We celebrate all kinds of special Days in today’s time – Children’s Day, Labour Day, International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day. The reason behind commemorating these entities is that our children, the disabled, the workers, our parents don’t receive sufficient respect throughout the rest of the year and that we must mark an occasion to emphasize the importance of these roles in human society. The International Women’s Day is one such occasion. A woman, much like children, disabled individuals, a person belonging to the working class is a vulnerable object. And that, probably, is why civil society has granted a day in the year for compassion towards womenfolk.
I remember, nearly thirty years ago, when I’d demanded the ‘freedom of the uterus’, this particular expression had shaken up the bulwarks of patriarchy to not a slim degree. Thousands of religious fanatics had thronged the streets waiting to tear Taslima apart. Well, at least they weren’t the educated elite. And what were the respectable educated men doing then? Were they singing my praises – no, not! They were sitting in their comfortable apartments with their friends and discussing how best to get rid of me. While the fanatics were deliberating on my beheading out in the open, the genteel men plotted the same in the privacy of their drawing rooms. On the other hand, at every turn, I was expected to justify exactly what I’d meant by the ‘freedom of the uterus’. I would politely explain, whether a woman wishes to have children or not is her decision, at what age to have them and how many, that, too is her choice; whose semen to let enter her and who’s not to, this decision also rests entirely with her. My explanation had incensed many at the time. The elite, the unschooled, the literate, the illiterate, all kinds of men had turned anti-Taslima, for every single one of them believed that a woman’s body,every part of her body, indeed her entire physical existence were owned by men and men only. A woman has no say over the matter of her own body, she doesn’t deserve a say, and if she does hold an opinion, then she must be a ‘whore’. And a ‘whore’ I was called in Bangladesh, although at the time I’d been working as a medical doctor at a Medical College Hospital and was already a reputed writer.
The word ‘whore’ is one that’s hurled at women by all sorts of men in order to frighten her, to make her cower and crawl back into a grotto-like a fragile earthworm. Women who have been deceived by fate, cast off for some reason or another, stricken by poverty, sickness or ill-fortune are gathered by patriarchy and turned into sex slaves for the sexual satisfaction of men. It is such a woman that men call a ‘whore’. As also the woman who has defied all constraints placed upon her by dint of her gender, has refused the trammels of sex-slavery, has gone out and educated herself, made herself independent, not needing or seeking out male validation, ` is possible that many women have consented to the hijab simply to avoid being branded a ‘whore’ or safeguard themselves from getting raped. But can the hijab really protect anyone? Men force women to become whores for their own interests, and men also use the word whore to humiliate women whom they do not like. For many years now, I’ve been telling the women I meet not to kowtow before this abuse, not to be frightened when she’s called a whore, not to relent but continue undaunted on their own paths in life.
Does the story of my life not demonstrate with perfect clarity how terribly misogynistic Bengali society is the way it stands today? Must I spell it out for myself every year that – despite never having killed or violated anyone, looted, cheated or deceived anyone – the crime that got me banished from my own land was writing a novel about the liberation of women in society. I’ve been banished for having the gall to claim that an empowered woman doesn’t pay heed to the barbaric rituals and customs that constrain her, that she has no respect for them. If we belonged in a truly just and equal society, I wouldn’t be living in exile like this. It is only autocratic societies that banish their writers and stifle voices of dissent among its people.
Bangladesh celebrates International Women’s Day with pomp and fanfare. It’s their attempt to convince the world that they are indeed a civilized nation. Possibly also to tell the world that if a woman can be Prime Minister of the country, women here are allowed to inhabit other positions of power as well. So that the rest of the world may believe that women are accorded equal rights as men in the country and allowed to exist freely in the spaces they inhabit, that women are allowed education and healthcare to lead a life as qualitatively rich as a man’s. That a woman may be allowed to hold her own moral, ethical and political beliefs, stand for elections, assume leading roles in a system not rigged against her. Who is to contest these egalitarian claims? After decades of struggle against discrimination, who is to say whether a woman may really have all this without borrowing from the power and privilege of her eminent father, or a well-known husband, or her famed male sibling? Tell us, how many ordinary women have been allowed the privilege to continue her education, have not been married off forcefully by her family to serve as an unpaid maid at husband’s household, have been allowed to make decisions that freely affect her own life? Tell us, how many women in the country can honestly claim to have full sovereignty over the terrains of their own bodies, claim they may choose to or reject the idea of having children of their own? What clothes a woman will wear, which places she travels to, where she spends her money, how far she may be educated, what she will eat, whether she will bear children or not – every single decision forming the trajectory of her life rests with the male members of her family, not with herself! It’s not simply her body that belongs to others, it’s her whole life. A woman is a marionette – she does what she’s ordered to do, she may not defy commands from those above her, and she may never dare display a glitch in her programmed servility! And the woman who wants to go against the grain, be a free person of flesh-and-blood, make her choices, utilize her education to be an autonomous individual in her own right, she is a dangerous element who must immediately be eradicated. Take her life, violate her, shame her, send her away into exile!
The violation and abuse continue. Physical, psychological, in all spheres of a woman’s existence. The act of raping her has little to do with sexuality. It is to establish his dominance over her, to exert his will through brute force, compelling her forced submission to the misogyny that enslaves her through fear. Every year, the International Women’s Day comes and subsequently, passes. Beginning right from the old woman to the young girl, nobody’s lot improves. What use is such a Day then? If misogyny still gets free reign for perpetuating infinite brutality, if patriarchy still thrives with equal strength and force as it did before, what’s the point of having this blasted Day marked as special on our calendars?
So, here is my poem for Women’s Day:
They said—take it easy…
They said—sit down….
Said—bow your head…
Said—keep on cryin’, let the tears roll…
What should you do in response?
You should stand up now
Should stand right up
Hold your back straight
Hold your head high…
You should speak
Speak your mind
Speak it loudly
You should scream so loud that they must run for cover.
They will say—’You are shameless!’
When you hear that, just laugh…
They will say— ‘You have a loose character!’
When you hear that, just laugh louder…
They will say—’You are rotten!’
So just laugh, laugh even louder…
Hearing you laugh, they will shout,
‘You are a whore!’
When they say that,
just put your hands on your hips,
stand firm and say,
‘Yes, yes, I am a whore!’
They will be shocked.
They will stare in disbelief.
They will wait for you to say more, much more…
The men amongst them will turn red and sweat.
The women amongst them will dream to be a whore like you.