Updated: Sep 19, 2021
Every day, women from different social spheres cross the Buriganga River to reach Dhaka City. Some come to seek jobs and decent wages to send to their loved ones left behind in the villages; some seek the hallowed gates of renowned universities and colleges. In their eyes a myriad of emotions flutter by; hope, excitement, nervousness, dread, fear, and (could it be?) something intangible and indefinable, something that is elusive but entrenched in our core since childhood. What is that indefinable thread that connects all women, no matter where we’re from, and what we believe in, together?
At the heart of it, all women desire freedom. Freedom from patriarchy, from unequal wage laws, and so on, yes, but it is something more basic than that. Women just want to be free; free to be themselves, to express themselves, free to just breathe. Remember the old hair-oil and sanitary pad advertisements? The village beauty running through pristine yellow mustard fields, her long raven-hair flying free and loose, the dupatta trailing carelessly behind her. Or when the city girl nonchalantly jumps on a Vespa, confidently dressed in white on the days she’s menstruating, and drives off with her girls. Such scenes display a common advertising trope but a genius one. The advertising gurus knew it all along, the core desire hidden inside each woman’s heart, yes even the ones most insulated by internalized misogyny; women desire the freedom to just be themselves.
Whether we live in a posh, residential area in Dhaka city, or inside a one-room flat near the local RMG factory in Gazipur with our in-laws, ask any of us. Most of our answers will be layered, vague, muddled and evasive. Women have mastered the art of stifling the richness of their soul and the vividness of their dreams in order to be able to better fit in the boxed structures of the external world. Our wizened, ancient grandmothers and mothers have passed this skill down to us and we will pass it to the next generation. Statements such as, “ Oh who has the time for this?”, “ We all need to grow up and stop talking like children.”, “ This goes against our values and principles.”, or “ I wish but cruel life has made me unable to do so. It’s okay. I am happy.” And so on and on and on. The canvas of our minds, so richly patterned and detailed when we were little, has been studiously swept and scrubbed clean by the time we hit adolescence, by society and by us, devoid of any original thought or hope or desire. That is when we become martyrs, dedicated to the status of mother/wife/washerwoman/cleaning lady/the punching bag of all members of the family. We are now the martyrs to patriarchy. This is the reward we give ourselves for being denied our chance to walk down the mustard field.
Or, we take a complete 180 degree turn and become the complete opposite. Hunched over a laptop or a sewing machine or a notebook, working day in and day out, having one meeting after another, cramming in one deadline after another, all the while juggling elderly parents, in-laws, a husband and children. Sleep eludes us, family members die or grow up in front of us and we cannot be spared the luxury of batting an eyelid. In our determination to prove we are equal to every man, we completely suppress that very thing we are striving for, which is the desire to be free. Free from economic dependency, free from rigid social strictures, free from exploitative traditional practices, free from the strict dogmas of childhood that have bled into adulthood, and free thus free from the need to be validated by society. Both these groups of women (which all of us are a part of, in greater or lesser degress) have a desire to prove themselves to the very institution which have consistently and steadily subjugated them- the patriarchal society. Yet, sometimes, when the nights are long and the moon is bright, when the world is speaking in hushed tones and the dust of the day has settled down, the voice inside our soul whispers its longing; the longing to be free from all of this, to be in a place where there are no boxed lines and only acres and acres of mustard fields as far as the eye can see…
Where society has failed us, it is up to us to remember who we are. We are worthy of freedom and we do not need to prove that to anyone, be it through being a martyr to the household and familial duties, or by trying to outpace everyone in the rat race. Listen to the voice inside all of us, the one that connects us across generations, races and cultures, insulated by time, hardship, fear and misogyny, but still whispering defiantly. One day, that voice will become a scream, and one day, we will see the mustard field. One day, we will be free…
Sarwat Sarah is a regular contributor to Swayong.org