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Hussain,

Naina 2003863

How does the tension revolving around the status of women and
nuclear relationships of women in Bangladesh relate to similar
experiences faced by women in India?
Naina Fahima Hussain
Anthropology: South Asian Perspectives
Dr. Alicia DeNicola
Spring 2015
Final Paper

Hussain, Naina 2003863


How does the tension revolving around the status of women and nuclear
relationships of women in Bangladesh relate to similar experiences faced by women
in India?
Bangladesh, like many other South Asian countries, was once a part of India up
until India and Pakistans partition in 1947. Therefore, a lot of the culture, the patterns of
how situations like conflict, and social norms are treated and created can be compared to
how they are done in India. Similarly, the ways through which many of the aspects of
society are viewed in India in present day, still affect Bangladeshi society.
When countries share borders, it is inevitable for cultural exchange to take place,
and given that all of the South Asian countries were once part of India, it is most certain
that India will have or have had some influence over the culture and social dynamics in
those countries, such as Bangladesh. The existence of tension in Bangladeshi culture has
been a part of the history of the country ever since its independence in 1971. Even before
its independence, and partition from India, Bangladesh (then, a part of Bengal) was the
hub of many riots such as the infamous Noakhali riots. A more specific part of culture,
that has always been involved with tension whether that is tension and turmoil of public
interest or nuclear among households, has been the concept of status of women in society.
A lot of the tension that surround women in Bangladesh, and their status in society stems
from stories that are between families and are then shared and passed on from
generations. Therefore, stories of women in Bangladeshs history, and their personal
experiences with conflict help develop a lot of values and morals of the society. The
status of women and the tensions that exist regarding women can be found through
stories of women during the war against Pakistan in 1971, through how cultural and

Hussain, Naina 2003863


social norms have been defined separately for women in the country, and through how
women are portrayed among society through use of literature, media, etc.
In the context of this paper, story telling of women and rape during the war period
becomes crucial in defining national identity, and how the nation views women. Large
populations of Bangladeshis were murdered during the war, however many were, and are
stilled scarred for life. Most of the populations who have been scarred for life are
womenwomen were used as weapons to leave a scar not only on them, but also on the
society by casting shame upon the women. The reason why Bangladesh rape victims
stories play a major role in Bangladeshs history is because of the conservative number of
women who chose to tell their stories. It is because of their stories that the country now
recognizes the honor in their experiences. (Hossain 2012) Biranganas, had to initially
suffer through shame instigated upon them by society members. Many of the Pakistani
soldiers knew that eventually they would have to surrender, and therefore to leave a mark
on society, they chose to rape women as their weapon: Hum jaa rahe hai. Lekin beej
chor kar jaa rahe hain. (We are going. But we are leaving our seed behind.) (Malik
1972: 154) The reason behind the use of rape during war can be explained through the
notion that women symbolize purity of a nation. They are the ones who give birth to the
next generations of the country. As a result, by taking away the purity of a woman, war
criminals were not only able to bring dishonor upon the individual, but also upon the
family and consequently, the community. The war crimes of 1971 can be familiarized to
those during the Indian and Pakistan partition that took place in 1947. In Ritu Menon and
Kamla Bhasins 1998 book, Borders and Boundaries: Women in Indias Partition,
Menon and Bhasin mention how women were used to leave a mark on a specific country

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during partition: Tattooting and branding the womens bodies with Pakistan, Zindabad!
and Hindustan Zindabad! not only mark the woman for life, they never allow her the
possibility of forgetting her humiliation marking makes permanent the sexual
appropriation of the woman, and symbolically extends this violation to future generations
who are thus metaphorically stigmatized. (Menon and Bhasin 1998: 46-47) Leaving a
mark through tattooing, amputation of breasts, and murder were also ways through which
Pakistani war criminals left women in Bangladesh after raping them. The part that makes
rape and rape victims of the 1971 war essential to Bangladeshi culture is to remind
people of the extents of atrocities placed upon the nation, as well as the tension that
revolves around rape victims. This was similar to how rape was used as a weapon during
partition by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs all around India. Thus, while social tension was
eased by granting honor to rape victims, the social tension still seems to be present due to
how the society views the subject of rape.
India and Bangladesh, both have problems with gender inequality.
Generally, there is a lack of provision of education, social pressures revolving around
marriage and relationships after marriage, as well as social tension regarding women
being able to work and acquire a formal job. According to Diane P. Mines and Sarah
Lamb, as a young wife and daughter-in-law in a multigenerational household, a woman
is often most constrained. (Mines, Lamb 2010: 75-76) Typically, in both Bangladesh
and India, women are married off at a young age which creates a lot of problems for the
girl getting married as she becomes the newest and perhaps most junior person in an
unfamiliar home and must learn to exhibit deference to her husband and his senior kin.
(Mines, Lamb 2010: 76) After marriage, nuclear relationships between women and her

Hussain, Naina 2003863


in-laws as well as her relationship with her husband become extremely important for a
woman. Typically, in rural areas of the country, rural women are referred to with
stigmatizing terms, are taunted by in-laws, and sometimes are even deprived of food.
(Van der Geest 2014: 384-385) Pressures arising from in-laws and being constrained
constantly, leads to the development of mental illnesses caused by unexpected stress, and
anxiety. A lot of times, mental illnesses associated with individuals are treated as
possession and thus, patients are taken to exorcists rather than a psychologist or a doctor
for treatment. During Fatimas interview in James M. Wilce Jr.s I cant tell you all my
troubles: conflict, resistance, and metacommunication in Bangladesh illness
interaction, the power relations between a daughter in-law and the in-laws can be
observed deeply and is noticeable that newly wed women are often not given the
opportunity to voice their opinions as freely: Although she is only about 45 years of age,
the intense physical stress of her life in poverty shows on her thin, anxious face
Fatimas sisters-in-law usually spoke for her. (Wilce 1995: 934)
Cases of anxiety that causes apparent possession, or in other terms, mental
illnesses are also present in India. In countries like India and Bangladesh, women are
expected to be child bearers, and during times when problems arise such as times when a
woman is unable to bear a child, anxiety and both external and internal stress causes
mental illnesses to arise. Two of the most common mental illnesses are hysteria and
schizophrenia. In an anthropological study, Spirit Possession as Illness in a North Indian
Village conducted by Stanley A. Freed and Ruth S. Freed, analyzes the patterns of events
and situations that precede hysterical attacks. One story is about a North Indian villager,
Daya who was possessed by a spirit and would move in and out of consciousness caused

Hussain, Naina 2003863


by stress relating to her sexual identity. She moved out of her warm, supportive parents
house to her husbands house, where she lived under considerable tension and could
count on little support for her affines. While her family believed that she was possessed,
her testimony showed that anxiety caused by sexual concerns and childhood sexual
assault had lead to episodes of hysteria, tension, and conflict. (Freed 1964: 166-167)
While her in laws and her parents supported her during times when she would become
possessed, Daya was able to defy social norms of having to work in the household, and
basically relieve on some stressand thus benefitted from secondary gains: She
became the center of attention. She aroused sympathy and concern among all her affines.
Her husband reduced his sexual demands. (Freed 1964: 167)
While stigmatization and isolation of women, especially in rural areas, causes
negativity within the community, supporting Freeds argument, I also believe that
madness or paglami1 as many may call it, through expression of possession opens up a
pathway for many women towards freedom. In the case study of Rani provided by Jim
Wilce in Madness, Fear, and Control in Bangladesh: Clashing Bodies of
Power/Knowledge, Wilce mentions how Rani was laughed at for her mental illness and
how she was forced to answer Wilces questions by her family members. Rani was also
dancing in front of Wilce, and was being encouraged by family members to do so. In this
scenario, it is perfectly portrayed how Ranis mental illness has allowed her to express
herself freely. In a society like Bangladesh where many women are restricted from
expressing themselves freely, Rani was an exception because of her mental condition.
(Wilce 2004: 369-370) In Beth Roys book Some Trouble With Cows: Making sense of

1
Paglami can be defined as craziness in Bangla
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Social Conflict, Roy states: Womens role as we know it is a historical product. (Roy
1994: 140) Thus, in India and Bangladesh, the roles determined for women regardless of
whether they are the head of the household or a newly married daughter in law has
always been a historical product that was culturally defined. However, from the stories of
Rani, and Daya, what becomes clear is that sometimes in India and Bangladesh, the
inability to conform to social norms can ease social tensions for women, especially in
rural areas.
Relating to how womens roles in society have been culturally defined in both
India and Bangladesh, there are instances where many womens images are judged based
upon their career paths, if they are even allowed to work outside their own household. In
a study about Baul musicians of Bangladesh and India by Lisa I. Knight in Contradictory
Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh, Knight describes how most literature
relegates women to a lesser status. (Knight 2011: 37) Baul musicians are mystic
minstrels who music is based on folk literature, and folk music. Knights study had
suggested that while Baul musicians were highly popular in literature, especially those
written by Rabindranath Tagore, and were trained professionally, the influence of purdah
in rural areas had marginalized women associated with the career path. Knight also added
in his study how female Baul musicians, regardless of the similarity of they dressed up as
compared to male Baul musicians, were still not considered musicians. Thus, many times
what becomes evident is the fact that even though women Baul musicians are doing the
same work as male Baul musicians, they are objectified, and further marginalized in
society. Beth Roy, in her book, speaks of the voice of women similarly as compared to
the voice of men: men would almost always intrude, not with bad intent, but with

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disbelief that we could be learning anything from the women.In this specific
statement, the fact that women and their voices are constantly downgraded and are seen
to be of lesser value in many Bangladeshi households and communities even though their
contributions and contributions to the society may be just as educated as the mens. Thus,
situations of marginalization of voices of women further contribute to the tension
between genders and within nuclear communities of Bangladesh.
A similar situation of how women in entertainment are viewed as in India, can be
seen in Susan Seizers Roadword: Offstage with Special Drama Actresses in Tamil Nadu,
South India. Seizers study on the actresses of Tamil Nadu focuses on the Special Drama
performances by artists of all genders. However, the only difference between the way
through how the Tamil Nadu community views the women as opposed to men is based
on the socially defined status: Becoming a Special Drama actress generally means
forfeiting any chance of a normal marriagebecause of a standard view of actresses as
public women, a.k.a. prostitutes.(Mines, Lamb 2010: 95) Similar to the female Baul
musicians in Bangladesh, the socially defined status of women who are actresses in Tamil
Nadu have thus been objectified, which causes further oppression of women in those
career paths even worse. The social tension created among women involved in career
paths in entertainment such as musicians, and actresses create greater conflict for that
community in effort to mend a socially constructed definition that is based on
assumptions and their culturally defined social status: Actresses attempt to resignify and
resituate their own social position within a dominant system that persistently casts them
as stigmatized other. (Mines, Lamb 2010: 107)

Hussain, Naina 2003863


Based on the studies about women and their status in society by anthropologists in
India and Bangladesh, what becomes evident is that both the countries share similar
experiences and stories of the treatment of women and their social status in society. In
most cases it is seen that women are often marginalized in society based on the socially
defined norms and social structures. However, what is important is the significance of
story telling in maintaining or bringing upon reform of these definitions. In Kirin
Narayans 1989 book Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels, Narayan mentions, in many
of these cases in which storytellers spoke from an institutionalized religious role, their
stories featured characters like themselves. (Narayan 1989: 5) While Narayans
perspective of storytelling is different to mine, Narayan is specifically talking about
folklore and I am specifically talking about storytelling of a women and its impact on
society, I believe that what Narayan is trying to say is correct. The stories that I have
been brought up with, feature the stories my parents and their families have grown up
around. Similarly, in rural areas in Bangladesh and India, the stories about marginalized
people often tend to revolve around those already existing definitions of what and who is
acceptable, and what is not. This notion makes it evident that social background, and the
community that one grows up around plays a crucial role in the understanding of a story.
As Beth Roy mentions is her book, both men and women shared community identities.
(Roy 1994: 167) The perspectives provided in this paper do not necessarily mean that all
women are oppressed in these regions of India and Bangladesh. It also does not
necessarily mean that my perspectives are entirely correct. What is most important is that
the stories being told by many women of many communities in India and Bangladesh
suggest that tension plays a huge role in defining the patterns of behavior and values of

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the people of the countriesand that helps develop national identity and the stories
associated with the national identity. Roy adds that though, womens reactions to the
riot, their reluctance to participate even in their own idiomsuggests another reality, and
that is that womens communities are quite different from mens. (Roy 1994: 168) Most
of the stories discussed focus on the more rural areas of both India and Bangladesh,
which also signifies that the stories in rural areas vary from the stories in more urbanized
areas. The fact that stories of tension and social conflict that women face are more
evident in rural areas does not necessarily mean that social tension and the
marginalization of women does not exist in more urban areaswhat is most important ist
that while womens communities are quite different from mens, the stories of tension
of women in urban areas are quite different from the stories of tension of women in rural
areas.
In conclusion, research suggests that both Bangladesh and India deal with the
tension revolving women and their status in society in similar ways. This can be
explained due to the cultural exchanges that still happen due to a more globalized
economy, but most importantly it is explained by the fact that Bangladesh was once a part
of India, and the way stories are told and are applied in present day are similar to how it
was before Indias partition in 1947. Both countries are facing developments in how and
where they place women in society. A recent uproar was caused in Bangladesh during
Pohela Boishakh2 celebrations when a few women were sexually assaulted by a group of
men in a highly renowned university. The protests were very similar to how India reacted
to the gang rape in New Delhi in December 2012, and actions were taken to bring upon

2
Pohela Boishakh is the Bengali New Year usually celebrated on the 14th of April of
every year
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reform. From these findings, what can be concluded is that while there may never be a
scenario where tension regarding the status of women in Bangladesh and Indias society
is completely removed, we can only hope that the social tensions will be eased as much
as possibleand recent developments in rules and laws infer just that.

Works Cited
Freed, Ruth S. and Stanley A. Spirit Possession as Illness in a North Indian Village.
Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964
Hossain, Anushay, 1971 Rapes: Bangladesh cannot hide History. Forbes, Forbes
Woman,21 May 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/worldviews/2012/05/21/1971rapes-bangladesh-cannot-hide-history/2/
Knight, Lisa I., Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh. Oxford,
United Kingdom, 2011.
Lamb, Diane P. Mines and Sarah. Everyday Life in South Asia. Bloomington, Indiana:
Indiana University Press, 2010.
Narayan, Kirin. Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels. Pennsylvania: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1989.
Roy, Beth. Some Trouble With Cows: Making Sense of Social Conflict: University of
California Press, 1994.
Van Der Geest, Sjaak. How Women in Bangladesh Confront the Stigma of Childlessness:
Agency, Resilience, and Resistance- Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol. 28:
University of Amsterdam, American Anthropological Association, 2014

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