As ridiculous as it sounds, the image that is evoked when visualizing a feminist is commonly a woman fitted in a sleeveless blouse – the uniform of a feminist. According to many men who when asked to explain the logic behind the imagery begin faltering with their words or unconvincingly offer, “’they are the kind who love to enjoy more freedom than they are usually offered; maybe it’s a sign of protest?” These clueless suppositions highlight the biased perception the average person has of feminists being a tribe of angry, man-hating, vocal women. This misconception is rooted in a misogynistic idea that feminists are out to snatch away the privileges men tend to enjoy, unfettered.
The stark, unfortunate reality we dwell in considers women inferior to men for one simple reason – the absence of a penis, claimed by a religious clerk to me nonetheless. I bet misogynists have more fundamentalist and extreme reasons to establish women as unequal to men, if not inferior. Sitting in 2021, this is both saddening and maddening.
Being raised by a feminist mother, who woke up at 7 am every morning for work and came back home to care for her family, the challenges facing women at workplaces, and being deprived of care and simple acknowledgement for their contribution in the family is not alien to me. Growing up during a time when the nation attained its ambitious goal of ascending from a low-middle income country to a developing one, I have seen how women’s roles have paved the path towards prosperity. As we approach to celebrate the golden jubilee of our independence, it’s gut-wrenching to wake up to the fact that during the pandemic every day 4 women were raped in 2020. Adding more salt to the wound, we have seen how domestic violence skyrocketed during the same time.
Who is to blame for such monstrosity on the women of the country? One unanimous answer would be patriarchy. “A lot of men think feminism is about man-bashing, manhating social movements but for me, it’s about ensuring equality irrespective of one’s gender or sexual preferences. What we are fighting against is the patriarchy, of which everyone, even men are also a victim of,” states Syeda Samara Mortada, regional movement builder of SheDecides, Asia and a core member of the RageAgainstRape Movement in Bangladesh. For those of you who do not know, SheDecides started working with abortion rights during the Trump era but eventually branched out to work in the field of Sexual and reproductive health rights.
Tasaffy Hossain, a research worker and founder of Bonhishikha, a Dhaka-based non-profit feminist organization also seconds Samara when asked how she would define feminism. When she was young, Tasaffy believed that she had to become a man to avail all the privileges doled out to a boy of her age. She started questioning, getting into arguments and that is when she realized something was not right within the system of which we all are a part. “It is the patriarchy that has infiltrated everything – system, laws, religions – you name it. Therefore, the fight is to crush that power dynamics and enable a woman to enjoy her own abilities; she must understand her own power for both good and bad so that she can choose to make the best use of it. That’s how I would like to define feminism,” Tasaffy says. Both Samara and Tasaffy believe that education provides women with the tool to break free from the shackles of patriarchal norms and thrive as an individual.
For Samara, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex played a huge role in unfurling the world of feminism. It talked about the discrimination women face on a daily basis and she could resonate with that. “See, the questions and arguments we face in our minds about the discrimination starts from an early age even though we don’t know about the terminologies like feminism, toxic masculinity, etc. I think most of the girls ponder over these issues during their lifetime but most of the time they are barred from expressing such thoughts or the push-back (from male counterparts) is so hard that they refrain from such arguments to avail a comfortable existence,” Tasaffy elaborates.
This is why feminists are tagged as rude and angry by so many. Both adjectives have negative connotations attached to them, and sad as it is, only a handful would portray a feminist as a strong woman who wants the basic liberty of being the true version of herself. That is how Swatil Binte Mahmud, a development activist and founder of Facebook-based safe platform Swayong would define feminism. “It’s not just an ideology for women who work or wear fewer clothes. For me, it’s all about breaking the gender norms of the society,” she says. Having survived sexual abuse, Swatil felt strongly against the power imbalance and the inequality that was oppressively prevalent in her surroundings. “I wanted to fight back to make sure that I can be the person I want to be and at the same time to help another girl achieve a similar dream,” Swatil enumerates her early goals as a feminist.
However, just like Samara and Tasaffy she too took to books to learn more about feminism. As she began sharing her knowledge with her peers, she was surprised to find many of her male friends could not relate at all. Eventually, she realised that with the help of storytelling it will be easier to engage men in the dialogue, to see the real picture of privilege they enjoy and the price a woman pays dearly for that same privilege. Swatil’s Swayong, the feminist and LGBTQ-friendly platform that aims at providing a safe space to those who would want to do good to and for others. “One can look at a fact and be touched temporarily. But a story has a lasting impression and that’s what we have tried to achieve through our platform,”Swatil adds. Tasaffy has also used storytelling for reaching out and engaging both women and men to join their bandwagon.
Bonhishiokha’s signature events like Vagina Monologue, It’s a She Thing, Nari Nokkhotro, He Said She Said etc are basically performances based on stories of oppression, domestic violence and misogyny in our society. “The narrative has to be changed, like what we show in the television dramas about consent or the desires of a woman. Media should portray the true picture,” says Samara when asked about how to spread the right message about feminism. Indeed, it is the lack of knowledge, which fuels the stereotypes and eventually ends up causing more damage to the movement, which aims to propel women to have agency upon herself and be regarded as an equal member of society.
Tanzia Amreen Haq, the youngest activist of these fantastic four has more words to support that claim. “I believe that a lot of our actions as a society is dictated by a lack of information. I want people in vulnerable situations and communities to know that they are not alone, that there are those who are willing to hear and help them. When the pandemic started, I was devastated by the dramatic increase in the number of women being abused and not getting justice. Most commentators on social media platforms, instead of judging the perpetrators, asked ‘what did she do to bring this about?’ It is frustrating to me that in 2021 we are still asking these questions,” she laments.
This International Women’s Day, Tanzia has been working with Naripokkho, a membership-based women’s activist organization working for women’s rights and entitlements since 1983. Tanzia, who believes feminism as the right to contribute to the benefit of society using individual ideas and creative ingenuity is thankful to Dr. Shireen Huq for this unique opportunity to collaborate with the organization. “Feminism is simply a woman’s right to be free to choose and be respected for her choices. It is that simple. Judging the movement for respect and choice by the actions of those who demand “special treatment” or “superior treatment” to men is an uninformed notion that needs to be dispelled,” Tanzia states, who is glad that her family did not “see anything different” between her and the big number of male cousins she grew up with.
One of the core issues that popped up while we talked about women’s freedom is the financial independence that women today can have. “When a woman is financially independent on her own merit, it can also mean that she has had more education, she has had enough exposure to people from different walks of life and she has been able to think critically about how her gender has been treated in the past,” says Tanzia.
Tasaffy on the other hand points out the fact that our workplaces are severely lacking in empathy. “Have we managed to create office spaces that show empathy towards workers? Who will take the responsibility?” she asks. To that, Samara adds that there was a time when women were only homemakers. “But now a woman has to do well in her career as well as make sure that the dinner table is perfectly set at night for everyone. This is not getting any better for women, rather getting worse. In the name of having the best of both worlds, we further burden women, shoving her into the tunnel of more oppression.”
That brings me to the question, can’t women have it all? “That totally depends on how you define “all”?” retorts Tasaffy. She goes on to say, “Everything is defined by patriarchy. I believe in partnership, which is open to interpretation. For that interpretation, people have to be open to decide what works best for them! See even when we say partnership, the first thing that comes to mind is marriage. People who make your life and bring love, fulfillment and value in it do not always have to be romantically involved with you. Other people can do it. Do we value those roles in our relationship? For example, in the case of raising children – why do we always assume that grandmothers are the ones who will do that for our kids? Have you discussed the role of the father? Do we compare it with the same amount of care that a mother renders?” She mentions recent news where both parents of a young child denied taking custody after the divorce. “This only made it to the news because the mother refused to take the child because in our society we have seen many women getting abandoned by their husbands but still they raise the kid, whereas this one is not at all ready to embrace it. This is the tendency of the patriarchy that it would shame women irrespective of whether she is happy or sad,” adds Samara. “In Bangladesh, we are happy with so little that it makes me laugh at times. If you ask me how I define all for myself, I would say I just want to wear anything I like and go outside and not be the target of any rapists – that for me would be having it all,” Swatil chuckles.
The young feminist has also been at the forefront of processions organized by RageAgainstRape Movement and is thankful to her feminist parents who wanted her to grow up as a strong, independent woman. All of these feminists agree with the fact that raising children who learn about feminism and its core essence from their childhood become better persons and will remain vocal against any sort of societal oppression or injustice. “If I am a mother, my feminism would be to ensure that children don’t follow the social norms. I have seen my mother literally saying that to me. It becomes better when we intentionally challenge the patriarchy. It shows what we want to achieve and the purpose behind it,” suggests Tasaffy. For Samara providing a safe space to her daughter where she can come and express her thoughts is the right thing to do. “My daughter is very much unlike me. She is into traditional stuff when it comes to dressing up and that at times conflicts with what I believe in. But coming out of my comfort zone, I have to provide that space for her to become a better person.”
Now comes the question: what role can men play in promoting feminism to society? Can they make peace with them or will they continue hate-mongering? “Men in general need to learn how to live with an empowered woman. Not only their girlfriends or wives but also their mothers and sisters,” states Swatil. Both Tasaffy and Samara believe that men because of having access to more power and privilege have a bigger role to play. Men who are already in solidarity with feminism need to invite more men to join the dialogue. “Feminism is contagious and that’s what I have seen while working for Bonhishikha. As soon as men wanted to be a part of the discussion, we asked them to invite more of their peers to come on board and share,” Tasaffy reminisces how storytelling helps the organization achieve its goal.
In a country like Bangladesh where 49.42% of the population is women, the gender disparity is frustratingly evident in the workplace – be it in blue-collar daily-wage jobs or in white-collar corporate jobs. It is present in our job sectors, in our streets, in our homes, in our families, and in our friends. The reluctance of the system to provide equal opportunities is glaringly apparent and most often than not – the status quo remains unchallenged. In addition, in the face of such prevalent inequality, the F-word is here to fight the good fight. As we speak to these indomitable and inspiring feminists, we know that hope alone cannot dispel the darkness of patriarchy. It needs an armada, a fleet and an army of feminists to go into the thick, dismantle this system of oppression, and claim back power, dignity and self-determination in our families, society and the nation at large.