Nazia Hussein explores the role of women in Bangladesh’s Generation Square
Image from Kafila
Like it or not, female protesters have become the epitome of the controversial Shahbagh movement of Bangladesh, demanding death penalty for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity during the 1971 Independence War of the country. The movement known as Projonmo Chottor (Generation Square) and Gonojagoron (mass awakening) also demands banning of the Islamic political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and other like-minded religion-based political parties, anti-liberation forces and collaborators of Pakistani occupation forces in Bangladesh. Since its inception on the 5th of February, 2013 the movement has been marked by the younger generation’s quest of ensuring justice and female protesters have been as prominent in all the media coverage of the movement as their male counterparts. As with any other public event, the female aspect of the movement was instantly picked up by religious and political groups and their participation since then has been threatened by different means by the religious as well as non-religious political power seekers.
Hundreds of women have been the heart of the Generation Square as organisers, cultural activists, visionary leaders, volunteers, journalists and participants. Thus, women have been greatly visible in the media participating in leadership roles as well as in cultural activism which is also an integral part of this non-violence movement. Women’s resilient faces and powerful voices through slogans and chants marked the initial days of the protest. One such face is of Lucky Akhtar, a final year English student at a local university and the welfare secretary of the leftist student group. Her fierce slogans are prominent in most media portrayals of the earlier stage of the Generation Square including many youtube videos. As the internet has played an instrumental role in publicising the Generation Square’s goal internationally to the Bangladeshis everywhere, Lucky quickly became one of the most prominent faces of the movement.
Lucky’s powerful position in the movement has not been well accepted by the political parties. On the 5th day of the movement Lucky was hit from behind and had to be taken to the hospital. Instant media stories blamed the current government’s student political party Chatra League for this attack. However, the next day when Lucky returned to the square she gave a statement that although the attack took place while she was having a debate with the Chatra League leader, the attack actually came from behind and she did not know who actually did it. The purpose of this petty assault appeared to be the creation of disgust among the concerned citizens on how the free thinking women participating in the movement are being assaulted by political parties. It was also designed to trigger animosity among the political student parties who have from the beginning been interested in taking over the leadership of this then non-political uprising of the Generation Square.
When Lucky’s incident got cleared the Islamic party against whom the movement is targeted, schemed their plot to instigate suspicion among the religious citizens of the country on the behavior and practices of women participants of the movement. They targeted Lucky along with other male and female bloggers who update the world on the activities of Generation Square constantly from the venue, through threatening their families, creating fake and offensive websites in their names and spreading dirty propaganda against them. While the men faced accusations of substance abuse in the Generation Square the women’s integrity received a harder blow. Women of the Generation Square were charged with immorality and sexually deviant behavior and were accused of wearing indecent clothes. More specific allegations such as they do not wear scarves (not head scarves, but a common part of their attire in Bangladesh), fake pictures of women wearing revealing clothes started spreading online. Those of us who regularly work with attacks on women’s freedom and mobility are well aware of this age old trick of patriarchal power seekers.
The attempt of dismantling a group where men and women work together for a cause has commonly been marked by attempts of dishonoring the women and then labeling the group’s mission as corrupt which takes advantage of women. Even Gandhi had to declare celibacy to not be accused of exploiting the large group of women he so intimately worked with. The accusations of indecency of women almost always assume ‘decency’ to be an unproblematic, generally agreed upon notion. And the opposition of ‘decency’ is assumed to be expression of female sexuality. There always remains the fear that women wearing certain clothes will give of sexual signals and compel men to lose control of their sexual urges. In recent years women’s clothing practices in Bangladesh have changed immensely introducing fusion clothing among the youth which has been criticized by conservative religious groups. The current movement of the youth where women from a variety of backgrounds participate in variety of clothes instantly became the target of these religious groups to assert their distrust and resentment towards this changing cultural practice of the country.
The sexual politics of perceiving women with maximum sexuality and limited agency is obvious from the attacks on the female participants of Generation Square. Whether it is the first attack on Lucky to trigger political animosity among the rest of the participants or the later accusations against women’s ‘decency’, the local patriarchal power seem to assume that female campaigners in Generation Square have no agency and autonomy and only serve the purpose of highly sexualized presence in the movement. The need to establish men’s dominance over women, through creating a fear among women campaigners about their physical safety and scandalous representation is a trick that the Bangladeshi female campaigners are fighting against from the beginning of the movement. Although the movement has now deviated somewhat from its original rigor, making it a much more complex political clash between the religious and secular groups of the country I here want to commend the initial campaigners of the Generation Square for successfully tackling the opposition’s assault on the female participants and am thankful to the rest of the country for showing their support for the women of this Mass Awakening of Bangladesh.
Nazia Hussein is a PhD student at the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at University of Warwick, UK. Her expertise is in the area of gender in Bangladesh, gender in South Asian media , gender and culture, gender and religion (Islam), gender, globalization and modernity and gender and development. She has published her Master’s thesis in the Journal of Intercultural Studies, titled Color of Life Achievements: Historical and Media Influence of Identity Formation Based on Skin-Color in South Asia. She currently teaches on the module International Perspectives on Gender at University of Warwick. She also holds the position of Junior Lecturer at the Independent University, Bangladesh. She previously worked as a Gender Sector Specialist at BRAC, Bangladesh (NGO).