Wake up, Mrs. Bangladesh

 Published in: The Daily Star on November 30, 2016
Wake up, Mrs. Bangladesh

I saw a butterfly following me around. Usually, butterflies mean either death or marriage in the family. Every time, I see one, I shudder in fear and uncertainty. This time was a little different. It’s because there was a marriage in the family. My daughter was getting married. For the last 15 days, butterflies have followed me around the house, around the wedding venue, and around the places I have been visiting. An aunt nailed her logic and told me, “It must be your mum.” That the spirit of my mother who has been gone for the last 12 years could take the form of a butterfly surprised me, but the thought of it was nevertheless, comforting. My daughter, in turn, had a completely different angle. She said, “These butterflies must be drawn to high tension and energy. Therefore, they crowd around people when they wed or die.” Her logical angle was a little shocking, but I accepted it with grace. After all, there is an entire generational gap that stands between us today, and no matter how much I am in sync with what she reads, sings, listens to and believes in, there is a huge difference in how we perceive our worlds and how we choose to act within them. And I am proud of the young. I am proud when I hear them say that they do not need big weddings, big expenses and big celebrations to mark the most important chapter in their lives. I am proud when I heard my little one tell me that she needs nothing from us but a small celebration marked with love and at home. At her initial request, I tried drawing up the guest list and stopped at 50. The list could go on forever, but the names beyond 50 did not seem to evoke much memory. My youngest daughter had the final argument, “As it is, out of the 1000 people you invite, only 50 will wish you well; the rest will only talk about the jewellery, the food and the clothes. So, why bother?” I wish I had the courage to listen to my daughters and walk away from all the elaborate arrangements that I, in reality, invested my time, resources and effort in. With no offence meant to any, I must admit that most of us often forget that it’s marriage that counts and not the weddings. The fun-filled festivity, the hall packed with curious people, the food spread, the critical hospitality et al. make little sense. The carnivalesque holud with lit up trees, large stages, Hindi music being played and being danced to, may convey a sense of fun and laughter, but it certainly does not reflect our tradition or culture. A friend from India who flew in for the wedding gaped in surprise and told me, “OMG! You even have Punjabi songs!” I was truly ashamed. The fact that I had given in to the demands of the society and of the contemporary had finally put a permanent dent in my self-esteem. Amidst all this, the fact that my daughter at least stood her ground and wore only deshi Benarasi from Mirpur at her wedding made me proud. The fact that the younger generation has more conviction and faith makes me believe in tomorrow.

Rituals, festivals and ceremonies turn us into people who we rarely are or ever were. In a grand scale of things, how much does a flower arrangement on the table matter? For that matter, I suspect if the jewellery worn by the bride is ever worn again because of the lack of wearability. While we watch brides and grooms from all over the world going through the wedding motions, we also wonder about the seriousness of marriage. While the Western bride tosses her bouquet, the bride from Congo is forbidden to smile; the couple from Mongolia must kill a chicken; some brides marry a tree; a South Korean groom tolerates his feet being whipped by the bride’s family; a groom from Fiji presents his father-in-law with a whale’s tooth; a Mauritian bride gets chubbier before marriage; a Japanese bride having a traditional Shinto ceremony wears white from head to toe: including makeup, kimono and hood, demonstrating her maiden status has to “hide” her “horns of jealousy” she feels towards her mother-in-law; a Kenyan dad spits on his little girl leaving with her husband; we rarely notice our children slipping into another world of unfamiliarity.

We look forward to giving our daughters away and yet, in truth, how many of us keep in touch with the brides post wedding when many of them face domestic violence in one form or the other? How many of us are actually aware of the fact that out of the 11 highest ranking nations labeled for domestic violence, three are from South Asia including India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. How many of us know that in our own land, according to a report of Ain-o-Shalish Kendro, between January and October 2016, 548 women have been raped, 29 have died by rape, and 7 committed suicide after rape. While I gave my daughter away, I remembered a poem I wrote almost ten years ago. The poem was titled: Wake up, Mrs. Bangladesh:

“Wake up, women…
Shadharon (average) is not your land…
You were meant to be an epidemic.
So be it.
Pass it to the next voice lying
In your next room
Invade her heart;
Be brutal in the process
Wake her, shake her up and tell her
That all that you have wrongly taught her for so long
Was simple Routine.”

It’s time to do away with routine. The young women in Bangladesh are never to be given away to complacence or tradition. They are only meant to breathe the fire of freedom.