in advance was signed by ninety women’s groups. It was the largest independent women’s coalition since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Mahsa Shekarloo, one of the organisers, says the coalition includes both the secular, and the pious. It includes religious women who distance themselves from the term feminist, ‘Islamic feminists’ who argue that women’s rights can be provided from within the framework of Muslim law, ‘Muslim feminists’ who come from religious backgrounds but do not use Islamic law as their point of reference, and feminists who would rather not see the republic in Iran be an ‘Islamic’ one.
The women had gathered to protest the constitution’s denial of women’s rights. They sang protest songs, and repeatedly chanted, “Equal rights is our minimum demand.”
More than two years later, on August 27, 2006, the Iranian women’s movement launched a two-year face-to-face campaign for the collection of one million signatures in support of a petition. It is addressed to the Iranian parliament and asks for the revision and reform of laws that discriminate against women, including equal inheritance rights. At present, if a husband dies without other heirs, the state takes half the couple’s estate. But if the wife dies, husbands are entitled to the entire estate. If the couple has children, the wife receives one eighth of the husband’s estate, whereas a widowed husband with children takes one quarter. Other legal reforms that women are petitioning for includes equal rights for women in marriage, equal rights to divorce for women, end to polygamy and temporary marriage, and the right for women to pass on nationality to their children.
A number of campaigners have been threatened, summoned to court, charged with security crimes, and sentenced to prison. Nahid Jafari received 6 months, and 10 lashes suspended sentence. Zeinab Payghambarzadeh, arrested in March 2007 along with 32 other women’s rights activists who had peacefully gathered outside the Revolutionary Courts, received a suspended sentence of two years. Like many others, Payghambarzadeh was charged with and tried on security charges. These included: propaganda against the state, gathering and colluding with the intent to disrupt national security.
As I searched the internet for more information on the campaign, I came across this comment left by a blogger, probably after Hilary Clinton’s recent threat to ‘obliterate Iran’:
‘Iranian women’s rights activists are not a threat to Iranian national security. On the other hand, many American women’s rights activists are. Among them, Ms Hillary Clinton who… refuses to negotiate with Iran without preconditions. Ms Hillary Clinton and all the ‘women’s rights activists’ who support her are a threat to Iranian national security… actually, they are a general threat to people all over the Middle East.’
To return to struggles at home, like Shameem, I too think that the National Women’ Development Policy cannot be looked at in isolation.
Like her, I too, am not sure what the military-backed caretaker government has up its sleeve.
And, like my struggling sisters in Iran, I too think that equal rights is our minimum demand.
First published in New Age April 28 2008
Bhat dey haramjada (Give rice, you bastard) — screamed the graffiti on a wall. It had stunned pedestrians in Dhaka. This was 1974.
In early March, six months before the famine had reached its peak, news of starvation deaths could be heard. Two to three months later, they had become common enough. Occassionally, dead bodies could be seen lying on the street. What had caused the famine of 1974? Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate, says that it was a reduction in the ability of people to command food through legal means available in society — in their entitlements to food — that led to the famine. Food crisis, says Sen, is caused not by food shortage but by the shortage of income and purchasing power. On a person’s ability to command commodities, particularly food, under entitlement relations. Starvation and famine are not only economic, says Sen. These are multi-dimensional subjects, they include social, political and legal issues. If groups of people lack purchasing power they can starve, even though markets are well stocked. Even though food prices are low.
What had caused the famine of 1974? For Devinder Sharma, it was the US government’s decision to withhold 2.2 million tons of food aid that was at fault. The US government had wanted to ensure that the Mujib regime `abandoned plans to try Pakistani war criminals’. When the Bangladesh Finance Minister had called upon the US Secretary of State, in August 1973, to appeal for food aid, the latter had advised the speedy settlement of disputes with Pakistan. Referring to Bangladesh government’s proposal of “war crimes” trials of the Pakistan army, he had said, it was “not good to have such trials.” “Humanity” had never learned from war crimes trials, he said. Of course, the Americans had good reasons for saying so. The US ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s name had repeatedly come up. War objectors had demanded that he be tried for US massacres in Vietnam, for America’s role in Bangladesh’s liberation war. That humanity never learns is best exemplified by the US and its allies. Pakistan. Israel. Humanity never learns unless, of course, the criminals are Nazis or Serbians.
But that is not the end of `famine is a political weapon’ for the US story. Pressure on the Mujib government returned. In 1974, the US Ambassador said, no food aid would be given to Bangladesh if it exported jute to Cuba. The Mujib government gave in to US pressure. Jute exports to Cuba were stopped, but by the time food shipments reached, it was too late. Most famine victims had succumbed.
Were there other causes? Some researchers say, successive natural disasters, floods and droughts, had prefaced the food crisis. Others mention the Awami League government’s lack of foresight in importing foods. In directing subsidised food to the politically vocal urban population, at horrific costs to far-poorer, rural people. Others stress political and administrative corruption which had encouraged massive hoarding, and the smuggling of foodgrains. Many others say it was the gross mismanagement of the economy.
Why do I rehearse these instances from history? Because there are lessons to be learnt. Because it is not enough for either the Chief Adviser, his advisers, or the Army Chief to repeatedly say, there is no shortage of rice, the markets are well-stocked, more rice is being imported, it will reach soon. Simplistic reasoning, simplistic assertions are not enough. There have been too many famines, too many deaths. Each death was one too many. We must learn from history. That lessons are not being learnt is obvious from what is being said. From the little that is being done. The rice queues keep getting longer.
In 1974 too, world food prices had risen. But the situation is far more grave now. Hard-hit consumers across the globe are protesting. Mexicans rioted in December 2007. Tortilla prices had jumped up; in some parts of Mexico, it was four times higher. In Indonesia, people have protested against the rise in soybean prices. In Burkina Faso, protestors attacked government offices and shops. Demonstrations have also taken place in Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen. Severe weather, rising population, rapid increases in demand for foodgrain (China, India), speculation in commodity markets, are listed as reasons. Also, a growing trend to turn food into fuel. Four hundred and fifty pounds of maize can be converted into enough ethanol to fill the 25 gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol at one time. Or it can be used to provide enough calories to feed one person for a year. The competition between food and fuel is encouraged by governmental subsidies given to biofuel in western countries. In non-western nations, that those hardest hit, should be provided with income support to help them purchase food is something all concerned agree upon. Simultaneously, it is agreed that governments should increase their investments in agriculture in order to improve agricultural productivity.
The situation in Bangladesh is made peculiar because of its rule by a caretaker government. Because of the fifteen month-long state of emergency. Recently, the Chief Adviser, in the light of accusations of poor food distribution said, shortages occur even in countries which have elected governments. Of course they do. That is not the point. The new system of corruption is individualistic, sector-oriented, and technocrat-elitist. It is not tied to constituencies and vote banks which have a nationwide spread, albeit with party lines of exclusion and inclusion. The new system is an introverted one. When it comes to food and other resources, the distribution is random. It is queue-oriented, linear. It does not encompass. Its reach is limited. Most are left out.
The army chief’s versatile kitchen
The army chief General Moeen U Ahmed had said on a visit to Chelopara in Bogra, Bangladeshis should increase the intake of potato in their daily diet. `We should not depend only on rice. Of course, we will eat rice but we must increase the intake of potato.’ That will reduce the food crisis, specially the pressure on rice. Potato yields this year have been very high.
A few days later, General Moeen invited the country’s leading editors to the army headquarters. The meeting was followed by a lunch where nine potato dishes were served with plain rice, fresh salad, fried ruhi fish. The potato-based dishes were: potato country curry, potato malai curry, potato noborotno curry, potato pudina curry, potato roller gravy, potato kofta curry, potato pulse curry, potato shak (spinach) curry. (Jaijaidin, 9 April 2008).
The list only proves that the Army Chief has versatile cooks, a versatile kitchen. But that was never in doubt. Just as his promotion, or his extension was never in doubt.
The language of the streets is different from the language of those who rule the land. Emergency restrictions, and the intolerable food crisis has generated jokes that comprise a secret language of sorts between common people. Food jokes, queue jokes have been common elsewhere too. Such as this one. A man is queuing for food in Moscow. Finally he’s had enough. He turns round to his friend and says “That’s it. I’m going to kill that Gorbachev,” and marches off. Two hours later he comes back. “Well,” says the friend, “did you do it?” “No,” replies the other, “there was an even longer queue over there.”
A more recent one, overheard by a friend in Muktagaccha, between two rickshawallas:
So, shorkar says, we have to eat more potatos. What do you say?
Well, get those high-talking advisors over, have rice, chaff, flour, and potatos in charis (cattle troughs), let’s see what they eat. I’ll eat what they eat.
Nine types of any food would fill a rickshawalla’s stomach.
First published in New Age on 14th April 2008
He had been quietly playing by himself as his grandmother talked to the strangers. But we had made eye contact. He wanted to make friends, and a smile spread over his face as I approached. Suddenly he ran. I knew kids well enough to recognise that this was not a hide and seek game. There was fear in his eyes. He had seen the camera in my hands.
His grandmother had told us that she must not be recognisable in the photographs. Others we were interviewing had agreed to be photographed, but she didn’t feel safe. Her grandson also knew the danger of being recognisable in this war torn land.
It was my first trip to Croatia, and while I was hoping to meet my old friend Sasa, I hadn’t quite expected someone to sneak up on me at the main square in Zagreb. It was a long warm hug. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time. Excusing myself from my colleagues at Amnesty International, Sasa and I went out walking into the cool spring night. He had found love in Iraq, and she had followed him to Croatia. I had heard of Cyrille, but we had never met. She soon joined us at the restaurant, dragging two other friends along. “You two look like lovers” she told us with a disarming smile. Sasa and I had known each other for many years. We first met in Jakarta where I was running a workshop for World Press Photo. We had later met in Kuala Lumpur and Geneva, and he had even come over to teach at Pathshala, but we had never met in his home town. He had offered to drive me over when I had gone for a short trip to Belgrade, but visas for Bangladeshis were never easy to get. Even on this trip, Irene Khan the secretary general of Amnesty International had visa problems because of her ‘green’ passport. It had taken Sasa and I many years to find a way to walk together on the cobbled streets of Zagreb.
The conversation took us to his island where he now raised goats. To China where the two of them were going to teach photography. To his war wounds, and how his body was failing him. I had an early start for Sisak the following day and we parted reluctantly.
Vjera Solar in Sisak, with portraits of her Croatian daughter and her Serbian boyfriend. Her daughter was killed. April 9. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World
Sisak brought the memories of “1971” flooding back. The disappearances, the not knowing, the guilt. Croat Jasna Borojevik would always wonder whether she should have asked her Serbian husband to leave her, knowing that he was in danger. Perhaps she should have risked losing him, knowing that he might have lived. Viera Solar moved the photograph of her daughter and her Serbian boyfriend to the wall where she was sitting. She wanted the photograph of the handsome dancing couple to be included in my photograph. She broke down in tears as she spoke to Irene, but steeled herself to serve us bread and cheese. The grandmother of the scared boy had lost a son. She had her grandson to look after, and while she was eager to tell her story, she was still scared. Being photographed was dangerous.
Peacock in the gardens of the presidential palace. © Shahidul Alam/Amnesty Internatioanl/Drik/Majority World
The trip through the wooded lanes to the President’s office in the morning and photographing him and the peacocks in his manicured garden, turned out to be more interesting than expected, but I rushed to go online to check if the Guardian piece on our “1971” exhibition, on war of liberation, had come out. That too had it’s share of killings, disappearances, de-humanisation. Dodi and Diana had bumped us off on Tuesday when it had been scheduled to come out. The mail from Mark at Autograph confirmed that we had four pages in the printed version. As I explained this to my Amnesty colleagues they asked me about the history of our war. David constantly asked what the motive had been. As we had dinner at Sasa’s parent’s house, I asked Sasa the same question. Yes he said. Some politicians won. Some opportunists made money. But the atrocities on both sides, meant homes were shattered. Lives broken. Nations destroyed. Minds fractured. I recall the woman who wanted to know what had happened to her husband “So I can place flowers on a grave and mourn”, she had said. I remember the fear on the little child’s face as he saw my camera, and wonder if one ever really wins a war.
The Bangladesh war was one of the 20th century’s bloodiest, yet outside the region, little is known about it. Now, 37 years on, an exhibition records the painful birth of a nation.
Tahmima Anam report
In December 1971, in the midst of their celebrations at the end of the war for independence from Pakistan, the people of Bangladesh began to reckon with the h
uman cost of their new nation. As they took account of what they had won and what they had lost, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the independence movement leader who became the first prime minister of Bangladesh, urged his people to embrace the many thousands of women who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers. He gave the women a title – birangona, brave women – seeking both to exalt them as war heroes and erase the shame of their violation.
The contradiction between exalting and forgetting persists in Bangladesh, where the war remains a contested space, still charged 37 years later with an emotional and psychological intensity that brings to life William Faulkner’s words “The past is never dead, it is not even past”.
Yet these complexities are captured in a photograph taken by Naib Uddin Ahmed of a woman – one of the birangona – obscuring her face by clutching a thick mass of her own hair. This is just one of many haunting images that make up Bangladesh 1971, a new photographic exhibition at the Rivington Place public gallery in Shoreditch, east London, and which contribute to its powerful visual retelling of the story of this war.
It was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century, and yet it is a largely unacknowledged event: outside Bangladesh there is little awareness of the campaign of violence on the part of the Pakistani army as the Bengali people of the then East Pakistan sought to achieve political sovereignty.
In this exhibition, all but one of the photographers are Bangladeshi; most were amateur photographers at the time, men who happened to be holding a camera when they found themselves caught up in the war. For almost two decades, Shahidul Alam – director of the Drik picture library in Dhaka and a curator of the current exhibition along with Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph ABP – has made it his mission to collect these photos, visiting the photographers in their homes and saving their negatives. By highlighting the images taken by these accidental archivists, the curators have created an intimate, reflexive portrait of the war, ranging from photographs that are well known to others that have never been seen in public.
The exhibition consists of more than 100 images organised in loose chronology, beginning with the first stirrings of nationalism and resistance to Pakistani occupation. The ebullient spirit of 1969-70, when war was imminent, is captured most powerfully by Rashid Talukdar’s image of a young boy, no older than 10, leading a street march. The boy is obviously poor (he marches in bare feet) but his mouth is formed in an ecstatic shout as he leads the procession of men behind him, as though for those few minutes, it is his war, his people, his country.
The collection includes many iconic, even universal, images of war: Abdul Hamid Raihan’s image of two children staring into the distance, a carpet of missiles scattered at their feet; Mohammed Shafi’s portrait of a freedom fighter – a boy who could be from anywhere – reveals a young man’s tenderness and fear apparent despite his attempt at studied resolve. Other images reveal the horror of this war with haunting specificity. On the night of December 14, knowing they were about to lose the war, the Pakistani army and its local paramilitary allies massacred the future doctors, teachers, lawyers, and writers of Bangladesh in an effort to cripple the new nation. The bodies were not found until after independence, when a mass grave was discovered in the city. One photograph of the massacre stands out: a face surrounded by submerged bricks and covered in a thin sheen of mud. The face is ghostlike, other-worldly, and the aesthetic intensity of the image serves to underscore the almost unfathomable brutality of the act.
Bangladesh 1971 also presents a complex portrait of the slaughter. One photograph shows a uniformed man circled by a large crowd, stabbing a civilian with a bayonet; the caption tells us that it is not a Pakistani soldier but a Bengali one, attacking a local man who has collaborated with the army. At Alam’s first exhibition of war photos in Bangladesh, the government requested that he remove this image, in which the roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. His refusal led to the exhibition being shown at a private gallery rather than at the National Museum.
There are other complex figures, most notably Sheikh Mujib. Revered throughout the independence struggle as the father of the nation, then brutally assassinated in 1975, Mujib left a legacy that is continually being reassessed, not least because his daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, is a prominent Bangladeshi politician. Naib Uddin Ahmed’s photograph of Mujib returning to Dhaka in January 1972 (he had been in prison in Pakistan throughout the war) emphasises the passion he inspired in his followers, as his procession is surrounded by thousands of cheering citizens of the newborn country. But the most touching portrait of Mujib is one where he is shown embracing his daughter, the young Hasina. He glows with pride, and she with love. It’s a reminder that behind every political execution – and south Asia has had its share – is the death of a loved one.
It is in its attempt to challenge our expectations that the exhibition is most successful. In the flagship piece, displayed against the window of Rivington Place, a group of women march in perfect formation through the middle of a busy road, rifles cupped in the palms of their hands. Another photograph is a seemingly idyllic image of two women wading through a pond with a basket of flowers. But the caption reads: “During the liberation war, female freedom fighters would smuggle grenades in baskets covered with water hyacinth.” Scenes like this were common during the independence movement: many young women were given informal military training; in the villages, especially among the Adivasi hill people, women smuggled arms to the front lines of the resistance. Bringing these images to light in this setting challenges our notions of women’s political participation in a country like Bangladesh. And as Londoners walk past Rivington Place, perhaps they will find a new window into the history of their neighbours on Brick Lane, a visual testament to the trauma and hope of independence.
· In pictures: the Bangladesh 1971 Gallery