The fight for ‘The Story of Sharifa’
Last week, the nation was set ablaze by a very angry man and the two pages of a textbook which he ripped apart. What followed were days of confusion, outrage, and heated debates spanning religion, morality, and human rights. All this culminated in the Ministry of Education forming a five-member probe committee on January 24 to look into and potentially amend The Story of Sharifa.
At first, I thought this was perfectly reasonable due diligence by the government in light of the immense controversy surrounding the story. Upon closer inspection, though, I noticed a glaring red flag: all of the members of the probe committee are either education specialists or religious scholars. No sociologist or human rights activist was included. Regrettably, yet unsurprisingly, all of them are also men. More importantly, not one member of any other gender was included, despite the issue at hand most directly impacting a community which is marginalised based on their gender identity.
This is not to imply that the current members of the committee are disingenuous in any way; it is simply a matter of including diverse perspectives while addressing a sensitive, politically charged concern. These five experts have never walked a mile in the shoes of someone belonging to the vulnerable community in question and likely lack a sufficiently nuanced understanding of their suffering. Yet, these are the same men granted the power to decide whether the fundamental human rights of this group are too "radical" for students of Class 7 history and social science.
This lack of representation is endemic to the political processes in Bangladesh. In the vast majority of instances, the decisions affecting the most underprivileged are made in the absence of those very people. As a result, the perspectives of these groups are left behind in the policies that concern their rights and amenities. It is no wonder how it took Bangladesh nearly half a century before legally acknowledging the Hijra community in 2013 and why they still face persecution to this day.
The recent situation escalated when a Supreme Court lawyer named Md Mahmudul Hasan, on January 25, issued a legal notice addressing all educational institutions and bookstores, demanding that they remove The Story of Sharifa from the Class 7 history and social science books along with the book itself within 30 days, threatening legal action otherwise. While media outlets have been busy making headlines of this legal notice, it's important to realise that this is merely a threat at this point—and most likely an empty one, given his track record of ludicrous legal stunts. For instance, Mahmudul infamously attempted to abolish the Mongol Shobhajatra in 2023, claiming the age-old tradition to be "unconstitutional, illegal, and artificially created." While we hope his most recent attempt at grabbing headlines will meet the same demise as his past one, this does emphasise the precarious dilemma the government is faced with at present: either give in to the backlash and bury The Story of Sharifa under an inferno of populist intolerance, or stand its ground for a story that the National Curriculum and Textbook Board itself believed was worth telling.
What also worries me is the potential ramifications of the response to The Story of Sharifa on other causes besides gender diversity. We've already witnessed increasing rates of intolerance against minorities in Bangladesh, from the ransacking of Hindu temples to the violent grabbing of Indigenous land. Therefore, Mahmudul's antics and the conservative backlash only serve to douse gasoline on the raging fires of anti-secularism that have been blazing in Bangladesh for the past many years.
During times like this, it's important to remember who we are as a nation. Bangladesh, since its independence in 1971, has been a constitutionally secular state founded on the promise of religious freedom and the separation of faith from the state. However, secularism isn't just an arbitrary political philosophy in the context of Bangladesh; it's our way of renouncing everything the West Pakistani regime represented. From the eradication of Bangla culture to the stifling of rights and the brutalisation of our people, it's our way of redressing these atrocities and promising never to do the same to ourselves again.
Sadly, it seems we're too quick to forget these blood-soaked lessons of our own past.
So, was this large-scale pushback against The Story of Sharifa a loss for the forces of progress? Or is there a silver lining to all this? The answers right now are "yes" and "yes." Sure, a lot of the coverage and reactions have been aggressive and intolerant. But on the flip side, the controversy surrounding The Story of Sharifa has become a springboard for conversations and discourse where there otherwise would have been indifference. While conversations in and of themselves aren't enough to shift mindsets, they are a much-needed foot through the door. And despite some continuing to accuse the story of "indoctrinating children," there are also many vocalising their support for the cause—something we wouldn't have expected even a few years ago.
The Story of Sharifa controversy has become a litmus test of sorts, bringing sharp relief regarding the progress we've achieved so far but also letting us know how much further there is to go. We might not see change right now, or perhaps even in our lifetimes, but I hope the conversations we've sparked today will soon translate to a tomorrow of inclusivity.
For now, let's focus on ensuring that the future generation grows up learning that all people, regardless of identity and background, are deserving of kindness, respect, and empathy. Let us keep The Story of Sharifa alive as we strive for a future where her story has the right to exist amongst the 170 million others in our nation. And no matter how many angry men and their ripped pages tell us otherwise, that is a cause worth fighting for.
Rezwan Ahmed is a student writing under a pseudonym.
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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