Babui / Arjun
2008 November 29th, Sat.
Brooklyn, New York
Mumbai, city of such wealth,
And of such poverty!
Today, the jet-set here have felt
A new anxiety.
And yet, when we have sorted through
The bodies bathed in red,
How many workers will we view
Among the ones now dead?
Be it from bombers in the sky,
Or gunmen treading earth,
It is the poorer ones, who die
The most, yet leave no dearth.
And even when he seeks out those
In Oberoi and Taj, *
The gunman, with his bullets, mows
The lowly of the Raj.
The ones, who went from Mumbai slum
To earn their few rupees,
Lie murdered. Who will forward come
To help their families?
Now death unites the ones, who were
By birth and wealth divided.
For just a day, has Lucifer
All privileges voided.
And she, who partied at the clubs,
And swam in bluest pool,
Now lies, and rusting shoulder rubs
With maid, as fires cool.
The firemen came, at last, to quench
Those fires that long had raged.
And now, we smell the awful stench
Of corpses that have aged.
Whence came those ones, so zealot eyed,
With guns that spewed out death?
They did not know, the ones who died,
In Mumbai’s horror met.
* The Oberoi and Taj are names of famous hotels in Bombay.
The Taj is in a historic building by the sea-front. The Oberoi is
in a modern one, and is part of a chain, with branches in major
Indian cities as well as elsewhere.
Unusual interview, on CNN, with the materialistic “guru” and physician, Deepak Chopra, regarding the recent horror in Mumbai (Bombay).
Homes, sweet homes
WHAT does home mean for Palestinians driven away from their land in recurring waves of Israeli onslaught — 1948, 1949 to 1956, and again in 1967, due to the six-day war? What does home mean for first generation Palestinian refugees, and for their descendants, for people who ‘yearn for Palestine’?
It is a yearning that permeates, in the words of David McDowall, the ‘whole refugee community’, one that stretches from 986,034 in the Gaza Strip, 699,817 in the West Bank, 1,827,877 in Jordan, 404,170 in Lebanon and 432,048 in Syria (2005 figures). What does home — something that ‘exists only in the imagination’ — mean for Palestinians who are subject to Israel’s ongoing colonisation of Palestine?
‘What, for you, is home?’ ‘How would you represent it?’ ‘How would you represent it if you were to take one single photograph?’ Florence Aigner, a Belgian photographer, put these three questions to Palestinian refugees living in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. She gave them time to think and returned with her camera and notebook the next day to take two photographs: a portrait of the person, and a representation of what home meant for that person, both visually, and through words. Personal narratives are often lost in collective narratives, and Aigner says she wanted to explore both diversity and particularity through the experiences of daily living. Her approach, she says, allows her to create a dialogue between the person and her or his idea of a home, between the photograph and the photographer, and also, between photography and writing. And thus we find images of home in exile interspersed with images of home in Palestine, images where one home is often projected on the other. These images form her exhibition, Homes, sweet homes.
I had always felt homeless, says Eman, and had refused to cook, `to practise home’. But now, even though our house in Ramallah is temporary, I have started to cook, cooking for me is ‘an act of love’. For Oum Mahmoud, home is her husband who was killed in a Mossad air attack. Her house in Ramallah was destroyed in a recent Israeli missile attack, the new flat has ‘no memories’, ‘no furniture’, it is like living in a hotel. For Wisam Suleiman, home is orange trees and lemon trees, and the faces of martyrs who have given their lives to assert their right to return. The way home, says Suleiman, is ‘sweeter than home itself’. For Abu Majdi, forced to flee in 1948, home is the ‘key of our house in Jerusalem.’
Photographs and interviews by Florence Aigner
Being on the margin, following my own footsteps, I always felt homeless. It made me develop a sense of rejection mainly for the kitchen, the heart of practising home. So I refused psychologically and practically to cook.
Last year, I had to move with my husband and our two children to Ramallah when passing back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem became an Odyssey trip due to the Calandia checkpoint and the harsh siege imposed on the city. Our house in Ramallah is temporary, I started to cook and feel good about it, cooking became an act of love I dedicate to my family. Is this home?
My home is my husband. I have only a few photos of him left. He was killed during an air attack by Mossad on the office of the PLO in Tunis in 1986. In the 90’s I could return to Palestine with the Palestinian Authority. Since then I live in Ramallah.
I have recently lost everything, my house burned when an Israeli missile hit it. I could only rescue some books and photos from the flames. Now I live in a new flat, but I have no memories or furniture left. I buy little by little some stuff to furnish it. I have the feeling to live in a hotel.
When I hear the word ‘home’ orange trees and lemon trees come to my mind as well as faces of hundreds of martyrs who have given their life for the right of return. For me, the way of return has to go through education, education, education…and books.
As Palestinian refugees we have to prepare the new generation to return to Palestine in a human way. We have to carry our culture and science with us, and work hard. The way home is more beautiful than home itself.
My home is my house in Malha near Jerusalem that we had to flee in 1948. I hope to return there one day, but I am not very optimistic, because Israel wants a land without its inhabitants. Sometimes I don’t understand anything. Before 1948 we had Jewish friends, we were living together. In 1948 we had to leave everything behind and we became refugees in Aida camp, Bethlehem.
An Iraqi Jewish family, the Rajwan moved then into our house in Jerusalem. We were friends and were giving gifts to each other. We saw them until 1967. I remember the grandfather used to say that he wanted to return to Iraq and to give us back our house. He said that they were keeping it for the day we could return. Eventually the old man died without having been able to return to Iraq. Me, I have kept the keys of our house in Jerusalem all my life.
The architecture of occupation
Migron in occupied West Bank is a fully-fledged illegal settlement of Israelis, comprising 60 trailers on a hilltop that overlooks Palestinian lands below. In 1999, several Israeli settlers complained to the mobile phone company Orange about a bend in the road from Jerusalem to their settlements that caused disruption to their phone service. The company agreed to put up an antenna on a hill situated above the bend. The hill was owned by Palestinian farmers, but their permission was not required since mobile phone reception is a ‘security’ issue. Mast construction began, while other companies agreed to supply electricity and water to the construction site on the hill. In May 2001, an Israeli security guard, soon followed by his wife and children, moved to the site and connected his cabin to the main water and electricity supply. Less than a year later, five other families joined him. This is how the settler outpost of Migron was created. Soon, the Israeli ministry for construction and housing helped build a nursery, while a synagogue was built from donations from abroad.
Eyal Weizman, dissident Israeli architect and architectural theorist of the relationships and exchanges between architectural and military planning, documents the processes of illegal Israeli settlement — in his words, ‘a civilian occupation’. His book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation provides a detailed and exact account of ‘how occupation works in practice’. Weizman had, at the invitation of the Palestinian authority, also been involved in planning houses for Palestinians, in re-using settlements after the Israeli evacuation of August 2005. What is to be done with settlements after evacuation? Are they to be abandoned, reused, converted, or recycled? The Palestinians, he says, had rejected these single family homes as suburbs. After intense discussions, it was finally agreed that the evacuated shells of settlement would be spatialised into a set of public institutions: an agricultural university, a cultural centre, a clinic for the Red Cross, etc. But the project of re-using the illegal settlements collapsed after the Israelis destroyed them.
Settlement planning and building of the Israelis, says Weizman, emerges out of ‘organisational chaos’. The very nature of Israeli occupation is one of ‘uncoordinated coordination’ where the government allows ‘degrees of freedom’ to rough elements, to a whole host of actors — Israeli settlers, mobile phone companies, utility firms, state institutions, the army, etc — and then denies its involvement. Micro-processes, such as that of an Israeli civilian moving a cabin to an illegal site, settling down, home-building, foreign donations pouring in to build a synagogue become wheels in larger processes of occupation of Palestinian lands. In the Israeli government’s colonial policies.
And as these occur, home-building for Palestinians — even in the sixtieth year of their mass exodus — remains something that exists ‘only in the imagination’.
She jumped down from the police van and tried to escape. It stopped, they hunted her down by torchlight, dragged her back and drove off. Men, gathered around the tea stall, wondered why the car had stopped. Curious, they walked up to the spot. A golden coloured sandal, a handkerchief, and broken bits of bangle lay there.
Yasmin: raped and murdered by the police
She was only fourteen years old, her death was brutal. Gang-raped by policemen, and later, killed. Yasmin, a domestic wage worker, employed in a Dhaka city middle class home, longed to see her mother. Leaving her employers home unannounced, she caught the bus to Dinajpur, got down at Doshmile bus stoppage, hours before dawn on 24 August 1995. A police patrol van driving by insisted on picking her up. Yasmin hesitated. One of the police constables barked at those gathered around the tea stall, We are law-enforcers, we will drop her home safely. Don’t you have any faith in us?
Hours later, a young boy discovered her bloodied dead body, off the main road. The police who came to investigate stripped her naked. Bystanders were outraged. Recording it as an unidentified death, they handed over her body to Anjuman-e-Mafidul Islam for burial.
The dead girl was the same girl who had been picked up by the police van, when this news had spread, a handful of people took out a procession. In response, the police authorities held a press conference where a couple of prostitutes turned up and claimed that the dead girl Banu, was one of them, she had been missing. District-level administration and local influentials joined in the police’s attempts to cover up.
Spontaneous processions and rallies took place demanding that the police be tried. Yasmin’s mother recognised her daughter from a newspaper photo, lifeless as she lay strewn in an open three-wheeled van. As a peoples movement emerged, police action, yet again, was brutal. Lathi-charge, followed by firing, killed seven people. Public outrage swelled. Roadblocks were set up, curfew was defied, police stations were beseiged, arrested processionists were freed from police lock-ups by members of the public. Outrage focused on police superintendent Abdul Mottaleb, district commissioner Jabbar Farook, and member of parliament Khurshid Jahan (‘chocolate apa’), the-then prime minister Khaleda Zia’s sister, perceived to be central figures in the cover-up. Shommilito Nari Shomaj, a large alliance of women’s organisations, political, cultural and human rights activists joined the people of Dinajpur, as Justice for Yasmin turned into a nationwide movement.
In 1997, the three policemen, Moinul Hoque, Abdus Sattar and Amrita Lal were found guilty. In 2004, they were executed.
Yasmin of Dinajpur is, for us, an icon symbolising female vulnerability, and resistance, both her own (she had tried to escape), and that of people, both Dinajpur and nationwide. She serves as a constant reminder that the police force, idealised in state imaginings as protector of life and property should not be taken for granted, that women need to test this each day, on every single occasion.
In the nation’s recent history of popular struggles, Yasmin’s death helped to characterise the police force as a masculine institution, it gave new meanings to the Bangla proverb, `jey rokkhok shei bhokkhok,’ he who claims to protect women, is the usurper, the aggressor. A taboo, sanctioned by state powers, was broken.
Bidisha in remand: sexual abuse
`Go and get a shard of ice. Insert it. It will all come out.’
In her autobiography, Bidisha, second wife of ex-President Hussain Mohd Ershad, later-divorced, writes, I wondered, what will they do with that? Insert it where? (Shotrur Shonge Shohobash, 2008).
Under the influence of what she assumes was a truth serum, injected during remand at a Joint interrogation cell housed in Baridhara, Bidisha writes, the pain was unbearable. A horrible burning sensation coursed through my body, my eyes threatened to burst out of their sockets. If I opened them, it felt like chilli powder had been rubbed in. If I closed them, balls of fire encircled my pupils. My breathing grew heavy. I felt like I was dying, but I couldn’t, I was falling asleep, but I couldn’t. My tongue grew thick. I wanted to say everything that I knew, and things that I didn’t. Questions flew at me from all directions, some of them pounded me from inside my head.
But, Bidisha writes, I stuck to what she knew. I stuck to the truth. Her interrogators got tired. One of them ordered the ice, and ordered someone to leave the room. Was it the policewomen, Bidisha wonders. A strong pair of hands gripped her shoulders, another climbed up her legs, up her thighs, ‘like a snake.’ But they stopped, disappointed. `I don’t think we can do it. She’s bleeding.’
She writes, but my periods had ended days earlier, why should there be blood? I remembered, it must be the beatings at the Gulshan police station, by the officer-in-charge Noore Alam. She was pushed and as she fell, someone grabbed hold of her orna. Pulled and pushed, her orna soon turned into a noose, she could no longer breathe, her tongue jutted out. She was hit hard with a stick on her lower abdomen, through the daze she could see that he was uniformed. I fell on the floor like a sack. I was barely conscious. I was kicked and trampled with boots on my chest, head, back, and lower abdomen.
During interrogation, the chief interrogator Joshim had repeatedly shouted at her, Do you know who I am? Do you know what I can do to you? Ten-twelve men had been present when the truth serum was injected. Well-dressed, fashionable clothes, expensive watches. Whiffs of expensive after-shave. Trim hair, cut very short. As she repeatedly stuck to the truth, Joshim threatened to hang her upside down, like Arman, he said, who was being tortured in the next room. She was threatened with rape by members of RAB (Rapid Action Battalion). During another round her left thumbnail was prised open and torn away, by something like a pair of pliers. They held my eyelids open so that I could see. Relief came only when the call for prayers sounded, since the men scurried away to pray.
Interrogation sessions were video-recorded, each interrogator had an audio recorder. I remember hearing, be sure to get all the details on camera. I remember someone adding, Who’ll think she’s had three kids? What a figure! The cassette’ll make him happy. Make who happy? she wonders. Toward the end of the three-day remand, one of the men entered and said, It’s over. I’ve talked. To who? asked one of the interrogators. One of the Bhaban men. (I presume, Bidisha means Hawa Bhaban). She was forced to declare on camera that she had not been tortured, to sign written declarations, and also blank sheets of paper.
She was in custody for 23 days in June 2005, because of two cases filed by her husband, and two by the government. What were the allegations? Her husband, the ex-President, first accused her of stealing his cell phone, money from his wallet, and vandalising household furniture. Then she was accused of having different birth dates on two different passports. And lastly, of having stashed away large amounts of money in foreign bank accounts.
Interested quarters tried to make light of the incident, they said, it was a ‘purely family affair.’ Those in the political know, for instance Kazi Zafarullah, Awami League presidium member, claimed that the ruling BNP had masterminded the event to prevent Ershad from forging unity with opposition political parties since elections were due next year (New Age, 6 June 2005). I was repeatedly asked during interrogation, writes Bidisha, why had I said that the Jatiya Party should form an alliance with the Awami League? Why not with the BNP? (`because they were unable to govern properly, people were furious, Jatiya Party popularity was bound to fall’). Bidisha was expelled from Jatiya party membership, she lost her post of presidium member.
Parliamentary elections under the present military-backed caretaker government are scheduled to be held in December 2008. Jatiya Party (JP) has joined Awami League (AL) led grand alliance for contesting the elections. According to newspaper reports, Ershad is eyeing the presidency.
Pahari women: rape under occupation
Even after the signing of the 1997 Peace Treaty between the government and the PCJSS (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti), the Chittagong Hill Tracts remains one of the most militarised regions of the world. During the period of armed conflict, according to international human rights reports, sexual violence was inflicted on indigenous women and their communities as part of military strategy. Bangladesh Army personnel have been accused by paharis of having committed extrajudicial killings, rape, torture and abduction. In August 2003, over 300 houses in 7 pahari villages of Mahalcchari were razed to the ground by the army, aided by Bengali settlers. Paharis claim, ten Chakma women were raped, some of them gang-raped. This includes a mother and her two daughters, aged 12 and 15, and two daughters of another family, aged 14 and 16 years. Victims allege, armed personnel alongwith Bengali settlers took part in the rapes. Paharis claim, state-sponsored political and sexual violence still continues.
There is no public evidence that the Bangladesh army has investigated those claims in any way. Nor do we know if the Bangladesh army has charged any soldier as a result of the alleged assaults. Nor is there any public evidence that any military personnel has been punished for any of the alleged rapes.
Tomorrow, November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. We need to break more state sanctioned taboos.
Interviews with Nurul Kabir, editor, New Age
Jonotar Chokh (16 October 2008), and weekly Shachitra Shomoy (26 October 2008).
Translations by Rahnuma Ahmed
I have doubts about December’s parliamentary elections: first, whether they will take place — at all — on the 18th. And second, if they do, whether the elections will be such that are acceptable to all sections of society, whether all political parties are able to actively take part in it, and whether the elections, on the whole, are held smoothly – says Nurul Kabir.
Jonotar Chokh: You often express doubts about whether parliamentary elections will be held on December 18th. Why?
Nurul Kabir I have doubts about December’s parliamentary elections: first, whether they will take place — at all — on the 18th. And second, if they do, whether the elections will be such that are acceptable to all sections of society, whether all political parties are able to actively take part in it, and whether the elections, on the whole, are held smoothly.
When national elections are held under a non-party based caretaker government, the main task is to create an equitable political atmosphere where parties can contest equally, and of course there are pre-conditions to this: conducting constructive discussions with all political parties, big or small, framing democratic norms and rules that are acceptable to all. But the present government and its nominated Election Commission has never been seen to have engaged in constructive discussions with all concerned political parties, with similar sincerity, or an attitude of dealing with them equitably. On the contrary, sometimes this government and it’s Commission have attempted to divide the political parties. Sometimes it has extended state patronage to the people it prefers so as to enable them to form new political parties. Sometimes it has tried to stoke up mutual distrust and suspicion between the mainstream political parties. As a result, the relationship which has developed between the political parties, and the government and its Election Commission, is one based on a kind of distrust. This is not congenial to the holding of elections.
On the other hand, the government has taken advantage of the state of emergency to create and implement policies which are extraneous to its constitutional mandate and its legal powers. Most of these are anti-people. For instance, shutting down nationalised factories, industries and banks, tele-communications, gas, airlines etc., handing over government service sectors to private limited companies in order to strengthen private ownership etc. etc. These actions have further embedded Bangladesh economy into the US-led ‘new liberal economic order,’ which is bound to have a negative impact on the economic lives of most people. These decisions were taken and implemented by using the state of emergency as a shield, by disallowing popular protests through armed means. In this context, it is difficult to be certain about whether those who have strangled peoples’ fundamental rights will leave the shelter of emergency powers and hold elections. On the other hand, the major political parties have clearly spoken of their unwillingness to take part in the elections under emergency. And, of course, none of the major political parties can agree to take part in the elections under a state of emergency, without sacrificing their obligation to struggle for the restoration of peoples’ constitutional rights. Besides, the government might take advantage of the state of emergency, it might try to legitimise election results that have been decided beforehand.
And then again, if we look at it from another angle, it is not possible to be absolutely certain that any of the political parties will not betray the people and their aspirations for the restoration of democratic rights. Elections, whether held under a state of emergency, or after the withdrawal of emergency, generally enable a political party to assume power, to take on the reins of government. Any political party coveting power can disavow their commitment to restoring peoples’ fundamental rights, and can singly begin to, let’s say, walk towards the throne. Such things have happened before. But then, even in such a case, given the current stalemated political situation, I do not think that the military-backed caretaker government will welcome the idea of holding elections without having worked out beforehand, an effective understanding about post-electoral politics with one of the major political parties — at the very least. And elections based on pre-election understandings of this sort, are bound to be flawed.
We can see that the government is engaging in dialogues with the political parties, but we also hear that the government is attempting to arrive at secret understandings with them. The results of direct discussions are not very positive, whereas, on the other hand, we do not know what is taking place behind the scenes. And it is for these reasons, that I express concern about whether elections will be held on December 18th, and that, even if these are held, I express concerns about the quality of elections that will be held under a state of emergency.
Jonotar Chokh: At times the government is giving some advantages to the Awami League, at other times, to the BNP. And now we see it putting pressure on both political parties. What, in your opinion, is the reason behind this strategy?
Nurul Kabir The reasons behind the strategy of the military-controlled caretaker government for sometimes giving advantages to one party, at other times, to another, are very clear: to evade the responsibilities outlined in the constitution so as to keep open the option of advancing ahead with the political-economic agenda of their western masters. The government’s constitutional obligation was to not award special privileges to any particular party, to ensure equal opportunities for all, and to hold a well-organised general election that will hand over power to the elected representatives. But the present government and its invisible national and foreign partners are stoking up suspicion and distrust between the political parties, whose relationship, as it is, is based on competitiveness. In such a situation, in order to bring a return of normal political processes, the contending political parties and camps should reach a minimum level of understanding on the removal of the state of emergency. If the politicians fail to do this, the unelected government may use excuses to prolong its tenure, and this will be harmful for the country, for its people, for the national economy, and for the political process.
Jonotar Chokh: Two major political parties provide leadership in Bangladesh politics — do you think they will be able to rise above nepotism and corruption in future, and play a positive role with respect to the people?
Nurul Kabir The two major political parties that provide leadership in Bangladesh politics — Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Dal (BNP) and the Awami League (AL) — basically represent the political, economic and cultural interests of the nation’s ruling class. This ruling class, which is of course a small section of the nation’s total population, is authoritarian. It is so for several historical reasons. From the economic point of view, it is corrupt. From the cultural point of view, it is reactionary. Hence, a democratic orientation, economic transparency, and cultural progressiveness is inherently against the nature of this class, it goes against the processes through which this class was constituted, as a ruling class.
The ruling class, which as I said earlier, is anti-people. It has developed an economic system that is consistent with its class-based interests. It has kept intact a state and society that is undemocratic. Nepotism and corruption are its inseparable features. Military and civilian bureaucrats, corrupt businessmen and industrialists, local agents of foreign or multinational companies and opportunistic politicians, have all contributed to this corrupt system. On the other hand, there exists a vast army of compliant intellectuals, teachers, journalists, artists, writers, experts of different colour, who unfailingly keep providing social and cultural legitimacy to this anti-democratic system. On the social level, they produce and reproduce conventional and stereotypical ideas. They do not question the political and economic ideas that exist. There is no realistic reason to believe that in this situation, with this political, economic, and cultural system, and with its unhindered continuance, the mainstream political leadership will rise above nepotism and corruption, and will devote itself — or, that the leaders are capable of devoting themselves — to peoples’ welfare at the first opportune moment. To get the mainstream political leadership to work in the peoples interest, they have to be kept under constant pressure — the members and followers of the political parties have to be much more conscious, they have to shake off the prevalent tradition of extending blind support to their leaders, they have to work hard to get their leadership accustomed to the idea of democratic accountability. In this case, progressive journalists and intellectuals have the opportunity to play a critically significant role — and of course, there is a tremendous need for them to do this. A journalism that is biased towards the people must continuously unearth how the existing political system, how economic philosophy and cultural outlooks produce and reproduce corruption. A journalism that is biased towards the people must necessarily place these facts before the people. What progressivist intellectuals can do, is to analyse the inherent limitations of the existing system, they can present it before the people, they can present positive alternatives to the existing political and economic system. This requires hard work. Not only that, it is also risky. Only those who are committed to the idea of history and to progress, will be willing to take such risks.
The emergence of journalists and intellectuals who are committed to the democratic rights of the people, to fearlessly fighting on behalf of party workers and followers to build an accountable political culture, to greater action-based unity on the part of people, can work to create a situation where the current political leadership rises above corruption and nepotism, and can, or is forced to, work for the welfare of the people.
Jonotar Chokh: How do you assess the role of journalism in Bangladesh in times of emergency?
Nurul Kabir The emergency has had a terrible influence on journalism in Bangladesh. After 1990, one had seen the emergence of positive trends in journalism in Bangladesh. Until January 2007, before the promulgation of emergency, journalism in Bangladesh, despite its flaws and limitations, was the most vibrant in the whole of South Asia. But the state of emergency, and the subsequent oppression — which is of course, a part of emergency — and the virtual surrender of most media institutions, has destroyed the proud identity that we had as journalists. At the beginning of emergency, the government had stated that in the absence of a parliament, it would be the media that would express the hopes and aspirations of the people, that the government would conduct its activities on the basis of public opinion which would find its expression in the media. But, in practice we have found the government using the media to implement its own undemocratic agenda. Of course, it is true that some newspapers and televison channels executed the government’s orders voluntarily, falling over backwards in their attempts to do so, but there were others who were forced to do so, in the face of abusive behaviour and threats from members of the military intelligence agencies. We — who are a very small part of the media in Bangladesh — disregarded the emergency government’s unfair demands and threats. We have tried our level best to maintain standards of professional excellence. In doing so, we have had to risk our lives, our honour. I am sure readers remember that the present government, immediately after coming to power, began a sweeping campaign against politicians, saying that they are all corrupt. But actually, the military intelligence agencies handed-out printed information to newspapers on the financial corruption of politicians, that they would publish the following day. The politicians were then in prison. There was no opportunity to get their version of the story, to find out what they had to say for themselves. But we were expected to print the stuff! We [at New Age] didn’t. Most newspapers did, many did so very eagerly, while others had no option. This period is scandalous, it will forever remain so in the history of journalism in Bangladesh. Not all politicians are free of scandalous dealings, this is absolutely true. But the government’s motive in making them scandalous springs not from a desire to rid the country of corrupt politicians, but from the evil intention of de-politicising the nation. Extending support to such a plan of action is anti-people. Extending support to such an idea is against the practices of democratic journalism, regardless of whether it is initiated by the government, or by non-government forces.
A couple of un-elected persons, vastly removed from the people of this country have been in control of state power for almost the last two years, in the name of correcting its faulty political process. This idea is laughable. Democracy can be developed only by extending the democratic rights of people, by removing hindrances to the exercise of these rights. But the rulers claim to be servicing the democratic process by suspending the fundamental democratic rights of the people! Journalism in Bangladesh should have risen up in revolt against such an unreal and absurd idea, but it didn’t. Therefore, generally-speaking, there is nothing about journalism during emergency times that we can be proud of.
Journalism is also a kind of intellectual practice. The duty of democratic journalism, just like democratic intellectual practice, is to ignore the wrath of the ruling class, and to ceaselessly work for upholding the truth in front of the common people, to organise public opinion against all sorts of un-democratic practices, to prepare the cultural soil for a decisive rise of democratic social and political forces. Journalism too, is a kind of political struggle. Practising journalism for the growth of democracy is not separate from the political struggle for the establishment of a democratic state. These are processes that go hand in hand.
Jonotar Chokh: How do you view the role that the army has played in the politics of Bangladesh since 1/11?
Nurul Kabir `Playing a role in politics’ did not begin on 11th January 2007. On the contrary, the army leadership had a determining role in initiating the political changes of 11th January. But one must bear in mind that the army leadership’s involvement in politics was actively instigated by two things: on the one hand, the crass power struggle between the contending political parties that was shorn of any ideals whatsoever, one that led to a conflictual situation. On the other, the incitement provided by a miniscule, but organised, anti-politics group known as ‘civil society’ (shusheel shomaj), several local agents of multinational corporations who are barriers to the development of national capital, and several foreign embassies, both western and non-western. This self-serving clique of national and foreign forces get greater pleasure when unrepresentative and weak governments are installed, since it becomes easier for them to gain business and trade advantages, to secure their own power and influence. The combination of unrepresentative government and a state of emergency creates a politically authoritative system, in such a state of affairs, people do not have the right to protest against the actions of the state and government through constitutional means. As a result, interested quarters are able to realise their own political and economic plans, to do this, in an absolutely unhindered manner.
This is the unhealthy state of affairs that has existed in our country under the current military-backed caretaker government for the last twenty months. Many factories and industries have closed down during this period, employment opportunities have greatly lessened, the national economy is in a critical state. As I said earlier, Bangladesh has become further embedded in the western-dominated global economic order, the nationalised service sector has moved further away from the common people, the state’s education and health sector has become more antagonistic to public interest, the purchasing power of people has further lessened etc. etc.
Since the army leadership was directly associated with the changes of 11th January, people equate the illegal and anti-people actions taken by the caretaker government — as it was formed under the army’s direct supervision — with the army as a whole, rather simply, in a lineal manner. The army is regarded to be partly responsible for the caretaker government’s visible role in the political sphere, particularly within the political parties; it is regarded to be partly responsible for the never-ending creation of instabilities, for the government’s unlimited failure in solving everyday problems of the common people.
I think that, being a nation state, it was inappropriate for the national armed forces to have attained such an image. It is not beneficial for the country, in other words, it is not beneficial either for our people, nor for our army.
Jonotar Chokh: Barrister Rafiqul Huq recently took initiatives to organise private meetings between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, how do you view this?
Nurul Kabir From what I can tell, Barrister Rafiqul Huq’s initiative of arranging a private meeting between Khaleda Zia (BNP) and Sheikh Hasina (AL) has been welcomed by the common people. Khaleda immediately responded. Hasina too, did not oppose the idea, she said, she would decide after she had discussed the matter with her party members.
It is not possible to say whether this meeting will take place, and if it does, whether it’ll bear any results. That depends on the circumstances in which it occurs, the agenda of the meeting, etc. etc. But what we need to understand and appreciate is why such initiatives receive popular support. First of all, Bangladeshis want to be rid of this state of emergency that is throttling us, right at this moment. And I think, the people understand very well that in order to be free of this state of emergency the two top leaders of the two most influential political parties need to arrive at a minimum consensus against this military-backed caretaker government. Second, once the state of emergency is withdrawn and a political process is re-initiated, people do not want a return to the warring relationship that had existed between the two parties prior to its imposition. The BNP and AL’s crass struggle for political power, one that is shorn of any ideals whatsoever, inflicts miseries on the everyday struggles of common people, it obstructs the conduct of normal economic activities. Therefore, what the people want is that these two leaders, who wield paramount power within their own parties, should, of their own accord, reach an understanding on the basic issue that the lives and means of living of the people of this country will not be hampered in future because of their own struggles for state power.
Besides, people want that the two top leaders should sit and discuss, and mutually agree on the need for effecting a positive transformation in our whole political culture, on issues that were being discussed in Bangladesh society over the last couple of years, such as, the growth of a democratic culture within the political parties, ensuring transparency in the party’s financial dealings, building habits of tolerance among party leaders and followers, orienting the parties towards being effectively accountable to the people etc. etc. and that they should receive a clear assurance about these essential matters.
At the present stage in the history of our political development, no other leader exists who is as popular, as successful, or as influential as Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. Therefore, people have no other recourse but to demand that they behave properly. Hence, I think that there is popular support for Barrister Rafiqul Huq’s initiative. And I think that the leaders should respond towards the love, affection and trust that the people bestow on them.
But the government immediately swooped down on the idea of a consensual meeting taking place between the two leaders. This gave rise to a complex situation. Those who are politically-conscious realise that the military-backed caretaker government, which is far removed from the common people, wants to forcibly extract commitments. I don’t think that people support the idea of a quasi-military system extracting these commitments forcibly. I don’t think that Bangladeshis want to see their leaders humiliated. I think that the common people want to see their leaders make these commitments, of their own free will.
Jonotar Chokh: There are many among the educated sections who blame the political leadership for Bangladesh not having progressed as a nation. What is your opinion?
Nurul Kabir The extent to which a nation, or the people of a country — who belong both to big and small nationalities — can make progress in the world system as a whole, depends to a large extent on the nation’s political leadership, I admit that this is true. If political leadership is progressive, is educated, is democratically-inclined, is committed to the progress of the nation and its people, the people and the country as a whole are bound to make advancements.
But what kind of politics will emerge, the extent to which political leadership will be progressivist and democratically-inclined, the purposiveness and accountability of its actions — these do not depend on political leadership alone. They also depend on the particular political party’s members and its followers, and also on the political consciousness and cultural norms, as a whole.
If the political leadership is truly democratically-inclined, if it really believes in transparency and accountability, if it is committed, then people’s political consciousness and cultural values as a whole, are bound to be more progressive. Further, if the political consciousness of party workers, supporters and common people is democratically-oriented, the political leadership is forced to behave democratically.
And therefore, I do not agree with those among the educated sections who blame only the politicians for Bangladesh’s lack of progress. Among these educated sections are people who have generally gained disrepute over the last two years, who are known as the ‘civil society,’ who have laid the blame on politicians in a most sweeping manner, who have thereby cleared the way for a situation that led to the emergence of this military-backed, undemocratic regime. They have extended the rein of this government, they continue to do so. But it is common knowledge that many of them received favours from the very political leadership, and the political regimes, of which they are now so critical. This is downright monafiqi.
A certain class of educated people look at politics as a homogeneous phenomenon, they fail to grasp the fact that political ideals and programmes can be different, that these can be loyal to different class interests of society.
It was the duty of our educated classes — it still is — to minutely examine and analyse different political ideologies, to present these before the people, so as to assist general party workers and common people understand better the distinctions, to make them politically more aware, to play a role towards constructing a democratic ethos. It is public consciousness against the undemocratic behaviour of the political leadership, its acceptance of an anti-people economic programme, that plays a decisive role in the growth and development of a democratic culture. There is no shortcut route to effecting positive changes in politics.
Jonotar Chokh: The current stream of politics and its leadership has repeatedly failed us in the past. A truly democratic current was much needed, but it failed to emerge. In your opinion, what are the reasons?
Nurul Kabir The two major mainstream political parties, the BNP and the AL, have not at all failed to protect the interests of the class that they represent. Both parties have made tremendous misuse of state power, they have built a huge army of very wealthy people among the ruling class. This wealthy group of people control the major part of our national resources, they hardly-ever abide by the law, their very visible indifference towards the plight of the many crores of poor people, towards their political and economic rights, their rights to education and health, is horrific.
Both the Jatiyatabadi Dal and the Awami League through their contribution to the growth of this inhuman and affluent class have proved that their political and economic ideals and policies when put into practice, are basically neither nationalistic (jatiyatabadi), nor pro-people (awami). If you seek answers to their failures in the fact that they have not served the interests of the majority, you would be making a serious mistake because that is not, and never was, their political programme. They have, very visibly, in front of everyone, churned out economic policies that favour the privileged, they have executed them, they have followed the prescriptions of the World Bank and the IMF which are clearly against the interests of the poor, they have imposed these on our national economy. These policies have led to economic growth, but they have also led to proportionately increased disparities between the rich and the poor. Therefore I am not willing to say that the mainstream political parties have failed to serve the interests of the common people, because that is their politics. One just needs to read their party manifesto a bit attentively to realise that their policies are anti-people, that it is these policies that they implement when they are in power.
It is the failure of those who call themselves progressivists but have not practised progressive politics. They are not doing this, not even now. It is the failure of those who put their signature to mild press statements against the imperialist global capitalist system, but in practise, continuously cling to the coat-tails of a mainstream politics that prevents the furtherance of progressive politics. It is the failure of those intellectuals, artists and writers who prefer to present a progressive public image but do not make use of their intellect and labour to unmask the reactionary character of mainstream politics and economics.
If we are unable to pull Bangladesh out of the path of conventional politics and economics, the future of the majority of the people will slide into a dark, abysmal hole — this is undeniable. But, in order to move forward, towards better futures, we need to build a progressive politics, one which is in tune with the times. In order to take that politics forward we need women and men who are politically united, who are imbued with democratic cultural aspirations. There is no other alternative.
Conventional politics is innately loyal to the existing undemocratic state. It is the act of unmasking the ruling class’ material interests — ones that are intertwined in an unholy alliance with the expansion of the state — that a picture of a truly democratic state will emerge in clearer outlines in front of the people, a state in which women and men, Hindus and Muslims, workers and all other citizens will be able to enjoy equal rights in all spheres of the state. It is the act of analysing the warped capitalist economic programmes and policies followed by the mainstream political parties, that the central principles of a truly nationalist or awami economy will emerge before the people, that will, if applied, ensure equitable rights of all citizens over the nation’s resources, and ensure that the results of economic growth will be equally beneficial for all citizens.
But in order to take these political and economic ideas forward, as I have stressed earlier, we need political organisations. We need a group of people who are intellectually bright, culturally aware, courageous and committed toward democracy, who can initiate the process and can begin to walk toward this road with a firm belief that people are innately capable of enforcing democracy. It is a difficult task. It is a painful task, but if one avoids it, it will be impossible to create positive alternatives to the anti-people politics that are prevalent.
And therefore, I wait for the emergence of a group of men and women who have faith in the people’s innate democratic capacity. Surely, history will not betray us.
Shachitra Shomoy: Nearly all political parties have applied for registration. In this context, the government has claimed that the country has now risen on the highway to elections, that no doubts should exist any longer on whether elections will be held as scheduled, on Dec 18th. What do you think?
Nurul Kabir Whether elections will take place on Dec 18th or not, depends primarily on the government, the Election Commission, and on the army administration. It does not depend on the political parties. Some of the political parties have willingly applied for registration, others have done so unwillingly. This means that they are eager to take part in the elections. But the creation of an environment that is congenial to the holding of elections, taking preparatory steps that are necessary for it to take place, is chiefly the responsibility of the government and the Election Commission. I am afraid that doubts will continue to exist if the government is busy mouthing words instead of carrying out its responsibilities.
For the parliamentary elections to take place, the very first requirement is an electoral constituency based voter list. The electoral schedule cannot be announced without this. But the government and its Election Commission have not yet been able to fix the boundaries of the newly-proposed electoral areas. And therefore, they have not yet been able to take up the task of determining the electoral constituency based voter list. The Attorney General who is the the chief law officer of the state, and who, by the way, is an appointee of this government, has recently said that if court cases over the newly-proposed electoral areas are not quickly resolved, uncertainties are likely to arise over whether elections will be held on Dec 18th or not. If the Attorney General himself has doubts, how can ordinary folks like us not have any?
Secondly, the larger political parties have been saying for quite some time now — as a matter of fact, they have put forward reasonable arguments — that the local elections should not be held so soon after the national elections, after a period of only six days. But the government has ignored this demand of theirs, one that is unitedly held by nearly all political parties.
And most of all, all political parties and people who are intelligent, have repeatedly asked that the emergency should be withdrawn prior to the holding of national elections. But the government has remained committed to holding elections under a state of emergency, it has put forward lame excuses in defense of its wish.
Clearly, in terms of the time frame, the government is lagging behind in taking necessary steps for holding the elections, and in creating a suitable environment. But the fact that it is lagging behind cannot be explained away by saying that it is inefficient, or that it is unqualified. I think what is particularly important is its non-commitment toward holding the elections, and toward democracy.
Shachitra Shomoy: Why do you repeatedly stress the need for lifting the `state of emergency’?
Nurul Kabir I put the greatest stress on lifting the state of emergency because it is the most important issue for democracy; because it is the most important issue for the common people.
Let me explain: the political significance of a state of emergency is that it is disastrous for peoples’ lives. The essence of emergency lies in wresting away all basic democratic rights of the people.
It is true that the constitution makes provisions for the declaration of emergency, either in a particular area, or in the country as a whole. But the kind of disorder that requires a declaration of emergency was not prevalent in the country as a whole, in January 2007. But even if we are to assume — for argument’s sake — that it did exist, that the frightening political conflict that had been created in the capital city could spread to other parts of the country, that the declaration of emergency by the President was necessary to prevent it from spreading, the fact remains that there is no political rationale for its continuation, for it having existed for the last 19 months. Notwithstanding this, the government has usurped the individual’s right to free speech, the freedom of the press, the right of people to conduct meetings and rallies, to bring out processions protesting against the government’s unjust actions, the right to seek justice in a court of law etc. etc. by dint of emergency powers.
The state of emergency has placed a handful of people, unelected people, in the highest seats of government. This group of people, on the one hand, have been invested with extra-ordinary powers, while the rest of the people, on the other hand, have been made powerless. Not only that, the wrath of emergency powers has given birth to a culture of fear, to a culture that is not easy to be rid of, or easy to overcome. Its negative effects are bound to continue for a long time in peoples’ minds, even after it is lifted. As a result of this, people become afraid of thinking independently, of expressing their thoughts uninhibitedly. As a matter of fact, a chasm grows between a person and her or his sense of dignity, it is something that one is unaware of, that happens unconsciously. The state of emergency oppresses people psychologically, and hence, it is important that we become free of this state of oppressiveness at the earliest possible moment. Otherwise, we are bound to fall behind in our struggle to democratise our state and society.
No society is known to have developed politically without people who are free and who, as thinking people, are politically active, in a positive manner.
Shachitra Shomoy: Does that mean you are claiming that democracy was prevalent in our society before the imposition of emergency?
Nurul Kabir No, neither state nor society was democratic prior to emergency. Bangladesh was never democratic. Definitely not during military rule, not during electoral rule either. But what did exist, what has always existed in this country, is the people’s struggle to make state and society democratic. It is a struggle that is both political and cultural. Military rule, or a quasi-military rule under the cover of a state of emergency has in effect throttled that struggle. An elected government at the earliest is imperative because under the rein of an elected government, under a normal rule of law, people are generally less hindered in their struggle for democracy.
Shachitra Shomoy: Political parties have recently introduced some democratic changes to their party constitution. Do you think this will lead to the growth of democratic practices within the party?
Nurul Kabir It is true that political parties have democratised their constitutions. It is also true, to some extent at least, that they have done this because they have been forced to do so. However, there is no credible reason to think that this process will bring into being limitless opportunities for practising democracy in the political parties of the ruling class.
Through introducing these democratic changes, the only thing that the political parties have admitted to, is the fact that although they had spouted democracy at every opportune moment, they were loath to practise it. I agree that their admission has a certain amount of political value. But the enhancement of democratic practices, whether in a political party, or in any institution, does not depend on the inclusion of good words in its constitution. Rather, it depends on the leadership’s frame of mind, whether that is democratically-inclined or not. What is also important is the political consciousness of people close to that party or institution, and the political consciousness of those who are subordinate to it. If the majority of the people adhere to a personality cult, if the accountability of leaders is not important, well then, the growth of a democratic culture is not an easy task.
This is also true for state institutions. For instance, it is explicitly written in the constitution of Bangladesh that a non-partisan caretaker government will conclude the elections within 90 days, that it will take leave after handing over power to elected representatives of the people, and that during the interim period, the caretaker government will not draw up, or modify principles that are fundamental in any manner whatsoever, that they will conduct only the everyday affairs of governing. But look at what happened in practice. A handful of people with the highest educational degrees, copiously spouting the necessity of introducing democratic changes, flouted the constitution for the last 21 months without any misgivings whatsoever. And they did this by thumbing their nose at the democratic rights of all peoples’ of this land, even though sovereignty belongs to the people, even though the highest law of the republic is the expression of the general will of the people.
From this instance it should be clear that what is written on paper, and in books, is not enough to ensure the enhancement of democracy. What is most important is whether a democratic mental framework has developed in society, and in its organisations, regardless of whether these are state-owned, whether these are political parties. On the other hand, to enable the growth of a democratic mentality, both thoughtful and free discussions need to take place on a variety of issues, such as, what is the essence of democracy, what are its forms and variations, social and historical changes in democratic ideas, the social division of labour in a democratic state etc. etc. To create an environment where free discussions can take place, we need to be rid of the shackles of emergency. This is of utmost importance.
I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude. I am Minister of the Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.
I am working with Mr. Phil Gram, lobbyist for UBS, who will be my replacement as Minister of the Treasury in January. As a Senator, you may know him as the leader of the American banking deregulation movement in the 1990s. This transaction is 100% safe. This is a matter of great urgency. We need blank check. We need the funds as quickly as possible. We cannot directly transfer these funds in the names of our close friends because we are constantly under surveillance.
My family lawyer advised me that I should look for a reliable and trustworthy person who will act as a next of kin so the funds can be transferred. Please reply with all of your bank account, IRA and college fund account numbers and those of your children and grandchildren to email@example.com so that we may transfer your commission for this transaction. After I receive that information, I will respond with detailed information about safeguards that will be used to protect the funds.
Yours Faithfully Minister of Treasury Paulson
A snippet from a 1999 Atlantic piece by Harvey Cox on economic theology:
In days of old, seers entered a trance state and then informed anxious seekers what kind of mood the gods were in, and whether this was an auspicious time to begin a journey, get married, or start a war. The prophets of Israel repaired to the desert and then returned to announce whether Yahweh was feeling benevolent or wrathful. Today The Market’s fickle will is clarified by daily reports from Wall Street and other sensory organs of finance. Thus we can learn on a day-to-day basis that The Market is “apprehensive,” “relieved,” “nervous,” or even at times “jubilant.” On the basis of this revelation awed adepts make critical decisions about whether to buy or sell. Like one of the devouring gods of old, The Market – aptly embodied in a bull or a bear – must be fed and kept happy under all circumstances. True, at times its appetite may seem excessive – a $35 billion bailout here, a $50 billion one there – but the alternative to assuaging its hunger is too terrible to contemplate.
Source: Andrew Sullivan’s blog via
by Rahnuma Ahmed
I cannot say when I grew up but I think as you grow older you change in such a way that…it
influences you. Growing older influences you.
— A 22-year-old polytechnic student
Girls from better-off homes are like broiler chicken (farm-er murgi).
— A 19-year-old college student, photographer
How it all began
At times curious, ‘I don’t know which end the baby comes from, please include that in the book.’ At times plaintive, ‘All these grandmotherly types in the village said, if a boy so much as touches you, you’ll become pregnant. I was terrified, I kept shrinking and slinking away for years and years…’ On occasions stroppy, ‘And yes, you must include a section on pills,’ ‘And there must be a discussion on why wives are not to blame if a girl child is born,’ ‘Also, when a wife is pregnant and starts feeling less y’know, but her husband keeps insisting, can you please have a discussion on how long they can do it, without the baby being harmed?’ On others giggly, ‘And yes, tell those boys that not all girls are to be looked at as (future) wives, but as sisters.’
The idea of putting together a resource book for girls and young women on adolescence grew out of listening in to the whispered conversations of the Out of Focus girls when they stayed with us overnight, some of them for weeks, sometimes more than a month or two, to prepare for their coming matriculate exams. It was the name that a young group of boys and girls of low-income families, who Shahidul trained in photography for many years, had chosen for themselves. And then there was Nahar, who grew up piggybacking on Shahidul, whose mother worked as a peon in the office facing our flat. And also, my experience as a university teacher at Jahangirnagar, where women students, sometimes from other departments as well, would seek me out for advice.
The idea took material shape much later when RIB (Research Initiatives Bangladesh) agreed to fund the initiative of writing a resource-book, a book that would include both information which girls had sought but were denied (‘My bhabi said, you will find out when it happens’), or didn’t know who to ask, how to ask (‘I was curious but afraid of asking my elder sister, she’d have thought I was a bad girl’), and also, their own life-experiences of growing-up. Books for adolescent boys and girls, increasingly made available by NGOs, are generally authored in a seamlessly whole adult voice, one that ‘talks down’ to adolescents. Adolescence is viewed as transitional, a stage of life, as a problem requiring solutions, rather than a period marked by ‘specific psychosexual development’ (Walkowitz, 1980). Gender dynamics, processes of thinking and feeling, informal power, and cultural conceptions of the self are ignored. The need for a nuanced appreciation of material realities, of subjective fears, dreams and aspirations is generally absent. Instead, one sees an over-reliance on the need for disseminating medical, scientific knowledge, totally oblivious to more recent feminist critiques that call for the need ‘to reintegrate the whole person from the jigsaw of parts created by modern scientific medicine’ (Koeske, 1983).
The manuscript was co-authored. Rima, Shetu, Shopna, Moly, Brishti and Doly from Out of Focus, and Nahar, were joined by other girls from the social margins, Epy, Khincchin, Nomita, Lokkhi, Pensila, Maria, Runu, Shebika and Anju, a total of sixteen writers who were assisted by three women anthropologists, Shah Afroditi Panna, Rajina Sultana and myself. The work is now in its final stages.
Tales of growing-up: contributing to family incomes
Girls from social and economic margins contribute to family incomes rather than being dependent, as is the norm in middle-class families. Lokkhi, 21, whose father had retired from the lowest rungs of government service, who had a brother who ‘didn’t count, he doesn’t look after us,’ provides for her family’s food expenses by tutoring several schoolchildren, and doing appliqué embroidery on saris. Brishti’s, 19, father died when she was young, her only sibling is an elder sister, a garments factory worker. ‘After my sister got married, I began supporting my mother and myself, I was on ETV’s Mukto Khobor but the neighbours were suspicious, `She must be up to some tricks,’ they said. Both Lokkhi and Pensila studied at the Open University-run schools, in addition to earning incomes.
Pensila came to Dhaka to work as a domestic help, leaving behind her parents and three siblings, a family of marginal farmers in Chapainawabganj. Her father’s sudden death caused her to leave Dhaka, and we lost contact with our youngest co-author, who was only 14. Shebika, 20, and Epy, 17, two Chakma sisters from Khagrachari, had recently come to Dhaka to join their older, married sister who works in a garments factory. Shebika entered factory work, while Epy took charge of running her sister’s household. The family had lost their home, land and livelihood due to military atrocities, and had been forced to flee to refugee camp life in Tripura, India for ten years. They returned to Bangladesh in the mid-1990s, but impoverishment had already set in. Another co-author was Nomita, a petite sixteen-year old, whose father works as a school guard. Unsuccessful in her Matric exams, Nomita was dolefully considering taking them again, as she sewed chumki on shalwar-kameez-orna sets, piecework that contributed a steady trickle to her family income.
Most of our co-authors described childhood as a time when they ran around freely, played with boys, and had not a single care in the world.
Tales of growing-up: attraction, love and desire
I quizzed Pensila. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I would talk with the other girls.’ About? Well, marriage. And? You have to leave your parents. And? Well, the husband… And? I feel shy. Go on, I urged her. You have to sleep beside your husband, she burst out and blushed. Both of us giggled uncontrollably.
Another co-author had said, when I was at home, in the village, I would enjoy it when my boudis (sisters-in-law) would sit and ‘talk dirty’. Rabeya spoke of her own awakenings when she and close friends would sit and pore over a love letter, sent to any one of them, re-reading it for the umpteenth time. Nomita recollected how, soon after her periods began, her cousins’ wives would tease her mercilessly, ‘Now we can marry you off. We will make you jealous. We will keep your husband for a night.’ One of us had asked Lokkhi, what is sexual desire? Do women feel it too? She replied thoughtfully, ‘It is not something that one gives but something that one shares, like say, a husband and his wife, between the two of them.’
Another of our co-authors told us, ‘When my sister doesn’t give in to her husband, and they quarrel, my other sister cautions her, “If you don’t, men are likely to heat up and suffer from a stroke.”’ Dhaka Community Hospital was a partner in the writing project, the medical staff – from doctors to nurses to paramedics – gave generously their time and attention to write answers to a long list of questions drawn up by our co-authors (‘we want to know what the doctors think, what science says,’ was a common refrain of many of our co-authors). We related this incident to Dr Quazi Quamruzzaman, its chairman, and an old friend of mine. We sought his medical opinion. Flabbergasted but quick to regain his composure, Zaman bhai tersely replied, ‘Tell them to bang him on his head.’
Tales of growing-up: parents as sexual
The older co-authors spoke of how mothers often relate to them, their own experiences. Parents have to sacrifice their own needs and desires because the children have grown up, one of them said. ‘We lived in a single room, even that is one thousand to twelve hundred taka rent. Dhaka city is so expensive.’ Another spoke of her family’s circumstances, ‘My sister’s husband died when she was in her early 20s, she returned to live with us. My mother decided, from now on, we will sleep separately. But my father wanted to sleep beside her, he wanted to touch her, to feel her beside him.’
‘We had moved to a new home, a large-ish room,’ related one of them, ‘sixteen hundred taka rent. My elder brother got married, they slept on the newly-partitioned side, while us four siblings slept on the bed. My parents slept on beds made on the floor. There was a daughter-in-law in the house now. My mother became very careful, she wouldn’t let him. But now that my father has passed away, she feels sad. She says, he must have been hurt.’
Rabeya beautifully summed up one of our intense night-long discussions, ‘The problem is not theirs. It is ours. They were unable to tell us that they too, had wanted. And, of course, we never tried to see things from their perspective.’