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A Bangladeshi Bluestocking

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Nationalism plays havoc with your central nervous system: how else to explain Neeman Sobhan's mysterious shift away from scenes of Gaza to a Bengali newsreader covered in a headscarf – from helpless sympathy for the former to foaming anger at the latter?

She fulminates for a while against 'men': "I speak only of women and children, because I'm tired of the belligerent ways of men and the world they have created out of war-mongering." Hold on there, Ms. Sobhan: weren't Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher women? The former launched a war against Pakistan, and repeatedly against her own people, and the latter raised her poll ratings with the Falkland War. Neither Condoleeza Rice nor Tzipi Livni nor Hillary Clinton is famously pacifist. In Bangladesh itself, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition – both women – have sacrificed numerous lives to achieve power. And there were Isabella of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of England: not all women are Florence Nightingales; some are Lucretia Borgias.  

One begins to suspect if her sympathy for the Gazans was feigned for popular consumption – for she seems to look down on what she calls 'Arab culture'. Now, unless I'm very mistaken, the Palestinians are Arabs, and it was the ultra-religious Hamas that the Israeli army was shooting at with terrible aim.

"If my brothers and sisters were in dire straits, I would commit myself to helping them at any cost. I expected the much vaunted Muslim brotherhood to look after its kind," she opines. But then her brothers and sisters are in dire straits: she never disowns Islam as her religion. "I am more than a little disgusted with the disunity in the Arab engagement regarding the critical events in their brother's backyard." Critical? Well, that's probably English understatement. But what does Neeman Sobhan say or do to show camaraderie or empathize with those Arabs? Nothing.

She switches the channel, and happens on a Bengali news channel: she nearly drops the remote for she sees "a woman with a headscarf wrapped tight around her head. I check to see if I am not watching some Arab channel, till the hijab-wearing woman starts to speak in Bangla." (It's Bangla; 'Bengali' is politically incorrect. Never mind that an American would pronounce it like it rhymed with Wangler, or that an Iranian might make the word sound like a musical instrument; by the way, my Windows spell-checker doesn't recognize Bangla, so every time I type the word, I get these squiggly red lines, most demanding on the eyes: hence I persist with Bengali.).

Now, we've got the drift of Ms. Sobhan's anger: hijab and Bengali don't – cannot – go together. The lady fulminates: "It took our grandmothers years to get rid of the pernicious purdah and, while continuing to be demurely clad, our Muslim mothers educated themselves and helped create a progressive society freed of the shackles of conservatism. Now suddenly modern young girls with an identity crisis had (sic) willingly regressed into the folds of religious sanctimony and instead of using their culture to establish a healthy image of being moderate yet modest Muslims, had (sic) instead adopted an alien mode of dress from an alien culture!"

Now, the Arabs are alien to the Bangladeshis; so naturally she feels that it's the duty of other Arabs to take care of the Palestinians. Never mind that her female ancestors were Muslim, like her, though they wore their head-covering more obviously (where she got this bit of sartorial history lies beyond me.)  "Alien culture!" How alienating!

But wait! Isn't the lady writing, not in her original Bangla (red lines again!) or Bengali (better!) but – gadzooks – in English? The language of our former white masters facilitates this one-page tirade against the alien Arab culture. Now, there must be a moral here at the bottom of this deep dark well of contradictions.

And where is she writing from? Surely from a very domestic, mildly Muslim home in Bangladesh? Not quite...not by a long shot. The lady writes from...Rome! Her column in a local Bangladeshi English-language elite weekly is called "A Roman Column" (she would have to move to Greece to create a Greek column, with acanthus leaves and all that). Indeed, week after week she flaunts European culture before her Bengali audience, no doubt trying to educate the culturally-challenged natives back home.

"When did we Bangalis get invaded by Arab culture? Is there something intrinsically superior about the Arab world than our local Bangali one? Are we somehow deficient that we have to borrow codes of dressing from another part of the globe?" And what does the lady wear besides her blue stockings? In one Roman column, we see her in her pantsuit. "I was in town the other day, lunching at an elegant restaurant on Piazza Spagna with three women friends. We did all the expected rituals: we complimented each other on our crisp linen suits and our freshly groomed hair...." Now, most Bengali women wear shalwar-kameez or the saree: these are the traditional outfits. But increasingly more and more young girls, instead of retrogressing into Arab culture, are progressing into western culture. Many of my female students wear denim trousers and T-shirts: they look as though they are in uniform (or they've come off an assembly line). Shalwar-kameez and the saree are magically varied in print and design: not so these military gear from the Wild West to which our girls have taken a fancy. And the short hair, of course, is de rigueur. When Neeman Sobhan herself dons western attire (when in Rome...one supposes), she must approve of the army of females clones colonizing our metropolis.

What especially strikes the reader as outré is the fact that the lady pays in euros at the Piazza Spagna, unconscious of the absent lira. She is in Italy, yet it never occurs to her that Italy was one of the founders of the European Union; that over fifty years ago, six European states decided to give nationalism the indecent burial it deserved. From her Italian sojourn, she has instead re-learnt the lessons of a once-dangerous culture.

I believe there is a verse in the Koran that enjoins women to cover themselves. I shan't go into that here: here, we're dealing with kultur, with highfalutin things and high flown words and ideas.  Now, since this verse may be safely dated to the seventh century, we are equally safe in assuming that the practice of covering-up had not been widespread before. After all, it took a revelation to establish the practice. Hence, we conclude that the relevant verses were an innovation in Arab culture itself: a repudiation of Arab culture, which included especially the repudiation of female infanticide. The newsreader had no more ambition than to be pious according to her understanding of her holy book – not to be an Arab damsel.

Perhaps what is to be truly deplored is not the Arab influence on Bengali – and Indian – culture, but the complete lack thereof. Over centuries, the Arab sirocco from the Hijaz was unable to blow away the practices of female infanticide and the caste system. Indeed, the former has progressed with modernity into female foeticide assisted by the scientific application of sound waves, a practice unknown in the Muslim world because of an Arab who measured his own culture against higher moral standards, and found it lacking.

We have lapsed into tribalism again, in which Bengalis like Neeman Sobhan revel. The Counselor at the Palestinian Embassy was quite chagrined by the lack of display of sympathy for the Gazans in Bangladesh. Over thirty years, he had observed earlier, there had been no public discussion of the Palestinian tragedy. As the Palestinian Ambassador told me in an interview: "Our biggest enemy is the ummah".  

And, he might have added, clothes, cloaks and other covers.

 

http://iftekharsayeed.weebly.com

Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
 

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