Literary representation of Bangladeshi women need to step up their game
The perception of the quintessential brown woman has long since shifted, but only in reality, not by accepted definition. In western film and literature, female brown characters often require a lot of rescuing from the confines of an oppressive home/ culture – always by a white protagonist who is always male and is also with a higher sense of morality compared to his brown counterparts in the story. This white savior troupe in film and literature has been protested all over the world and rightfully so – it is problematic, old and thoroughly overdone. But before we criticize the misrepresentation of brown women in western literature, the butchery of their beliefs and the exaltation of the messianic white character,I want to take a step back first and reflect on how we represent our own women in our own literature.
Bangladeshi literature, beautiful and rich in its own right, still glorifies the heroine from the 80s - that age old concept of the tidy, vulnerable, sari-clad beauty, waiting for Mr. Right within the confines of her father’s home remains vivid in the pages of old and contemporary literature alike. Be it on screen or on a page, women in Bangladeshi literature have almost always been classified in just a few select categories, the most prominent of which are the following two: the docile, sheltered women with downcast-kajol-adorned eyes; or the motorbike-riding, cigarette-smoking odd ball tomboy, clad in western clothes, breaking all kinds of rules and challenging cultural boundaries – activities that are thought of as “unladylike” and are therefore considered the best way to portray rebellion in women.
I like to repeat the words of South Indian novelist, Anita Nair, who said “Literature has always been ambivalent in its representation of women. Good women as in ones who accepted societal norms were rewarded with happily ever after. Even feisty heroines eventually go onto find content and life’s purpose in a good man’s arms.”Now mind you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with conforming to social norms if you find them acceptable or wanting to be held in the arms of a good man, but this repetitive narrative is just as unoriginal and problematic as the misrepresentation of brown women and their societal reality in western literature.
My question is and always has been, is that all that you and I, as women represent? The accommodating “good woman”?The “oppressed heroine” waiting to be saved? The “rebellious outcast”? Where are the everyday Bangladeshi women who display basic human emotions like anger and frustration, aspire to be independent, make difficult moral choices, fail and crumble, overcome challenges, win and lose? Where are the stories of normal Bangladeshi women – be it the meticulous garments worker, a struggling politician, a passionate activist, a successful career-woman, a hardworking housewife or a confused teenager – all diverse individuals going on their different journeys? Why are there only a few set paths that female characters get to choose in our literature? I think I am speaking for all of us here: as women, when we call for representation, we mean eradicating stereotypes that are not true and no longer relatable. Tailoring female characters to uphold repetitive personality traits – 1) either entirely submissive or 2) submissive after a short period of rebellion or 3) rebellious and ultimately a social anomaly is a blatant disregard to the diversity of Bangladeshi women.
What we read and what we write are direct representations of what we believe. It is a truth so commonplace that perhaps we do not even think about it – that women’s stories are often told through the male eye and narrated by the male voice. Our literature and film have often portrayed and perpetuated an exclusively male narrative –male characters oozing with machismo, that fascinate and charm and defy expectations; they are multifaceted and interesting and complex. In comparison, the female characters are almost always one-dimensional, adhering to the traditional roles of either one of the aforementioned personality types.While the male characters are always given free range to become more than they are, they can even stumble and fail,choose to be evil or good,be brave, make mistakes and grow; female characters have been tailored to play and replay the same traditional roles over and over again. The few qualities a “good” female character is allowed can be short-listed as follows: passivity, chastity, altruism, incompetence and dependence. And if she strays from these ideas, she is almost always a villain in the story. This general lack of personhood is very alarming; it strips the female character off her very basic humanness and continues to reinforce the message that girls and women exist as stunted, incapable people while boys and men can choose to become more than they are.
It goes without saying, that at this time and age none of us women really fall into those categories. So why is it that we continue to glorify them in our literature? Is it that hard to understand that women can work hard,chose to be righteous or suffer from moral ambiguity, make important life decisions, choose to grow and have ambitions, stray from tradition and still be a complete human being?In this period of widening gender equality, it is high time we altered the portrayal of women in our literature and gave readers a more accurate perception of the Bangladeshi woman and her attributes. Be it a woman who is complicit or who makes her own rules; ora woman who succumbs to darkness or one who rises above it:let’s try to tell her story as it is, by keeping all her human elements thoroughly intact.
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