Despite all the ramifications of progressiveness that civilisation has experimented with, the preoccupation with the female members of the population has never been on the wane. Unfortunately this fixation is not about the welfare of women or their emancipation. It is about confining them into little boxes of male comfort. We can claim all we like that we have come a long way. Really? A long way to where? Patriarchy seems to be conspiring with religious fanaticism and consumerist greed creating a world where the woman is defined solely by a male perspective.
If you are a South Asian female you are in the unique position of experiencing sexism from many quarters. Male dominance is enmeshed in tradition, culture and religion. Tribalism, which has always been the breeding ground of chauvinism, is unchallenged in subjective interpretations of religion. When it comes to preaching Islam, clerics show unwarranted alacrity to declare the dos and don'ts of females in society – to denigrate them as lesser, impure beings who must be kept under control and supervision by the male members of society. It is as if the whole legitimacy of religion, even the entire balance of nature, depends on how well the women are kept 'in their place'. Hence the overemphasis on how much they must cover and how far they may step out of their 'zenana'. How much of these restrictions can be attributed to the scriptures is of course questionable, though they can be traced back to the ancient patriarchal systems of most cultures. In fact just by looking at how our Prophet (PBUH) treated his wives gives a clear idea about the respect given to women by Islam which was quite novel at a time when female infanticide and selling of female slaves were part of the culture. The Prophet (PBUH) broke all conventions and stereotypes when he married a financially independent woman, a businesswoman 15 years his senior, and treated her with respect and admiration all throughout their married life. But all this is forgotten by those who want to use religion to subjugate women. Thus tribalism and religion often become interchangeable. And with no one to challenge these dictates of self-proclaimed religious authorities, male dominance and female repression are married and may well be on their way to living happily ever after. So when the patriarch of the family 'forbids' his wife, daughters and daughters-in-law to drive or work or do anything without his permission, he can easily get away with his ludicrous bully tactics by invoking religion, although what he is actually doing is exploiting his position of privilege as a male.
So is it only Muslim sensibilities that reinforce gender stereotypes in South Asian society? Even a cursory viewing of most Indian drama series, which many Bangladeshis watch with religious fervour, shows the gross gender stereotyping of women. The bahus who never take off their designer jewellery or makeup – not even when they sleep, are relegated to household chores and family intrigue – as much as their tiny brains will allow. If there is any spark of intelligence in the woman she is usually a vamp - conniving, deceitful and treacherous. The good woman, generally a naïve little goody-two-shoes who lives in La La land, is constantly misunderstood and can only be saved by the magnanimity of the male protagonists. Funnily, some of these soaps are written by women, which goes to show that when it comes to getting good ratings, a little compromise on feminist ideals is an acceptable sacrifice. Interestingly, you don't see those Indian women who have become prominent leaders in journalism or the corporate world or scientific research as being depicted as characters in these drama serials.
The same goes for Bollywood but of course with greater focus on women's sexuality – the ultimate symbol of modern consumerism. The woman as a product (a phenomenon taken from the West, though more of that later) is as sexy as the word itself. The demand for objectified females has driven filmmakers to do away with the thin line between the attractive and the sleazy. Thus even the pure and innocent heroine may do an item number in threadbare clothes – as is fantasised by her lover boy and the many males in the audience. The fate of heroines in Bangladeshi mainstream cinema is the same or worse than their Bollywood counterparts.
The West is just as completely immersed in consumerism where the woman especially her sexuality is the most saleable product. It makes female pop artists believe that half their talent lies in how explicitly they can exhibit their bodies through crude music videos. It celebrates lyrics that vulgarly highlight the female anatomy. There is nothing liberating about the fact that fashion almost always creates images of women that objectify them even if women themselves completely endorse it. That is how much we have been brainwashed – to showcase ourselves primarily as objects of desire. Hence the shorter the skirt, the deeper the cleavage, the skinnier the jeans to the point of stopping blood circulation, the easier it is to keep women (and girls) in their place, as ornamental creatures craving for male attention. If this is what the so-called modern, enlightened, liberated world has become fixated on why blame only demented religious extremists bent on taking the world to the Dark Ages where women are just sex slaves available for sale to the highest bidder?
And then you have pornography, the toxic byproduct of consumerism that transcends geographical and ideological barriers. So you have an indoctrinated terrorist of a death cult in a war-torn Middle Eastern town and an impressionable pre-pubescent boy in some American backwater watching the same degradation of women through the internet. They may be distant from each other by thousands of miles but a part of their perception of woman is defined by the pornographic images that depict women as objects to be used and abused. The notion of the good woman vs. the fallen one becomes defined by these distorted images. Misogyny, as displayed by many terrorists and sociopaths, could very well be reinforced by these perversions.
Thus religious distortions and the excesses of consumerism are partners in the crime of oppressing women through misinterpretations of religion or creating delusions of liberation through gross objectification. With such forces working against her, can the woman of the 21st century ever find true freedom?
The writer is Deputy Editor, Editorial & Opinion, The Daily Star.