By: Usra Shaukat
I am not sure whether I am recalling a dream or reality. I don’t know whether to use the past tense or present; I don’t even know whether she has left or still remains. I just remember that, when I first saw her, she reminded me of Greek statues– the ones that my father showed me in children’s encyclopedias. Yes, her skin tone made me feel like she was molded out of bronze. Even her hair had this bronzeish tint.
Maybe she was a classical Greek statue given life by Phanes.
Yes, it seemed reasonable back then. Why not? I used to fall asleep hearing about Pinocchio, who was made out of wood and could still walk and talk, so why not her? I don’t recall her name. I doubt anyone does. I will take the blame for that; I will take it all. The only thing that I remember is that, when she left, she took away all happiness. When she came back, she was not the same. She was invisible at times, but she was there. I can tell you she was, and she still is.
Now, she exists in a different way. She is in me. I don’t know how she got inside, but she is there. Usually, she prefers residing somewhere in the back of my head. No, don’t imagine something like Voldemort growing out of Professor Quirell’s head. It is nothing like that. Instead, it is like the residence of two souls in one body– a tired body, tired of the burden of carrying oxymoronic souls; tired to be the venue of the battle between two powerful entities that having juxtaposing ideas. I call them Yin and Yang. Those two never rest; neither do they give the luxury of rest to my body, engaging in their continuous fight for control over that territory. My body tries its best to support its authentic soul, Yang. It works hard and harder, even when it feels like each and every cell will fall apart from exhaustion and scatter on the ground. Yet, it cannot sleep; it cannot afford to sleep. If it dares to do so, Yin takes over through dreams.
All I remember from those dreams is that they depicted blood, a lot of blood. Those dreams were different. I would know when they started, and I would wake up– or, maybe not. The worst part was that I wouldn’t understand whether I was awake or asleep; whether I was in a dream or reality. Later, after what seems like decades, Yang wakes up. It doesn’t take control, no. It merely begins to exist again. My body starts feeling sheer pain, and evil pleasure graces my mind. Yang tries to radiate a bit of sympathy and instantly is mocked by Yin. Whipped by Yin’s cruelty and confined in a space no bigger than a full stop, it becomes hard for Yang to even breathe properly. Hopeless, Yang thinks of giving up. Yang begins removing all of those memories that were treasured and protected, that were all Yang ever had.
That bronze body, that bronzish hair, and all of those good things about her unfold.
A spark strikes Yang; she can’t let go of the memories, and neither can she let Yin corrupt them, for these are hers to treasure.
Yang murmurs, “If I die, who will remember you? ”
Yang holds on…
Within a world of your own making, you cannot stop growing. It should be unthinkable to be negligent towards any Experience and any Emotions that you go through, for all of them make you who you really are and will help you in the path of discovering yourself. Downplaying your emotions and experiences cannot lead to an understanding of self or, beyond that, an understanding of life. Owning them, instead, translates into a kind of proprietorship and can define how much you know yourself, as well as how you want the world to view you. These emotions that you have, and every memory you created of, from, and for them, tell your story– which you author. So own them. They are you. They speak of you as you speak of them.
Every wracking cry, with the loss of someone from life and earth, accompanied by grief and pain and clouds of sadness is you.
Your earthy smile, with pressed lips or not, the styling of which is yours only, is you.
Your raw laughter, loud and weird, oozing happiness and moments of joy, is you.
Your blazing anger when it doesn’t feel right, when you witness a wrong-doing, when you cannot fathom how something like that could possibly happen– that feeling of heat and anger is you.
And feelings of simple nothingness, when, simply put, you feel emotionless and numb– you feel nothing… that is also you.
The hundreds of other feelings that you encounter are valid in their own way. They are results of our experiences and our ways of life. How you ensure your emotional wellbeing and approach what you want to express depends solely on your interpretations of what life has to offer you. Connecting yourself to the warmth, tenderness, energy, and vibe of each emotion can make you realize what you are, who you are, and how you are you. Stop and consider that. It’s a cycle, really; your experiences turn to emotions, and your emotions turn to experiences. That’s natural, but it requires work to feel as though these emotions and experiences are yours.
So, as you make memories because of and for your emotions, jump into your experiences. Fully realizing the depth and length of your experience is hard work, but it can also be extremely easy. It takes inquisitiveness and interest; approachability; courage. It takes the feeling of being a free soul with an open mind, ready to learn and grow through experience.
Embrace your mind and memories; embellish your soul, and see how it all fits.
You and I? We define our lives and the experiences and emotions that come out of it.
Dear beautiful strong women!
Just in case
No one has reminded you
In a short while
Of how beautiful you are,
Let me please
Did anyone ever
Tell you that
For beautiful things to happen
On this zigzag path of hindrances
In the so-called MEN’S world
You have to go through some
If you have decided
To stay strong,
I am deadly sure
You are well aware of
How, where, when and whom
You must fiercely face!
Humiliation, of course,
Is never gonna leave
Your beautiful mental sky
The agony is fathomable
You gotta adapt to that
So-called hurt and heartbreak
And give no damn to
Those causing it.
Does not come with ease
But if you have come this far
I want to remind you:
Without your decisions,
We are never gonna be
Out of this men’s world.
Let me tell you
The word woman is
Not any different than
That of civilized!
You have to help me
Teach the men
How to be civilized.
You have to help me
Teach the men
That your honor does not lie
in some of your body parts
You have to help me teach the men
You are more than just what you wear
We have to keep being strong
And tell the men what is
strong is beautiful
as we women are.
So tell the men
This is no time
To remain quiet
But to transform the world
Into a better place to live
By teaching the men
I quest for a known face amidst all of the unknown stares and looks. My eyes search through the crowd expecting you to see me, but for you I was only a sheet of paper that you randomly flipped over. We have pinned our memories into these chapters, moving from a beautiful rainbow to shades of grey. Black and white as our days are, I seek refuge in your heart.
You move me gently without saying a word. We stare at each other and do not talk. Words don’t come easily. Silence cuts the only string that once connected our hearts. In that silence, I feel your presence and understand how beautiful you are– and were– to me.
Your face, which was once so close, is now a distant object. An object at which I can only look and admire. You came like a spark and destroyed my universe.
I struggle to speak in the way that I struggle to write this piece of writing– trying out words that fit with my emotions, trying hard not to let this miracle disappear. I agree that, most of the time, these feelings are all or nothing. At times, I feel everything. I understand that the emotional attachment that was once so profound was with you. Other times, I feel nothing. Feeling “nothing” is so different. No bubbling of happiness, anger, hatred, or anxiousness. Nothing at all.
The little curve that I try to bring upon my face is fake, I say. Maybe one day I will realize that you were never meant for me. Maybe this day is too near, or too far. For now I am just happy with the absence of words
which always gives me company,
The Dampara highway was abuzz at peak hour with vehicles of all shapes and sizes. A cacophony of shrill horns began at 8 pm. With office-goers returning home, trucks leaving the city after a day of carrying and selling raw materials, and long route buses coming and leaving, everyone was rushing towards their destinations.
Amongst this chaos of life, no cars pausing for even a millisecond, let alone making way for pedestrians to cross, three friends were stuck. After a nice evening out, these friends found themselves on one side of this highway, but needing to cross to the other.
After fifteen minutes of futile attempts to bravely put one step forth, these friends decided to approach the traffic police, their last hope; otherwise, they would have to stand there and wait until peak hour was over, an hour and a half away.
The traffic policeman seemed dejected– tired from the heat, the dust in the air, and the constant discord unique to unrhythmic shrieks of honking from an assortment of vehicles on a Bangladeshi road – rickshaws, CNGs, taxis, cars, vans, minibuses, tempos, buses, trucks.
The traffic policeman looked incredulous as the three friends asked him for what seemed impossible – to cross the damn road. Nevertheless, he nodded bleakly, out of responsibility as a uniformed officer if nothing else. His attempts were halfhearted, though, and who could really blame him? The ferocity and velocity with which each vehicle passed was beyond the hands of a mere traffic officer to stop.
Another ten minutes trickled by painfully, frustratingly, and it was still impossible to cross. Prottasha, the protagonist of this short story, stomped her feet in irritation and then paused, closed her eyes, took a deep breath to calm her nerves, looked at the other two sharply and said, “Follow me!”
She grabbed the hand of one of her friends, who in turn grabbed the other’s; she looked right before confidently striding across the road, her free hand authoritatively held out at the oncoming vehicles. With her palm and fingers outstretched, she walked forth, an image of Prophet Moses crossing the Red Sea, seeming a miracle-worker to her friends as vehicles stopped short of hitting them as they crossed.
What went through Prottasha’s mind at that exact moment, nobody can tell, but her friends surely had gone into shock. They walked quietly behind her, their eyes wide with terror and disbelief, their mouths a little parted, words failing them as Prottasha guided them to the other side with the same confident long strides. Her friends’ feet shuffled and marched behind her of their own volition.
As soon as they reached the other side and the whirl of movements resumed on the highway, as if someone had hit the pause button and now hit play again, the two friends finally snapped out of their trance of terror and stared at Prottasha for a whole minute before throwing a jumble of questions, accusations, and comments her way:
“Are you crazy?!”
“Why did you do that? What if we had gotten hit?!”
“Oh god, my heart is still hammering in my chest!”
“My whole body is trembling.”
“You are crazy!”
“It was sheer luck we made it through!”
“Who even taught you to cross the road like that?!”
It was that last question which produced a reaction from Prottasha, who so far had been silently looking at her friends and letting them rant. She said, indignantly and boldly, “My dad.”
The response immediately brought a cold chill and silence to the group, as the two friends looked ashamed and apologetic. They could only muster a soft, surprised “oh!” and a mumbled whisper of “I’m sorry” in answer.
“I’m sorry for making you cross the road like that. I understand it seemed completely reckless, but how long were we going to just stand there and wait? Someone had to take action; even the traffic police didn’t help!”
One of the friends answered meekly, “I’m sorry for the tone I used earlier, I did not mean any disrespect to your father, but you do realize that was no way of trying to solve the problem– it was very risky!” her voice getting stronger near the end.
“Did you have any better ideas? We couldn’t just wait an hour or two in the middle of nowhere, we were getting late!” Prottasha snapped back before taking a deep breath and sighing.
Her voice steadier now, she looked back at the whirlwind of life rushing past them at breakneck speed and said, “Dad taught me how to cross the road when I was really young. I don’t remember much about him anymore, just snippets– a dialogue here, a black and white picture there, buried somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind– I doubt how authentic they really are…” Distant longing tinged her voice as she looked back at her friends.
“But this one,” she continued, “I remember vividly! I was seven years old. There was a narrow street in front of our house where cars would come and go infrequently, and I would always be so scared of crossing it on my way to school. Usually, mom or dad would hold my hand and help me cross, but one day dad said he would teach me how to cross so that it wouldn’t be such a Herculean task for me anymore.”
“So he took my hand, and I remember him saying, ‘you first look right, and then left, and then right again, and slowly but confidently and steadily cross the road.’ Then he paused and said, ‘Also, remember that the cars in the roads of Bangladesh never stop for anyone, so if you keep waiting, you will never be able to cross.’ He held out his hand towards the traffic, looked at me and said, ‘just hold out your hand confidently like this and cross, the cars will see your hand and understand you want to cross and will stop!’ ‘And remember,’ he added, ‘never run. You run, and you will get run over for certain. Always walk with long strides, and you’ll see you have crossed the road in no time!’ And then he made me cross the road on our way back to make sure I had practiced my lesson.”
Prottasha paused for a moment, a soft smile playing on her lips now, and said, “After his death that year, I don’t remember ever being scared to cross the road again. I have crossed the road all by myself ever since, as mom got busy working to support our family, and there was no one to hold my hand anyway.”
As she started walking again towards home, indicating for them to follow, she said, “It sounds ironic, but every time I cross the road now, I feel like he is watching over me. It is only amidst this whirl and cacophony of rushing vehicles and shrill honks that I vividly remember him and the way he used to securely hold my hand and smile at me as we crossed the road together. It is only amidst this chaos that his words give me protection and his memory gives me peace.”
Many people believe that women’s empowerment is a fancy term for feminism. Regardless of the good that feminist movements have achieved, many people don’t want to identify as feminists because of negative connotations associated with the word. Some people argue that there is nothing left for women’s empowerment because women already have equal rights in society. Yes, women do have more social, political, and economic rights than ever before. However, on a global level, women are still suffering from gender inequality and struggling with basic human rights like honor killings; child marriages; female genital mutilation; street harassment; rape; pay inequality; educational inequity, and more. In the modern world, women also have to deal with body-shaming, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming on a daily basis. Those who claim that women have equal rights fail to recognize this troubling global picture; they ignore the inequalities that accompany assigned gender roles and limit the abilities of both men and women.
We need women’s empowerment because the honor killing epidemic needs to be addressed. According to survey data, around 2,000 women in India and Pakistan are killed by family members every year in an effort to “restore the family’s honor.” This crisis violates the right to life and is motivated by cultural norms. In both countries, the actual rates of honor killings are much higher than the survey reports; most of the time, family members commit the killings, thus there is no one to report the case on behalf of the victim. In Pakistan, in July 2016, the social media star Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother in the supposed name of family honor. Her brother’s explanation for the murder was that “girls are born to stay home.” In a press conference, he announced: “I am proud of what I did… I drugged her first, and then I killed her. She was bringing dishonor to our family.” Police investigations later revealed that her brother was a drug addict with a history of theft. He is now a murderer. This is the situation in male-dominant societies like Pakistan; if a male is a thief, drug addict, and even a murderer, that doesn’t bring shame to the family. On the other hand, if a female becomes famous because of her hard-work and talent, that brings shame to the family because “girls are born to stay home.”
We need women’s empowerment because, daily, nearly 40,000 girls are wed before 18. In 36% of cases, the girls are younger than fifteen. Child marriages take away the childhoods of little girls and push them into the responsibilities of married life. These young brides cannot continue their education, they cannot enjoy their childhood, and they have more health complications and high maternal mortality during childbirth. According to a report by the organization “Because I am a Girl,” a girl under the age of eighteen is wed every two seconds. If this issue is not addressed, more than one hundred and forty million girls will become child brides by the year 2020. Early marriages are forced marriages. Most common in South Asia and Africa, they are often motivated by the perceived obedience of younger wives. In patriarchal societies, men still want to dominate their partners. They don’t want a significant half; rather, they want a submissive sex slave and a servant to meet their needs. Parents wed their daughters early to protect girls from sexual violence. However, ironically, child marriages hold a larger risk of sexual abuse and domestic violence than adult marriages.
We need women’s empowerment because Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, is happening in twenty-nine countries and is practiced on girls as young as five months old. FGM prevents girls from having pleasurable sex and is viewed as protection against promiscuity. More than two-hundred-million girls and women alive today have been cut in thirty countries between Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. FGM has many short and long term health effects; the procedure may cause excessive bleeding, problems with urination, vaginal infection, sexual difficulty, and a high risk of mortality during childbirth. FGM, a very brutal act, is done to girls only because they are female. We need women’s empowerment to educate others about such deadly societal norms, to safeguard human rights, because FGM is not a “women’s problem,” it is the violation of human rights.
We need women’s empowerment because girls have fewer opportunities to receive an education in developing countries due to limited resources and gender parity. Providing education to girls will help to end vicious cycles of poverty. Education is a fundamental human right, but, sadly, women comprise two thirds of all the illiterate adults worldwide, as well as 60 percent of the world’s poorest people. Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, was shot to death because she stood up for girls’ education. In conservative societies, we need more people like Malala. We need more empowered women who can stand up for our rights.
We need women’s empowerment because women experience terror when walking alone under the moon and, in some places, even under the sun. Street harassment is a major problem faced by women, including myself, on daily basis. The Stop Street Harassment study, “Statistics– The Prevalence of Street Harassment,” reveals other staggering data. Public violence and street harassment are serious problems for:
79% of women living in the cities of India
86% in Thailand
89% in Brazil
75% in London
These high rates of street harassment prove that women are treated as inferior. Women face serious insults in the streets every day. In addition to street harassment, sexual harassment is a grave problem.
The worst kind of street harassment is rape. Sadly, we are living in societies where rape is a common problem. Women are the major victims. The United States, the “superpower” of the world, holds the first position in rape cases. We are living in a rape culture where women are blamed for having been raped. Women are “slut-shamed” for provoking ever-innocent men. Instead of asking men to stop dehumanizing others, to stop snatching their rights, women are asked to wear proper clothes, to behave properly in order to avoid rape.
We need women’s empowerment because women are still defined by their looks. Women are pressured by media and the beauty industry to have skinny bodies and flawless faces. The beauty standards of mass media are one of the main reasons behind the bullying of young girls in high schools. Such harassments have devastating effects: depression, low self-esteem, anti-social behavior, seclusion, and even suicide. If women are obese, they may face problems in their marriage and personal life. Studies even show that obese women tend to make lower wages than other women. Due to such pressures from society, some women have potentially fatal surgeries if they can afford them, while others face social stigmatization and “fat-shaming.” Today, women across the globe are struggling with severe eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, among others. According to one study, every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. Women form the majority of people who suffer from eating disorders, and a major reason for such disorders is the standard of beauty given to us by the media. Healthy women are rarely happy with their bodies due to thin models whose beauty is manipulated in TV ads. Dark-skinned women are subjected to the pressure to look paler and pale-skinned women are lying under the sun for hours to get tan, no matter that overexposure to ultraviolet rays is known to cause skin cancer. The media is successful in making us all uncomfortable with our skin and our body types. Competitions such as Miss Universe, Miss World, and other beauty contests make women self-conscious about their looks; beauty contests say that they judge participants on the basis of “knowledge, sensitivity, social commitment and intelligence,” but I wonder: what does physicality have to do with intelligence and knowledge? If competitions seek to test social commitment, then why are the participants almost nude on the stage and catwalk? If these are the standards for testing intelligence, then why aren’t men asked to do ramp walks in underwear to demonstrate their knowledge? We need empowered women to stop the beauty propaganda on TV advertisements, to make people comfortable with their bodies, to stop judging people on the basis of their looks.
Women’s empowerment is a belief that women should be treated the same as men, not because women are better than men, but because women are also human beings and they have the same human rights as men in any society, in any time period. Men don’t have joyful lives in many societies due to gender parity. We need empowered women to ensure equal rights for all and for equal division of labor in society. Men are often considered money makers and providers for the family. Even if the women in a family have equal or more income than the men, men are still expected to bring more money to the family and to take care of family’s financial needs. One common expectation of men is that they be physically powerful: big, strong, muscular, and not vulnerable to any challenge. Men are expected to not express their emotions publicly. A common phrase in our society is “Men don’t cry.” Gender roles are holding society back. According to a study published on the Change Our World website, boys, due to gender parity, are twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with a learning disorder. Thirty percent of boys are more likely than girls to drop out of school, they report. Tragically, they grow up into men who are also more likely to binge drink and around four times more likely than females to commit suicide. Gender roles limit the abilities of individuals and reinforce stereotypes about gender in society. It is time to appreciate the abilities of individuals for what they are regardless of their gender and sex.
I want to be an empowered woman because I don’t believe in a narrow definition of masculinity or femininity. I agree with British actress and activist Emma Watson who said, “Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive, both men and women should feel free to be strong.”
She walked an easy comfortable gait. As her hands gently swayed to the rhythm of her footsteps, the bangles on her wrists clinked softly, beautiful, fragile glass bangles on one while the other held bold patterns of wood and brass. Her long, jet-black hair blew with the breeze, strands flying around her face, some of them shades of brown and blonde. As her delicate fingers came up to brush those stray strands away from her face, her French manicured nails caught the light of the setting sun. It was majestic, or maybe just plain, simple, and ordinary.
“Sakinat Maliha Islam!”
She halted on her steps, a faint smile playing on her red painted lips as she turned on her heels, her dainty feet twinkling to the movement as her anklet shifted. She looked back with those dark kohl-lined eyes to see the face of the only person she knew who called her by her full name.
“What’s up Mr. Shouvik Ghosh?” She inquired in English, looking into the face of her best friend.
“You look beautiful. Not every woman can hold up a style like yours. Is that a katan saree turned into a skirt that you are wearing with your top?” he asked, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
She chuckled. Her clay beaded earrings swayed with the movement as she nodded and replied, “The pattern makes for a great skirt, don’t you think? Oh, that reminds me!”
She reached into the jute bag hanging by her shoulder, fishing for something elusive. His eyes caught the fading henna design fashioned like a dream catcher on her upper arm before drifting to her bag, where her hand continued to search.
“What is it?”
“Oh, found it!” She brought out a folded piece of paper and handed it to him eagerly. It contained the verses of a song she had composed.
While he opened up the paper, she bounced on the balls of her feet with a mix of anxious excitement and blurted out, “It’s titled ‘Bangladesh Residing Within.’ The first verse is in English. I envision it being sung by someone with a voice like Adele’s…an edgy soulful introduction to the world of Bangladesh! Then we switch to Bengali in the next part. I took inspirations from Lalon, Nazrul songs, and folktales! It is supposed to…”
She was shushed by Shouvik, who gently grabbed her shoulder, a smile on his lips as he whispered softly, “Let me read it first at least?”
She blinked and laughed, nodding and gesturing him to do so.
While he read, she studied his face with beady eyes for the sign of any emotions, her hands unknowingly playing with a thin gold chain around her neck that she had been wearing since she was five. She sighed, growing impatient with his silence.
“Is it that bad? Don’t tell me. Okay no, I need to know. You promised honest feedback!”
He looked up and met her wide eyed gaze, revealing no emotions before breaking out into a grin and hugging her. “It’s brilliant, Ms. Sakinat Maliha Islam! I knew you had it in you! I could envision it being played live, a rendition of old and new, with tunes from the guitar and drums to the ektara and dhol!”
She grinned a Cheshire cat grin from ear to ear as she heard his feedback, still hugging him tightly before slowly pulling back, her eyes glittering with delight as she said, “It’s like a piece of my soul, a harmony of old and new, the way I see my country continuously changing and evolving but never forgetting its roots…”
He interrupted her again—it was a habit—and said, “Just as you do. You carry your traditions and culture around with pride. Both old and new, you are the epitome of old living in harmony with the new…Bangladesh truly does reside within your soul.”