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OP-ED: Where do we go from here?

  • Published at 10:39 pm August 29th, 2021
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How has academia failed women? WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Have we, as a collective, failed the women of this nation?

As an audience at a webinar on Leela Nag (1900-1970) arranged by the Department of English at the University of Dhaka on August 1, 2021, it suddenly occurred to me how pathetically our conversations remain at a theoretical level within the four walls of a convention hall, or these days on quadrangular screen of a device in the online mode. 

Beyond such insularity however, the world continues to revolve at a regular pace with its thousands of injustices. Leela Nag, a woman from Sylhet in East Bengal, was not only the first female student of the English Department of DU, she was also the first female student of the university, and Gandhi’s close associate during the anti-British movement. 

Nag’s contribution to women’s education in the Sylhet region remained unknown till 2019 when a razakar (one who acted against the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971) usurped her property in Bangladesh. One of the speakers at that webinar was drawing on the model of four roles of social activism propounded by the US social change activist William Moyer (1933 –2002). 

A citizen’s role

The speaker’s contention was that Nag attained the status of a renowned social activist through the roles of a citizen, a reformer, a rebel, and a change agent -- the quadruple of prescribed roles an activist needs to play according to Moyer. 

What role a citizen plays is obviously important, and it is always easier to analyze what role an individual plays for the cause of citizenship, rather than the role a state assumes to enable an individual to emerge as a citizen. The de facto role of a state that is de jure sovereign, democratic, secular, and constituted on the principles of equality for all, must be interrogated when a citizen is denied of her or his rights and recognition. 

Preposterous though it might seem as a logic of evading responsibility, Bangladesh was still to be birthed, when Nag left or was forced to leave for Kolkata, where she breathed her last in 1970. Nonetheless, we cannot have our hands cleaned as we never raised our voice against the state perpetrated obliviousness that was forced upon the glorious history of Nag.  

A tragedy or collective failure?

The whole problem concerning the role of the state arises when, with pro-liberation forces in power, someone from the anti-liberation forces occupies Nag’s family home and property. After 50 long years of the country’s independence, a voice is being heard against such confiscation of minority properties in a secular state. 

Should we call it a tragedy? Or should we call it a collective failure? M W Spicer envisages the successful state as carrying “the terms of engagement by which individuals see themselves as joined with each other and with their government in a political association” (in Public Administration and the State: A Postmodern Perspective, p. 14). Where is that impetus to collective effort within our concept of the state? 

My primary concern lies in the female subject as a citizen of the state. About a hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf wrote, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world” (in Three Guineas, 1938). 

Today, a woman cannot philosophically engage in this way when there is a sovereign state with its legislative constituency in which women actively participate. Beginning from the topmost executive of the government, the prime minister, we have women everywhere in our bureaucratic structure. 

It is a matter of consternation that we are looking for alternatives to female upazila nirbahi officers (UNO) in 2021 to accord the Guard of Honour to our valiant freedom fighters after their death. We could not even reinstate the lost honour of our women during the Liberation War. We could not undo the pneumonic slur of birangana, a euphemistic epithet that seemed to Bangabandhu a necessity of the time in order to reinstate violated women within our social structure. 

Can we smugly refuse to accept our failures by saying that, were Bangabandhu allowed to live longer, we would not have seen this day? His untimely fall, needless to say, is a loss we still grapple to come to terms with; that said, wasn’t it also imperative that in half a century of independence, we grow up to have a civil society and a conscience for the nation? 

Examining women’s relationship with academia

A stark and naked failure looms large on the horizon. The idea of a university is integrally connected with the idea of a sovereign state. What role does a public university play in a country like Bangladesh? What did we do for our women’s causes? 

When there was a grand alliance against the “Jatiyo Naree Unnoyon Neeti 2011” (National Women’s Development Policy 2011) that was popularly called the “equal property rights for women,” how did our state act? Or, more importantly for that matter, how did we, in academia, (un)act to integrate the larger society with our knowledge and emergent power? 

Did we not sit in our ivory towers, busy producing theoretical dialectics? A Leela Nag was forced to leave the country to breathe her last and be cremated elsewhere. Why did not thousands of Leela Nags rise from her ashes, so what if she did not breathe her last in golden Bengal? 

As women, why do we still hear in academia: “I will not recruit a woman as a lecturer. She will be on maternity leave soon.” If biological attributes as such become the male prerogative for abusing women, why doesn’t the state impose social responsibilities of family care equally on men? 

Did we ever even so much as think of asking for paternity leave for fathers? We have cogently smiled at our women when they served warm food on our table, looked after our old parents and our children; we have grimaced when the food did not taste good and shouted when the women did not return from jobs early to prepare meals. 

Our public universities never thought of integrating that humanitarian value in the work environment. The higher education quality enhancement programs under which the public universities were to improve the quality of teaching and learning, could have thought of integrating these values of equality within the cognitive, affective, and sensory domains prescribed by Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy. But alas!

What have our women done so far? 

We have submitted to a lifetime lesson of suffering without complaints. We have rarely tried to act professionally. We have developed a culture of giving excuses on family grounds and manured the already fertile ground of blame game that male colleagues try to play everywhere. We could not turn our families into our strengths. And furthermore, we completely ignored our larger family, that is our society. 

Leela Nags are born once in a hundred years, they keep their mark of social activism unsheathed for us to choose what we do with such legacy; but the state, the university and the citizens that constitute a collective ‘we’, have failed to quantify our portion of responsibility towards them. 

Finally, where do we go from here? As P J Steinberger writes in The Idea of the State, social life is usually “deeply informed, shaped, constrained, and underwritten ... by the structure of moral and metaphysical presuppositions in which we operate.” Are we not to integrate these moral and metaphysical suppositions to our seats of higher studies? 

Whose moral and metaphysical suppositions will pervade the society needs to be sorted out, obviously. We must stop accommodating and compromising on moral grounds for the sake of temporary status quo as we did in 2011, because that maims the basic structure of the state and academia in the long run. 

Our women in academia need to understand the call, and settle the issue once and for all through hard work, sincerity, and the touch of professionalism. And well, none of it need detract the smile, whether at the dinner table or in the workplace.

Sabiha Huq teaches English at Khulna University.

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