When we become silent
In later years, violations of citizens’ and political rights have escalated dramatically in Bangladesh. Media is increasingly under pressure and the authorities fail in the protection of minorities, bloggers, intellectuals and LGBT-people, who are submitted to brutal violence from Islamic extremists. Most of the influential bloggers have left Bangladesh. One of them is the journalist and feminist Supriti Dhar who today is a guest writer in Norrköping.
When I was asked to write about ‘what can a female writer write about and not’, it is first important to recognize that we do not ask the same question of any male counterpart. If we pose the question within the current political context, then we understand that nowadays no one (neither man nor woman) can write as they wish; every kind of censorship exists in a totalitarian society like Bangladesh.
Why am I saying nowadays? It has always existed in our history. No government in Bangladesh has given people much liberty or any real freedom of expression. This pattern is evident if you count how many people there are who have left the country and how many there are who have been killed for voicing their opinion.
Recently our government has enforced a new law that is enough to silence anybody; it completely curtails our freedom of expression. Many of our co-activists are in jail at this moment only because they have criticized the ruling government or the Prime Minister or for having written something that is considered as hurting the ‘religious sentiment.’ But which religion’s sentiments are being protected? It is course the sentiments of Islam. In Bangladesh, only one religion is viewed as being hurt at every moment—as if other religions do not exist, or as if they do not have any religious sentiments that matter or that can get hurt.
According to our constitution, we are a secular country and we should have no state religion, but in fact this is not the case. Bangladesh is very much a Muslim-dominated country. So, those who vandalize other religious symbols and places of worship, who attack practitioners of other religions, grab their land, and rape their girls or women they will never face any punishment. Women are of course not excluded from this larger socio-political context. Before writing about what Bangladeshi women writers can and cannot write about, we have to understand this greater socio-political challenge in Bangladesh. Only then can we realize the real situation of women—especially women writers who want to express their views.
In our present political culture our male counterparts also face similar resistance, but to some extent they are freer from social and/or family obligations, while women are not free from religion, taboos, or cultural barriers.
Shahnaz Munni, one of our young, popular, and famous female writers explained her situation to me:
First of all, female writers are few in number in Bangladesh. Secondly, those who write have to face multiple challenges in society. A man can ignore the pressures of family. Women on the other hand in most cases fail to do so. A woman has to first meet the demands of her family before she can find time for writing. Consequently, women writers start enthusiastically but get tired over time.
Again, female writers have to maintain some rules while writing. In particular, they are not allowed to write about sexuality or anything that goes against the norms of tradition. For example, in one of my novels I once used slang words that are used in the slums, which embarrassed my father. Everyone blamed him for failing to educate me properly. I faced obstacles from my family.
When a female writer writes about extra marital affairs or when she writes about sexuality, society questions her character, which makes her husband and children uneasy. This does not happen to male writers.
Since they continuously deal with these restrictions, women writers automatically censor their expression. They are always forced to think about their family’s position and their reactions to their writing. Again, men don’t have to worry about this.
To be honest, I am not always able to free myself from these restrictions. I have to think about probable reactions before putting my ideas into words.
Yes, this is absolutely true. Our male writers can easily depict a woman’s body or describe sex in their writing, and no one questions him. But when a woman writer does the same, people criticize her and ban her. If she is married and a mother, the burden is worse. So, women decide that it is better to avoid these issues. It is, though, okay to write about nature, travel, love, and social behavior.
At the present moment Bangladesh has become an autocratic religious extremist country. Fundamentalism has taken the politically and culturally rich Bangladesh to the verge of destruction.
Tanbira Talukder, another young writer, who has written for many years, says that we are all talking about the newly enforced Digital Security Act of 2018, which is especially made to silence us. But if we think deeply, this type of law and its impact has always existed in our society, but in other forms. She asked me: “Since we cannot cross the patriarchal line made to restrict women, isn’t this the same law we have been experiencing for years?”
Women are still dependent on their families. When our male free-thinkers, bloggers, and dissidents were threatened and even killed, many male bloggers left the country, but our female bloggers were stuck since they couldn’t leave their families. Obviously, they also stopped writing.
Another writer, Salma Luna, presently in Bangladesh, says thatit has become an obstacle for any gender to express their views and beliefs. And this is a great hurdle for women. Since a woman is always the easier target, her voice can never be elevated to its rightful pitch. Any woman who tries to raise her voice regarding people’s rights, gender issues, political oppression, or her country's miserable state receives death threats and is emotionally and/or sexually harassed in social media.
Political analyst Masuda Bhatti says that writers always experience pressure from within concerning these issues, their authenticity, and their analyses: “In many cases if my analysis did not make some people happy, they would become not only angry but even rather hostile towards me. They would issue verbal and physical threats. For example, I was once severely beaten by religious extremists in London.”
Bhatti continues: “Due to the accessibility of the Internet, I often get death threats or abusive emails, and comments in my email or FB messages. I am used to it. I believe this kind of threat and abuse are the same for any male writer, but as a female I often have to live with verbal sexual abuse in my email or in the comments after my write-up is published. Most of the comments are later erased, but those that are kept are often not only abusive but make one feel horrible.”
I asked her whether, at the present moment when there are so many women writers, she sees any positive change? She replied that obviously it is inspiring that many women writers have started writing nowadays. “I believe we will learn many unknown things through their writings, and at the same time a new and different version of the issues are coming up through women’s hands.”
But let us return to the history. To address the issue of women writers’ freedom today, it is important to draw a picture from our history of women writers. In the 19th century, under British rule, Begum Rokeya had a dream to educate the women of this sub-continent. She addressed the female situation in terms of education and discrimination in society. She was attacked by fundamentalists but continued her work to promote women’s education in her writing. Immediately after her Nurjahan Begum, the first journalist in this sub-content, published a magazine named Begum. This magazine addressed social and political issues, and the magazine had a great impact on urban women’s lives.
In our research we found other women writers who tried to write about women’s careers and constraints, but few of them addressed the social and political issues. Although political suppression has been extreme in the case of womenour political history is nevertheless enriched by these women participants; they were firm in their ideology.
Later we found a few women writers who in their writings fought for freedom at large, the freedom to write, for women’s rights, and also against fundamentalism. As a consequence, they were rejected from mainstream society—were called ‘bad women—and were disrespected by their families. For example, Selina Pervin, a famous poet and journalist, was raped and killed by the army of Pakistan during the Liberation War in 1971.
I recently put the question about women’s current freedom to write on my Facebook status and I received many responses. Some said that whatever a woman writes it always hurts someone: a religion or the social norms, and women are being criticized at home and on social media for their openness.
Religion does not allow women to express what is on their minds. Women think that if they start writing they will be threatened so they self-censor themselves. For them the state, religion, and family are the main barriers. One of the writers and activists Fahmi Ila says: “I want to write about women’s rights and freedom because for me freedom is an ongoing battle, a movement. But I cannot write whatever I think. It goes against religion, even against the state. Men think that I write against them; many women think I have been spoiling their happy lives, but believe me, I write against the system that does not allow me to feel myself as a free woman. With my experience of working with refugee women, I want to share hundreds of stories, but I can’t. I am scared of being killed or kidnapped, and I want to live.”
As a journalist and an activist I dreamt of making a platform for women writers who do not have the space for expressing their views or writings. When the extreme fundamentalist group emerged and demanded that women should be back in the kitchen, I decided to take my plan seriously. It was the extension of a movement through writings: a movement towards a change. As Virgina Woolf once said, in order to write a woman needs a room of her own (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)). Thus, my brain child www.womenchapter.com or Women Chapter started its journey as a room for women writers. Within a year, after a slow but steady start, Women Chapter has drawn the attention of a wider audience—both within and outside the country—as an online portal for women activists carrying the women’s movement forward.
Women Chapter has also started grooming many new writers and future leaders. From housewives to decision-makers women have felt that they can also write and have a voice in society.
Moreover, Women Chapter serves netizen women helping them to overcome their challenges by breaking the prevailing silence concerning all such socio-cultural factors that disadvantage women. In so doing Women Chapter supports women in determining root causes to their problems, analyzing the relationship between those problems in connection to other corresponding socio-cultural factors, and in expressing the issues in a communicative and constructive manner.
Women Chapter considers itself a movement rather than a news portal, and it recognizes the importance of aligning women’s issues with the other issues of marginalization—of all kinds. The ultimate emphasis is on the intellectual empowerment of women as a means of overcoming the prevailing barriers.
Women Chapter is perhaps the best-known women’s rights online platform in Bangladesh, now well-recognized both by those in power and those in mainstream media. It has created a group of some 30-40 writers who regularly contribute to the site and many of these writers are now contributing to other media outlets too. Thus, the movement is multiplying its effect in raising women’s voices against discrimination, religious fundamentalism, and persecution in every sphere of life—demanding justice. It has created a remarkable awareness of the issues of women's rights, the treatment of women in society, discrimination, harassment, persecution, and gender-based deprivations. This has now taken the magnitude of a social movement, and its weight is considered with due respect by the political circles in the country.
Since its inception in 2013 Women Chapter has received two awards. But at the same time, since it has challenged the centuries old patriarchal system, its editor and writers have been threatened by fundamentalists. We are on the battlefield now with no way of turning back, but at the same time we are not ready yet to face all the obstacles, and the situation has recently become more critical.
In the last couple of years, women who are active online or who used to write earlier have become the targets of cyber-crime, bullying, and harassment, which sometimes leads to mental illness or even to suicide. Nowadays the word feminist and feminism have become slang words for abusers. They often use these words to assassinate out writers’ characters. They use every single slang word available for woman; a few women can bear this courageously, others not. However, many families give women an embargo so that they can write about anything except religion or politics, and any subjects other than women’s issues.
We know that we have to fight in order to bring positive change and we should learn to take all these responsibilities on our shoulders. The situation has never been in favor of us, but that does not mean we will give up. We know we will either win or lose, and that we will have to walk a long path before we sleep.