Eight years ago, this week, I wrote about 16-year-old Rozina from Mahimaganj of Gaibandha, who was raped repeatedly, and burnt in her home by the man she addressed as nana (grandfather). Her story is one of the countless number of cases where violence against women happens at home, where one ought to be safe and protected.
She later died of multiple burn injuries at Gaibandha Sadar Hospital. Rozina’s story made it to the news that week, but later become just a number, a case forgotten in the pile of countless incident reports.
Years later, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we are talking about the same issues, the same cases, and stories of real lives that we will never know about. All of these stories represent the many facets of the women’s rights movement and the complexities of the women’s movement that we continue to grapple with and to fight against year after year -- class, religion, culture, norms, power, politics, and more.
The women’s rights movement in Bangladesh has made great strides in several ways, by increasing awareness, by adopting a global perspective on women’s issues, and translating and adapting that perspective into ground level reality.
Historically, violence against women has been a focal point of the feminist movement in Bangladesh. Violent crimes against countless women and girls have fuelled determination and faith in the women’s movement that came into prominence at the beginning of the 20th century.
The movement over the past decades has worked tirelessly towards equal rights in marriage and family (eg the dowry prohibition act, but not in case of guardianship of children), work, and politics.
Despite numerous arguments, there seems to be a disconnect between the voice of the movement, the voice of the people, and the pronouncements of the government of the day.
We seem to always go through push and pull effect where, despite all that has been achieved, it will be null, because of specific, political, anti-women agenda of the day, which is a narrow, regressive agenda. We could talk about countless examples that represent the complexity of women’s rights issues in Bangladesh.
On April 9, 1985, a young woman, Shabmeher was brutally tortured by Rahima (her shardarni) in Tanbazaar in Narayanganj. A section of the women‘s movement filed a suit against the people involved in the brothel (shardarni and land-lady) and they were convicted, but the land-lady was exempted from the case.
Following Shabmeher‘s death, several women’s rights organisations pushed for rescue of under-aged girls from different brothels across the country. The state also began to provide “the prostitutes” an alternative place in Mirpur.
Islamic groups started to mobilise at the same time, demanding eviction of occupants from brothels in the name of Islam.
Their demand was to build madrasas and mosques in their place, which, in reality was a land-grabbing scheme.
The entire process of the Shabmeher case revealed the nature of sexual politics within the women‘s movement in Bangladesh.
It was a chilling representation of one-sided, narrow, and stereotypical perspectives around women’s rights, while ignoring the entire structural context under which Shabmeher had to die.
The blame was placed onto bariwalas and mashis, but it was also necessary to address the whole background and their status as well. These women, apparently powerful, were also equally subjugated and were forced to come into this business.
Moreover, Shabmeher’s case was not just a story of sex workers or brothels only, it was a powerful representation of how such instances are mirrored within our own homes, between husbands and wives, between family members, every day across Bangladesh.
Since the early 80s, the tendency of every government was that of the trigger-happy kind -- just passing laws and getting maximum political leverage with minimum effort on women’s and children’s issues. Each government put out its own record accolades, so women and children, bundled together, became easy targets.
This year marks another colossal loss in the movement’s efforts as parliament softened its landmark law against underage marriage, a move that has slammed down and rolled back the decades-long campaign to prevent child marriage and curtail teenage pregnancy and maternal and infant mortality.
The new provision in the Child Marriage Restraint Act, which dates to 1929, allows girls under the age of 18 to be married off in “some circumstances.” The change is inevitably political, and praised enormously by Islamist groups. This marks again the religious, political, and social battles around women’s rights movement.
We must move beyond the campaigns, rallies, and talks, and show actions
So to what extent has the women’s rights movement been successful, and to what extent have generations contributed to strengthening it? Hand on heart, the unanimous answer is “not much.” As we sit back and watch every milestone roll back, there is a need to reflect on where we have failed, what we need to build on, and how we can collectively bring back the actual movement that is missing now.
The reality of the day is that there is no united women’s movement in Bangladesh.
It just includes pockets of NGO-driven activities, individual feminist organisations, and one-off rallies and protests. There has been a clear lack of feminist discourse in Bangladesh -- one which drives women’s rights issues on structural, political and national dimensions; one that looks at systematic barriers and constraints at all levels and advocates for them through strategic and unified positioning.
Our generation’s feminists need to step up and take forward the many gains and pains that women’s rights activists have paved for us. The strength of our generation has been our idea of plurality, but at the same time, it has presented enormous challenges and complexities.
In many ways, we have continued to “raise awareness” and we have continued to push the debate further, within our own understanding of what “women’s rights” is, and within the complex world of what we can relate to. Due to our own experiences, our work has been more often than not, solely associated with the aspirations, and the opportunities of only a segment.
We have not worked on the depth of women’s liberation movements that challenge cultural patterns of male domination in the family and personal life through strategies that raise the consciousness of women of their own oppression, often within the context of class, religion, culture, and more.
We must move beyond the campaigns, rallies, and talks, and show actions. Our rallies, our campaigns, our one off interventions have not saved Rahima, or Yasmeen, or ourselves. It has not spared or reached anyone.
We must think radical and begin a new era, one that advocates for change in our education system, change in our mindsets, and our will to take the risk to battle.
It is true that the women’s rights movement is not a monolithic entity, rather a sum total of many different understandings and persuasions. But it must move to structural and national issues, and more importantly, it must be reiterated as one voice.
To all those women out there who paved the path for us, and to all those who battle to break the shackles, I sure hope we write a history that we will remember.
Tahmina Shafique works at an international development organisation. She works as an economist working on economic development and women’s empowerment across Asia and Africa. She has also worked as a researcher and writer. She can be reached at [email protected]