Iftekhar Sayeed


There may not be many a guffaw to a tear, but they are not so few and far between as to make life altogether intolerable. My latest guffaw was occasioned by an article by a young lady (I assume she’s young, for her observations verge on the puerile) from the United States.

The subject of the article is the socio-legalo-ethno-sexo-econo-religio-representational aspects of rickshaw art. These lines drew my first chuckle: ‘Rickshaw arts, made to be seen “at a glance,” are about male desire in its major forms: for sex, competitive power and wealth, for one's village home, for the blessings of religious devotion, for new things,. . .’

So, I thought to myself: sex, competitive power and wealth, rural nostalgia, godliness and so on and so forth are male prerogatives. Women — that is, Bangladeshi women — are sexless, powerless, unsentimental, godless and jaded workhorses devoid of novelty in their wretched lives. Well, you learn something new every day. What was it Plutarch said: grow old and learn something new every day. . . (or was it Pericles?).

Then came the guffaw: “Rickshaw arts target men, not women, for their natural arena is the streets, spaces that are ordinarily considered forbidden to women”. A few learned references followed.

Now, I pondered. What percentage of pedestrians, autorickshaw passengers, rickshaw passengers, motor car passengers, bus passengers and so on and so forth are women? According to the writer, it wasn’t a 50:50 scenario. 40:60? 23.54:76.46? And which parts of town — for I assumed she was talking mostly about townies, half of whom never miss their villages — which parts of town did she have in mind? Dhaka University? New market? Gawsia?

Take Chandni Chowk! Go down to Chandni Chowk and you’ll find powerful women being served by cringing men in the clothes stores. A veritable catacomb of emporia are supported by purchasing, haggling, abusing, competing women. But, of course, these are male virtues. There simply can’t be any women at Chandni Chowk. Theory forbids their presence — these spaces “are ordinarily considered forbidden to women”. By whom? By theory, not by society, it appears.

I remember when we were college boys, we’d bunk class and mosey down to New Market to ogle girls. We’d stand at the Azimpur gate and watch hour after hour the endless stream of women and girls pouring in and out of the place. A ridiculous pastime, no doubt, but it testifies strongly to the writer’s myopia.

She descants at length on globalisation and fails to notice the fact that around 2 million garment factory girls owe their jobs to international trade. One sees them in noisy groups on buses, walking down pavements to the factories or going home, wearing cheap cosmetics and supporting the local beauty industry as well as the movie theatres where they are frequent habitues.

How many charwomen, daily women and maidservants must there be in Dhaka or Chittagong? Every morning they tramp through the streets (our charwoman claims to use a rickshaw, though we take this with a pinch of salt): in my previous flat on the third floor, I would watch them from the drawing-room window (after the ladies of the night had retreated at break of dawn). Young schoolgirls in blue uniforms follow their maidservants to school — a leisurely walk that affords ample opportunities for the bua to watch rickshaw art. Since I changed flats, views of the street have been blocked off by surrounding buildings, though I’m sure the aforementioned activity still continues.

Thus women are to be found on the streets as thick as grass in a meadow. Ah-hah! The lady would remonstrate: these are asexual creatures.

Not so! A friend of ours came home one day a bit earlier than usual — and found that her middle-aged maid had invited a hunky young stud into her living room. Needless to add that the maid received her marching orders then and there — after all, there were children in the house and one couldn’t have strange men inside. An isolated incident? A survey done by students and doctors at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital as part of AIDS research in the ‘80s found that ‘sexual contact’ was rampant in the villages. Unless the author is insinuating that bucolic females leave their libido behind (along with all nostalgia, remember) at the village, that urbanisation and frigidity are correlated (in which case the word ‘urbane’ acquires a whole new connotation), her thesis — not to put too fine a point on it — must be wrong.

Ah-hah! The learned lady might return to the fray: these nymphomaniacs are working class! What about her social superiors? In other words, the Maginot line between libido and non-libido is not the city limit, but income limit — the lower your income the stronger the sex drive. “Unlike the gentry”, she observes, “who inhabit social realms far above him, the ordinary man, having little, is not averse to expressing his dreams in public, by either creating or participating in the enjoyment of rickshaw imagery.” The ordinary woman has already been dealt with; now for the extraordinary woman.

A friend of mine lives on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Dhanmandi. Every day, she cannot help but notice men and women pass by in cars, the man driving and the woman up to some jiggery-pokery with him; women in burqas kiss their lovers through raised veils; others who have a view of the lake tell even more Scheherezade-like stories. If I were to do a Kinsey study for Bangladesh, I would surely use the video CDs that have clandestinely shot lovers in the act.

Enough refutation. Now, we must explain the separation of reality and imagination that is as much the forte of the rickshaw-artist as of our western author. How could she distort the obvious?

Some diabolic syllogism must have worked on her “little grey cells” as it does on most people from the west and those who wish to make a career in the west (three of the latter tribe are mentioned in the references in her article):

          All Muslim countries forbid women on the streets.
          Bangladesh is a Muslim country.
          Therefore, etc. etc.

I know two anthropologists (somehow we seem to attract them like a primitive Amazonian tribe) who firmly believe the above syllogism to be perfectly valid and every premiss to be perfectly true (only the minor premiss is true, of course). Thus, one utters though gritted teeth (a curious operation of the jaws that comes from being financed by donor agencies like the DFID or USAID): “Space is so gendered here!”

Space is not gendered here, but has certainly been engendered — by these Amazon-watchers who would be too uncomfortable in a rain forest, and prefer the amenities we have to offer for their scatty research.