Prajnya Gender Talks, December 2021 || Contesting Power and Creating Space: 50 years of the Women’s Movement in Bangladesh by Meghna Guhathakurta

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December 2021

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

About the Speaker

Dr Meghna Guhathakurta taught International Relations at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh from 1984 to 2007. She is currently Executive Director of Research Initiatives, Bangladesh (RIB) a research support organisation based in Dhaka, which specialises in action research with marginalised communities. Dr Guhathakurta graduated from the University of Dhaka and received her PhD from the University of York, the UK in Politics. Her field of specialisation has broadly been international development, gender relations and minority politics. She is well-published on migration trends, partition histories, peace-building in post-conflict societies and minority rights in South Asia. She is also the Associate Editor of the Action Research Journal published by Sage and the Journal of Social Studies published by the Centre for Social Studies in Dhaka.

Setting the Context

The women’s movement in Bangladesh was borne out of legacies of anti-colonial movements and resistance in the British and Pakistani eras as well as the foundational ideologies of liberation and nation-building that accompanied its independence 50 years ago. 

Called the “basket case” or “test case of development” in its early years, it is now on the verge of becoming a “middle-income country.” But what does it have to say about the kind of social transformation that is taking place from a gendered lens? Looking at this trajectory from a feminist perspective, Dr Guhathakurta discusses this journey of contesting power and the creation of feminist spaces in Bangladesh.

Legacies

Dr Guhathakurta begins the session by discussing the legacies that laid the foundation for the women’s movement in Bangladesh. The movement has its origins in the anti-British-colonial resistance much like the rest of the South East Asian countries. Besides this, Dr Guhathakurta traces two strands of legacies: firstly, the anti-colonial resistance movement against terrorism and institution and secondly, feminist writing and scholarship against religious orthodoxy. 

During the Pakistani period, the feminist movement looked at institutionalism from both the welfare as well as the resistance perspective. Two prominent organisations were established. The first was the Mohila Samithi which was a civil disobedience movement where women formed neighbourhood communities for common growth. These were mostly middle-class women who set up embroidery and sewing classes – efforts that may seem tame but were actually mobilisation of work. The second organisation was the Mohila Parishad, which was another front of the communist movement, that dealt with initiatives such as pay hikes for nurses evolving over the years to occupy the frontline of the national women’s movement.

Foundation of the Movement

The Liberation War of Bangladesh in the 1970s began initially as a people’s war and then became a conventional war, where solidarity between India and Bangladesh played a major role. The Mukti Yudh included men, women and various ethnic groups, and was a continuation of the anti-colonial resistance. Women were not just soldiers but also acted as support systems, cooking, and hiding and transporting arms. They were also the most impacted community, with over 200,000 thousand women raped during the war. But it became clear that war was becoming history and not “her-story.” 

Women who had served during the war were extolled as war heroines and given awards, but in reality, they were excluded and discriminated against. It was only in the 1980s that women’s writings about this oppression emerged. They wrote stories of war victims, escapees, widows etc. Many ‘war heroines’ wrote autobiographies, making room for critical voices in Bangladesh’s history.

Following the war, the long and delicate task of nation-building began and unfortunately, Bangladesh became a sort of test case of development for the Europeans. All developmental theories and methodologies were tried out by the World Bank, Scandinavians and others. The development progressed through two lines: the official and the civil society lines. 

The official line included women’s participation – which was a buzzword of the time – because the Bangla had to toe the lines of international requirements regarding the inclusion of women. The civil society included early schools of conscientisation in the form of small NGOs and MFIs which precipitated civic changes without adhering to religious orthodoxy, unlike countries like Pakistan or Malaysia. In the 1980s, when global Islamic discourse took the world by storm, women’s organisations in Bangladesh wondered if they should have factored in religious institutions after all; that said, Bangladesh’s women’s movement still runs on civic rather than religious discourse. 

Status of Women in Bangladesh

Dr Guhathakurta rounds up the talk with a short summary of the status of Bangladesh’s women’s movement. 

The personal never became political in Bangladesh: women may be treated as equals in public spheres, but their domestic lives are a whole other story. Early marriage exists in many parts of rural Bangladesh. Laws have improved with the Violence Against Women Act and the Domestic Violence Act, which even consider mental torture and marital rape. 

However, most of this is still only in theory, and not implemented properly. Women’s organisations have fought for the rights of sex workers with interventions by global organisations such as CARE. 

The country has recognised transgender persons but lots of barriers remain The LGBTQ movement is still criminalised, where the country has recognised transgender persons, but done nothing more to ease their lives. Women’s organisations need to focus more on this type of intersectionality in their agenda.

Women politicians in India: Madam Pompadour’s Chessboard

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The January 18, 2010 issue of Outlook magazine is essentially about workplace sexual harassment, however differently it is packaged.

Sheela Reddy, Madam Pompadour’s Chessboard, Outlookindia.com, January 18, 2010

Everyone knows how Noor Jahan, the twentieth wife of Mughal emperor Jahangir, used her sexual powers to virtually become one of India’s most powerful women. But post feminism, have women developed more scruples and disdain to use their charms to get ahead? Breaking the silence on a subject that’s now considered politically most incorrect, women politicians confess not much has changed in politics since Mughal times. “Everyone has to give something to get into power. Men give money and women usually give their bodies,” says Ramnika Gupta matter-of-factly. In her seventies, Ramnika is a member of the CPI(M), a tribal rights champion, former trade union leader and politician who—to use her own phrase—has “passed through the hands” of several men in her quest for political power.

Ramnika’s “initiation” into politics began with the late K.B. Sahay, when he was chief minister of Bihar. Wanting some government land for a women’s training centre, she approached Sahay at a public meeting. He asked her to meet him at his office at 4 am. Young and handsome, she probably knew what that meant. When the office door closed behind her, Sahay stood up and said, “Here is the chief minister standing before you. Ask for whatever you want.” Ramnika says Sahay embraced and kissed her, but she didn’t mind because he immediately signed the paper she held out for sanctioning the land. “I was also flattered by his attention,” she recalls. “I was thrilled to have a man as powerful as him kissing me; it felt as if some of his power was transferred to me.”

That cuddle won her another reward: Sahay invited her to join the Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee, one of the most powerful posts at that time, which any man seeking political power would vie for. Which is probably why she agreed to visit the state Congress chief, Raju Mishra, in his home to put forward Sahay’s recommendation. This time, she says, she had to pay a higher price. She let him have his way and did not complain. “The only choice for a woman starting in politics is to either quit or accept the fact that she has to sleep with some of them at least,” she says. “You have to compromise until you are in a position to reject them.” What she could do, however, was to try and avoid being anywhere alone with the BPCC chief. For her compliance, he nominated her as Bihar’s representative at the Jaipur AICC meet in 1966.

Some of these “compromises” were not voluntary, Ramnika recounts. Like the time she approached Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, then Union finance minister, about nationalising the Dhanbad mines. He asked her to meet him in the Circuit House after the AICC session and invited her to drive down there with him in the buggy that was provided for the party’s bigwigs. When they got to his suite, the finance minister bolted the door from inside. Taken aback, Ramnika said: “But I haven’t even had lunch yet.” Reddy’s response was to go into his bedroom and reappear before her, stark naked. He overpowered her so she couldn’t escape, Ramnika says. But later she complained to the president of the Congress women’s wing and her friend Yashpal Kapoor, who was then Indira Gandhi’s secretary. But she was told to shut up and put up with it if she wanted to be in politics.

Fed up with what she calls the “creeper culture”—women using sex to get a toehold in politics, or for easing the way for their husbands, fathers and brothers—Ramnika quit the Congress and joined the Socialist Party. “Thanks to Ram Manohar Lohia, the culture in the Socialist Party was very different,” reminisces Ramnika. “You were free to choose who you slept with. Nobody could force a woman to sleep with him if she didn’t want to.” But even so, she says, men you rejected sexually could make your political life a hell. Ramnika did not quite reject Shri Babu, a minister in the Socialist government in Bihar, but she dared to break off with him, leading to a bitter political conflict. She then sought asylum in the arms of the Congress chief minister Kedar Pande, even rejoining the Congress at his urging. “He wasn’t very charismatic, but at least I got protection from sexual assault, and he made me an MLC and later an INTUC leader.”

For Ramnika, who in her heyday could conjure up a hundred truckloads of people for political rallies, her sexual power was a secondary asset, a “friendly power” to be used whenever the going got too tough. But to depend solely on it to build a political career would be unwise, according to her: “If you don’t have power at the roots or pull at the top, it’s pointless just using your body—you’ll lose.”

Former president of the Samata Party, Jaya Jaitly, agrees: “You have to earn your spurs in politics. You are undermining your own potential by relying on your good looks to get you places.” Things have changed quite a bit since the ’60s and ’70s, when Ramnika was trying to negotiate her own space in the political arena, but not that much. “It’s not quite the casting couch system of Bollywood, but yes, most women do need to use their sexual power, however mildly—batting their eyelids, flattery, beautification—to survive in politics. To get into the race, you need money. And women don’t have money.”

As sociologist Shoma Munshi puts it: “Men use money and success as power; women in turn use sex to gain power. How else would she negotiate in the very system which restricts her?” According to Shoma, sex and sexuality can be parlayed into power, but it’s a fleeting advantage and offers diminishing returns in comparison to other advantages.

And then there’s the general disdain to contend with, which is why many women reject anything they get as women so as not to seem as if they are exercising their sexual power. As Jaitly says, everyone needs a mentor in politics but when she chose George Fernandes, she ended up being labelled his “sidekick”. Jaya says she worked hard and sincerely in all the posts thrust upon her, but she was still resented as someone who had enormous influence over George. “In fact, it was the other way around. I admired his grit, integrity and fearlessness, that’s why I chose him as my mentor.” And although George never undermined her as a woman by helping her get into positions she didn’t deserve, others attributed it to their relationship. “It’s the easiest thing to say about a woman. George has male admirers who do more for him than I do—buy him kurtas, banians, get him his favourite fish curry from Calcutta—but if I do the same thing, it’s perceived as something else.”

Similarly, dancer Pratibha Prahlad says her relationship with the late Ramakrishna Hegde was often misinterpreted. “Far from opening doors for me, my relationship with him shut many doors. What I am as a dancer is because of my own abilities and hard work and nothing to do with him.”

As a young woman, Pratibha recalls, her attractiveness caused her endless trouble. As a journalism student in Bangalore, her professor failed her, declaring that “attractive young women like her would use their sexual power to rise to the top in her career”. When she went to Chennai to learn dance, young men started following her. When she had some of them arrested, their defence was: “She dressed in pants, was learning dance, so we thought she was available.” Even the police found it hard to believe that someone who learns dance could be an educated girl who didn’t aspire to be a film extra, says Pratibha. For years after that, she says, she oiled her hair, braided it, wore nylex saris, a bindi and a mangalsutra, in order to escape unwanted male attention. It’s only when she went public about the sexual molestation by her dance guru that Pratibha was able to kill her inner demons. “God made me a woman, so I may as well be comfortable with it—as long as I don’t overtly use it to get something.”

“A woman is rarely condemned for using any of her other assets,whether it’s family background, fancy education or wealth, to her advantage,” points out Shoma. “Yet she is widely condemned if she uses sex. Can a woman not play hard, and play to win, by any rules necessary, like men do?” For Ramnika, the answer is clear: “Either do it without guilt or don’t.”

Our bodies, your politics

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In one week, two stories about the abuse of power and violence against women and both in Kashmir.

The first is the story of the two girls whose bodies were recovered from the river. Traces of semen were found on the girls, although the doctors doing the post-mortem have ruled out murder. 

People out on streets in Shopian, Kashmir Watch, June 4, 2009. 

The second is of a 15 year old who was repeatedly abused by a constable. 

Ishfaq-ul-Hassan, Another rape, murder rocks Kashmir valley, Daily News and Analysis, June 8, 2009.

Indulge me and let me refer you to an article I wrote last year for New Indian Express and posted on this blog.