by Towheed Feroze
Simply fascinating is my assessment of this thoroughly researched book, which should become a must read for sociology students and made mandatory at HSC level. The reason is because this work, the thesis of Dr Bilkis Rahman, opens up the excruciatingly repressive conditions women faced in 19th century Bengal.
That women in the past were disenfranchised and lived in a status lower to men is known to us all but here, in this compelling book, using references from a wide variety of historical sources, the grim picture of slavery emerge.
I use the word slavery deliberately because, in many cases, especially when a young man in the 19th century went to get married, the act was deemed not as a move to get a wife but a slave for the husband’s mother.
Bilkis opens up a very divided social structure where women, in all cases, were either regarded as commodities or inferior humans.
Interestingly, the main tormentor of women was none other than women – with the mother-in-law in most cases restricting a young wife’s life to relentlessly keep her under stress. As a matter of fact, the underlying message of this work seems to say – if women were suppressed and exploited, then other women had a role in it aside from traditional beliefs which generally demeaned all women.
Reading this account will leave the reader deeply disturbed because, in unnerving detail, various forms of subjugation are highlighted.
Let’s take the 19th century social norm of Kulinism, where a high class Hindu, irrespective of age, could marry countless times and fathers of young girls had no scruples in getting a Kulin husband, hoping that such a union would ease their path to eternal absolution in afterlife.
Kulinism at one point turned into a trade with a Kulin going from village to village marrying women and collecting dowry for showing the benevolence of taking the daughter of a father eager to raise his social status and thus ensure a glorious heavenly abode after death.
Using references picked up from historical sources, Bilkis tells us that in 1870, a Kulin used to get around 200 Pounds from the father of his first bride as dowry. That amount is still quite a lot in today’s money so just imagine its purchasing power 150 years ago.
But since Kulin husbands took their social status as a way of earning a living, they kept on marrying, often forgetting their previous wives, who lived in mental and physical deprivation for almost the whole period of their lives.
There is the allusion to one Kulin, recorded in history, who, had more than 100 wives.
But if a woman was married off in normal circumstances, she was not free from abuse and mental torture either since at that time, in a joint family, the mother-in-law was the person who called the shots.
Wives had to please the mother-in-law first, which means, adhere to all her whims/caprices and act like a loyal slave.
What is more, the sharing of the same bed between a man and a wife was often determined by the totalitarian mother-in-law, with meeting between husband and the missus forbidden during the day time.
As we go further into the book, we get a feeling that a young bride was the most helpless person within society. In days prior to marital counselling and limited external human contact, the victim often had to digest unbelievable amount of stress which, in many cases, led to suicide.
Interestingly, the feeling I got was that women who were subdued during their younger days metamorphosed into a tyrant in their adulthood, thus perpetuating the misery of other women.
In 19th century Bengal, visiting the red light district was a common phenomenon with many socially respected men visiting brothels, not solely for sexual gratification but also to see dance girls perform.
It was perfectly normal to accompany a friend to the red light area even if the visit was not for one’s own sexual fulfilment.
While socially it was accepted that men, both Hindus and Muslims, are entitled to have several intimate relations, women were kept confined within their houses.
In the case of affluent Babus, wives had to turn a deaf ear when their husbands indulged in loud music and drink-fuelled orgies with prostitutes in some other part of the house.
Sexual relations with maids were socially acceptable which gave the birth to the term ‘baadi-shontan’ or maid-child, borne out of a relation between the man of the house and the maid.
In another form of persecution, widows among Hindus were forced to accept Sati, the practice of being burned alive on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands with the priests avidly propagating such an end citing religion plus eternal bliss, though the main objective was to deprive the wife of the dead husband’s property.
In fact, the Sati was widely encouraged by the husband’s relatives to get rid of the wife and grab his assets.
This is a piercing book which looks at all forms of prejudice faced by women in the 19th century and, to understand many of the social evils present today like violence for dowry and subtle mental abuse by in-laws both in rural and urban Bangladesh, we must look back at the abominable past when women lived in an abhorrent social system which regarded their oppressed status as normal.
Thankfully, we have moved way forward. Today, a lot of women are free to choose what they want, yet, demons remain deep within society and inside families, where old restrictions are enforced in a changed format.
A stupendous work, this! Must say, Bilkis Rahman writes with remarkable fluidity, a book to keep in collection and reread from time to time.
Unish Shatake Banglay Naripurush Shamparka
(Men-women relation in 19th century Bengal)
Author: Dr. Bilkis Rahman
Published by: Bangla Academy
Price: Tk 200
ISBN: 984 07 5145 X