Here’s a story: A woman in her late 40s goes to pick up her divorce papers. Why she requires them now -- tax purposes, changing her name on her passport, setting up her own business -- is not very important.
When she was in her early 20s, she made mistakes. She was in love and ended up marrying a man who she later found out was addicted to Phensidyl. He was unemployed; she was self-employed, scrounging for money.
Sometimes she would sit with knick-knacks and snacks outside Agrani School, where her daughter went, and sell them to the other mothers. Sometimes she acted as the middle woman for richer housewives who couldn’t be bothered to go into the blistering heat of Gausia or Dhaka College to order their excessively expensive kameezes.
Then she endured a decade and a half of physical and emotional abuse, culminating in an eventual last straw that forced her to kick her husband out of her apartment, an apartment she spent years saving up for, and took out a loan for, and paid a significant portion of her monthly income for.
Within the confines of the bureaucratic nightmare that picking up her divorce papers is already slated to be, she is the victim of not-so-subtle instances of abuse. This abuse comes in many forms. Some ask her, even though it is not their business to, what led to her divorce. Some comment, saying how she could have ended up in such a situation.
She walks through the hallways and corridors as a pariah would, like some disease that the body of society instantly rejects.
It should be remembered that her mistakes have rung in her ears for years, from the voices of brothers and sisters, of neighbours here and there, of backhanded vocal putdowns overheard while she waited outside her daughter’s school to pick her up, in between two bus trips to New Market.
Despite all of this, she remains elated, stubborn. She snaps back, humorously, “Apnake eto kotha bolte ke bolse?” -- Who told you to dig your nose so far into my business?
But the government doesn’t quite let her forget that, in spite of how much she has achieved, how many hurdles she has overcome as a single Bengali woman in this land of men.
You want to apply for a passport? They want your husband’s name. National ID? Husband’s name.
You want to go anywhere as a woman that requires some form to be filled in, your husband’s name please. Of course, since her divorce, her father is the man responsible for her continued existence.
Asking for the names of male figures in a woman’s life has to stop. And this problem isn’t gender-specific either. Individuals exist as their own people; the so-called ‘stock’ that they come from shouldn’t be a required piece of information for a person to move ahead in their lives
If not the husband, then of course, logic dictates that she lives with her father for, without a man in her life, how could a single Bengali woman survive?
There are three things wrong with this story: Firstly, the stigma of divorce. Now, yes, I know, that the upper-middle class elite have enough divorces in their midst to have rendered this a more acceptable thing for a woman or man to be. And in spite of the strides we have taken, questions still need to be answered, explanations still need to be given.
But that is a speck of dust compared to the universe of issues that divorce can lead to in other rungs of society. The questions, the judgement, the constant harassment.
Can you rent a place as a single woman with two daughters? No. Can you set up a business without being taken as a joke, unless you have a man who has his arm wrapped around your waist? No. Can you go anywhere without, first, having to prove yourself as a person? No.
Secondly, this asking for the names of male figures in a woman’s life has to stop. And this problem isn’t gender-specific either.
Individuals exist as their own people; the so-called “stock” that they come from shouldn’t be a required piece of information for a person to move ahead in their lives.
There are a plethora of factors that lead to a person to exist not as the way society would generally expect him or her to be: The orphans, the widows and widowers, the black sheep, the abused, the divorced, the forgetters of pasts. Institutions must realise that.
A woman is not an extension of her husband, the same way a man isn’t an extension of his father’s, whose sole purpose in life is to hold on to the family name and carry on his great-great-great grandfather’s legacy.
And finally, what kind of country are we living in that government workers, people who should be working for us, have the audacity to comment in such misogynistic and derogatory rhetoric with such confidence in their impunity?
The least that any person, man or woman, can expect is a modicum of respect from the people whose purpose is to help them as citizens of this country.
But I suppose if you find yourself in such a situation in this country, tough luck. In the end, you’re a woman, and there’s no cure for that.
SN Rasul is a Sub-Editor at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.