Tough Girls in a Rough Game: Normalizing public discussion of ‘She things’ in Bangladesh — Nazia Hussein

Guest post by NAZIA HUSSEIN

On 28- 29 May, 2015 the play titled It’s a She Thing was first staged in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Inspired by Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, eleven young Bangladeshi women decided to develop a local adaptation with their own accounts of sexual, aesthetic, psychological and emotional experiences of being a woman. Many of the stories were written by the performers themselves while some were taken from Naripokkho, a nationwide women’s advocacy organization.

As a result, the play narrated stories from a variety of Bangladeshi women, ranging from urban young women’s struggles with their sexuality, ‘eve teasing’, child abuse, the question of appropriate dressing, their identities as feminists; older women’s experiences with domestic abuse; rape during the liberation war of Bangladesh as well as systematic rape of indigenous women in the country today.

The stage is set for the play It's a She Thing
The stage is set for the play It’s a She Thing

This was a timely play, staged a month after the assault of several women including a mother of two at the Bengali New Year Celebration at Dhaka University area by a group of young men on 14 April, 2015. The men tore off women’s clothes, groped them all over, beat up any men who were with the assault victims or trying to protect them. Finally, some student union members active in student politics intervened and put a stop to the disgraceful incident.

In a country where any discussion of sex and sexuality is forbidden and narratives of sexual abuse and assault end up stigmatizing the victims,  Its’ a She Thing represents an important step towards normalizing the discussion of women’s everyday struggles in public discourse. Several reviews of the play and its motivation are available online; I will not elaborate on them. Rather, in this essay,  I focus on two things: first, the play’s conscious or maybe subconscious representation of the change and continuities in the idea of what does it mean to be a woman in Bangladesh today. Second, I want to comment on its attempt to normalize the discussion of issues that women have been struggling with for many years in the country, but which still remain a private discourse. Any public discussion of such experiences of women end up stigmatizing, rather than empowering, them.

I read the performers and the stories of the women they represent as feminist subjects who, despite their subordinated, disciplined and punished embodiment of womanhood are conscious of the gender hierarchy in the country where they hold a secondary position to men. Yet from their subordinated positions they are able to criticize the disciplining of women’s physical and emotional selves. The women represented in the play are a site of political struggle; they cannot be inserted in fixed and binary positions of either victim or savior. Their womanhood is a process which indicates change, continuity and desire to resist fixed forms of identity as a women, and to evoke   transgressive potential in the face of the fiercely policed boundaries of ideal respectable womanhood.

Feminist readings of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1977) construct the female body as a particular target of the disciplinary power of patriarchy. This disciplinary power manifests itself in Bangladeshi society through boundaries of respectable practices that manipulate, train and mark the female body as Bengali bhodromohila or the Respectable Bengali Woman. The Bengali bhodromohila  has historically been the epitome of restraint and domestic virtue within the private sphere of the home. The higher education of the bhodromahila had the purpose of nurturing her into her husband’s ideal companion, rather than those with a strong presence in public sphere.

But there have always been exceptions — the ‘new women’ of every generation who transgressed the strict boundaries of respectable femininity assuming important roles in the public sphere. Examples of such ‘new women’ include Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain who was an active voice is protesting against women’s confinement within the home and the freedom of the country from colonial rule through her writing in the 20th century Bengal (during colonial rule). Post-independence Bangladeshi middle-class women activists took the role of new women working in various organizations such as Nari Pokkho campaigning for women’s rights. However, these historical discourses of women’s positions within Bangladeshi society still remain trapped within the victim-savior binary, where some women remained the victims of patriarchy while educated, elite new women took up the roles of the savior.

I identify an alternative form of new womanhood in the characters represented in the play. These characters are critical of society’s control over women’s physical, aesthetic and emotional being and seek out spaces to condemn existing stereotypes, while identifying continuing pressures to adhere to the boundaries of respectable womanhood. They are not in a quest to save other women; rather they defy their own victimhood through taking a critical stance against the disciplining of their emotional and physical self.

Women onstage: diverse aesthetic choices
Women onstage: diverse aesthetic choices

I start by analyzing some quotes from the play which illuminate the subtle everyday disciplining of young women of Bangladesh into the respectable bhodromohila. These are some of the control or training mechanism over women’s physical, aesthetic and emotional being enacted through single liners by the performers in the play:
• Don’t sit with your legs like that.
• Ai kaila (you, the black one), don’t be out in the sun.
• Don’t leave the house on your own.
• Respectable women don’t ride these grimy public buses!
• Women in our family don’t dance.
• You have to diet. Don’t turn into a dhoopshi(fat)
• Eesh (Ahan..)! Red lipstick. What are you trying to be? A whore?
• Oh! You smoke?
• You don’t cook? How will you feed your husband?
• When are you getting married?
• When are you going to have children?

Acknowledging these control mechanisms over women’s bodies in itself defy their victimhood. The intent of women, notwithstanding the actual actions they take against them, can be analyzed in terms of their roles in exposing and undermining boundaries of respectability. The monologues also identify the disciplining and punishment of women who fail to adhere to these control mechanisms. It breaks the binary of women’s resistance and subordination to a practice of womanhood whereby the very processes that subordinate a woman also becomes the means by which she becomes a self-conscious identity, an agent-  a ‘new woman’. Some examples of subordination and development of self-conscious and political position of new womanhood were brought out in the following stories performed at the play:

• 20 years old, wearing a cotton saree. Walking up the stairs in Art Faculty Building, Dhaka University. He was walking down, just reached out and gave my right breast a squeeze.
• About 37 years old, wearing a saree, walking in New Market with my husband beside me. Felt a hand firmly grab my butt and squeeze.
• I am 59 years old; don’t dye my hair, so clearly look my age. Went to the Kali Puja celebrations in Tanti bazaar and Shankhari Bazaar in old Dhaka, dressed in my usual cotton saree. It was very crowded. Suddenly, this young chap grabbed my left breast as he went past.
And finally the monologues identified mechanisms adopted by these ‘new women’, who took the responsibility to confront unjust disciplining and punishment of their bodies:
• My friend rides on the bus most of the time. She carries safety pins, so whenever there is an unwanted hand on her, she just sticks one right in!
• My mother used to reach Chandni Chawk(a shopping Centre) and buy one of those plastic fly swatters. She used to walk holding that at arm’s length while telling people move away. It was obvious if anyone tried anything, they would get an instant whipping with the swatter!
• Waiting to cross the road. He was riding past on a bicycle, pursed his lips: UUMMMAAAAHH! I turned around, hit him hard across his face. He hit me back! A road full of men stood and watched. I lifted up one arm and kept on hitting, again and again and again! When I got home, I noticed a scratch on my neck. My husband said, “This is why I think there is no point in fighting back”. But hey, it felt AWESOME!
The above examples from the play illuminates how norms of respectability and bodily discipline and punishment for being in the public sphere are lived, reiterated by society and challenged by the new women of Bangladesh today. The play also identified the continuity of some women’s acceptance of bodily discipline and punishment. As one of the performers embodied a young girl complaining to her Nani (grandmother) and mother about a guy pinching her in the bus and her grandmother advises ‘all of us have to go through this…a little bit of abuse is okay, keep quiet ma.’ Another account tells the story of a young girl who still can’t find the courage and support to identify her childhood abuser publicly, in fear of her family’s reputation. A third woman struggles with her lesbian identity being called ‘unholy’ and being compared to animals.

Thus new womanhood is no longer about saving victims  or elite women advocating and campaigning for women’s rights. Today Bangladeshi new womanhood is about being aware or public mechanisms of control and punishment of women’s bodies and emotions and identifying those who are implicit in the project, both men and women. It is about being critical of the social pressures that bind us within the boundaries of respectability, and make us unable to confront certain issues publicly in order to protect our reputation or our family’s reputations. Such awareness in itself makes women’s everyday discrimination and oppression a matter of public discourse. Women’s activists in Bangladesh has been successful in introducing many policy changes against women’s discrimination, but until and unless we start bringing forward more subtle everyday forms of women’s struggles with their womanhood and deconstruct the disciplining and punishment of women who transgress the boundaries of patriarchal notions of respectability, we will be unable to raise public awareness about women’s positions of struggle in society.

It’s a She Thing can be considered a step towards this public awareness. I want to end by acknowledging that the play is a classed venture. With ticket prices being set at Taka 800 (with student discounts), the play being in English only, and the shows taking place in elite organizations in the capital city Dhaka, the majority of the women of Bangladesh cannot see it. However, historically the ideology of the new woman as change agents and the notion of the Bengali bhodromohila were both middle-to-upper class phenomena. In 19th century Britain, Victorian middle-class New Women challenged the separation of private domestic sphere from the public through activism around women’s rights and suffrage.In colonial India, particularly Bengal, new womenness and respectability merged together as middle-class women were expected to use their education to serve the spiritual world of the home (and maintain their respectability), but through their writing, many women, participated actively in the nationalist movement to free India from imperialist power (an expression of new womanhood). But in the literature on the ‘New Woman’, it is widely recognized as a particularly middle-class phenomenon. This brings us back to the victim-savior model. However,  It’s a She Thing seems to have the potential to breakthrough this binary.

Firstly, the play does not represent the stories of poor ‘othered’ women of Bangladesh only. Rather it brings forward an array of women’s experiences including those of middle-class and elite backgrounds whose struggles with womanhood are quite the same as women of other classes. In addition, the play can be read as a performative awareness building movement that can impact entire Bangladeshi society provided it expands its reach. In order to do so the play must consider spreading its wings to wider audiences. It should target schools and colleges all over the country and use Bangla as the language of performance so young boys and girls from every strata of life can learn about women’s everyday struggles in Bangladeshi society today. Only then will more new women come forward to criticize the discipline and punishment of women who transgress the boundaries of respectability, and maybe some new men too?

Nazia Hussein is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics, UK. Her research interests are in the areas of gender, class, culture and religion in South Asia and more specifically Bangladesh.

2 thoughts on “Tough Girls in a Rough Game: Normalizing public discussion of ‘She things’ in Bangladesh — Nazia Hussein

  1. MEENAKSHI PURI

    Women do need to protest against patriarchal norms which are in themselves a form of violence. So kudos to all those involved in the play. Yet from personal experience I can say that organisational support is necessary. It need not be seen as elitist women coming as saviours. ‘Ordinary’ women do not know about finance, laws and what exactly is violence. Emotional and psychological support is also important. Is there any such organisation or women’s collective in Bangladesh? The only one I can think of in India is Jagori which is imparting training.

  2. Thanks for your comment Meenakshi. Yes, there are several women’s organizations and self-help groups which provide both legal and emotional support to women. Naripokkho mentioned in the article and some others like Bangladesh Women’s Foundation are some examples. Some NGOs also have 24/7 call centre services. Some social media support groups and recently a mobile phone app for young women to ask questions about reproductive health etc. But they are all under-used for concerns about loss of respectability. Violence still remains a private matter, not to be discussed with outsiders.

    Most importantly women still lack familial support.

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