The need to be seen
The fundamental need of a human being, I think, is to feel seen. To connect. And that connection happens through recognising ourselves in others.
I grew up reading fairy tales. Cinderella and Snow White, beautiful white women, who were oppressed by other women in their lives, and anxiously waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming. But I also grew up around working mothers, business owners, strong homemakers and astounding personalities. Even then, I find it difficult to identify people I can find a reflection of myself in.
When I started my work with adolescent girls about five years ago, I realised this feeling of being unseen was something they also struggled with. The madrasa where we have been working for the longest is an all-girls institution. A few months ago, we had a discussion with the girls to see how they are formulating their identities as Bengali Muslim women growing up in the madrasa education system here in Dhaka. Part of the process was asking them about their aspirations to see how they conceptualised themselves now and what they would like to be in the future. They said they wanted to be doctors, scientists, engineers, psychologists and even musicians.
I remember the first time I visited an all-girls madrasa, walking into the room which they used both as a classroom and as their bedroom. About 20 to 30 girls were scurrying around, restless, afraid, or maybe just shy of outsiders. They huddled together, clutching their knees, quite literally shrinking themselves. When we asked them what their professional aspirations were, they unanimously said doctors.
Their aspirations have evolved over time. Not as a result of accepting the impossibility, but more as a result of realising other possibilities. This desire to become something greater than what they were told they could be was also something they were just starting to explore.
They still report feeling isolated, hopeless and marginalised. The career options they want to pursue aren't necessarily supported by their guardians or their stream of education. Their options are apparently limited. But more importantly, what they are limited by is their ability to dream, to imagine an infinite number of possibilities.
Following the recent discussion, we brought them together in a workshop where we invited a musician, a scientist and a doctor, contemporary Bangladeshi Muslim women who had accomplished great feats in their respective fields. These women had also overcome the barriers in their minds that had been posed by their desire to be perfect, good, Muslim, Bengali women, who had to abide by rules, and meander their way around the ever-emerging question of "What would people say?" to realise their dreams. The hope was that the girls would see themselves in these women and find the courage to embark on the pursuit of their home.
These women were difficult to find. But what is even more difficult to find is historical figures that had done a phenomenal job of mitigating their whole identities as Muslim Bengali empowered women. We initially wanted to focus on historical figures but we had to discard the idea when we realised that we could think of very few women who hadn't been turned into a controversy as a result of pushing for women's empowerment as Muslim Bengalis.
The Muslim-Bengali dichotomy is a subject matter that is best tackled in a separate article. But the feminist movement in Bangladesh is also something that has been fairly complicated. Feminism in Bangladesh emerged in opposition to government- sponsored Islamisation of the 1980s citing religion as instrumental in the oppression of women in Bangladesh.
In her book, Reshaping the Holy, Democracy, Development and Muslim Women in Bangladesh, Elora Shehabuddin noted that Bangladeshi women's groups are predominantly composed of urban middle and upper-class women, mirroring strong class divisions in Bangladeshi society more broadly. There has been, therefore, a deep class divide limiting the participation of poor and rural women, many of whom conceptualise and envision responses to oppression in different ways than those who drive discourse on women's rights nationally. As a result, poor women and women of faith have felt isolated within the feminism discourse in Bangladesh.
A few weeks after, when I heard of Her Story, I was thrilled. The book aims to produce documentation of women's history in Bangladesh to create contextual educational and motivational material. Homegrown supergirls. Even though the book is currently in English (I am told that a Bangla version of the book will be published at the Boi Mela), the way the stories have been captured over a timeline that starts in ancient Bengal, is an astute way of shaping women's history in the region that predates and moves beyond simply capturing women's role in the Liberation War.
The illustrations were impressive, the stories inspiring, the language easy enough for seven-year-olds to understand, the research sound. However, I wondered as I read if the narrator, Amiya (the name, interestingly, could belong to any faith group), was someone the girls I work with could relate to. Could they relate to Khana, or Ila Mitra, or even Sufia Kamal? Or contemporary ones like Mabia Akhter or Nayma Haque and Tamanna-e-Lutfy?
I don't know, honestly, because I have yet to take the book to them. I would have to see if they relate to anybody other than Begum Rokeya, often spoken of as an Islamic feminist, as paradoxical as that term sounds. But I wish we had done a better job of documenting women who also played a role in shaping religion such as Buddhist Bhikhunis (female monks) in the Pala dynasty, experts in religious texts and customs and those who conducted religious ceremonies. Because for my girls, their religious identity is not something they can, or want to, grow out of. It is a key element of who they are.
But if there is such a lack today, it is not Her Stories that is at fault. It is History.
History, unfortunately, is His Story. It does a terrible job at documenting women who have changed its course by virtue of being who they are and doing what they do. Particularly women who have both the Muslim element and the Bengali element strongly present in them, who I can cite as examples for my girls.
Girls, who have such trouble feeling seen; Girls, who have such difficulty finding themselves reflected in someone else.
I hope someday these girls will acquire a sense of belonging and challenge dominant narratives of feminism, nationalism and religion in the Bangladeshi context. I look forward to a day when they can find themselves in others. Or even better, the day they will write their own stories so they don't need to find themselves in others.
But until then, I will continue to teach them to dream, push boundaries and cite examples of trailblazers who came before them to pave their paths.
Shagufe Hossain is the founder of Leaping Boundaries and a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.