Bangladesh on Shahbagh Square: Women to remain sloganists only?

, by AKHTER Farida

Moving away from core issues of women’s rights and particularly violence against women is going to have a negative impact on the women’s movement. Although women’s rights should incorporate all national issues but national issues must not set aside women’s question at all. The new generation women’s leadership at this point may not have come from women’s movement only, but the new leadership must remain active in asserting their leadership roles keeping in mind that they have to fight against patriarchy, writes Farida Akhter.

WATCHING the ‘live’ telecast of Shahbagh Ganojagoron Mancha, over the past four weeks or so, on news channels, the first thing one may notice is the shouting of slogans by young women. Presence and performance of these women are impressive indeed. The Shahbagh gathering, projected by the media as a movement, started from February 5 after the international crimes tribunal had sentenced Abdul Quader Molla to life imprisonment earlier in the day. The reaction to the verdict came as a ‘surprise’ to many people without ever following and scrutinising the prosecution and its relation to the verdict. Although the trial of war crimes is a national demand, the ongoing trial is only for crimes against humanity, which includes arson, looting, rape and mass killing. Quader Molla’s verdict was the second by the tribunals. Shahbagh has become a place for protests and expression of dissatisfaction.

Projonmo Chattar (new generation square) is expected to revive the spirit of the 1971 war of liberation. The majority of the protesters were not born in 1971 but they have a feeling for the liberation movement and respect for the martyrs of the war and women who were raped then. Its Ganojagoron Mancha could have been an excellent space to educate the youth to respect law and the principles of human rights in relation to the functioning of democracy and maintaining the delicate balance of society.

Started as a ‘spontaneous’ protest initiated by some blogger and online activists, the space soon became a roaring spot to demand death by hanging for Quader Molla and all other accused war criminals commonly known as razakars under trial. In a frantic slogan demanding ‘fashi chai, fashi chai’, Shahbagh became a surrealistic and paradoxical spot for the youth who would not be satisfied until the accused under trial for crime against humanity were sentenced to death by hanging. Irrespective of the merit of the case and performance of the prosecution, it is demanded that the punishment must be hanging to death, i.e. fashi. It is a unique situation in Bangladesh’s history that the protesters are protected by the police and the Rapid Action Battalion with CCTV camera and Projonmo Chattar is active for 24 hours with participation of men and women.

Women are seen in Shahbagh as ‘sloganists’ and as participants. The media inflated such participation in its reporting. For example, a leading national daily says: ‘Along with men, a large number of women are seen at the forefront of demonstration ... such extraordinary participation of women in a demonstration is first in Bangladesh’ (see the caption of a picture in The Daily Star, February 21). It is true that the Shahbagh event is the first of its kind in Bangladesh. But it is also true that never in Bangladesh have the police protected or has the government ‘permitted’ mass rally for more than four weeks at a place where there are two hospitals and which is a junction connecting many important parts of the city creating unbearable traffic jam for the rest of the city. However, it is too much of an exaggeration that the participation of women is first in demonstration.

Women’s participation in any movement should not be seen only as ‘numbers’, but should be seen in terms of its context. For example, five women in 1952 in the forefront of the procession of hundreds of male students are more significant than five hundred women in any movement in 2013. Prior to the war of liberation, women had been involved in all movements against the Pakistani rulers since 1969. These were all young women in their twenties. Women also turned up in large numbers during the anti-autocracy movement between 1987 and 1990. In 1992 women participated in large numbers in the movement against war criminals led by Jahanara Imam.

So women’s participation and active role in historical movements is nothing new, but has been different in different historical contexts. The nature of participation has been different according to the issues and occasions. The leadership among women emerged from such participation. However, it is also true that many women got lost after these movements because their roles were not properly recognised. Movements led by male leaders are not free from patriarchal domination. Women leadership should be asserted through more active participation in decision making, to be in the forefront as spokespersons and having control over the direction of the movements. It is women’s task to break such patriarchal barriers in order create their own space and constitute their agency. Now, let’s look at Shahbagh where women are chanting slogans: are they asserting their leadership?

Lucky Akter, a student leader of Jagannath University, has become an icon for her continuous chanting of slogans from morning till night. She has drawn attention of the media as she is seen to be able to ‘lead’ a crowd of thousands of people, mostly youths, to demand capital punishment for the war criminals. Her rhythmic slogans are many; the most chanted ones are ‘Ko te Quader Molla, tui razakar, tui razakar’, ‘Ektai dabi, fashi fashi’, ‘tumi ke ami ke, Bangalee Bangalee’, ‘Tomar amar thikana, Padma Meghna Jamuna’, etc. Although I am very much in favour of the demand for trial of war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation, and also seek punishment for the crime committed by individual accused persons, I am absolutely against capital punishment (death sentence). So chanting of such slogans shocks me and poses a dilemma. I know many other people may feel the same about some violent slogans such as ekta ekta shibir dhoro, dhoira dhoira jobai koro (which is about slaughtering of Shibir persons).

Lucky has become an icon in the movement, but is it only because she is chanting slogans? Is she a leader in the movement? It is not clear. Besides Lucky, there are at least 5 or 6 other young women who are regularly chanting slogans: Umme Habiba Benajir of Jahangirnagar University, Tanjida Tuba of Dhaka University, Samia Rahman, a Dhaka University student and Student Federation president, Afsana, a lawyer, and Pritilata, a student of Dhaka University and leader of the Student Front (daily Samakal, February 11). This clearly means that they are not just sloganists; they are rather experienced in organisational matters. They are already in leadership positions in their respective organisations. Nevertheless, their role in the Gonojagoron Mancha is limited to slogans only. There seems to be a distinction between those who are in ‘leadership’ and those who are shouting slogans. It was quite disturbing to see no women in a small group representing Gonojagoron Mancha that went to hand over memorandum to the home minister on February 26, demanding arrest of the Amar Desh editor, although they were there up to Matsya Bhaban in the procession. Women sloganists including Lucky Akter were all there (see the photograph front-paged in New Age on February 27). So far, in all the big rallies on Fridays, they have not been seen as speakers although some of them are on the stage.

Everyone knows slogans alone do not necessarily mean leadership. Leaders shout slogans, too, but usually every movement has selected slogans approved by its leaders and shouted by designated activists. It is needless to mention that slogans are a very powerful way of mobilising a movement. So sloganists have a very important role to play in making a movement successful.

Now the question is whether women in Shahbagh are merely sloganists or they are also part of the collective leadership. One of the main positive character of Shahbagh as projected in the media is that it is leaderless, although eventually it became clear that the Chhatra League is dictating and controlling the movement. On the days of mass rallies held on Fridays, the Ganojagoron Mancha is full of ‘male leaders’ as representatives of student organisations or online bloggers as the initiators and now only one person (male), Dr Imran Sarkar, has become the spokesman. There is hardly any female student leader to speak in the rallies, even though there are many left-wing student fronts where women are in leading positions. It is clear that women are on the mancha only for slogans. They are called ‘slogan kanya’ or ‘agni kanya’ (fiery girl).

We, as part of women’s movement in Bangladesh, believe strongly that the leadership of women can be established if they are given the space. Women were always part of national struggles, starting from anti-colonial movement to language movement to liberation war to anti- autocracy movement, but their role has remained unrecognised in history. The victims of women in the national liberation war is recognised as biranganas, but women as freedom fighters such as Taramon Bibi, Bir Protik, journalist Selina Parvin, poet Meherunnesa and many others remained unrecognised for long. We had to dig the history to find out women freedom fighters from all over the country. The female students of Dhaka University and Eden Girls College played a significant role in the language movement. They were a few but very brave nonetheless, to be in the forefront of the procession that broke Section 144 imposed by the police. With such history of our past movements, we cannot just let the future leadership of women to fade away and hide behind shouting of slogans.

Several incidents happened in Shahbagh indicating suppression of women’s leadership roles. Shahbagh was significant in the beginning because of its non-partisan leadership. They did not allow political leaders to speak in the rallies. Awami League leaders (Sajeda Chowdhury and Mahbubul Alam Hanif) were at the receiving end of water bottle attacks. Afterwards, the Awami League expressed solidarity with the Shahbagh movement in parliament and Tofail Ahmed went there. Lucky opposed to his speaking to the rally. But in return, she was hit in the back of her head. She had to be admitted to BIRDEM hospital. One TV channel showed outraged women protesters demanding action against the perpetrators. But it had to be stopped. Lucky came back to the stage at midnight and said ‘she felt sick because of dehydration, now she was OK, etc.’ She shouted a few slogans in such condition and went back to hospital.

The later part of the story is even worse. Lucky was invited in a TV talk show with Rashed Khan Menon, a left political leader and member of parliament, as another guest. In the talk show, Lucky said she was hit by something hard. It could be an ‘apple’. It happens in such mass gatherings. It was dark so she could not identify who it was. There were Chhatra League leaders on the stage and some were with Tofail Ahmed. But she could not recognise them. She laughed, others laughed too. That was the tragic end of the episode of Lucky’s assertive action to implement the decision of the organisers not to let the political party leaders to politicise the movement. She was denied the role to play as part of the collective leadership. In this case it was the failure of the Left political groups participating in Shahbagh to assert the leadership of women.

There are other issues as well. Shahbagh is shown as a ‘women friendly’ or ‘nari-bandhab’ space. It is true that women of all ages, particularly young women are there in large numbers day and night. But this is not new in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, festivals are always open for all and women participate in large numbers. Ekushey mid-night programmes and early morning programmes have large number of women. Pahela Baishakh and other festivals including musical programmes such as pala-gaan in rural areas, dol utshab and Lalon death anniversary in Kushtia are attended by thousands of women along with men. Perhaps our leaders are not familiar with such occasions. A senior Left political leader said in a TV talk show that Shahbagh is safe for people and for women. Because there has not been any incident of loss of any mobile phone, money bag and nobody put their hands on ‘meyeder gaye’ (body of women). Are women objects like mobile phones or money bags? Is it acceptable that men should be putting their hands on women’s bodies? In the same way another university teacher said no one tried to pull the ‘orna’ (scarf) of women in Shahbagh. What a credit that the progressive men in Shahbagh should get! They did not pull the orna of women or put their hands on women’s bodies. Was it expected there? If it was, then what kind of awakening are we talking about?

The Daily Star on February 21 had a special news report titled ‘Women in Forefront’. The report says young women of today have refused to take a backseat in the country’s renewed struggle to redefine itself. They engaged themselves in the movement as organisers, planners, volunteers, cultural activists, journalists and participants. Out of all these roles the report focuses most on the chanting of slogans and not at all in the delivery of speeches at the stage to be the spokespersons for their respective organisations or as Shahbagh Ganojagoron as a whole. It shows that even the media is not looking for women’s leadership in a defined way, it is only a performance!

The report also says that, in the Shahbag chattar, women found a ‘safe space’ for themselves, staying all night on the street without having to face any problem. I wish this could be true for all over Bangladesh where there is no police protection and protection by fellow colleagues in the movement. Ridma Jahan, a protestor, says: ‘I want to thank the men who have been supportive and respectful towards women at Shahbagh.’ But Ridma has the other side of the story, too. She says, ‘I want to address the handful of men who insult the spirit of Shahbagh by poking and staring at women and I tell them to learn to respect women.’ This means Shahbagh was not entirely free of men ‘poking and staring at women’. Shahbagh cannot change the patriarchal attitude towards women in a few weeks; it is simply a particular situation which also exists in other places where fellow men are respectful to women.

Umme Raihana [1] writes that there were no cases of ‘significant’ sexual assault. She asks: ‘Are there no rapists among those gathered in Shahbagh? Were they afraid of the Agni Kanyas (i.e. the slogan women)? The rapists are not any other species of human being, they are the father, brother, husband and friends of the Agni Kanyas. Then why they are not active’ (translated from Bangla ‘Shahbag 2013: Jolonto Agnir Shohodora’). This is an interesting question posed by a young woman writer.

We know for sure that violence against women becomes an issue only when it is reported. Just before Shahbagh, i.e. before February 5, Bangladesh was seen as a country of rape incidents. Since the incident of gang rape and murder in Delhi, Bangladeshi newspapers were also full of reports on rape, gang rape and murder from all over Bangladesh between December 2012 and January 2013. Among those, one incident was in Manikganj, where a garment worker was raped in a bus. Local and national women’s groups protested and could get the perpetrator arrested. That’s all. After that there was no more news. The attention has shifted to other ‘more important’ issues. Does it mean there are no more rape incidents in the country? Or there is no violence against women in this country? It cannot be true. What is true is that there is no reporting in the media.

Moving away from core issues of women’s rights and particularly violence against women is going to have a negative impact on the women’s movement. Although women’s rights should incorporate all national issues but national issues must not set aside women’s question at all. The new generation women’s leadership at this point may not have come from women’s movement only, but the new leadership must remain active in asserting their leadership roles keeping in mind that they have to fight against patriarchy.

This is what I would like say on the occasion of International Women’s Day. This is a reality we are now facing — the question of women’s leadership.

Farida Akhter