The project Heresies is a retrospective of one of the most innovative artists of the world, comprising five decades of photographic work. The exhibition “Heresies: a retrospective by Pedro Meyer” will open simultaneously in nearly 60 museums around the world in October, 2008, and it will be a major breakthrough in the way photographic work is exhibited.
Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer is recognized widely both for his provocative and powerful images and his pioneering work of in the digital imaging era. The photographs of Meyer consistently question the limits between truth, fiction and reality. With the advent of digital technologies at the early 90’s, Meyer evolved from a documentary photographer, who created what is known as “direct images”, to a digital documentary maker, who combines elements of different photographs to arrive to a higher or different truth. His famous statement that every photograph, either digitally manipulated or not, is both truth and fiction, has earned him being called a ‘Heretic’ in the orthodox world of documentary photography. Hence the origin of the title, “Heresies: a retrospective by Pedro Meyer”. Amongst the personal contributions of Meyer to the development of digital photography we should underscore: the creation of the first CD-ROM that combined images with sound, the first digital printings in the world, in 1994; and more recently, the creation of the photographic forum zonezero.com, the most visited photography website -content-wise-in the Internet.
by rahnuma ahmed
Official: “You ought to have some papers to show who you are.”
Protagonist: “I do not need any papers. I know who I am.”
Official: “Maybe so. But others are also interested in who you are.”
— Kafkaesque journey of American sailor who has lost his identity papers, B. Traven, The Death Ship (tr. 1934)
A non-fraudulent voter list, `a priceless gift to the nation’
Praise was due. And it was given.
Ms Renata Dessallien, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, at a function marking the celebration of the successful completion of voter registration, organised by the Election Commission on July 22, spoke of it in glowing terms. It was “a truly historic achievement,” because never before “have so many people been electronically registered in such a short time” in any other country in the world. What was impressive was the immense scale of the undertaking, the accuracy of the list, the elimination of duplicate and fraudulent entries. “If there were a Nobel Prize for voter lists, Bangladesh would be the clear winner!”
The Chief Advisor Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed termed it a “milestone,” one that would enable not only the upcoming elections to be “free, fair and credible” but also, future ones, by setting high standards. The Chief Election Commissioner ATM Shamsul Huda, called it a “memorable event in the annals of country’s history.” At an earlier event, “Celebrating the Halfway Mark of Voter Registration” held in early March, the Chief of Army Staff General Moen U Ahmed had voiced hopes that it would “lay the foundation for building a meaningful democracy.”
A similar nationwide voter registration venture had failed in 1997 because the names and pictures of most people did not match, and many had failed to turn up to register at the appointed time. The nation, as a result, had been Tk 115 crore poorer. A proposed integrated project of Machine Readable Passports (MRP) and National Identity Cards (NID) in 2005 had been budgeted at Tk 1,400 crore. Its completion would take 5 years, the first year would be a “test” period. The 2006 voter list, prepared by the past EEC Justice MA Aziz for the 2007 elections had been faulty, it had registered an excess of 1.2 crore voters, leading to a political impasse that helped usher in the current military-backed Fakhruddin government.
In comparison to all previous efforts, the current effort has yielded a faultless voter list, one that is computerised, consisting of a data-base of 80 million 500 thousand 723 voters with photographs and fingerprints. It has cost only Tk 424 crore, one-third of the 2005 estimate, and has been successfully completed in a mere 11 months. The Election Commission was the sponsor and the coordinating agency, the Bangladesh army was the operational agency. Together they coordinated the huge logistics in a “very tight time frame”, as Major General Shafiqul Islam, Military Secretary, Bangladesh Army, said in an interview to find Biometrics, `we required 12,000 laptops to be deployed throughout the country, 8,000 printers, paper, toner, train a staff of 18,000 computer and enrollment personnel, in a situation where on an average data was collected on 300,000 to 400,000 people daily.’ The resulting electoral rolls, perhaps one of the largest electronic databases in the world, will definitely be the largest among developing countries.
A survey of the voter registration process funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) announced it to be of international standard, in the words of one of the consultants, “a list of quality no less than that of America or England.” The UN is said to be considering replicating this model in other developing countries.
The current voter list, as one of the national English dailies commented in its editorial, is “a priceless gift to the nation.”
The National ID Card, `an offshoot’
The EC project was titled the Preparation of Electoral Roll with Photographs and Facilitating the Issuance of National Identity (ID) Card. In the words of Mike DePasquale, Chief Executive Officer of BIO-Key International Inc, a US-based company which is a leader in finger-based biometric identification and wireless public safety, the NID was “an offshoot” of the voter registration project — a “co-operative venture” between BIO-Key in the US, Tiger IT in Bangladesh, and the Bangladesh army.
Brigadier General (Retired) Shahedul Anam Khan, a defence analyst, thinks the government did well to undertake both projects simultaneously. Up to a stage, “the modalities involved for the preparation of both” like basic data collection and cross checking, are similar. The ID Card was a “spin-off,” which, if it had been put off for later, would have cost more.
But, for people on the ground, the two were not as separable. M Sakhawat Hussain, one of the Election Commissioners, puts it in words closer to how we, as potential voters, experienced it, “No one will be listed as a voter without the registration of the name on the electoral roll and no one will get the national ID card.”
Advocates of e-government are also advocates of national ID cards, for instance Farooq Sobhan, M. Shafiullah and others write in a Study of eGovernment in Bangladesh (Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, April 2004), “Bangladesh should take active steps to initiate a project for national ID” because it will provide an important base for the provision of eGovernment services “efficiently and in a personalized way,” to citizens who will have unique ID numbers. I came across several Bangladeshi bloggers who seemed to hold similar views. According to one, it would be “a solution to many problems,” a national database would hold information from voter lists to tax records, it would make easier many tasks from machine-readable passports to criminal investigations. According to another, the digitisation of national-level information would make governance procedures “more scientific.”
The EC has drafted an ordinance making national ID cards mandatory for citizens, ‘for getting any services from the government, its departments and institutions or from any statutory government offices.’ Twenty two services are listed, these include the issuance and renewal of passport, driving licence, trade licence, tax identification number, business identification number and bank account. It also states that nobody will get government subsidy facilities, allowance and relief if they do not have identity cards. Very recently, the council of advisors approved the formation of the National Identity Registration Authority Ordinance 2008. It authorises the home ministry to provide national ID cards. Under the proposed ordinance, the EC will hand over all information that has been collected — data and biometric features of the citizens — to NIRA, a statutory body. The ordinance declares false information, forgery, having more than one ID card a criminal offence, punishable by three months to seven years rigorous imprisonment, along with monetary fines.
That confusion exists among people in general — the beneficiaries of the national ID card — was revealed during the four city corporation and nine pouroshobha elections held recently. Voters had come to the polling centres with their national ID cards, and were confused over why the serial number of their ID cards did not tally with the voter serial numbers. This resulted in delays in vote casting, and in long queues. Voter identity cards had been given in the 90s, or torn-off slips containing registration numbers, and as a newspaper report states, during the recently-held local-level elections, the common perception had been that the `ID card was to be used for voting purposes.’ Reports say, polling officers had been similarly confused. M Shakhawat Hossain, Election Commissioner, blamed the media for publicising what in effect was a `national ID card’, as a `voter ID card’, even though, according to him, the EC had carried out a huge campaign to clarify the differences between the two.
The ‘largest biometric database in the world’
What is less public knowledge is that the four fingerprints of each voter that was captured with BIO-key’s fingerprint ID software, and FBI-certified fingerprint readers, has already generated over 300 Million ISO fingerprint templates. Combined with the 400 million projected to be generated, it will become by far the largest biometric deployment in the world.
Duplicate registrations are being accurately identified says Ziaur Rahman, Managing Director of Tiger IT BD Ltd. (Tiger IT), a company that is a leader in both prepackaged and customized software solutions and was BIO-Key’s “systems integrator on the ground,” at a speed of “one million matches per second on a single processor.” Tiger IT Bangladesh’s website provides further information on the national ID card (by the way, the domain tigeritbd.com was registered as recently as August 2007). The card includes a standard barcode which is encoded with ISO fingerprint templates, and PKI digital hash. These can be used to quickly verify the identity of the cardholder while ensuring the integrity and authenticity of the ID card. The Cognitec Facial Recognition Software has been used to capture facial images.
While Renata Dessallien enthuses over how “modern technology” enables the prevention of vote theft, and DePasquale prides on how BIO-Key’s patented technology is “performing better than anything else in the market for finger matching,” I have simple questions to ask: who owns my fingerprints? how will it be used? can NIRA transfer it to government departments within Bangladesh without my knowledge? or, maybe even outside the country’s borders? As the British government did when it passed more than 500 samples of DNA to foreign agencies, but when asked “no one seemed to know” to which countries.
The European Comission recently proposed the harmonisation of security features on passports across the European Union. The proposal, introduced in October 2007, requires Member States to take measures to introduce biometric features, including fingerprinting, on passports and travel documents. The fingerprints would be stored in a centralised database. The European Union Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinx, who is in charge of safeguarding the personal data and the right to privacy of EU citizens, has expressed his concern since it fails to “adequately safeguard the right to privacy of EU citizens.” He says, the Commission failed to consult with his office prior to submitting the proposal, as required by EU law.
The current regime’s voter registration list has, in all probability, lessened the likelihood of fraudulent votes. But it also has, in all likelihood, laid the groundwork for installing a new regime of surveillance, one that will be deployed against the citizens of Bangladesh.
First published in New Age on Monday the 29th September 2009
The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time
Sterling. 2008. 335p. ed. by David Elliot Cohen. photogs. index. ISBN 978-1-4027-5834-8. $27.95. POL SCI
PHOTOGRAPHY EXPOSES TRUTHS, advances the public discourse, and demands action. In What Matters, eighteen important stories by today’s preeminent photojournalists and thinkers poignantly address the big issues of our time—global warming, environmental degradation, AIDS, malaria, the global jihad, genocide in
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What Matters—an audacious undertaking by best-selling editor and author David Elliot Cohen—challenges us to consider how socially conscious photography can spark public discourse, spur reform, and shift the way we think. For 150 years, photographs have not only documented human events, but also changed their course—from Jacob Riis’s exposé of brutal New York tenements to Lewis Hine’s child labor investigations to snapshots of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. In this vein, What Matters presents eighteen powerful stories by this generation’s foremost photojournalists. These stories cover essential issues confronting us and our planet: from climate change and environmental degradation to global jihad, AIDS, and genocide in Darfur to the consequences of the Iraq war, oil addiction, and the inequitable distribution of global wealth. The pictures in What Matters are personal and specific, but still convey universal concepts. These images are rendered even more compelling by trenchant commentary. Cohen asked the foremost writers, thinkers, and experts in their fields to elucidate issues raised by the photographs.
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– Michael Zajakowski, Chicago Tribune
A. Newspapers and Online
1. Hard to see, impossible to turn away – Issues and images combine in ‘What Matters,’ a powerful and passionate new book
“Great documentary photojournalism, squeezed out of mainstream newspapers and magazines in an age of shrinking column inches, has had a hard time gaining traction in other venues… But nobody has told the 18 photographers in “What Matters: The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time.” These are photo essays by some of today’s best photojournalists following the great tradition begun over a hundred years ago with the exposés of New York tenement life by Jacob Riis. Through the doggedness of these photographers—who are clearly committed to stirring us out of complacency—all the power and passion of the medium is evident in this book… Some of the pieces will break your heart, some will anger you. All will make you think. To channel your thoughts and feelings into action, the book ends with an appendix “What You Can Do,” offering hundreds of ways to be a part of the solution to these problems.”
2. “Must viewing.”
3. Photographs that Can Change the World
“David Elliot Cohen’s new book, What Matters, which hits bookshelves today, is a collection of photo essays that explore 18 distinct social issues that define our time. Shot by the world’s most renowned photojournalists, including James Nachtwey, who has contributed to V.F., the photographs explore topics ranging from genocide and global warming to oil addiction and consumerism, offering a raw view into the problems that plague our world. Each photo essay is accompanied by written commentary from an expert on the issue. Cohen hopes the book will inspire people to work toward resolving these problems. “Great photojournalism changed the world in the past, and it can do it again,” Cohen says. “I want people to see these images, get angry, and act on that anger. Compelling images by the world’s best photojournalists is the most persuasive language I have to achieve this.”
4. Book Review: What Matters
“Changing the world might sound like a lofty goal for a photo book, but that’s what the new book, What Matters, The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of our Time edited by David Elliot Cohen (Sterling Publishing, $28, 2008), hopes to do. Citing the power of socially conscious photographers over the last 150 years, the beautiful collection of 18 photo-essays by some of today’s prominent photojournalists hopes to “inform pre-election debate and inspire direct action.” Regardless of what side of the political fence you sit on, this collection of heartbreaking and powerful stories and images is guaranteed to get you thinking.”
– Popular Photography
5. What Matters: The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time.
Those doubting the power of photojournalism to sway opinion and encourage action would do well to spend some time with this book. In 18 stories, each made up of photos by leading photojournalists and elucidated by short essays by public intellectuals and journalists, this book explores environmental devastation, war, disease, and the ravages of both poverty and great wealth. The photos are specific and personal in their subject matter and demonstrate how great photography can illuminate the universal by depicting the specific. Cohen has a goal beyond simply showcasing terrific photography. In his thoughtful introduction, he makes explicit his aim to connect the work compiled here with the great tradition of muckraking photography that helped to change conditions in New York tenements and to end child labor at the turn of the last century. A terrific concluding chapter directs readers to specific actions they can take if they are moved to do so by the book’s images, and it’s hard to imagine the reader who would not be moved. Highly recommended for public libraries and academic libraries supporting journalism and/or photography curricula. (a starred review in Library Journal generally means the book will be acquired by many libraries.)
6. First of five part series about What Matters
(The first installment drew 500,000 page views)
by rahnuma ahmed
The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory…therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.
Antonio Gramsci, The Study of Philosophy,
quoted by Edward Said, in Orientalism
… the institutionalised forces of industrial capitalist society…constantly tending to push the meanings of various third world societies in a single direction. This is not to say that there is no resistance to this tendency. But resistance in itself indicates the presence of a dominant force.
Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion
‘We want democracy in the family’
It was 1990. We were out in the streets celebrating the downfall of the military dictator President HM Ershad, in the week that followed the historic 4th of December. Hundreds of thousands of people had gathered. The procession snaked its way through the central streets of Dhaka, from Topkhana road to Paltan intersection, on to Gulistan. People held banners and placards which proclaimed their party loyalty or their ideals. Some chanted slogans, others sang. Bystanders stood, they waved and cheered us on, some slipped in and joined us.
Meghna, Suraiya, Hasina, I myself and several others held placards, we belonged to Nari Shonghoti, a small research-cum-activist women’s group, intermittently active in those days. One of these, ‘Poribarey gonotontro chai’ received the most attention. Co-processionist men read it and nudged others. Smiling, they shook their heads. We smiled back and amidst the riotous explosion of noise mouthed the words, ‘And why not?’ Women, too, smiled. Some nodded their heads in solidarity, others, like men, knowingly. They knew that this was one sphere – home, marriage, sexuality, love, housework, the distribution of resources – where transformative and egalitarian changes would be the hardest to achieve. Dilli bohut door ast. Both men and women who encircled us in that sea of people, rejoicing at the downfall of the autocrat, knew that.
One can know oneself only as a product of historical processes because, for Gramsci, ‘each individual is the synthesis not only of existing relations, but of the history of these relations.’ Men and women are ‘a précis of all the past.’ And the past, that is history, is only traceable through its traces. History’s very mode of existence is in the traces.
I sift through feminist and anthropological studies of this region and beyond, to discover the ‘traces’ of our colonial legacy, thought to be beneficent in social senses (‘women’s rights’, ‘autonomy’), and to understand the institutionalised forces of the West that push us to desire marriage and family relationships that are ‘singular’. In the act of doing so, I also draw the attention of self-consciously thinking sections of Bengali society towards their uncritical acceptance of the encroachment of the modernising state, in areas of social life that were previously unregulated. This act of ‘compiling inventories’ in order to ‘know thyself’ is motivated by what I think is necessary: a critique of social, economic and ideological processes working to effect modernising changes in marriage and family forms in Bangladesh.
I have no answers to the questions that you may confront when you reach the end of this piece. ‘Answers’, as such, can only be the outcome of social and political struggles.
Colonial ‘traces’: the dismantling of jointness
Hilary Standing, a feminist anthropologist, has examined the deep-seated changes that took place in Bengali families as a result of the growth of wage dependency in late nineteenth and early twentieth century (1991). In an excellent discussion on the transformation of landed households into wage-dependent ones, she details the encounter between traditional, culture-specific forms of income management, based on jointly-held property, and capitalist ideologies of wages as ‘belonging’ to the individual. The growth of the wage economy and the rise of the Bengali Hindu middle class (bhodrolok)—not an industrial bourgeoisie but a class of bureaucrats and professionals, in service of ‘the demands of imperial capital’—precipitated a huge ideological clash which shook the very foundation of Bengali households and families.
This transformation, part of larger historical processes, un-made a distinct way of life, only to re-make it along the contours of modernising (this includes capitalist) aspirations and material realities. In the case of the Bengali Muslim middle class, as I argue later, it extended to equally radical changes in marital forms: marriage was re-defined as being strictly monogamous, it was imbued with new meanings of being a civilising force in society.
To return to Standing’s work: drawing on her own research, and that of others’, she says, the Bengali middle class sustained rural-urban links through the joint family. A village home was maintained for several generations, and income was pooled into the joutho bhandar (common fund) from landed rents and the salaries of family members who were professionally employed. Ghor-bahir division was strictly enforced, men were assigned to the external economy, to culture and politics, and women, to the internal organisation of the household. The senior-most married woman had authority, which derived from the age and kinship hierarchy. She was in charge of the common fund, she paid servants, gave gifts, carried out charitable obligations. Young married women had authority only if there were no older married women in the household. Ghor was women’s arena and, generally speaking, men were absent here.
Families centring around jointly-held property subscribed to distinct ideologies of redistribution of financial resources. Both land and money income, from whatever source, was vested in the kinship group as property-in-common. Members were entitled to funds on the basis of their personal needs but this did not mean equal access, or equal rights. Women held inferior rights to landed property. Hindu widows were expected to eat little and only vegetarian food, to have few items of clothing. Claims to family and household resources were determined not only by considerations of gender, but also by the kinship status of its member.
In capitalist economies, Standing says, the wage is associated with an ideology of personal appropriation. It ‘belongs’ to the wage earner. He has the ‘right’ to use his earnings for himself; dispensing it to ‘his’ dependants—his wife and children—is something personal. Occupational achievement is individual. The ideology of the wage emphasises ‘private accumulation, personal achievement and personal ownership’ through ‘individuating mechanisms’ like banking, savings, and insurance policies. The introduction of the wage, and its accompanying ideologies of personal belonging and appropriation, she writes, created deep divisions and conflicts over ‘earners’ and ‘non-earners’, ‘productive’ and ‘non-productive’ members. Degrees of dependency emerged within the wider household collectivity: male non-earners became defined as ‘idle’, a burden to their earning relatives, while the conjugal tie increasingly moved centre-stage and began to pre-empt or challenge the claims of other family members to household resources.
Two official documents express the colonial government’s discursive and regulatory concern with the nature of the family. The first faults women for the demise of the joint family:
Devoted to their husband’s interest, the wives are jealous of their earnings being used by others, particularly by those who do not contribute to the family income. More petty feelings, less disinterested motives, such as the mutual jealousy of the brothers’ wives, the quarrels of their children, etc also contribute to the breaking up of the family. (Government of India 1913, Census of India 1911, vol V, part 1, pp 50-1).
The second acknowledges ruptures in the principle of non-differentiation between family members on the basis of their ‘earning capacity’. Standing says it also reveals the extent to which ‘narrowing definitions of dependency’ were coming into effect:
Many correspondents commented on the fact that the presence of a widow in a family was always welcome because she would cheerfully undertake the drudgery of the family whilst the extreme self-denial expected of a Hindu widow makes her support very little of a burden. But where she is unprovided for and has children there are bound to be heartburnings on account of the differences in the treatment which her children and those of her husband’s relatives receive. (Government of India 1933, Census of India 1931, vol V, part 1, p 402).
That a man should feel ‘less responsible’ for his deceased brother’s widow than his own wife, or a woman should consider her sister-in-law’s children as ‘less deserving’ than her own, are not, Standing argues, ‘natural’, or ‘inevitable’. On the contrary, they are the result of complex social and historical processes. These processes simultaneously laid a new emphasis on the role of wife as ‘housewife and manager’ of the allowance given to her by her husband, one that was framed by newly-forming ideas about women as being nothing more than mere housewives. Grouped together with ideas about women as ‘consumer and conveyor’ of new values and attitudes, these were ‘essential’ to the ‘reproduction of the new middle class’.
Similar processes were at work among Bengali Muslims, albeit somewhat later. I realised this both during and after conducting field-work based research (shelved) in the early 1990s. It was something of a shock because I had been brought up to believe that Muslim notions of property and inheritance were vastly different to that of Hindus. In ‘ours’ property was individually owned and divisible, while in ‘theirs’ it was jointly held. This was reinforced by my own childhood experiences, based as it was on nuclear family living. I was born in the mid-fifties, my father was a government employee in what was then West Pakistan, and I grew up far away from uncles, aunts, cousins and extended kin, except for a brief three-year period that was caused, in officialese jargon, by my father’s ‘transfer’ to East Pakistan, in the early 60s. But I must not be too harsh on myself. My life in independent Bangladesh from 1972 onwards, and knowledge about Bangladesh society and culture that I gained later—through studying at the university, conducting research, being part of intellectual/activist circles—had led me to believe that the pooling of family income was a mere ‘cultural’ practice (for instance, similar to marriage rituals like gaye holud), that it was optional, since we were, after all, governed by Muslim laws. This was, and still is a commonsensical assumption in learned circles and, I contend, is a result of not seriously engaging with the nature of colonial rule, and the manner in which colonialism, to paraphrase Talal Asad, has destroyed old options, and constructed new ones, and set into motion historical trends that are ‘irreversible’. More recent research persuasively argues that in the interests of controlling and regulating the lives of its subjects, the British colonial state had codified ‘the laws of the Koran’ for Muslims, and the laws of the Brahmanic ‘Shasters’ for the Hindus. It was the colonial state’s application of Muslim law through its new system of courts that enabled Muslims to freely decide, or compelled them to order their affairs, in accordance with the principles of Muslim family law.
My fieldwork based research on the Bengali Muslim middle class had gathered family and household data of both the present and 2-3 preceding generations. I had also read autobiographies and autobiographical essays written by first, second, and third generation middle-class men and women: Tamizuddin Khan (1889-1963), Principal Ibrahim Khan (1894-1978), Abul Hossain (1897-1938), Kazi Motahar Hossain (1897-1981), Abul Mansur Ahmad (1898-1979), Abul Fazal (1903-1983), Dewan Mohammod Azraf (1908-1999), Abu Jafor Shamsuddin (1911-1988), Syeda Monowara Khatun (1909-1981), Sufia Kamal (1911-1999), Kamruddin Ahmed (1912-1982), Akhtar Imam (b 1917), Jobeda Khanam (1920-1990), Umratul Fazl (1921-2005), Zobaida Mirza (1923-1993), MR Akhtar Mukul (1929-2004), Anisuzzaman (b 1937), and that of many others. My own fieldwork data, the autobiographical accounts, and also the critical scholarship that I cite above, have convinced me that before British colonial rule, jointness was family, that this was equally true for both Hindus and Muslims. Its historical ‘traces’ are to be found in the autobiographical writings. In these, while presenting and interpreting their life experiences, some of the men and women speak from a sense of bewilderment and loss at rapidly-dissolving priorities, while others focus on a newly-emerging set of personal and familial commitments, suitable and appropriate to the demands of a new social order. In the novels of writers like Mohammad Najibar Rahman (1860-1923) and Kazi Emdadul Haq (1882-1926) one comes across fictionalised accounts, often justificatory, of the social changes that were rapidly becoming inevitable.
My fieldwork data and the autobiographical writings I cite above, reveal something else. The growth of the wage economy had not only made kinship dependencies among Bengalis problematic, as Standing argues, but that in the case of the emerging Bengali Muslim middle class, it was accompanied by decisive changes in the form of marriage. The previous ‘system’ of marriage included monogamy, serial monogamy and polygamy. It was marked by flexibility (I do not use this word in any value-loaded sense). The new system, one that grew out of social upheavals accompanying middle-class formation, was strictly monogamous, it idealised marriage as involving ‘commitment for life’. This was essential to the middle class’ collective sense of self, that of being civilised, and of being a civilising force in Muslim society.
Colonial ‘traces’: a civilised marriage as crucial to class identity
I have argued in an article published elsewhere (The Journal of Social Studies, 1999) that colonial representations of the status of Muslim women had a determining character in the imaginings of female emancipation. Colonial narratives essentialised ‘Muslim’-ness; simultaneously, it ascribed Muslim women’s poor and miserable condition as being a consequence of ‘seclusion’, and ‘polygamy’. Both were regarded as archaic and barbaric, as being incongruent with modernity. Bengali Muslim intellectual forerunners largely accepted British characterisations of purdah and polygamy as essentially Muslim, that is, specific and universal to Muslims. Women’s freedom and emancipation was primarily imagined as doing away with seclusion and polygamy. These discourses constituted middle-class identity—its subjective and collective sense of self—which distanced its members from the uncivilised (o-shobbho), the ignorant, the large masses of poor, whose marriage practices in emerging middle-class discourse became characterised as kono thik-thikana nai, kokhono ere dhore, kokhono tare ccharey (‘their marriages lack substance, living with this one here, casting off that one there’).
Gradually, marriage became binding and obligatory in new ways. It came to signify men’s worth—in their individual capacity, as a husband—as economic actors. New social concepts emerged, a husband was defined as one who had the ability to ‘raise’ a wife (bou palar khomota). This helped to infantilise women as wives, it lent credence to the idea that housework was not laborious, that a woman was a ‘mere’ housewife. The new wife was re-defined as a moral person, her task was to re-construct marriage, and the home, as a sexually sacrosanct space. Marrying-for-life was linked to notions of female sovereignty and freedom. Nowsher Ali Khan Yusufzai’s phrase (1890), although (mis-)directed at marriage practices among the Muslim aristocracy of his time, captures this beautifully: ‘two lionesses cannot live in the same forest’ (ek oronne dui shinghinir baash kokhonoi shombhobonio noy). Marriage no longer meant belonging to a wider collectivity, instead, it was re-defined as being an exclusive conjugal bond. This was reflected in changed modes of referring to one’s wife, instead of apnader bou, ‘your daughter-in-law’, to ‘my wife’, amar bou. Corresponding changes were to emerge in women’s choice of words: her husband was no longer ‘your son-in-law’, apnader jamai but amar husband. Children too came to belong to their parents, amar cchele, amar meye. Earlier practices of addressing one’s wife, as Laila’r ma, or Abuler baap, have become the language of poor, uneducated people, people not conscious of their worth as individual persons. As a marker of civilisational status, it has become uncivilised, if not loathful, for modern Bengali Muslim women to voice the opinion that a co-wife means a co-sharer in domestic work. (Except, of course, as a joke). These new meanings of marriage coalesced with other ideas—education, science and rationality—and became central to class identity. They contributed to feelings of moral superiority, to the notion that providing leadership, social, political and intellectual, was a natural right of the educated classes.
I now come to the present. A general point that I would like to raise is that, progressivists, secularists, developmentalists, those belonging to the women’s movement, and also, members of the left—mostly, overlapping schools or ghoranas of thought—uncritically accept middle-class practices and ideas of marriage as being emancipatory for women, as a mark of progressiveness, as superior (‘Class struggle is a struggle over morals.’ Surely the words of the historian EP Thompson, famed for his ‘history from below’ approach? But I seem to have misplaced the reference). Uncritical acceptance on the part of the women’s movement in Bangladesh is understandable—although not acceptable, as most organisations claim to represent ‘all’ women—since it largely subscribes to, what Meghna Guhathakurta has described as a ‘development[alist] outlook on the women’s issue’, one that she is quick to point out, is ‘a-historical’ (2003). This raises several problems, but let me say at the outset that what I refer to as ‘the’ women’s movement in the singular, is actually heterogeneous, comprising various organisations and groups with different aims and objectives, and different histories of action. However, notwithstanding these differences, I still think that the broad outlines of my critique are valid.
First, by not examining the class-ed basis of monogamous marriage, the movement is unable to conceptually deal with the issue of female subjection within middle-class marriages. To express it somewhat differently, it is ill-prepared to conceptualise modern forms of women’s subjection, since the unquestioned assumption is that modernity per se is a historical condition that emancipates women, or moves them forward, closer to emancipation. Unlike the ‘backward’ essence that characterises the condition of women, particularly, in Muslim societies.
Second, by not examining the class-ed basis of monogamous marriage, it is able to operate on the notion of a ‘universal’ (national) female experience. What is specific to class gets generalised across all classes: monogamous marriage is in all women’s interest, and equally so. It ensures security for all women, and equally so. Subaltern marriages, in my eyes (I say this tentatively, in the absence of serious research), are flexible, they combine monogamy, serial monogamy, and polygamy. Of course, processes of impoverishment, eviction from rural land, uprootment, severe unemployment and the inability to provide for oneself and one’s family members hit both poor men and women. And, of course, there is an undeniable gender dimension: wives, who have even lesser claims to social resources than their husbands, are often deserted and left to fend for themselves and their children. However, despite contemporary social processes of impoverishment and pauperisation (‘the beggary of labour’) and their impact on marital stability, I still think that subaltern marriage practices and ideas are distinct and thereby, analytically separable, from that which exists among the privileged classes. To reinforce what I have just said, I think that ideas and practices of marriage in Bangladesh, and its history, is fundamentally different in class-ed senses. The women’s movements’ unexamined rooted-ness in, and loyalty to class ideals, accomplishes several things. It perpetuates the idea that subaltern marital practices are a ‘social evil’, in need of correction. By isolating marriage from its class-ed history, and from class-ed realities, it also, in effect, puts the cart before the horse. After all, under capitalism it is not the practice of a strictly monogamous marriage that will ensure poor women a home and three meals a day! The movement’s emphasis on legal reforms helps to ‘obliterate’ material differences, and the unequal strength to counter dominant ideologies, that exist between women. Through this process, the issue of equitable distribution of social resources, and the fight for social justice gets sidelined.
Third, the movement’s inability to historicise marriage by placing it within the broader context of love, sexuality and family formation means that, by default, it takes up a socially prescriptive and prohibitionary role. That hijras were a part of traditional social life, visitors at each childbirth in the locality, has been relegated to the margins of middle-class understandings of sexual differences. I remember asking a young man who belonged to one of the small campus-based left groups, ‘What will happen to transgender people after the revolution?’ His answer was immediate, ‘They will be surgically operated on.’ That all hijras might not want it was not at issue. (Let alone the fact, that small, but increasing numbers of men and women, in other words, those not born as hijras—are willingly undergoing sex change operations, mostly in Western countries, but also in neighbouring India, and that this bespeaks of a social phenomenon that should compel us to re-think our ideas). Hijras are an abnormality, in need of correction. I have come across similar ideas among women belonging to the movement, ideas that are based on compulsory heterosexuality, but un-acknowledged as such.
Other marriage histories: at the margins
I now turn to ‘other’ histories of marriage, in particular, to a specific practice of marriage developed and practised by Naxalites, the pro-Maoist trend of the communist movement in Bangladesh, committed to capturing state power through armed struggle. Nesar Ahmed has performed an invaluable task by interviewing women who were active in underground Naxal politics in the 1970s. The tape-recorded and transcribed interviews have been published in Jibon Joyer Juddho (2006).
In 1970, the East Pakistan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) presented itself as the East Pakistani counterpart of West Bengal’s Naxalites. After committing itself to a programme of organising guerrilla action against class enemies in the countryside, the party went underground. Purbo Bangla Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) was also committed to a similar programme of armed struggle; in popular usage, its members were known as ‘Nokshali’. Many of the leaders, and a large number of its followers, both men and women, came from the middling ranks of rural and mofussil society.
The interviewed women (they include both Muslims and Hindus) speak of their family background, why, as women, they were particularly drawn to ‘the’ party, what they read and discussed in study circles, and of other experiences too: leaving village homes to join the class struggle, the nature of ‘their’ party activities, participating in armed action, getting married and giving birth to children, giving them away to be raised by poor families supportive of the party’s ideals and programmes, leading ‘hidden’ lives in party shelters, and the hardship of living on meagre amounts doled out by the party to its members. They also speak of familial, marital and employed life after the party renounced its programme of armed struggle in 1979, in their words, after they returned to ‘social life’. Several of the women interviewed were party members whose husbands had gone underground while they struggled to earn a living, run a household and raise children.
Nokshal marriages too, were strictly monogamous, but in other aspects, they differed significantly from dominant Bengali Muslim middle-class practices. I read and re-read the interviews, motivated by my desire to gain an understanding of the politics of marriage in Bangladesh.
This is what I glean and put together from the interviews: the ceremony itself was simple. Several party members would be present. The marriage document was a written piece of paper drafted by party office-holders (women referred to it as ‘the form’), the names of the two members to be married were written down. Party members, including the couple who were to be married, would sit and discuss party ideals. At the end of the discussion, they would vow to remain committed to these ideals, even after marriage. Marriages (bie. In Bangla, no distinction is made between a ‘wedding’, the ceremony, and ‘marriage’, a social relationship) were generally held in ‘shelters’, i.e. village homes of local party sympathisers instead of being held in the bride’s home, as is the general custom among Bengali Muslims and Hindus, where her father and senior kinsmen give her away to the groom and his family. After exchanging flower garlands, they would shake hands and sign on the party form. The couple were then pronounced married.
Generally, a meal followed. Aruna Chowdhury, who was a matriculate when she joined the party says, ‘We ate gur (molasses, brown sugar) and bread, that’s all we had, bas, that’s it.’ She adds, ‘My wedding was an ideal one. I was wearing an old sari, torn in places.’ Dipti, a fulltime worker and a cell member, got married slightly better-off than Aruna. ‘Comrade Wajed’s wife was present, as my friend. She went and bought me a sari, a petticoat, a blouse, oh, it was just a simple cotton sari, and a bar of soap.’ But some of the meals were not as austere. As Aruna recalls, ‘Some marriages were “gorgeous” affairs, cows and lambs were slaughtered. The village people arranged everything, at least that’s what they said. Well, I said to myself, obviously people don’t love us as much, we are not big leaders.’ Reflecting on these tangible differences, she says, it’s like the ghost stories you hear as a child. You grow up and read about science, about science fiction, and you know it’s not true. But still, when you return home at midnight, just beneath the mango tree, you feel scared. That’s what marriage is like. Us Bengalis, we start dreaming about getting married right from childhood. Materialism helped me to get rid of these ideas.’ She adds, ‘I’m not angry about those gorgeous marriages. They did take place, that’s why I bring it up.’
Naxal marriage deviated from earlier traditions which insisted that revolutionaries should not get married, a heritage shared by the communist parties of undivided India. Earlier, said Aruna, the Party had been ‘rigid’ on matters of love and marriage. ‘But when we entered the Party we discovered that political marriages were taking place. Party workers were marrying other Party workers.’ Ismat ara Rita, a 17 year-old matriculate who went underground to escape her father’s pressure to marry, to prevent her from entering revolutionary politics says, marrying within the party was particularly necessary for women. ‘There was no question of women Party members marrying outsider men. After all, this is a patriarchal society, and men do have some influence on us.’ Men too, she maintained, married only women party members, a wife who was not ‘attached to politics’ would have led to problems at home. But there were exceptions, as other interviews reveal. Aroja Begum’s husband was not a party member. ‘He didn’t understand these things. But he never said no to what I did.’
Party-based marriages underwent a strict vetting procedure, casting party leadership in the role of ‘guardians’. Dipti recounts her experience: ‘Comrade Zakir Hossain Hobi was in charge of the district committee. He asked me one day, he said, if you don’t have any objection then I will forward a proposal to the Party.’ Dipti, who had faced unwarranted proposals from other party comrades, to the extent of suffering a near-mental breakdown (‘I had come to do politics’), had finally decided to get married. She says: ‘I agreed. After that, the district-level Party said, okay, let’s see. By then I had been assigned to work in Kaliganj. I began working there, and I was told, you will now be tested. When Hobi asked the district committee for their opinion, they said, the time is not ready yet, we will think about it. During this period of testing, I was assigned to Chuadanga, in charge of the Party’s cell, while Hobi worked in Kaliganj. We were asked to not meet each other, nor write any letters. This was the test, they said. This continued for a year. After that, they finally gave their approval. They were convinced that we really liked each other, that it was not a mere infatuation. They said we could get married.’
The Naxal form of marriage was political in other senses as well. The marital union of two people was approved by the party on the condition that their commitment to politics—revolutionary party politics—overrode all other commitments. Further, it did not conform to legal definitions, and side-stepped religious conventions. These ideas seem to underlie a question that Nesar Ahmed asks Rita. ‘Conventional marriages are performed by moulobis and moulanas, it lends them sanctity. That’s a common sentiment. But your marriages were different. How did the general public react to it? How did they view it? After all, marriages mean kolma-kabin.’ She did not respond to the question on public reaction, but instead spoke of how her party had viewed it. ‘The Party’s sentiment was that this kind of marriage was “better”. It is similar to registered marriages that take place before the kazi because even though the word kobul is not uttered, it is “written”.’ She added, ‘This is an advanced-modern era, Party marriages were seen as fore-runners to marriages of the future.’ Her words had a ring of history.
With the renunciation of the politics of armed struggle in 1979, the distinctive marriage ‘system’ developed and practised by the Naxalites was abandoned. Women comrades were asked to return to their families, or to marry and settle down. Thus began, what Nesar Ahmed terms, the ‘domestication’ and ‘house-wifisation’ of Naxal women. But not all Naxal women agree with him. ‘There was no other option.’ The party was organisationally shattered, many of its members were either dead, or imprisoned. As one of them put it: ‘The Party’s decision was right. If it had been otherwise, women comrades would either have been killed, or forced into prostitution. The Party’s policy of armed struggle, of annihilation of class enemies meant that…, well, we had created enemies in our own villages.’
I do not wish to pursue the question of whether the party’s decision was right or wrong. Instead, I want to turn to Ismat ara Rita’s words, ‘this is an advanced-modern era.’ I want to place these in the context of the tradition-modernity framework that frames women’s rights issues in Bangladesh, one that is conceptually unable to deal with the issue of colonial power. I discuss work that does, so that we can know ourselves better, and more critically. In the section after that, I return to Nesar Ahmed’s words, ‘Marriages mean kolma-kabin’ because I want to delve deeper into the institutional moorings of marriage—into the legal definition, and religious conventions prevalent in Bangladesh—and the ideas through which compliance to legal inequalities is secured. Here, I turn to my own personal history, to an incident which I think can be teased out to unravel processes of subjection that are at work.
Colonial-modernity: processes of Islamisation
The women’s movement in Bangladesh, as I said earlier, is intellectually ill-equipped to deal with the issue of women’s subjection in modernity. Lata Mani, a feminist historian of West Bengal, in a discussion on sati thinks this is tied to our understanding of colonialism. Regardless of how scholars view its impact on India’s transition from feudalism to capitalism, they all agree that ‘colonialism held the promise of modernity,’ that it gave rise to ‘a critical self-examination of indigenous society and culture.’ Even the most anti-imperialist amongst us, she says, has been forced to admit that colonial rule had ‘positive’ consequences for certain aspects of women’s lives, if not in practical terms, then at least in the realm of ideas about ‘women’s rights’ (1989).
In Bangladesh, intellectual-activists belonging to (overlapping) schools of thought—left, progressivist, secularist and also those in the women’s movement—subscribe to a simplistic and over-generalised account of women’s history. In some accounts, large periods of history are characterised as unchanging in the ‘oppression of women’ (‘thousands of systems of oppression towards women continued in male-dominated societies for thousands of years,’ Badruddin Omar, 2003). Pre-colonial Bengal is often characterised as belonging to ‘the dark ages of medieval history’ (Ayesha Khanam, 1993). These highly emotive accounts of history are inter-woven, they feed into each other, warding off attempts to gain a critical understanding of the nature of colonial rule, more specifically, at the colonial government’s codification of laws (in the case of Muslims, Qur’an and al-Hidaya, whereas in the case of Hindus, specifically Brahmanical interpretations of the Shasters), and its use of legislation as a technique of ruling.
But before turning to that, I will look at pre-colonial society, at the principles of social organisation in rural areas that prescribed marriage, family life and household formation. Talal Asad, in a study of the Punjabi Muslim family, has argued that ‘differences in the forms of family organisation’ of rural Hindus and Muslims during Sikh rule were ‘negligible, or non-existent,’ and that Islamic laws (Hanafi) were only followed by Muslim communities in urban centres, characterised by a market or money economy.
Asad writes, in pre-colonial villages of Punjab, rights to landed property were distributed in accordance with definite principles within a precise kin group. It was, in a certain sense, ‘owned’ by a lineage, but held and worked by the joint family. It was the joint family, as a whole, that comprised the work and consumption unit. The head of the local descent group (equivalent to Bengali notion of goshti) was the undisputed controller: all members together formed a single economic and legal unit. The oldest male member was its head. If relations between sisters-in-law grew strained, a separate hearth might be set up, the wife then would prepare meals for her husband and children separately, but food rations would still be taken from the common stock (the joutho bhandar). However, no changes took place in farm work, and male members continued to till the land together. Marriage was an affair that involved the entire joint families of bride and groom. It did not mean the setting up of a separate hearth, on the contrary, the daughter-in-law was inducted into the joint household. Bride-price (in Bengal, pon) was given by the groom’s family to the bride’s; with its transfer, the wife belonged to the husband’s joint family. A widow, whether chaste or co-habiting with her deceased husband’s brother (debor) or a patrilineal cousin was entitled to life-long maintenance, losing this right only if she were to re-marry outside the descent group.
The colonial state, argues Asad, initiated a ‘process of Islamisation’ by gradually applying the principles of Islamic law which meant that Muslims now either ‘decided, or were compelled by the courts, to order their affairs in accordance with the principles of Muslim family law.’ One of the results was that women, as widowed daughters-in-law, lost their customary rights to maintenance by their in-laws.
Michael Anderson in his article, ‘Islamic Law and the Colonial Encounter in British India’ (1990), draws on more recent theoretical tools that help us to appreciate what happened in the early stages of colonial rule. The colonisers, he says, were perplexed at the multiplicity of local customs and practices, at the many forms of legal authority that existed. In their ‘quest to establish a definable and reliable relation between government and the governed,’ they found a solution in law, and legal texts. Anglo-Muhammadan jurisprudence was born in the first century of colonial rule. I quote from Anderson:
The Hastings Plan of 1772 established a hierarchy of civil and criminal courts, which were charged with the task of applying indigenous legal norms ‘in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste, and other religious usages or institutions’. Indigenous norms comprised ‘the laws of the Koran with respect to Muhammadans’, and the laws of the Brahminic ‘Shasters’ with respect to Hindus. Although the courts followed British models of procedure and adjudication, the plan provided for maulavis and pandits to advise the courts on matters of Islamic and Hindu law, respectively. By the early nineteenth century, the system of courts had been expanded, a new legal profession had been established, and a growing body of statute and court practice extended the influence of the colonial state.
It was through colonisation that we began to lead lives commensurate to the demands of a modern state (more apt would be, what Asad terms elsewhere, the ‘modernising’ state). The distinguishing feature of a modern state, he says, is that instead of being a dominant segment of society, it becomes ‘the dominant mode of organizing its life’ through the momentous new categories of ‘public’ and ‘private’. In the modern state, the social conditions of one’s existence, including their relative advantages, are determined within the domain organised as the state. The Law is one of these conditions. And this is why, it is only in the modern state that one comes across ‘struggles within and about various legal categories that constitute working-class politics, the politics of gender, the politics of sexuality, and the politics of procreation.’ (1992). In the case of India, as Anderson points out, it was through the legal techniques of colonial rule that the category of ‘Muslim’, often ‘Mohammedan’, acquired ‘a new fixity and certainty,’ in contrast to previous identities that had been ‘syncretic, ambiguous or localised.’ Each individual was now linked to ‘a state-enforced religious category,’ litigants were now ‘forced to present themselves as “Muhammadan” or “Hindu”,’ as courts struggled to accommodate diverse social groups within these two categories. The colonial mode of governance also transformed personal law into a ground for organised political struggle, it helped to mobilise a Muslim identity that was opposed to colonial rule.
And, I add, it was colonisation and its legal technologies that created the conditions for older inequalities to give way to ‘specifically’ Muslim inequalities, inequalities that became ‘state-enforced’ in the lives of Muslim women.
Next, I return to Nesar Ahmed’s words—‘marriages mean kolma-kabin’—to examine the institutional and ideological processes that are at work to secure these meanings. In that section, amongst other things, I also look into how diverging trajectories of legal and political development has borne different consequences for women, as the case of Bangladesh and Pakistan post-1971 illustrates. As Asad informs us, the modern state (in our case, a ‘modernising’ one) encroaches into areas of social life that were previously unregulated. In the case of Pakistan, state encroachment, and thereby its power—in the form of legislation—has brought into effect a particular variant of Islamic interpretation of sexuality and marriage (as enacted in the Hudood Ordinance 1979), to regulate the lives of Muslim women in Pakistan, with the application of ‘brute force’.
‘Singular’ meanings: marriage as kolma-kabin
‘Kolma’ and ‘kabin’, as used by Nesar Ahmed, seem to me to be deeply embedded in two different binary oppositions. The notion of a ‘kolma marriage’ indirectly draws on progressivist debates on religion vs. secularism. A ‘kabin marriage’ (short for kabinnama) signals government prescribed forms for registering marriages as opposed to the marriage agreement drawn up in Naxal marriages, one drawn up by party officials, that the women had referred to as ‘the form’. The kabinnama can be looked at as an instrument of marriage; a part of the administrative and bureaucratic procedure which enforces religious belonging, and corresponding practices, among Muslims in Bangladesh.
Let me add a few more words about the kolma aspect of a marriage: Since marriage in Islam is a purely civil contract, and no specific religious rites are necessary for the contraction of a valid marriage, the verses that the moulobi, or kazi (Marriage Registrar), or any man well-versed in religious norms and practices, chooses to recite from the Qur’an are left to his discretion (usually Fatiha and Durud). Now, on to the kabinnama (variously referred to as the ‘marriage document’, or the ‘marriage contract’). Generally speaking, it means the Marriage Registration Form prescribed under The Muslim Marriages and Divorces (Registration) Act 1974, which provides for the licensing of nikah (marriage) registrars. Registering the marriage can either take place on the occasion of marriage itself, or the married couple, accompanied by their family members, can later go to the Kazi Office to get it registered. The kazi’s task is to maintain the registers of marriages and divorces, and provide an attested copy of the entry to the parties. An earlier act, the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961 had made registration mandatory; in case of violation, the Marriage Registrar could be liable to punishment through a prison sentence and/or a fine.
Failure to register, however, does not invalidate the marriage. As a High Court judgement states, ‘registration is not essential in order to prove the validity of the marriage, and nor is a written kabinnama [essential], if the marriage is otherwise valid’ (Bangladesh High Court, March 3, 1998). ‘Otherwise valid’ would imply that there should be an offer and an acceptance of marriage, the document should be signed by both parties to the marriage in the presence of two witnesses, the groom should not be less than 21 years, and the bride should not be less than 18 years.
Registration may not be essential to prove the validity of a marriage but in cases of dispute, non-registration can, and does, create a host of problems since women have no ‘proof’ of marriage, essential to asserting their lesser rights within marriage, and to divorce, guardianship, custody of children and inheritance. Hence, women’s organisations and/or NGOs which provide legal support to increasing numbers of women, distraught at either being deserted by their husbands, or at his having taken on a second wife, or not providing maintenance within marriage, etc have demanded, in the interest of ensuring further protection of women’s rights within marriage, that the system of registration be strengthened, that it be made compulsory for all citizens. Its legislation is an important part of the Uniform Family Code (UFC), drafted by the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, the largest women’s organisation, with the assistance of Ain O Shalish Kendra, which provides legal help, dispute resolution service, and counselling to women in need. The UFC is aimed at protecting the rights of Bangladeshi women of all religions—in matters related to marriage, divorce, custody, alimony, and the inheritance of property—and is said to ‘fully comply with the provisions of CEDAW’ (UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The passage of the UFC has been twice stalemated, once in 2005, when the Law Commission appointed by the government to review the proposal stated that Muslim laws are based on ‘the Qur’an as a revealed Book,’ that its acceptance would lead to the Muslims of Bangladesh rising ‘in revolt as one man [sic].’ And again this year, when a section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties protested against the Women’s Development Policy (of which UFC is a part), on the grounds that the proposed reforms ‘violate the Sharia law on inheritance.’
Generally speaking, marriage registration is on the rise. It is now a norm among the urban middle class. It also seems to be rising in rural areas, as a recent study of six villages reports: the marriages of eighty per cent of women below 25 years of age were registered, in contrast to only forty-two per cent registration of older marriages, women aged 45 and more. (Lisa M Bates, Farzana Islam et al, 2004).
But the administrative apparatuses of modernising states are not as efficiently regulatory as are those of older Western states, susceptible as the former are to corruption, to the misuse of public power for private gain. In Bangladesh, instances do exist of Marriage Registrars leaving a couple of pages blank in their register books, only to sell later at a ‘high price’, to someone in urgent need of a ‘backdated’ marriage. As happened in the case of ex-President HM Ershad. Bidisha, his later wife, now-divorced, writes in her autobiography of how a Keraniganj kazi had been able to rustle up such a blank page since Ershad had been concerned to ‘prove’ to the nation at large that their son, was born in, and not out of wedlock. Ershad, she adds, had constantly grumbled about the exorbitant amount that the blank page had cost (2008).
‘Marriages mean kolma-kabin,’ and I return to these words of Nesar Ahmed now. Naxal marriages were regulated and controlled by the party, they were shaped by underground living and revolutionary ideals, but not, in contrast to dominant practices of marriage, enforced through administrative and bureaucratic procedures of the state. Marrying, for Naxal women, I contend on the basis of their oral life histories, was a political act. What does marriage mean for the middle class in general, and more particularly for its self-consciously thinking sections? I explore this question drawing on my own personal history, and on critical theoretical literature that I have discussed above. I hasten to add, my ideas are provisional.
Bengali Muslim middle-class marriage, to draw on what I had said earlier, cannot be separated from its class history. Both consciously and unconsciously, members of this class draw on means of ‘othering’ to mark their own practices as distinct: a polygamous marriage is its ‘other’ (viewed as essentially Muslim), the flexibility inherent in subaltern practices is its ‘other’ (kono thik-thikana nai). Now the interesting thing is that although polygamy is legally permissible (albeit subject to restrictions under MFLO 1961), it is not so for the middle class, either in terms of ideology or as a normal practice. Polygamy and other inequalities towards women that are a feature of Muslim Personal Laws in Bangladesh are anathema to the self-consciously thinking sections of society. This, I think, is partly expressed in the struggle for the UFC, which proposes to ban polygamy, declare it illegal, and a punishable offence (a polygamous marriage will not be registered). It also finds expression, I think, in the slogan that emerged in protest against the constitutional amendment of the Ershad government that made Islam Bangladesh’s state religion (1988): ‘jar dhormo tar kacche, rashtrer ki bolar acche?’ (to each his/her own religion, why should the state dictate?). Although the sections that had united under this slogan at processions and rallies had been small, the underlying notions of freedom and privacy that it upholds has a much broader appeal among large sections of the middle class. I now turn to my personal history, but before doing that let me brush up my question further, the one that I seek answers to: how is compliance secured to unequal laws among the self-consciously thinking sections of society?
In 1988, Shahidul Alam and I decided to share our lives, but I could not reconcile myself to getting married under a set of laws that discriminated against me as a woman. It was the inequality in the marriage laws—divorce, rights over children, inheritance, the issue of den mohor, ‘why should I take mohorana from Shahidul?’ ‘why could he have four wives and I only one husband at a time?’—that angered me. Shahidul too, was troubled at the prospect of being invested with greater powers (over me) through becoming my husband, powers that were unequal and legally enforceable. I debated options. I remember that a close friend, a feminist herself, advised me to go abroad and get married. I refused. ‘But that is out of the question, we are Bangladeshis.’ I remember her reply, ‘But why are you so worried anyway? I am sure Shahidul will not exercise his powers as a husband. I am sure you have nothing to worry about, he is not that kind of a man.’ I remember that I was silent, that I did not retort, ‘But how do I know? How can I know? And if I do find out, won’t it be too late?’ I have no doubt that her advice was offered in all sincerity, as one expects from close friends. A simple answer would be to brush it off as an ‘elitist’ response, but I want to probe deeper. (How Shahidul and I eventually resolved ‘our’ dilemma is another story. I will not enter into that. No, not now).
Over these last twenty years, as I have observed intelligent and thinking people, whether belonging to the left or the women’s movement, and/or progressivists and secularists, get married under an undeniably unequal set of laws, I have mulled over her words, and wondered: how is a willing compliance to the laws of marriage ensured, particularly among a class of people who consider their ‘others’ to be religious and superstitious, leading un-progressive lives, lives that are ‘dictated’ by social norms, forever lagging behind in the task of re-constructing themselves as modern citizens. How is it linked to property rights? Is it reducible to property rights? Or, do we need to pose a different set of questions? I insist that I raise these questions motivated by no other desire but to understand the politics of marriage.
In his more recent writings, Asad has spoken of how ‘beliefs’ have become detached from social practices, of how they have become ‘a purely inner, private state of mind, a particular state of mind detached from everyday practices.’ (1996). He has also spoken of secular modern ideas of freedom, of ‘the illusion of an uncoerced interiority’ (2007). Is that where I should be seeking answers to my question? Is marriage now purely personal and private? Is that why struggles over marriage—for the liberal sections of society—take place in the arena of legal reforms (lobbying, applying pressure politics), and not in a contesting terrain of social practice, of politics?
In another sense, middle-class marital practices (strict monogamy is proposed for all, irrespective of religious differences, in the UFO) can be looked at as being similar to Naxal imaginings of its own practices, of being ‘fore-runners to marriages of the future’ (Ismat ara Rita’s words). Of course, I must add the caveat that progressivist approaches call on a greater extension of the modernising state’s regulative powers (but then, communist states are no different), aided by international conventions, to initiate ‘legal reforms from above.’ It is interesting to note that the collective self-descriptions of both middle class (‘civilising force’) and Naxal marital practices (‘advanced-modern era’) subscribe to ‘singular’, Westernising meanings. But similar Westernising meanings may be ascribed to other marriages ‘at the margins.’ As a High Court judgement states: ‘Nowadays the obnoxious culture of “living together” has made its inroad into our society and this is slowly spreading its tentacles undermining our social values and the institution of marriage.’ (1999). And of course, here, ‘our’ social values, and ‘our’ institution of marriage is assumed to be genuinely, culturally authentic, untainted by the obnoxious influences of other cultures.
‘Processes of Islamisation’ that were instituted in colonial times through legal techniques of ruling can, and have been, further exacerbated by the modernising state’s increasing encroachment into social life. Pakistan is such a case, where the state’s law-enforcing agencies and its judicial system, in combination with social forces, have employed ‘brute force’ against the nation’s Muslim women, targeting those who are, as often happens, less-privileged. The drafting and passage of the Hudood Ordinance (The Offence of Zina (Enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance, VII of 1979) was accomplished by General Ziaul Huq’s regime, a strong military ally of the US government. Coupled with the Law of Evidence, it was put into practice in a manner that blurred distinctions between ‘adultery’ and ‘rape’. The effects of the application of the Ordinance, as has been repeatedly highlighted by women’s organisations of Pakistan, have been horrendous for women. Norms and boundaries of permissible sexuality and marriage, policed as they were by religious forces, were empowered by particular interpretations of Islamic notions that were legally sanctioned by the state.
In the case of Bangladesh, in the last decade or more, similar attempts to enforce sexual norms and boundaries permissible in Islam have occurred. Conducted by social actors at the village level, these assaults have been led by religious forces, at times, in a vigilante-like fashion. In all recorded cases, either only women were punished, or they were punished more than the men who were involved in the incidents. One such woman was Dulali.
Dulali, age twenty-five, became pregnant during an extramarital relationship with Botu, another resident of her village. On discovering her condition, her family arranged her marriage to another man. Her husband, on confirming his suspicions that she was pregnant, however, divorced her. Dulali’s family then reportedly called upon local elders to hold a shalish in the matter. At the shalish, Dulali was accused of zina and sentenced to be caned 101 times, to be administered seven days after the delivery of her child. No accusation was made against Botu, the man involved. (Sajeda Amin and Sara Hossain, WLUML Publications, 1996).
The authors add, national women’s organisations intervened and the presence of the police on the day Dulali was to be punished, acted as a deterrent. Later, the villagers denied that the incident of shalish and the pronouncement of fatwa had taken place. Although not punished for the alleged sexual improprieties, Dulali was no longer able to live in the village. In recent years, accusations of zina (adultery/fornication), sentencing them to punishment such as stoning, caning, and, in a particularly horrifying case, burning at the stake, has led to the death of three women. These acts of policing, I would like to stress the point, have been carried out by social forces, (thus far) they have been sporadic and intermittent. Further, these acts were not acts based on notions legally sanctioned by the state, since zina, under Bangladeshi law, is not a criminal offence.
The modern state: policing intimate relations
The modern state polices the realm of ‘the intimate.’ Large expanses of social life in modern industrial societies, whether capitalist or communist, are governed by a minutiae of legislative and administrative rules that define and redefine the daily conditions in which subjects live.
Western and bourgeois conceptions of morality—specific to Western history—are inscribed in the law. Asad provides us with an instance: Western normative ideas about childhood are that ‘sexual excitation’ is dangerous to it, that sexuality is proper only to ‘adults’. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, an Act that was the outcome of a successful moral campaign to control prostitution, raised the legal age of consent for girls to sixteen. It enabled the police to gain greater powers of jurisdiction over poor working women and children. Although ideas about children’s sexuality have changed since the late nineteenth century, contemporary British society is marked with a concern to protect children against sexuality. State apparatuses, its functionaries and various professionals (paediatricians, psychiatrists, social workers, police, lawyers, probation officers) are employed to constantly police relations between children and adults. Consequently, these relations, says Asad, become charged with a sexual significance since they are objects of suspicion.
Colonial legal reforms were ‘imposed upon the people from above,’ they enacted Western social practices and Western morals. It was only after the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act that child marriage became an object of moral reform in colonial India. Attempts to abolish child marriage were prompted less by what was said, i.e. to protect young girls from being sexually exploited by older men (after all, a man in his fifties can marry an eighteen year old), than to forbid it in cases where both the boy and the girl are similar in age, let’s say, both are twelve years old. Another instance of Western meanings being inscribed in conformity with Western social practices is provided by reforms of Shari’a rules of marriage. A Muslim man’s right to have four wives simultaneously has been restricted (first wife’s permission is required). In other words, reforms have been conducted which restrict the traditional rights of Muslim men, but not, let’s say, enhance the traditional rights of Muslim women. Thus, no legal reform has enabled Muslim women to contract a polyandrous marriage, i.e. have more than one husband simultaneously.
As I write this section on the policing of intimate relations by the modern state, I am reminded of how these policing powers extend to post-independent Bangladesh. My British friend’s Bangladeshi boyfriend had applied for a fiancé visa to go to Britain, to join her. To convince the immigration officials he had to take their personal letters over to the British High Commission in Dhaka, which were carefully scrutinised for indications of ‘authentic’ love, to determine whether a visa should be issued.
I am also reminded of how legal concepts that are different to Western marriage practices and its own legal history can, and do, encounter institutional arrogance and resistance in the West. For instance, the Muslim marriage contract—kabinnama in Bangladesh, and nikahnama in Pakistan—has been generally treated by the British system (courts, and authorities, such as immigration and pensions) as a ‘pre-nuptial agreement’, a concept that is alien to Muslim law. Is a pre-nuptial agreement legally enforceable, can it be the basis for gaining pension benefits? I am led to believe from researches conducted there that this question has not yet been resolved by the British legal system. As a result, Bangladeshi and Pakistani spouses of British Muslims have suffered, and continue to do so. It has also created grounds for litigation between the parties (Recognizing the Unrecognized, WLUML, 2006).
‘What is done in reality’
In concluding, I return to Gramsci, to words that he wrote while imprisoned.
Possibility, he said, is not reality: but it is in itself a reality. ‘Whether a man [sic] can or cannot do a thing has its importance in evaluating what is done in reality. Possibility means “freedom.” …the existence of objective conditions, of possibilities or of freedom is not yet enough: it is necessary to “know” them, and know how to use them. And to want to use them.’
As I said earlier, I have no answers. ‘Answers’ as such, can only be the outcome of social and political struggles. And, as the Italian Marxist thinker reminds us, the existence of ‘objective conditions’ is not enough. One has to know of possibilities, one has to want to use them.
But, there is a price to be paid for waging struggles for freedom in the realm of ‘the intimate’, for they challenge a hegemonic moral order, one that is universalising in its reach.
Originally published in The New Age on Monday the 22nd September 2008.
by rahnuma ahmed
‘I am worried about this word, this notion — security. I see this word, hear this word, feel this word everywhere. Security check. Security watch. Security clearance. Why has all this focus on security made me feel so much more insecure?’
— Eve Ensler, ‘Insecure at Last: A Political Memoir.’
Tailor-made, to suit your needs
Surveillance often works innocuously. Consider this: billboards equipped with small cameras that gather details about passers-by — gender, a rough estimation of age, and how long she or he looks at the billboard. The cameras, it is said, use software to establish that the person is a billboard-viewer, it then analyses her or his facial features like cheekbone height, distance between nose and chin, to judge the person’s gender and age. Race is not used as a parameter. Not yet, but the companies say that they can, that they will. These details are transmitted to a central database. The purpose is to ‘tailor’ a digital display of the viewer, ‘to show one advertisement to a middle-aged white woman,’ and another to ‘a teenage Asian boy.’ To sell products more efficiently. More rationally. It does not intrude on privacy, so the argument goes, since actual images of billboard viewers are not stored.
These billboards are similar to websites such as Amazon, described as the largest (virtual) bookstore in the world, tailor-made to assist the customer, her needs and interests. I visit the website to look up books on feminist theory, I am shown bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, along with, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, also written by her, one that is, so I am told, ‘Frequently Bought Together.’ Simultaneously, five other products are displayed, that Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought. Down below are menus which, at a click, will display my Recent History, books recently purchased, or viewed by me.
The Surveillance Society
Surveillance, as a growing number of Western writers, journalists, artists, academics and human rights activists keep reminding us, is no longer ‘the future’. In the words of Henry Potter, London editor of Vanity Fair, ‘we are already at the gates of the surveillance society.’ According to a group of academics, writers of A Report on the Surveillance Society (September 2006), it exists ‘not merely from dawn to dusk,’ but for twentyfour hours a day, seven days a week. It is systemic, expressed not only through supermarket check-out clerks who want to see loyalty cards, or the coded access card that allows one to enter the office, or CCTV (closed-circuit TV) cameras, which in Britain, are ‘everywhere.’ A CCTV consulting firm puts the number deployed at more than 4 million, nearly as many as the rest of the world combined, minus the United States. The report’s authors write, ‘these systems represent a basic, complex infrastructure which assumes that gathering and processing personal data is vital to contemporary living.’ Surveillance is, in their words, a ‘part of the fabric of daily life.’
They write, it would be a mistake to think of surveillance as ‘something sinister, smacking of dictators and totalitarianism,’ or as ‘a covert conspiracy.’ Instead, it is the outcome of modern organisational practices, business, government and the military. It is better viewed as the progress towards efficient administration, as a benefit for the development of Western capitalism and the modern nation-state. Four hundred years ago, rational methods began to be applied to organisational practices, to ensure that the new organisations ran smoothly. It made informal social controls on business and governing, and people’s ordinary social ties ‘irrelevant.’ The growth of new computer systems after World War II reduced labour intensity, it increased the reliability and the volume of work that could be accomplished. Subsequent growth of the new communications system, now known together as ‘information technology’ (IT), is related to modern desires for efficiency, speed, control and coordination, and is global.
Capitalism’s push to cut down on costs and to increase profits has accelerated and reinforced surveillance. This, accompanied by the 20th century’s growth of military and police departments, and the development of new technologies, has improved techniques of intelligence-gathering, identification and tracking. Surveillance thus, has become part of being modern.
It is undoubtedly two-sided. It has its benefits: it helps deter traffic violations, tracks down criminals, medical surveillance programmes provide necessary information to public health authorities etc. But, the authors warn us, there are things that are ‘seriously wrong’ with a surveillance society. Large scale technological infrastructures suffer from problems, equally large in scale, especially computer systems where a mistaken, or an imprudent keystroke can cause havoc. For instance, twenty million ordinary peoples’ online search queries from AOL were released for ‘research’ purposes in August 2006. The names of identifiers were not tagged, but connecting search records with names took only a couple of minutes. Corruptions and skewed visions of power, not that of tyrants, but of leaders justifying extraordinary tactics in exceptional cicumstances, such as the endless ‘war on terror,’ can be disastrous. Many Muslim Americans have been branded as unfit for travel, or subject to racial profiling. Surveillance systems are wrong on three other counts: they are `meant to discriminate between one group and another’, as recent trends show, distinctions of class, race, gender, geography and citizenship are being exacerbated and institutionalised. Second, it undermines trust, something necessary to social relationships, breeding suspicion in its place. When parents start to use webcams and GPS systems to check on teenage childrens’ activities, or spouses check each others’ suspected infidelities, it speaks of a ‘slow social suicide.’ And third, surveillance systems associated with high technology and anti-terrorism distract us from pursuing ‘alternatives,’ from paying attention to larger and more urgent questions.
Caroline Osella, a contributor to the ASA (Association of Social Anthropologists) blog discussion on recruiting anthropologists in the ‘war on terror’ (through the Human Terrain System programme), wrote of a personal experience that illustrates the ‘state of paranoid anxiety’ that grips people. As the mother of an 11 year-old, she had gone to a school meeting for parents to discuss a planned residential adventure school trip. She was astounded, she writes, to see parents not asking questions about activities planned, or practicalities like food, or other stuff to take along. Instead, questions revolved exclusively around security. School authorities were asked: ‘will an adult stay awake all night to monitor that kids are safe and not wandering?,’ ‘can the kids escape to the outside?,’ ‘can strangers get in?’ And she writes, incredible as it may sound, one father finally asked, ‘what guarantee can the school provide that paedophiles will not be able to break the perimeter fence and get into the site, where the kids will be sleeping unchaperoned in tents?’
It was surreal, Osella writes, to sit and listen to ‘reasoned and careful discussions’ of a totally fantastic scenario. It would be great, she says, to embrace some insecurity and uncertainty, and to accept the absence of ‘total control’ over our lives.
How does surveillance get naturalised? Mark Andrejevic, author of Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, believes that reality TV has played a part in transforming American attitudes toward surveillance. Producers of early reality programs such as MTV’s The Real World (1992) had a hard time finding people willing to have their lives taped nearly 24 hours a day for several months. Now, thousands of young people form audition lines in college towns, ‘more people applying to The Real World each year than to Harvard.’ New generations, Andrejevic says, are growing up viewing television shows that let anyone see the lives of others recorded voluntarily. There are other reality shows too, like COPS, where police chases of criminals is filmed. Increasingly, he says, the results of surveillance are seen as `entertainment,’ as being within the realm of the public’s right to know.
The mass collection of DNA data, and ‘policy’ laundering
The introduction of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 in the UK has led to anyone being arrested on ‘suspicion’ of committing the slightest offence. After arrest, the police remove a DNA sample, which stays on the police database, even though the person may not be charged. Increasing by 40,000 samples per month, the database has surpassed more than 3 million DNA samples, a fifth of which belong to people of African-Caribbean origin. Who owns these DNA samples? ‘Once a database like this is established, the authority concerned tends to regard the information as being in its ownership, to be exchanged without reference to the subjects,’ writes Potter. The British government admitted that it had passed more than 500 DNA samples (I wonder whose, Arabs? Muslims?) to foreign agencies. But when asked to which countries, ‘no one seemed to know.’ The chairman of the Nuffield Bioethics Committee, Sir Bob Hepple anxiously commented, ‘We didn’t have any legislation to establish the DNA database and it has not been debated in parliament.’
Western governments, it seems are devising new strategies to circumvent traditional ideals of civic liberty, based on notions of freedom and privacy (mind you, not in its colonies). Dr Gus Hosein, senior fellow with Privacy International says, ‘illiberal policies’ are pushed through international treaty organisations. The British government brought into effect communications surveillance policies through the European Union, and ID cards through the United Nations. ‘The government returns home to Parliament, holding their hands up saying ‘We are obliged to act because of international obligations’ and gets what they want with little debate.’ It is a strategy that has led to the coinage of new words: ‘policy laundering.’
Having originated in the West, these surveillance systems are gradually extending outside it, to control, regulate and limit the lives of people in non-Western countries.
First published in The New Age on 15th September 2008
They sing in harmony. Rhythmic tunes with simple lyrics. The lilting songs and the dance-like-footsteps have a deceptive beauty. The metal sheets balanced on their shoulders may weigh tons. Bare feet on slippery clay weaving through scrap metal, is dangerous at the best of times. In pouring rain, and with the loads they carry, the smallest slip could spell disaster. They gently sway in careful steps singing to stay in synchrony. It is a song of death.
shipbreaking-magazinet1PDF in Norwegian Magasinet
dagbladet-nyhetPDF in Norwegian Nyhet
“You wouldn’t have the time” he’d said. It was a polite conversation. Salahuddin, the cousin of Jahangir Alam, had rung me to thank me for helping him get an ambulance at the Apollo Hospital in the elite Bashundhara Complex in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, 250 kilometres from the port city Chittagong. Despite the hospital’s motto of “Bringing healthcare of international standard within the reach of every individual,” it was understood that all patients were not equal. Jahangir and his family had been waiting for over five hours. The hospital was for rich people and Jahangir, a worker at Ziri Subeder Shipbreaking Yard was undeniably poor. Even though the money had been paid, Jahangir, on his deathbed was not going to get the same treatment the other VIP patients at Apollo were given. Eventually the presence of a pesky journalist taking pictures had enough nuisance value for the hospital to dredge up an ambulance. Jahangir would arrive at a cheaper, less equipped hospital in Chittagong, in the early hours of the morning. Knowing I was interested in the plight of the workers, Salahuddin had rung to tell me there had been another accident. A worker was in hospital and they were going to amputate his leg. He felt my presence might save the man’s leg. I was due to go to London the following day, for a brainstorming meeting with Amnesty International. Going to and from Chittagong that day would have been difficult. I had things to do before leaving. Salahuddin was right. Even though I knew that my presence might perhaps have made a difference to a man’s life. I didn’t have the time. We never have the time. Not for some people.
The working conditions at the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong are well known. It is the usual story. In order to get the ships, the Bangladeshi shipbreakers pay the best rates to the ship-owners. To retain their profits, they pay the workers the lowest rates in the world, and provide virtually no safety. Workers die and suffer injuries on a regular basis. Some receive modest compensation, others don’t. According to workers, many deaths are simply not registered with the bodies being ‘disappeared’ by the owners.
I had wanted to do a story on the shipbreaking yards for some time. When Halldor Hustadnes of the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet approached me I was immediately interested. I rescheduled a short assignment in Manila so that we could work together for the entire period. A loophole in the Basle Convention was allowing ship-owners to continue dumping ships with toxic waste with abandon in majority world countries that had little regulation.
The new International Maritime Organisation, convention was about to be ratified, but environmentalists felt it would not result in better conditions for workers. Norwegian ship-owners, who benefitted the most from loopholes in the convention (like the ships not being declared waste, and therefore not falling under waste jurisdiction), were a powerful lobby. Even Lloyds the insurers, who register and control the world’s shipping, felt the new convention would not have an effect.
We were hoping our story, timed to appear before the ratification of the convention, would bring attention to the plight of the workers. Getting access to the yard was going to be the main stumbling block. My student Sourav Das, put me in touch with Wahid Adnan. Adnan had good links with Rahman yard. We had been told that the Norwegian ship UMA was berthed at Rahmania yard. The slightly different name might just have been due to a mistake in communication. There was a ship UMA near Rahman yard. This was a breakthrough. Adnan managed to get me in, but though it was the right ship, it was the wrong yard. UMA was going to be broken at Royal, the yard next to Rahman, where we had no access.
So we started with the access we had, and worked our way across the porous beach. It was a Friday. The weekend in Bangladesh. We utilised the absence of the manager to bluff our way into the ship. The abundance of asbestos, the open chemical store, the sacks of Potassium Hydroxide pellets and other toxic chemicals left unprotected, were all fairly visible. One of the workers talked of the films they had been shown about how asbestos was toxic, and had to be buried under concrete and that workers needed to wear protective clothing. “But that was just a film” he said.
Shujon was the smallest of the workers. With marigolds dangling from his ears, he insisted on being photographed. He behaved like a child, though we found out he was older than he looked. Only wealthy Bangladeshis have birth records. And with most children being malnourished, looks can be deceptive. Shujon was a helper. Hirolal, the cutter he was helping, didn’t look much older than him. They were cousins. Shielding his eyes from the intense heat with his hands, Hirolal, broke down larger pieces of metal into more manageable shapes. Shujon cleared the debris, oblivious to the sparks that flew around him. Both boys wanted to find work overseas. Singapore was their dream destination. I didn’t tell them that Bangladeshi workers in Singapore, often found themselves in similar bonded labour. At least Shujon and Hirolal had a dream. The contractor came over and started beating up Shujon. He needed to get on with his work. We were getting him into trouble and kept our distance.
Early the following morning I saw Rubel, bailing out the water from a lifeboat. Rubel was 14 and had been a ferry ‘man’ since he was 11. His mother didn’t really want him to be doing risky work, but they needed the money. We left before sunrise, before the manager arrived. Rubel was well into his day’s work.
That night when the manager had left, we went back into the yard and slept with the workers. We were guests and had the luxury of having a metal sheet to ourselves for a bed. They sung for us that night. Not the pop songs that we heard on television, or the Tagore songs that the wealthy elite took as a sign of culture. They were haunting songs of longing and parting. One was a song about visas:
With a two day visa
To this false world
Why did Alla send me
Why send me here
With the pain of seeking comfort
He sent me on my own
What game did he play
What game does he play