Women’s contribution to social movements by overcoming prejudices and confronting hurdles from 1971 to the contemporary period; limit of freedom
When discussing social movements, the term “man work” is often used, which is one of our society’s most stereotyped notions. However, during the period of British Colonization in India, the women began uncovering their position as equal individuals to men and many of them participated in movements. The twentieth century has been regarded as a watershed moment for women, with significant advancements in their legal and social position, and perhaps even more importantly, global acknowledgment of women’s right to fair and equal treatment. Since then, women have played an important role in social movements (from nationalistic to women’s rights movement) and have advocated for their rights and emancipation. We know there have been various movements throughout history, both locally and worldwide, in which women have participated by overcoming stereotypes, and crossing social boundaries. They were constantly subjected to before-and-after impacts because of their participation in social movements. Begum Rokeya, Sufia Kamal, Lila Nag, and many more Bengali feminists motivated middle-class Bengali women to join in activism, which was always perceived as a negative/bad activity. Hence, they faced so many challenges for this which have caused them serious damage in the long run. Despite the demands that have been addressed, as well as several triumphs and successful movements, vast disparities between men’s and women’s rights still exist in the discussion of being a part of activism or social movements which are the elements of politics. In this paper, I tried to demonstrate that regardless of whether it was the social movement in 1971 or the contemporary period, there was always a common widespread view among those women’s family, relatives, and peers that being a part of a social movement or doing politics/activism means you will get the imaginary certificate of “A Good Woman.” Based on this stereotypical perspective it triggers more when women belong to middle-class families. This paper claims to portray the core issue of women’s participation in social movements and the before-and-after effects on their lives, particularly in the middle class.
I attempted to contact persons with whom I am personally acquainted, as well as those through Facebook and conducted in-person and online interviews with the majority of them hailing from Dhaka, with two interlocutors hailing from outside the city. This is such a sensitive topic; instead of using internet platforms, such as Google forms, to distribute the poll, I conducted the entire in-depth interview manually.
To begin, I would like to share an anecdote from one of my interlocutors who was a member of the liberation and post-liberation movements, which will help to understand why it’s so crucial to write about women’s participation and challenges in social movements. As I conducted interviews with women of all generations who had faced obstacles in their lives as a result of their engagement in social movements, their stories inspired me to write about women’s participation in social movements. “I was wearing my father’s shirt and covering my head with a large hat to make people think I was a man,” my interlocutor (who took part in the 1971 movement) said when I initially approached her. This comment demonstrates how prejudiced a culture can be when it comes to women’s involvement in social movements. While interviewing my interlocutors of different ages I focused some on common grounds and tried to connect the dots between the liberation post liberation war period and the contemporary period to uncover the hurdles women face when they are involved in social movements, draw similarities and contrasts between the challenges experienced by two generations of women: those who engaged in the liberation and post-liberation war movements, and those who participated in contemporary political movements. Along with that I tried to understand the common social perspective of women who often participate in social movements and finally observed how middle-class women have dealt with problems and overcome adversity throughout history, from generation to generation. As a female ethnographer, I have noticed three common perspectives of our society about women taking part in movements or any activism while interviewing most of my interlocutors.
- If you’re a man, participating in politics or activism is acceptable, but if you’re a woman, the whole image can be quite the opposite. Dressing like a masculine figure ensures that you will not face any social problems as a result of your gender identification.
- When a woman decides to simply participate in the debate of politics and social concerns, she is subjected to many forms of social bias and derogatory language, as we would see in the later part.
- Rape threats are more often than murder threats for women as if being raped is worse than murdering a woman. Participating in movement is considered a felony, and rape threats are delivered as punishment which I have heard from most of the interlocutors.
The first and most pressing issue that a woman faces is that of her family, which, according to one of my interlocutors, has been a huge impediment. Zinnia, 22, expressed concern that if her parents knew of her involvement in any social activity, she would be grounded. She lies down whenever she needs to participate in a movement. Her biggest struggle, she said, is not political upheaval, but rather her family. When she went into a movement, her only thoughts were, “What if I got stuck for so long, what I would say to my parents?” My other interlocutor’s responses were similar to Zinia’s, as they could all connect, even if some of them come from politically engaged families and are still “Mentally Caged.” Samiha, 24, identified three generations as barriers to participating in social movements, whether online or in person. Grandparents, parents, and peers are always pulling her back. Though it may appear odd that her friends discourage her from participating in social movements, she said that she has overheard her friends criticizing her for participating in a protest just to gain social media popularity. Resat, a law student, expressed her father’s anxiety about what might happen if his daughter fell prey to a phony progressive who may abuse her. Because he (a politician) is aware of the evil side of so-called progressive who seems to be something else, he advises her not to get engaged in such activities. When it comes to politics, women are frequently told, “What you (read female) know(s) about politics.” The scenario is very common in the Bangladeshi context, especially when fathers, uncles, and other male relatives talk about national and international politics while female relatives gossip about other things (mostly about home, beautification, and other things)- this scenario struck one of my interlocutors as to why she always sees her mother and father as being on opposite poles. Talking about politics or participating in activism or social movements, according to her, has been designated as a work or a topic to debate by Male. When I asked my interlocutors what inspired them to join a movement, they gave me a variety of responses: Zinia said she joined because she had an internal sense of rebellion, Samiha said she joined because she had an internal sense of rage, and Resat said she believed the dominant knew she couldn’t do anything, but joining a movement could give her the courage to fight back.
Joining a movement has much more terrible consequences. When a woman becomes engaged in politics and is immediately labeled as a “bad woman,” she frequently hears terms like “whore” thrown her way. In our nation, there is a tendency to blame women or a notion that girls and women who are politically involved do not come from a “good” background or are “characterless.” Though I’m still not sure what the phrase “characterless” means or how a woman can be characterless.
My two interlocutors who took part in the liberation and post-liberation war movements are Anowara Begum and Ayesha Siddiqa. I received similar responses from each on the societal viewpoint (read prejudice) they faced at the time. One of their marriages was called off after it was discovered that she was active in politics, while the other kept it a secret that she was a part of a movement because she would never be accepted by her family if anybody knew. Outside threats were made against both of them for participating in a movement. Anowara claimed she was threatened with being raped and stripped naked in front of the Bazar if she did not cease engaging in protests. The threats still exist in our society today. All of my interlocutors accused patriarchy of this social behavior which is violent towards women.
In this regard, Seuty Sabur, an anthropology professor at BRAC University argued that why are patriarchal societies usually more violent than matrilineal societies. To answer this question, she has reasoned that they are defined by fights over few resources, and capitalist societies are no exception, but we essentialize patriarchy and gender stereotypes as if they are eternal truths. According to her, it is treated as a social DNA which cannot be changed but the fact of the matter is it is ever changing. Additionally, we learn how to be gender “normal” by picking up gender cues from our relatives, classmates, and institutions (Sabur, 2021) We talked about the violence that women face when they join a movement because there is a mindset instilled in every young boy and girl from the beginning that if you are a boy, you must act as strong as possible, and if you are a girl, you must maintain and avoid risks, but we never tell them the actual problematic aspects that professor Seuty discussed, that we train our sons to be predators on the hunt, and we send our daughters out as vulnerable to fight on an unevidenced battlefield. As a result, it’s no wonder that we always point the finger at the victim. I could relate this from one of my interlocutor’s statements that it is always easy to target a woman, no matter how politically strong a woman is, she has to face the consequences for being active in politics. I was able to connect this to one of my interlocutors’ assertions that it is always simple to target a woman, and that no matter how powerful a woman is political, she must face the repercussions of her involvement in politics.
In the same way, Feminists in Bangladesh are sometimes misconstrued as anti-religious organizations, and they encounter several challenges. Women’s movements must address issues like violence, female subordination, and religious limitations on women, and cultural practices that place women in a position of subordination, according to Firdaus Azim, a lecturer at Dhaka University. He went on to say that women’s accounts of dowry murder, acid-throwing, and women being stoned to death appear to corroborate the Western depiction of eastern or ‘Islamic’ cultures as primitive and vicious. In their communities, feminists are labeled as Western, as well as complicit in Western stereotypes of women from ‘Islamic’ and ‘third-world’ countries. (Azim, 2005). Whether it was 1971 or now, when society says that women have equal rights, societal discrimination was always there. The socio-political components, on the other hand, reveal other scenarios in which women are still bound by preconceptions and biases. The majority of my interlocutors believed that participating in social movements had always had effects. Peers began to distance themselves when they were involved in politics and social movements. The first concern of parents and relatives is “who would marry you,” as though marriage were a woman’s sole aim or destination in life. As we saw during the quota reform campaign, female protestors were severely harassed by both the political party and the police. She described how she was kidnapped and taken to a police station by members of a political party. Surprisingly, she was sexually abused and threatened in the police station. (Emran, n.d.). According to one of my respondents, whenever a social movement arises, her male comrades usually want to protect her, for this she feels that she is the one who is sympathized with and needs protection then why she is here if she needs protection from others. She discusses the patriarchal framework that led her male comrade to protect her, even amid a social movement. But why does a woman constantly need protection, and have you ever wondered who is protecting whom? Is it the Men or the patriarchal society that is to blame?
According to Shohela Naznin, Organizing and campaigning for women’s rights has also faced several hurdles in the recent decade. The women’s movement is coping with the challenges of transitioning into a period in which the forms and methods of organization and mobilization have radically changed from prior decades (Nazneen, n.d.,). From the 1971 period till now women are protesting for their rights. However, the scenario got slightly better but when it is about middle-class women then the scenario is still as before. Middle-class women always face challenges in every sphere of their lives. From the decision to marry to participate in a movement, they go through many hurdles. At the same time, they are confronted with difficulties from the outside world as well as with social media. During my interviews with them, the only contrast I could make was that women who engaged in liberation and post-liberation war movements faced fewer threats in the present day. With the advent of social media, it has become simpler to deliver threats in the blink of an eye. You can see how tough it is to participate in social movements by looking at the Facebook inboxes of women who are involved in politics. There are hundreds of threats, most of which end with a woman being raped. Raping a woman may damage her honor, according to patriarchal culture, which is a very problematic feature that regrettably exists in our society.
To sum up, I would like to highlight how amazing my interlocutors were in overcoming such obstacles and continuing to participate in social movements. When a woman is outspoken, society always has a bad opinion of her. It was interesting that none of my interlocutors stopped moving after being tormented psychologically and physically, as some of them express that they feel like a free spirit fighting for change no matter how small it is. They can sense a rebellion in her that was not she ever sensed before joining a movement. They faced barriers from men and women as well which relied upon their upbringing. According to professor Seuty, we must place the burden of proof on men (and patriarchal women) and make them see and feel embarrassed of what they are becoming, how they are on the verge of becoming monsters, with the state serving as a breeding ground for such monsters (Sabur, 2021). Thus, by overcoming social prejudices, learned about social issues, inequalities and the language to protest and has come forward so far and there is no going back.
Azim, F. (2005). Feminist Struggles in Bangladesh. Palgrave Macmillan Journals, pp. 194-197.
Emran, A. Z. (n.d.). কোটাসংস্কারআন্দোলনেরএকছাত্রীকেথানায়নিয়েযৌননির্যাতন !https://www.facebook.com/emran.korea/posts/985382061630405
Nazneen, S. (n.d.). The Women’s Movement in Bangladesh A Short History and Current Debates. Country Study. file:///F:/ANT375/READINGS%20FOR%20THESIS/Shohela%20Nazneen.pdf
Sabur, S. (2021, November 27). Shifting the onus: Unshackle gender from violence. The Daily Star. https://www.thedailystar.net/views/opinion/news/shifting-the-onus-unshackle-gender-violence-2903601