Woman Alone

Shabnam Nadiya

The first time I was sexually molested I was about six. I remember the incident precisely; I can even smell the petrol fumes in the air. It was by the filling station at Nilkhet, beside the row of lep-toshok shops, where we used to wait for our Jahangirnagar University bus. Most of the shopkeepers knew us and would even offer us stools to sit on if the wait got too long. I was with my father that particular day. We had just crossed the road from New Market where I'd had a cupcake slathered with purplish-pink frosting from Lite Bakery. The crossing and then the petrol pump were a bit traffic-mad as only Nilkhet can be and my dad had to be careful negotiating them with a child. We had just climbed onto the slightly raised pavement when it happened. It wasn't much of a molestation actually as these things go, just an intrusive hand that forced itself into the crack of my butt over my printed-denim skirt very briefly and was gone. I did not tell my father what had happened.

The second time was years later, on the Jahangirnagar bus. I was with my mother. It was the 8 o'clock trip from Dhaka. It was probably a “community bus”, because there were both students and teachers on the bus and it was very crowded. Usually students weren't allowed on the “teacher buses”. My mother found a seat for me at the end of a three-seater and then went to the back of the bus, certain that as she was a teacher someone would vacate a seat for her. On my right sat a female student. The drivers habitually turned out the lights during the nighttime trips as the light inside bothered their vision, so it was almost dark in the bus. It was very hot, I remember -- the warmth of too many bodies in too small a space. There was hardly room to stand for those unluckies who had no seats -- students naturally. They stood bent over the seats, grabbing onto the seatbacks to maintain balance. At some point I felt a hand on my left breast. A skinny little runt, I hardly had any breasts at 14, but the hand seemed to be satisfied with what it found since it decided to remain.

The trip was usually around 70 minutes. The long, mostly uninhabited stretch of road between Dhaka and Jahangirnagar was the darkest. The hand explored my breast for about half an hour in that darkness, possibly more. It seemed an eternity. Several times I tried twisting away my torso, to shield myself with my shoulder or my back, but that didn't work. My movements made my adult seatmate turn to me with a warm smile, “It's so crowded, are you uncomfortable?” Like a fool, I blurted out, “That guy's touching me.” The swiftness with which she whipped her head away would've made Muhammad Ali proud. I realize now that she herself was barely an adult then, that back then one didn't acknowledge in public that these things happened -- to oneself or to others. For the rest of the trip she didn't turn to look at me once.

I don't remember how I felt at six, but that evening I remember taking a l-o-n-g shower when I got home.

***


Before I read Taslima Nasrin, I read bits and pieces of Beauvoir, Millet, Friedan and Greer. A compilation of excerpts from their work was one among the hundreds of books in our household. The book also included Wollstonecraft, Mill, Woolf. My version of Feminism 101 came from a secondhand bookstore in a cheap, slightly soiled, old-fashioned green paperback. It would be years before I would actually manage to get hold of copies of The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique, Sexual Politics. Added to all this was the deceptively gentle subversion of our own Rokeya. But before I got to those classic tomes, blessedly I discovered Taslima's NirbachitoKolum.

I was a teenager when Nirbachito Kolum first came out in book form. I'd heard of her of course, and even read a few pieces here and there. But to me, back then -- rabidly in love with words -- Taslima was more the radical poet Rudra's ex-wife than a feminist writer. It was the book that exploded her into my life.

As much as I had tried to absorb the Western feminists, the history of the suffragettes, second wave feminism, even Rokeya's words -- their writing was consumed, judged and digested at some intellectual level, connected to but not truly part of what it meant being woman in Jahangirnagar, in Dhaka, on the bus, in rickshaws, in school, at home everyday. But Taslima! Taslima was the real thing, she was the ashol chini for me and countless others of my generation. We might not have agreed with everything she said, but that she said those things at all was, for then, enough.

There were those of us who stood hours waiting at Boi Mela to get a glimpse of her. And not just girls either -- there were the Notre Dame boys who searched out her house to knock on her door on a winter's morning to say, “Apa, we read your book, we wanted to see you, just once.” Boys who admitted that if Taslima had asked they would cheerfully have jumped off a building. We would have done the same.

I wept when I read Taslima describing a young man burning her arm with a cigarette in public. Or when I read, “Women who emerge from the home to set foot in the street; those women -- not only me -- are all prepared to bear silently any obscene remark in the streets.” This was the first time I realized that what had happened to me on that bus and later as well, happened to others, and was NOT MY FAULT. I cannot begin to describe what that meant to a guilt-ridden teen, who lacked the knowledge that sexual harassment or molestation was not an isolated incident, that it happened everywhere everyday, that it could happen to anyone. Twenty years ago -- these were not things discussed in bhodro society.

***

The literary quality of Taslima Nasrin's oeuvre has been discussed and questioned by many. For me, as a reader, Taslima's strength has always been her non-fiction: her topical columns intertwined with her personal experience is what granted her writing such visceral power. Her discussions on religion -- apart from several choice quotes from a number of religious texts -- lacked the depth and reflection necessary to germinate impetus towards interrogation and examination. However, when she writes about the soon-to-be-abandoned young wife made infertile because her husband had her first pregnancy terminated, or the poetry-quoting friend of her youth lost to a bad marriage, or when she speaks of her aunt (one of the countless women raped by the Pakistani soldiers) who committed suicide, for her return from war was a matter of shame and sorrow unlike the triumphant return of Taslima's guerilla uncles -- it is our hearts she holds in the palms of her hands.

These days it seems that a lot of her non-fiction is over-generalized, catering to certain audiences. She remains strangely silent on certain issues that should arouse a writer worth the calling, and then overly and needlessly voluble over others. Some of the choices she has made over the years remain open to question.

I met Taslima last year at a colloquium of women writers, in Delhi. I was disappointed. The self-preoccupation, the endless recounting of the same saga (which most of us knew anyway), the insipid regurgitation of her victimhood was not what I wanted to come back with. Where was the belly-cleansing fire? Where the searing empathy for our bee-stung hearts? I wanted that other Taslima, the Taslima of the Nirbachito Kolum. The one who could make the radical proposal that all men be tested for syphilis prior to marriage, who knew that the “kick of manmade laws” descended on both the women of the slums as on the women “empowered” through education, who called upon women to become “hungry” enough to attack their aggressors, who declared that she had thickened the soles of her shoes because she would have to traverse the long path of this life by herself, who questioned an actor who had committed suicide when her husband divorced her, “Why should this rough terrain assail you so, when the rest of us women are used to this roughness, grow speedy and lively upon it?”

But that Taslima seemed to have disappeared in a confused welter of self-pity, the essence of her words consumed by a careful crafting of columns and essays redolent of repetitious expediency, a simplification of issues that are complex and intertwined. The machinations of a fearful government bent on placating ultraconservative forces in the trash-pile of Bangladeshi politics led to her exile; Taslima's dismissal of what she derisively calls “tactics” isolated her further, not only from the land of her birth, but from the heartland from which her writing emerged. Not for her the full flowering of her intellect, the free flow of thought and ideas that contain the possibility of rebirthing known reality on alien soil. The resulting disconnection from language, culture and community has muted the thunder of Taslima's eloquent rhetoric. I find it tragically ironic that she had once written, “…I am not growing. Sometimes I feel so suffocated within these tiny confines that even if I make the rounds of this city seven times, this city, this country seem as miniscule as a matchbox.” The exiled Taslima traveled to distant and vast metropolises, but what borders were crossed in the landscape of her imagination?

Exile for an artist can be soul-sapping in many ways. To the extent that Taslima's writing seems to be a rollercoaster ride spiraling inwards, it seems that the mollas have, unfortunately, won after all. The sharp blade of her rhetoric has transformed into a blunt weapon of intent; where she had stormed onto our consciousness, the enforced cloister of exile has snapped the thread of continuity with her land and her people.

Taslima opened a lot of doors for the likes of us. It's a pity that she has become a travesty of who she used to be.

***


As I reread Nirbachito Kolum today, I am struck by the datedness of some passages and this, I think, is a good thing for a book of its kind. It indicates that some areas that she wrote about have progressed, moved ahead; that these issues demand a reappraisal in the altered landscape of our social, political and cultural reality.

At the same time it's true that the revolutionary way of looking at ourselves, our bodies, that we learnt from her, the exigencies of the good girl-bad girl divide, is still, I think, as appropriate and needed in today's Bangladesh as it was two decades ago when I was a teenager. Women still chat on shallow shangsharik issues, girls still judge each other, themselves and boys at levels superficial such as clothes, appearance, money -- and men continue to remain boys (too) late into life. But here, perhaps, I over-generalize.

Yet those are the kinds of over-the-top statements which made me both adore and disagree with Taslima Nasrin so strongly. Taslima's writing then and now is not the place to seek sociological analysis, intellectual conceptualization, a true representation of the state of things or the state of womanhood in Bangladesh or South Asia. Her value resides in how jubilantly she flung open doors that had been shuttered by genteel conservatism, by niceness, by ignorance and denial, to clear the way for understanding and discussion of issues that so desperately needed to be addressed.

Yet the question begs to be asked: is that enough anymore? For someone who has gained Taslima's stature, someone who had come to represent a certain face of Bangladesh, she seems curiously oblivious to the nuances or the politics of her situation. Her pop-shot remarks, “Before me, women would write love stories or advice on childcare and cooking.” (interview with Irshad Manji, 2002); “I don't find any difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalists.” (interview with 'Free Enquiry' magazine), her not acknowledging how her warped upbringing in a severely dysfunctional family shaped her as a person, her discounting the efforts of countless men and women within Bangladesh who hid and spirited her out of the country during volatile times, who protested at the mindless injustice of her exile -- none of these attributes serve to heighten our sense of her dependability and veracity either as a writer or as a social reformer. Not to mention the allegations of pandering to certain tastes in the marketing of her books (can one not think of Amar Meyebela being translated/re-titled as Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood: A Memoir of Growing Up Female in a Muslim World by her Western publisher?), a charge which she dismisses offhand.

Are these instances of naiveté or artifice? The banalities with which she faced Karan Thapar in last year's Devil's Advocate interview, especially in her evasion of his succinct questioning of her personal ethics in “compromising third parties” gives one pause. In this interview -- as well as in others -- this woman who is so soft-spoken in person bulldozes her way through discussion and debate through simply stating a monosyllabic positive or negative, or a single sentence that is essentially no more than sloganeering and sticking to it no matter what.

In some respects Taslima seems as uncompromising and rigid as the mollas she opposes. But does this ideological inflexibility come across as strength of purpose? Or as a stubborn refusal to take into consideration a viewpoint that differs even slightly than her own version of truth? Her truth seems to have lost it's Bengali small town beginnings in recent years; despite her claims to the contrary, her truth seems to have acquired a capital T, transforming itself into an inalienable, transfixed Truth.

Taslima's discounting of her writerly lineage, of collectivity in the context of Bangladeshi feminism and -- more hurtful perhaps to women not directly related to either academia or the writing community -- the impassive denial of any experience that belies her own diminishes her. Yes, abusive, transgressive sexual practices are often the lot of girl children, brutalizing fathers/father figures are not rare, nor are women who find aberrant religious practices the only recourse to the crises of life. But are these the only norms of Bangladeshi society? I myself grew up in a fairly liberal family, my mother a professional woman, my father not given to deciding our lives for us. Yet if I extrapolate my own experiences to pronounce on the “normal” lives of all middle-class Bangladeshi families, I do a disservice not only to myself but to others as well. And if my stated aim of writing is to “change society,” I place myself in an even more contentious position.

***


And yet I cannot help but remember. I remember walking through the Boi Mela gate arm in arm with other young girls so would-be molesters got no chance to jostle and molest us at the overcrowded gates. I remember the anger shaking me as I held a college friend weeping as she described how her old chacha had raped her for years and her parents had refused to believe her when she told. I remember marching in rallies at Dhaka University to support the anti-rape movement in Jahangirnagar. I remember walking into Boi Mela, Gausia market, Gulistan with opened up large-size safety pins to stick into male hands daring to come near our breasts, our buttocks. I remember staying up late munching chanachur-makha, trading stories and laughter on how we had and how we could deal with remarks, leers, invasive hands in public and private places.

There were others who helped, other writers, other activists, other women -- women who worked, walked the streets, who cooked, cleaned, and taught us what it meant to be female, what potential that word had. And there was Taslima. Who stormed the barricades of bhodro feminist discourse, with her graphic detailing of abuse, her unflinching depiction of the eternal exile of being an articulate, affirmative woman, who suffered no injustice gladly. Taslima was right when she said “woman has no country” -- this was true for her perhaps even before she was forced into exile; at some level, true for the rest of us as well.

***


This essay is not just about Taslima Nasrin. This essay is about me. This essay is also about Farah, who I am honored to call my friend because she once grabbed and displayed a male hand in a crowded London tube to ask, “Does anyone know who this hand belongs to? Because I just found it on my tit!”; about the tiny but wonderfully feisty Shilpi from Bangladesh-Kuwait Maitree Hall who once took her shoe off and jumped up repeatedly to smack the cheek of the tall old man who had touched her butt on the New Market overbridge; and the young women who organized the “stoning” of a man who would come to stand on the boundary wall at the back of Bangladesh-Kuwait Maitree Hall to flash the residents. This essay is about the beginnings of courage, the glimmerings of hope, of understanding that although for some of us gender is destiny, gender need not be all of destiny.

Books have always been very important to me -- too important some would say. There were books that I read and reread simply for the beauty of what they had to say, for the sheer joy of the words; books that opened my mind and my heart to new ideas, different ways of thinking, to the very process of thinking itself. I felt such admiration for these, that they spawned within me a lifelong ambition to be a writer myself. And there were books that impacted me so deeply as a person that what they aroused within me was simply a sense of abiding personal gratitude.

Nirbachito Kolum set off fireworks at various levels, in spaces both public and intensely private. For me it was a connection between my reading and my everyday lived life -- a bridge spanning the wild waters of tradition, culture and community and the relatively rational shores of a mind that rejected unexamined acceptance of conventionalities. It was from that book that I -- and so many others my age -- first learnt in terms that we could relate to that our bodies and our urges were not things to be ashamed of, that the words we spoke, how we related to the world and the world to us were gendered down to the minutest detail. Taslima Nasrin wrote in Nirbachito Kolum, “I know that my path is not smooth. I have to walk removing stones in the way. Not only me, so does every woman.” Despite our disenchantment, disappointment and dashed hopes, there are those of us who forever hold close to our hearts the moments when Taslima helped us remove some of the stones littering our paths.

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