GOWANUS Winter 2002

The Other Sex
A Review

by Dana De Zoysa


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by Hanifa Deen
Penguin Books India 
Penguin Putnam, New York
324 pages

Hanifa Deen is an Australian of Bangladeshi descent who returned to her ancestral home in 1995 with the idea of writing a book about how women live there. But she wanted to go beyond the usual accounts of women in Islamic societies. To her it seemed most people’s perception of the Muslim woman were “centred on the Middle East, yet there are more Muslims in South Asia and Southeast Asia than anywhere else in the world.” She points out that “religion is just one of the many building blocks that shape women’s lives: colonialism, history, nationalism, economics, gender, culture, and patriarchal values make up a litany of influences embedded in the psyche of each country.”

Like many of those who study the women of a culture from afar, she did not anticipate the complex, self-concealing, nuanced, diverse reality she met. From her home base in the Kiplingesque Mona Lisa Hotel in a rumpled-shirt neighborhood of Dhaka, she met women from all corners and byways of Bangladeshi society, from her masseuse living on the edge of survival to Dhaka’s rich and famous. 

Her book is an antidote to the perception of Islam as monolithic, backward, and violent. Islamic developing countries are not mere forges of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists, conservatives, middle-of-the-roaders, liberals, and a far left exist in any Muslim society in about the same proportion as they exist in non-Muslim societies. The main difference is what one identifies as middle-of-the-road. Deen shows how feminist utopianism can survive in a land where liberal is what middle-of-the-road is anywhere else, middle-of-the-road is conservative, and the religious right is Mussolini without the brown.

For example, in Bangladesh (and many non-Arab countries) the burqa that so outrages some Westerners is a largely middle-class garment, and there is a class component to purdah. Village Muslim women are workers first and foremost; they often wear only the simplest of head covering because drapy cloth gets in the way as they labor. On the other hand, upper-class women of the cities can wear stylish headgear because they have the wealth and power to not be bound by Quranic face- and hair-covering rules. 

Deen paints Goyesque you-are-there portraits of her trips into the Bangladesh and Pakistan hinterlands, some regions of which are bastions of fundamentalist misogyny. She finds that religious fundamentalists are every bit as cruel towards women as portrayed abroad, but for reasons less related to contempt for that sex than for economic gains to be had by frightening women into giving up their money and land. The nexus of local mullah, politico, and money-
lender allied for mutual financial gain plays a far larger role in the issuance of religious fatwas than does blasphemous female behavior—what Ms. Deen calls the Fatwa Industry. One result is a litany of widow horror stories; another is a myriad of tiny one-woman revolts that the author describes with delicious piquancy.

Suppressing women for financial gain is not a uniquely Muslim phenomenon: it happens in Buddhist Sri Lanka, Hindu India, and post-Maoist secular China. Children are no better off, being exploited for labor, sex, and marriages of alliance all over the region. The common thread is economic inadequacy resulting from the refusal of power-holders to encourage a strong middle class. Almost everywhere in Asia that one looks, there is a correlation between the size of the middle class and the rate of both social and economic advance.

There is also an unseen cultural component to fundamentalism. Fundamentalists want to impose their version of purity on a very old and peculiarly Asian version of Islam which blends legalistic Arab Islam with pre-existing Hindu, Buddhist, and animist traditions. The ghosts of Hindu gods and Buddhist devas (almost-gods) inhabit a world of spirits both good and malign, animal totems, divinations, dreams, and visions. These ancient feudal institutions exploit Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism to hold on to power. Indeed, one must grant Islamic fundamentalists a certain respect for their relatively temperate handling of this mix: Christianity burned thousands at the stake trying to stamp out the ghosts of Cathars, Druids, and forest spirits.

But Ms. Deen also demonstrates how fundamentalists actually tend to come out the worst because of their stridency. To the pragmatic city-dwellers who hold a country's economic purse-strings, bigoted shock tactics do not introduce any lasting change. Instead, they just bring about alienation. Even in the parts of Bangladesh considered their power bases, fundamentalists consistently do poorly at the polls.

"Reading about poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition from academic texts never prepares anyone. You sit watching television documen-
taries from comfortable armchairs, Chardonnay in one hand, pizza in the other, and you delude yourself. Everything is at arm's length and poverty, disease, and death become sanitised. You know nothing--you realise that later. Nothing prepares you--how can it? Your cocoon is shed soon after you and the distance between you and a world crowded with pain is instantly reduced. You develop a protective veneer just to get through the day, and you hate yourself for doing this."

The picture the author paints of NGOs (non-governmental organiza-
tions, a fancy term for not-for-profit charities) is an eye-opener to anyone who has ever seen the ads by organizations trolling for money with pictures of starving waifs. In all too many cases the first thing the money goes too is a huge Pajero with fat tires. The second is a luxury office in the capital (leaving just enough left over for some properly mediagenic, poorly furnished outposts in the countryside). The third set of cheques hires all the family members the local manager can get away with. Only then does the cash buy anything that ends up in the mouths of hungry children. 

On the plus side, NGOs do bring international attention to things governments should be doing themselves, even if the end result is the NGOs taking over a government's responsibilities. The politicians are delighted: it translates into more of the country's economy going into their own pockets.

Ms. Deen's ability to elevate the particular to the level of the general without directly saying so raises Broken Bangles to the quality of a good novel read. Readers acquire insights into developing-country thinking and customs that do not appear in any travel literature, and rather little of it even in mainstream subcontinent literature. For example, she describes the hidden nuances behind passion in subcontinent Islam: "In Bangladesh, little is what it seems. People do not express themselves as much as enact their feelings. Stage-drama behavioral expectations find their way into religious and political culture." Just about every high-sounding ideal is an admission of low self-esteem. Men say they are protecting their women, but in fact they are protecting themselves against their own insecurities.

Asian and Middle Eastern thinking processes are very different from those in the West. To the Islamic mind there are conclusionary mechanisms more powerful than reason. Westerners tend to think in networks, with linkages and threads in many directions. East Asians tend to think in a silo or in the vertically integrated clan-based model first codified by Confucius. Most Indians' context is three-layered: a specific caste level communicates one level up or down from itself but rarely much higher or lower. Also, Islam is a prophetic system: knowledge is revealed and received rather than arrived at. Muslim thinking can be visualized as a single, vast, flat sheet of equality and unity based on the principles of umma (the brotherhood of believers) and tawhid (unity with God). 

Underlying all this is a view of one's place in the world that explains why forcing democracy and a market economy on people results in the kind of cultural rejection whose extreme is Osama bin Laden. 

But, surprisingly, Islam has no significant economic argument with the West. The Qur'an is pro-capitalist -- Mohammed was a merchant. And like the West, Islam urges uplifting one's  moral character through vigorous self-effort. It is salutory to visit a bookstore in Dubai, India, Malaysia, or Indonesia and see Muslim self-improvement guides addressing the same concerns as the Seven Best Habits

The big difference is that most Asians, and Muslims in particular, see the world not as a market but as a courtyard. Courtyard culture arose from the use of worshipping places as common grounds. The courtyard is a socially cohesive unit founded on religious identity, bound on one side by market stalls, on another by the prayer hall, on the third by the codes of class and station, and on the fourth by secular power in the form of police, army, and tax. The focus is on leaders, not institutions; function, not reason. The governing prin-
ciples of decision are muafakat (collective council) and masyarakat (concordance). 

Imagine for a moment what would happen if Asian and Arabic proselytizers from a country where these notions predominate were suddenly to arrive on Western shores informing the inhabitants that their society is hogwash, that Eastern ways are better and, by the way, everyone should switch to Arabic and Eastern food and fashions, too.

Welcome to Broken Bangles.

A woman's bangles are given to her by her in-laws on her wedding day. Occasion by occasion she adds to them, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for obligation. Over the years her bangles acquire social baggage: the symbol of marriage, protection of husband, dependency, adornment of self. And then slowly, inexorably, they become symbol made reality: encirclement, fear of the whisper, the prison of the hearth. Romantic feelings are a luxury of the privileged; guilt is an indulgement enjoyed mostly by the middle classes. For most, marriage is desperation packaged as property. The glittery bangle binds. 

A woman breaks her bangles when her husband dies. Islam does not impose on widows the banishment that rural Hinduism does, but a woman without a protector (the husband's role as seen in Islam) is not much better off than a woman without a god (the husband as seen in Hinduism). Bangladeshi wives become excellent misers, hoarding every taka coin for the day when their protectors are gone. Unless she is rich, self-deprivation links hands with social depri-

Ms. Deen's etchings of these women are the writer's version of Goya's Los Caprichos. But the broken bangles in her title are something far worse than Goyesque grotesqueries. You must endure them yourself to understand. Thanks to Ms. Deen's book, to a great extent we do.

(Dana De Zoysa has a passion for developing-country authors. He commutes between Bombay and his writer’s paradise in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at DanaDeZoysa@aol.com.)