I’m off to Bangladesh next week and so I’ve been doing my reading and getting myself back up to speed on politics, history and culture. When I say “back up to speed”, it sounds like I was, at some time, really clued up and I knew loads about Bangladesh. I confess that it’s not really true. I never knew loads. But soon I will. And so will you, if you can bear it.
Anyway I stumbled across this obscure story and it made me reflect on the ideas of Utopia and also the current political situation in Bangladesh. Here’s a very quick potted history lacking depth and nuance:
The story is called “The Sultana’s Dream” and it is by a woman called Roquia Sakhawat Hussain. She wrote it in 1905. She was born in Rangpur, which was in Bengal under British rule and is now in Bangladesh. Her family was well off and quite influential. Two of her brothers were government ministers and one of her sisters was a successful and well known poet.
Roquia was married to an older chap at the age of sixteen and was encouraged to continue her studies and writing. She became involved in the education of Muslim women and she set up a school which was eventually relocated to Kolkata where it still stands.
She also became involved in a women’s Muslim association where the position of women and their education in Islamic society was debated and change was advocated. She died in 1932 and is now regarded as an influential feminist thinker, particularly in southern Asia.
“The Sultana’s Dream” is available here http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/sultana/dream/dream.html
It’s a simple and short story, set in a place where men have been identified as the cause of many of the world’s problems. OK, fair enough so far. The men can’t be trusted to do needlework since they are impatient and they are also lazy so they spend their time lounging around smoking in the area that they have been banished to. [Provide access to beer, wine access to sport and it’s starting to sound quite utopian indeed]. The world is one where the women scientists have mastered solar power for military and domestic needs, where flying cars have also been created and the weather is controlled. True to Roquia’s own beliefs, women’s education and learning is highly prized and early marriage has been banned.
Now this work is described as a feminist utopia. It’s certainly a feminist work but I dispute its claim to being a utopia. [I don’t think that the author ever made this claim, it’s been made subsequently on her behalf]. Much like Plato’s Republic, this is a utopia where a large proportion of the population is repressed. Now I don’t want to be a miseryguts but a utopia involving widespread repression falls someway short of a utopia. Anyway, onwards and upwards.
Roquia had a vision of a world that would have somewhat different priorities under the governance of women. Which brings us to modern day Bangladesh.
There are two main parties in Bangladesh; the Awami League and the Bangladeshi National Party [BNP]. Both a led by women.
The Awami League, led and dominated by Sheikh Hasina [with a nepotistic inner circle], are currently in power and, after an initial hope that they would conciliatory, are accused manipulating parliament, the executive, the media, the secret service and the courts to repress the opposition. Corruption is on the rise, human rights are threatened and the military are getting tetchy. Hasina has introduced the 15th amendment to the constitution which makes further amendments next to impossible and has made criticising the constitution a crime of sedition. Plotting to overthrow the government [something the military are often and rightly accused of] is now punishable by death. The amendment also removes a principle under which any general elections were to be overseen by a neutral caretaker government, a barrier to ballot-rigging and corruption. The amendment also declared Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who, not coincidentally, happened to be Hasina’s father, the be “Father of the Nation to Bangladesh”. And with that, the BNP are threatening to boycott the 2013 elections.
The caretaker government in power before the most recent elections had adopted a policy of “minus two”. The two were Zia and Hasina, who the caretaker government and the military believed were poisoning the political arena. The government tried to exile the two women and then stuck them in prison on corruption charges. This perhaps explains Hasina’s dislike of the caretaker government system. The two political parties stayed loyal to the women and the caretaker government were forced to release them.
Of course, the BNP are not exactly paragons of virtue either. They took a real hiding in the last elections but under Khaleda Zia [a former Prime Minister and wife of the assassinated General Zia], and thanks to the Awami League’s behaviour have become much stronger. Zia has banned all major decisions taken in her absence and organised it such that she can never be removed as leader. Zia has been accused of corruption and could be sentenced to seven years imprisonment. One of her sons is already in prison on the same charges and another son is on trial for plotting Hasina’s assassination.
So it all looks pretty fraught in the run up to the next elections. There have been a number of violent demonstrations and strikes [hartals] already and these can only increase.
I am sure that Roquia Sakhawat Hussain would have been distraught at such an opportunity for the government by women to be discarded in such a manner. Party political government is a nasty place populated by people who enjoy power and power games more than delivering benefits to the peoples who have elected them. A utopia is unachievable but we will not even begin to approach its ideals when behaviours are founded on discriminatory policies and attitudes and quests for power for power’s sake and when decision making is based on zero sum thinking.
The flag image is by think0 http://think0.deviantart.com/art/Bangladesh-Grunge-Flag-109065424