April 23, 2009 — Marvi Sirmed
“Where’s Pakistani girl with teep?” was the sweet voice that embraced my ears while I was smoking in a quiet corner of BRAC Centre where our conference was being held. A warm and loving Shaheen Anam from Manusher Jonno was looking for me for something. My Teep (bindi) was a good news for South Asians who had gathered in Dhaka to deliberate upon the South Asian perspective of the Right to Transparent Governance. Most of them, however very familiar with empowered women of Pakistan like Asima Jehangir and Hina Jilani, did not know this strange way of defiance a woman could indulge in Pakistan. Bangladeshi friends including Naila Khan, a politician, Dr. Shirin Sharmeen Chaudhry, CEO of a local NGO and Ms. Hameeda Hossein, a veteran rights activist and at the forefront of women’s empowerment movement in Bangladesh, all Muslims but sarhi and teep wearing women, were absolutely at loss to understand why in Pakistan people have started taking Teep as something that threatens their religion? It remains a part of accessories women use to adorn themselves and it should be accepted, they say, by the Pakistani mullah as so.
Despite a raving frenzy (and a justified one) of a common South Asian about Bangladesh being rapidly arrested in religio-mania, I could not see as many mosques as I see in Islamabad. Although the number of mosques has increased by leaps and bounds as it was in 2003 when I last visited Dhaka. People are ritualistic and believe in structured religion but are generally much deeper than that. Number of Modrassas seems to be very low in the capital but one can see more women with Hijab now than were seen in 2003. I could see no hubbub and over excitement about “Waqfa-e-Namaz” (the prayers’ break) during the sessions, which is normally overly played in all the conferences in Pakistan. People, who want to say prayers, would quietly move out of the Lunch or the proceedings and would not make it a point to break the flow of discussions just because they want God on their side. Although you get to see many Bengalis with typical white Muslim caps and beard, their body language doesn’t seem threatening to the existing social fabric.
Bengalis don’t even need an excuse to sing and dance! On the humid evening of April 21 Shaheen invited all the delegates to her cosy and lavishly decorated apartment in Lake Breeze, Gulshan. With its neighbourhood rubbing shoulders with a horribly downtrodden slum area, Lake Breeze is an extravagant apartment building which is home to the upper middle class “intellectual elite” of Dhaka. The evening started with A Nazrul Geeti Keno asheley bhaobashiley followed by a folk number, a feminist song asking the world where’s a woman’s home. Two beautiful young students of a dance school performed Bharat Natyam before the delegates of every country were invited to sing a song. The evening was a very nice departure from dry discussion on how to improve regulations in SARC countries to make the governments more transparent.
Earlier, Usman Qazi, my lovely friend, who works with UN for displaced persons and is based in Dhaka, gave a call and excitedly invited for a chat. We went to Arung, a chain of BRAC’s sales centre for the products prepared by the women BRAC works with. Usman kept on telling me about his experiences in Dhaka throughout his now over two months stay here. “I love this city”, Usman washed away all my intention to talk about the disappointment about the city I got immediately after I left the airport for Mohakali. I have been earnestly following Usman’s Ramblings from Dhaka, his little notes on his experiences in the city. So, I knew he has his own unique and fairly deep perspective to look at the people and the socio-political phenomena there.
Dhaka has all the problems an overly populated city could have. It has been facing a Dhaka-targeted urbanization from all over Bangladesh being the only metropolis of the country. Power outages have surpassed Pakistan’s performance on this front. Every hour, in fact it can go out any minute for indefinite time. No wonder people came out on streets outraged by outage, stormed power sub-stations, blocked roads, damaged vehicles and got hurt in large numbers amid all kinds of allegations on the government for corruption in the energy field instead of resolving the issue in favour of people. Sounds familiar?
Today’s breaking news was allegations levelled by Abdul Jalil, General Secretary of ruling Awami League, against many members of the cabinet of being agents of DGFI (Bangladeshi equivalent of ISI). Civil society is uncomfortable with a seemingly anti-establishment, comparatively progressive Awami League’s absolute power in the country (with 4/5th majority in unicameral parliament), its corruption and its ongoing clandestine talks with religious right, the modrassas and Jamat Islami Bangladesh.
Well all this is diluting my homesickness to some extent! South Asia has a character of its own!!!