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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 13

Are you Women or Just Representing Husbands and Fathers?

Sunday 16 March 2008, by Taslima Nasreen


[(The following piece, written by Taslima Nasreen in the nineties, brings out her views on women’s emancipation. Incidentally she is still at an undisclosed location in or near the Capital and not allowed to meet anyone, that is, in virtual imprisonment.)]

The other day, a foreign gentleman and I were talking about Bangladesh. He was rather bemused by the fact that Bangladesh had a woman prime Minister. “The women of your country are so liberated that you even have a woman Prime Minister!” he said. The gentleman’s exclamation caught me unawares, and set me thinking. Is it because the women of my country are liberated that we have a woman Prime Minister and even a woman Opposition Leader? Does this mean that there exists no difference between men and women in Bangladesh, that there is no disparity between the two sexes?

No, of course not. I explained to the foreign gentleman how both our Prime Minister and Opposition Leader had merely inherited the legacies of their husband and father respectively. It was not merit alone that catapulated them to top political have to positions. Madame Prime Minister, what do you have to say to that? And our venerable Opposition Leader….? Are you too unwilling to admit this? I know you have exploited the legacies of your husbands or fathers to reach the top and to have complete control over our country’s governance; yet there is a part of me that cannot help feeling proud of you. Proud, because you are women. On the other hand, what have you achieved as women leaders? You have merely played around and dabbled with the laws, without actually changing anything. You have been mere witnesses of our country’s disorder, but not agents of change. Our laws are as unfair and as sick as they ever were! I am not talking about constitutional amendment bills, indemnity bills, votes, inflation, etc. My concern is the woman—the Third World’s tired, harassed, jaded, sick, ignorant, blind, deaf, mute woman.

The moment you stepped into politics, you covered your heads. The male politicians, however do not always wear their caps. If Islam commands women to cover the head, it also commands men to wear caps and grow beards. But in this country, the pressure of religious “diktats” is not as strong on men as it is on women. What do you say, Madame Prime Minister? And you, Madame Opposition Leader? I know that neither of you is used to drawing your veil over your head. A woman who has studied in a college and at the university; a woman who has been the wife of a Lieutenant General; surely such a woman is not in the habit of covering her head. You are doing it now because your male colleagues have probably warned you that if you do otherwise, you will not be able to win the confidence of the public. So you now move about demurely, with your head covered, hoping to have the common man on your side. In doing so, you are deceiving nobody but yourselves! Surely you have not forgotten—and it is not something that can be easily forgotten, because we are not just born as women, but are constantly made conscious of our femininity by society—that, as women, our movements are severely restricted. We have embargoes on our right, on our left, on every other direction we desire to take. Can any woman overlook the fact that her upbringing is conditioned by a series of restraints? And have your, as women, never seethed at the numerous constrains put on us by society? You must have. You ought to have. And if you have, do you not, now, as women in power, have any obligation of lift at least a few of these constraints? You now have the reins in your hands, you now have the power. Instead of dancing to the tune of a few male leaders, why don’t you, for once, stand up and counter, head on, the patriarchal set-up that enslaves women? Aren’t you ashamed that while one Kalimuddin or Raisuddin can stand as an autonomous witness in a court of law, the world of one woman is not good enough for the same court? That it considers the evidence of two women as equal to that of one man? In other words, Khaleda and Hasina together are equal to one Abul Kalam!

Acid-throwing today, rape tomorrow, murder the day after—these are but routine occurrences in our country. Also routine is the manner in which the culprits exploit various legal loopholes, and go scot-free. Are these loopholes never to be plugged? Madame Prime Minister, I indeed commend your courage and am proud of you! I exhort my countrymen to pay you their highest respect!

A veritable cavalcade of cars, with their sirens and security trappings announce your arrival. We ordinary women, however, have no security. I entreat your, Madame, to walk down our ordinary streets and footpaths, just once—just once, to experience what it is to have men pawing you, treating you like prostitutes. I extend my appeal to you, too, Madame Opposition Leader. Have you ever walked down our footpaths and seen how countless women sell themselves for ten or twenty takas? Isn’t it like watching yourself being sold for a pittance? Doesn’t it make us feel that a woman is no more valuable than a cheap vegetable? And let me tell you, that no matter how high you rise in politics, you cannot escape this commodification of women.

IF you, as women leaders, do not take the initiative to demolish brothels and rehabilitate prostitutes, who will? Are you women first, or mere representatives of your husbands and fathers? If you have acquired political power solely to avenge the death of your dear ones, that is another matter. But if you have a nobler objective, if you are motivated by causes larger than yourselves, if you think it imperative to put an end to child-marriage and polygamy, bride-killing and kidnapping, rape and trafficking—all the malaise that has sickened our villages and cities—then I firmly believe you will be more effective than our male leaders have ever been, and that is, after all, how it ought to be!

Wealth and landed property are not only important in order to live comfortably, they are also signifiers of status in society. The Muslim inheritance laws are replete with clauses that are glaringly unfair to women. If the wife dies, the husband is entitled to a quarter of her property; if they have no children, he inherits half her property. However, on the death of the husband, a wife is entitled to only one-eighth of his property; and if they have no children, she inherits only a quarter of his property. Why this disparity in the inheritance rights of wives and husbands? This disparity exists even in the case of sons and daughters. The daughter can only inherit half of what the son inherits. Again, on the death of both parents, if the son is an only child, he inherits the wealth and property of both his parents. However, in a similar situation, if the daughter is an only child, she inherits only half of the total property. Can the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader tell us why these discriminations still persist? Isn’t it as imperative to eliminate sex differences as it is to bridge class differences? And if you are unable to do so, why don’t you annex all private property and declare the whole nation as state property? Or may be you will not, because you don’t want to jeopardise your position by taking on the various social, political and religious forces that have so far served admirably as props to your seat of power—the patriarchy, Islam, capitalist imperialism, the pressure of foreign aid, etc. And in this respect, you are your of foreign aid, etc. And in this respect, you are your husband’s true representative—you merely mimic his thoughts, his judgements, his awareness, his edicts, his ideology.

(From Selected Columns; translated from the original Bengali by Debjani Ganguly; reproduced with due acknowledgement from The Indian P.E.N., April-June 1994)

(Mainstream, July 30, 1994)


India was no waste paper that it should have been torn apart.
- I want to rub out the word fortyseven.
- I want to wash out the blackness of fortyseven with soap and water.

The bone of fortyseven is stuck in my throat,
- I don’t want to swallow this bone,
- I want to vomit it out
- I want to recover the undivided soil of my forefathers.

I want Brahmaputra, just as I want Suvarnarekha.
- I want Sitakund Hill, I want Kanchenjungha as well.
- I want Srimangal, I want Jalpaiguri too.
- I want Shalbanvihar, and also Ellora-Ajanta.
- If Curzon Hall belongs to me, so does Fort William.

One who fights in seventyone,
- Wins the battle,
- Drives out the two-nation theory…
- That person can never be vanquished by fortyseven.

Taslima Nasreen

(Published in Desh, March 12, 1994;
translated from the original Bengali by Sumit Chakravartty)

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